Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi in South Africa
Abstract and Keywords
This essay examines the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s travel to South Africa on his beliefs and career. His days in South Africa were ‘the best part of his life’; this was also the most formative period of his career. The essay suggests that without his South African experience, it is unlikely that Gandhi’s personality and politics could have been cast in the unique mould which made him one of the most charismatic and creative leaders of the twentieth century. It argues that it was not only Gandhi’s politics, but also his personality that was shaped in South Africa because without the inner transformation he underwent there, he could scarcely have acquired the remarkable qualities of leadership that made him the dominant figure in Indian politics.
‘The best part of my life’ is how Gandhi described his days in South Africa twenty-five years after he had left it. It was certainly the most formative period of his career. Without the challenges, the trials, and the opportunities that his South African experience brought him, it is unlikely that his personality and politics could have been cast in the unique mould which made him one of the most charismatic and creative leaders of the twentieth century.
Curiously, it was an accident that provided the impulse for Gandhi's visit to South Africa in 1893. Two years earlier, he had returned from England after qualifying as a barrister. He started his legal career in Bombay, but made little headway, and decided to settle at Rajkot in Gujarat to make a modest living. He, however, fell foul of Ollivant, the British Political Agent in Rajkot, in whose court most of his work lay. It was at this time that Dada Abdulla, an Indian merchant in Natal, offered to engage him for a civil suit in that country. The contract was for a year; the remuneration was £105, a first-class return fare, and actual expenses. The fee was modest, and it was not quite clear whether he was being engaged as counsel or a clerk, but Gandhi wanted to get away from Rajkot and accepted the offer with alacrity. Towards the end of May 1893 he landed at Durban. Unpleasant surprises and shocks were in store for him. In a Durban court he was ordered by the European magistrate to take off his turban. He refused and left the courtroom. A week later, when he was on his way to Pretoria, he was unceremoniously thrown out of the first-class carriage at Martizburg station. It was a bitterly cold night as he crept into the unlit waiting-room of the railway station and brooded over what had happened. His client had given him no warning of the humiliating conditions under which Indians lived in South Africa. Should he not call off the contract and return to India? The Indian merchants had learned to pocket these (p.32) humiliations as they pocketed their earnings. What was new was not Gandhi's experience, but his reaction to it. In retrospect, this incident seemed to him one of the most creative experiences of his life. So far he had not been conspicuous for assertiveness; on the contrary, he had been pathologically shy and retiring. Something, however, happened to him in that bleak, windswept waiting-room of Maritzburg railway station as he smarted under the insult inflicted on him. Iron entered his soul. He resolved not to accept injustice as part of the natural or unnatural order in South Africa. He would reason; he would plead; he would resist, but he would not be a willing victim of racial arrogance. The timidity which had dogged him as a student in England and as a lawyer in India vanished.
While in Pretoria he studied the conditions under which his countrymen lived, and tried to educate them on their rights and duties, but he had no intention of staying on in South Africa. In June 1894, when the year's contract drew to a close, he was back in Durban, ready to sail for India. It was at the farewell party given by his grateful client that he happened to glance through the local newspaper The Natal Mercury and learnt that the Natal Legislative Assembly was considering a bill to deprive Indians of the right to vote. ‘This is the first nail in our coffin’, Gandhi told his hosts. They pleaded with him to stay on to take up cudgels on their behalf. He agreed to defer his return to India for a month. Neither as a student in England nor as a lawyer in India had Gandhi taken much interest in politics. Indeed, there had been occasions when he had been overcome by stage fright when he rose to read a speech at a social gathering or to defend a client in a court. However, in July 1894, when he was barely twenty-five, he blossomed overnight into a proficient political campaigner.
A sound instinct guided young Gandhi in organizing his first political campaign. He drafted petitions to the Natal Legislature and the British government, and had them signed by hundreds of his compatriots. He failed to prevent the passage of the disfranchisement bill, but he succeeded in drawing the attention of the public and the press in Natal, India, and England to the Natal Indians’ grievances.
Meanwhile, the month for which Gandhi had postponed his departure for India came to an end. The Indian community begged him to stay on to continue the fight on their behalf. As he would not hear of payment for public work, twenty merchants offered retaining fees to enable him to pay his way in Durban. Gandhi felt that what the Indians urgently needed was a permanent organization to look after their interests. (p.33) In deference to Dadabhai Naoroji, who had presided over the Indian National Congress in 1893, he named the new organization Natal Indian Congress. He knew little about the constitution and functions of the Indian National Congress. This ignorance proved an asset, as he was able to fashion the Natal Congress in his own way to suit the needs of the Natal Indians; unlike the Indian National Congress of those days it became a live body functioning throughout the year.
