Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa

Gandhi is an iconic figure for the world, not only for his leadership in India’s struggle to achieve independence from Britain, but also as the originator of Satyagraha, the strategy of passive resistance.  Perhaps less well known is that his early career and the events that shaped his life and philosophy took place in South Africa.  He is a hero of the resistance movement in South Africa also and his policy of Satyagraha or passive resistance was born here.

Gandhi grew up a shy and retiring figure in India in Gujarat in the late nineteenth century.  Although not a brilliant scholar, he qualified to study law in England and returned to India in 1891.  At that point his concern was to build a successful law practice and, in due course, to succeed his father as the chief minister of a small principality.  But his nature was not conducive to a one man law practice and he accepted a position with a law firm with an opening in South Africa in the state of Natal on the east coast.  Accepting that position may have been the turning point of his life.

Gandhi found himself working for successful Muslim traders; the Hindus in South Africa were the laborers in the sugar cane fields.  Gandhi had no problem with his new clients, but felt that there was an “Indianess” that transcended religion and caste.
Almost immediately he found himself the recipient of racial discrimination wherever he went.  Although he had a valid ticket, he was removed from the first class carriage of a train to Johannesburg because another passenger objected to sharing the carriage “with a coolie.”  Several hotels refused to accommodate him.  Racism was alive and well in South Africa fifty years before the National Party government made it compulsory!

The very success of their merchant activities made his clients the recipients of restrictive laws.  Gandhi extended his original stay in South Africa to help the local Indians oppose a law which denied them the right to vote.  In 1894 he was involved in founding the Natal Indian Congress – a movement designed to align Indian people to oppose discriminatory laws.

During the South African (Boer) war, Gandhi supported the English and organized Indian ambulance drivers and even a small contingent of Indians to participate.  But once the war was over, the Indians were to get small thanks for these initiatives.

In 1906 a law was proposed in the Transvaal that required Indian and Chinese people to register and carry identification documents at all times.  Gandhi chaired a meeting of around 3,000 people at the old Empire Theater in Johannesburg.  Some demanded retaliation to resist and oppose the law, but Gandhi outlined a policy of Satyagraha or passive resistance.  If all else failed, Indians would go to jail rather than follow the prescripts of the new law.

Gandhi is quoted as saying: "Up to the year 1906 I simply relied on appeal to reason.  I was a very industrious reformer ...  But I found that reason failed to produce an impression when the critical moment arrived in South Africa.

"My people were excited - even a worm can and does turn - and there was talk of wreaking vengeance.  I had then to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked.  Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war."

Over the next seven years the policy was put into practice.  There were large, peaceful demonstrations, burning of registration cards, and strikes.  Thousands of Indians were arrested, fired from their jobs, and beaten.  But public sympathy in South Africa and Britain eventually forced the Smuts government to come to a compromise with the protesters. 

When Gandhi returned to India permanently in 1915, he was an eminent leader and practitioner of “the moral equivalent of war”.  He left behind a philosophy adopted by the newly formed African National Congress.  The ANC held to that policy until 1960 when they switched to a policy of armed resistance. By that time India had been an independent nation for nearly fifteen years.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Michael, thank you for this post about a man I revere. Next time you are in New York, I will take you to see his statue and garden a few blocks from my home.

  2. I wish there were more like him these days. Make that even one close to being as he was.

  3. Yes, non-violence doesn't seem very popular these days. The first reaction to a disagreement seems to be to blow something up...