The South African Gandhi By Ashwin Desai And Goolem Vahed


Prolific writers, Ashwin Desai (Professor of Sociology at Johannesburg) and Goolam Vahed (Professor of History at Natal) have written an important book on Gandhi – a name which permeates public consciousness greatly in India. His sainthood, stories, ideas, and deeds fill all our textbooks, political platforms, and academic coverage to the extent that it becomes difficult to question the divine status of Gandhi even slightly without inviting great wrath from some corner.

A natural trajectory of the post-Independent Indian construction would have led to a point when a textbook in far future would have mentioned Gandhi fighting single-handedly with the British and driving them away. The opening of serious scholarship and global connectedness is perhaps evaluating Gandhi in a more realistic manner. He was a great man, no doubt; however, like all great men, he was a complex mix of the good and the bad. We focussed too long only on the good to make saints out of humans unrealistically.

Most Indians are simply unaware of the South African years of Gandhi where he spent a considerable amount of time. His early experiments of Satyagraha began in South Africa; however, it was full of contradictions and ambiguities. This book gives a detail of his South African years in a most meticulous manner with extensive references and evidences. Surprisingly, Gandhi appears to have a great following in South Africa too with the help of some image building like in India.

The Gandhi Years Abroad- 1888 to 1915

Gandhi married Kastur and had their first son in 1888. Gandhi immediately proceeded to London to study Law. After qualifying, he came back in 1891 to start a law practice. Gandhi was in the process of establishing a law practice in Bombay when the firm of Dada Abdulla offered him a year-long contract to assist in a legal matter in South Africa. He reached Port Natal in May 1893 (Durban today) at the age of 24 years along with his wife and two sons.

Gandhi’s ejection from the first-class compartment despite having a valid ticket happened on the night of June 7, 1893. Gandhi was due to return in 1894 when the Natal Parliament brought a bill abolishing Asian right to vote. Indian traders asked Gandhi to stay back to help fight this and he formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). He went on to stay in South Africa till 1914. Gandhi briefly returned to India in 1902 after the Boer War to set up legal practice. He went back in November of the same year on an urgent request to represent Indians during colonial Secretary Chamberlain’s forthcoming visit.

Later, in 1903, Gandhi set up an ashram on a hundred-acre land at Phoenix (Natal) to start his ideas of simple living, collective work, and manual labour. In 1910, he set up the Tolstoy farm near Johannesburg (Transvaal) where he gave a distinct form to his ideas of Satyagraha. He was in South Africa till July 1914, a total period of 20 years. En route, he went to England first. The First World War soon broke out. He finally reached India back on January 9, 1915. He received a grand welcome at Bombay.

South Africa- A Brief History

Gandhi was in South Africa at a crucial point of its history. Transvaal, Cape of Good Hope, Orange Free State, and Natal were the four provinces which came together as the Union of South Africa in 1910. This was the predecessor to the present-day Republic of South Africa with nine provinces.

The land is a typical colonial story of mainly the Dutch and the English clashing with each other and then unitedly with the native population but with far more violence and tragic consequences like the apartheid. The British, occupying Cape, initially drove the Boers (Dutch people) out to Natal, Free State, and Transvaal provinces. The Boers too clashed violently with the local population, mainly the Zulus.

The First Boer War (1880-1881) between the United Kingdom and Boers of the Transvaal resulted in the latter’s victory. The Second Boer War (1899-1902) was between the British Empire and two independent Boer states – Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1884 in Boer regions started the Mineral Revolution and increased the economic resources.

The struggle to control these resources defined the relations between Europeans and the indigenous population, and between the Boers and the British. Like the French and the British fighting for Indian land with Indian soldiers on both sides, the whites fought each other. Later, they came together to unitedly exploit the indigenous people and land.

The Boer guerrilla warfare continued to resist and finally lost to the British who indulged in some harsh counter-measures including the now banned ‘scorched earth policy’ (burning of civilian farms and livestock). Boer children and women died in the dreaded concentration camps.

The British army seized control of Orange Free State and Transvaal. Boer leadership surrendered and accepted British terms with the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. Transvaal and Orange River colonies later merged with Cape and Natal Colonies into the Union of South Africa in 1910, as part of the British Empire.

In the next step, the whites came together to start a rule of the minority. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 severely restricted the ownership of land by blacks; at that stage, natives controlled only seven percent of the country. The natives, dispossessed of their lands, had to work in the mines forcibly. In 1931, the union was fully sovereign from the United Kingdom.