An indefatigable secretary though he was, Gandhi enlisted popular interest and enthusiasm at every step. His strategy was twofold. In the first place, a spirit of solidarity had to be infused into the Muslim merchants and their Hindu and Parsi clerks, the semi-slave indentured labourers from Madras and the Natal-born Indian Christians. Secondly, the widest publicity was to be given to the Indians’ case to quicken the conscience of the peoples and governments of Natal, India, and Great Britain. It was a measure of his success as a publicist that such important newspapers as The Times (London) and The Statesman and Englishman of Calcutta, editorially commented on the grievances of the Indians of Natal. As for himself, Gandhi refused to accept anything from public funds. In these early years of his political apprenticeship, he formulated his own code of conduct for a politician. He did not accept the popular view that in politics one must fight for one's party, right or wrong. The passion for facts, which he had recently cultivated in his practice of law, he brought to bear on politics; if the facts were on his side, there was no need to embroider on them. He avoided exaggeration and discouraged it in his colleagues. He did not spare his own people; he was not only the stoutest champion of Natal Indians, but also their severest critic.
In 1896 Gandhi went to India to fetch his wife and children and to canvass support for the cause of Indians overseas. Garbled versions of his activities and utterances in India reached Natal and inflamed its European population. On landing at Durban in January 1897, he was assaulted and nearly lynched by a white mob. It was characteristic of him that he refused to prosecute his assailants; it was, he said, a principle with him not to seek redressal of a personal wrong in a court of law. Two years later, he raised an Indian ambulance corps during the Boer War: a fine but vain gesture to the British. The British victory in the Boer War brought little relief to the Indians of South Africa. The new regime grew into a partnership, but only between Boers and Britons for the preservation of white supremacy. ‘What we [Indians] want,’ Gandhi told the British High Commissioner in South Africa, ‘is not political power, but we do wish to (p.34) live side by side with other British subjects in peace and amity, and with dignity and self-respect.’ This is precisely what the Boers and Britons did not want. General Smuts later declared that the South African government had made up its mind to ‘make this a white man's country and, however difficult the task before us in this direction, we have put our foot down and would keep it there’.
In 1906 the Transvaal government published a particularly humiliating ordinance for the registration of its Indian citizens. The Indians held a mass protest meeting at Johannesburg, and under Gandhi's leadership took a pledge to defy the ordinance if it became law and to suffer all the penalties resulting from their defiance. Thus was born satyagraha, a new method of redressing wrongs and fighting oppression without hatred and without violence. The principles and the technique of the new movement evolved gradually in the ensuing months and years; its author was a man for whom theory was the handmaid of action.
The satyagraha struggle in South Africa lasted eight years. It had its ups and downs, but under Gandhi's leadership the small Indian minority sustained its resistance against heavy odds. Hundreds of Indians chose to sacrifice their livelihood and liberty rather than submit to laws repugnant to their conscience and self-respect. In the last phase of the struggle in 1913, hundreds of Indians, including women, went to jail, and thousands of Indian labourers, who had struck work in the mines, braved imprisonment, flogging, and even shooting. It was a terrible ordeal for the Indians, but it was also a bad advertisement for the rulers of South Africa. Even Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India, committed a calculated indiscretion by publicly condemning the measures adopted by the South African government ‘which would not for one moment be tolerated by any country that calls itself civilized’. Under pressure from world opinion and from the Government of India and the British government, the South African government concluded in 1914 what came to be known as the Gandhi–Smuts agreement. Not all the Indian grievances were redressed, but the first dent had been made in the armour of racial discrimination, and Gandhi was able to return to India. Perhaps he had already sensed that the racial problem in South Africa could not be solved so long as European imperialism—rule over Asian and African peoples by European nations— continued. It was Gandhi's head-on clash with British imperialism in India which was to undermine colonial rule in the continents of Asia and Africa, destroy the raison d’être of white supremacy, and eventually open the prospects of a multiracial and democratic polity in South Africa.
It was fortunate for Gandhi that he began his legal and political career (p.35) in South Africa. Dwarfed as he had felt by the great lawyers and leaders of India, it is unlikely that he would have developed much initiative in his homeland. In South Africa he could try out ideals which in an established political organization would have been laughed out of court. For a man who was no doctrinaire, it was a decided advantage that the scene of his early activities should have been one where he was unfettered by political precedents or professionals. He was thus able to lay down his own code of conduct, whether as a lawyer, journalist, or political leader. His ethical and spiritual idiom puzzled not only his opponents, but most of his contemporaries in the Indian political élite. Hind Swaraj, Gandhi's compendious political and social manifesto, published in 1909, was proscribed by the Government of India, but equally drew little response from Western-educated Indians.
The Gandhi, who left South Africa in 1914, was a very different person from the callow, diffident youth who had arrived at Durban twenty-one years earlier. South Africa had not treated him kindly; it had drawn him into the vortex of the racial problem created by the European domination of Africa. The unequal struggle he had waged against racial discrimination had matured him, and helped him to evolve an original philosophy and a novel technique of social and political agitation. It was as the author and the sole practitioner of satyagraha that Gandhi was to enter the Indian political stage and dominate it for nearly thirty years.
It was not only Gandhi's politics but his personality that was shaped in South Africa. Indeed, without this inner transformation, he could scarcely have acquired the remarkable qualities of leadership that made him the dominant figure in Indian politics. His interest in moral and religious questions had dated back to his childhood, but it was in South Africa that he had an opportunity of systematically studying them. The Christian missionaries, who had made a dead set at him on his arrival in South Africa, had failed to convert him, but they had whetted his appetite for religious studies. He delved deeply into Christianity as well as other major religions, including the religion of his birth. The study of comparative religion, browsing through theological works, and the conversations and correspondence with the learned brought him to the conclusion that there was an underlying unity in the clash of doctrines and forms, that true religion was more a matter of the heart than of the intellect, and that genuine beliefs were those that were literally lived. The real test of spiritual progress, Gandhi came to believe, was the extent to which one could translate one's beliefs in workaday life.
The book that became Gandhi's bond with Hinduism as well as the (p.36) greatest influence on him was the Bhagavad Gita. It was from it that he imbibed the ideal of aparigraha (non-possession) which set him on the road to voluntary poverty. The ideals of service without self and of ‘action without attachment’ enlarged his vision and equipped him with an extraordinary stamina for his public life. He learnt to transcend the barriers of race, caste, creed, and class. He simplified his life, sank his savings in public work, and finally gave up his lucrative legal practice. His private life gradually shaded into public life; he snapped the ties of money, property, and family life, which hold back most men and women from fearlessly following the dictates of their conscience. Personal renunciation was an invaluable asset to him in his public life. This can be illustrated by two vignettes of Gandhi, which have come down to us from contemporaries of his South African days. The first is from the pen of Joseph J. Doke, a Baptist Minister of Johannesburg, Gandhi's first biographer, who saw him for the first time in December 1907.
To my surprise, a small, lithe, spare figure stood before me, and a refined earnest face looked into mine. The skin was dark, the eyes dark, but the smile which lighted up the face, and that direct fearless glance, simply took one's heart by storm. I judged him to be some 38-years of age, which proved correct …
There was a quiet assured strength about him, a greatness of heart, a transparent honesty, that attracted me at once to the Indian leader. We parted friends.
Our Indian friend lives on a higher plane than most men do … Those, who do not know him, think there is some unworthy motive behind, … to account for such profound unworldliness. But those who know him well are ashamed of themselves in his presence …
Money I think has no charm for him. His compatriots are angry. They say, ‘He will take nothing. The money we gave him when he went as our deputy to England he brought back to us again. The presents we made him in Natal, he handed over to our public funds. He is poor because he will be poor.’
They wonder at him, grow angry at his strange unselfishness, and love him with the love of pride and trust. He is one of those outstanding characters with whom to walk is a liberal education, whom to know is to love.
Doke also noted that ‘to hold in the flesh with a strong hand, to crucify it, to bring the needs of his own life, Thoreau and Tolstoy-like, within the narrowest limits’ were positive delights to Gandhi, equalled only by the joy of guiding others along the same path.
The second pen-picture of Gandhi was drawn by a distinguished British academic, Professor Gilbert Murray, who had met Gandhi in England, And in a perceptive, almost prophetic article, entitled ‘The (p.37) Soul As It Is and How To Deal With It’ in The Hibbert Journal in 1918, warned persons in power to be ‘careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy because his body, which you can always conquer, gives you so little purchase upon his soul.’