In 1948, the National Party came to power and started the shameful racial rule by classifying people into three races with rights and limitations for each. The legally institutionalized segregation where the white minority (20%) had all the powers became known as apartheid. After a series of steps, the apartheid system ended on 1994 with the efforts of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela.

Indentured Indians and Passenger Indians

With abolition of slavery in early 19th century, shift of labour to the mines and the need to continue plantation of cash crops like sugarcane there was a gradual and increasing demand for indentured labour, especially from India.

The Indian indenture system had more than one million Indians, trying to escape severe poverty, transported as labour to European colonies. Indian indentureship lasted till the 1920s. South African Indian community largely descends from Indians who arrived in South Africa from 1860 onwards.

Approximately 200,000 Indians arrived as indentured laborers over a period of five decades to work on the farms, coal mines, and railways. Indentured labourers had cruel conditions of living, including maltreatment and unsanitary conditions. Many came back after expiry of their terms but those who stayed back, despite having little rights, established themselves as important general labour force in various professions like in the vegetable markets, as post-office clerks, as domestic help, and so on.

There were the ‘Passenger Indians’ too – traders and professionals, paying for their own fares and travelling as British Subjects. Many of the traders were from Gujarat. Passenger Indians, starting in Durban (Natal) expanded to Transvaal, especially Johannesburg, establishing many settlements. Natal Indian traders displaced small white shop owners in trade with other Indians and with black Africans causing resentment among white businesses.

Stretcher Bearer of the Empire

Gandhi offered a hand to the British to the brutal imperial second Boer war which started in 1899. He informed the authorities that Indians displayed ‘extreme eagerness to serve the Sovereign’ in the field hospitals. This volunteering was in the hope of binding Indian loyalty to the ‘mighty empire of which we are so proud’. Initially, the authorities rejected the offer to which Gandhi expressed disappointment.

Later, with the authorities relenting, he started the Patriotic League Fund to raise money to support the families of the leaders and to equip the volunteers.

Indian merchants and Indian women chipped in with their contributions. The corps disbanded in 1900. Gandhi raised the issue of ‘Queen’s Chocolate’, a gift given to the white soldiers who had taken part in the war. He requested chocolate each for the Ambulance Corps leaders too who had volunteered without pay and would ‘prize it as a treasure’. In a meeting later to celebrate the British victory, Gandhi said, ‘it was the Indians’ proudest moment that they were British subjects. If they were not, they would not have a footing in South Africa’.

Though some scholars have tried to rationalize Gandhi’s loyalty to the Empire during the war, there were contradictions. While seeking recognition for the services rendered as stretcher bearers, the major issues like the scorched earth policy of the British, the death of many Boers in the concentration camps, and the thousands of Africans who died of hunger and starvation did not concern him.

Some scholars claim that Gandhi took the suffering of Boer women and children in the concentration camps as a model for Satyagraha which caused the English to relent in. The authors say that this is a remarkable delinking from actual historical circumstances.

Following the war, the Brits and the Boers came together to exploit the natives together. Gandhi constantly tried to project Indians as model imperial subjects’ fit for voting. However, the tremendous solidarity of white supremacy did not grant any political concessions for the collective loyalty and willingness to serve the Empire.

Satyagraha and the Contradictions

Gandhi’s core worldview of passive or nonviolent direct action, possibly strongly evolved in South Africa. Passive resistance required intense activity. His nephew suggested the name ‘sadagraha’ to the movement which Gandhi modified to Satyagraha (satya means truth; graha means firmness).

The key idea of Satyagraha was winning over the enemy with love, self-suffering, defying unjust rules, accepting punishments that go along with it, and most importantly, without malice or physical violence against the rulers. The idea is to get rid of the injustice but not to unseat the men from power. The means always must be right to achieve the right ends.

The authors through Gandhi’s writings and actions show many contradictions, however. While maintaining that anyone could become a Satyagrahi, only Gandhi could control campaigns and dictate outcomes. Gandhi would define Satyagraha, refine it, and authorise its practice. His definition of victory was fluid; it could be in the actual performance of Satyagraha even when the goals failed many times.

His criterion for leadership was from a moral claim of personal courage and sacrifice with patient adherence to truth. For Gandhi, ‘the true test of continued fitness for leadership was the leader’s sincerity’. He always blamed any act of violence on ‘the mob’ who are ‘susceptible to manipulation by mischief as they were open to enlightened leadership.’

These ideas of Satyagraha were totally in antipathy to the more revolutionary movements against the British. Such a non-violent resistance was clearly more conducive for the British to handle.

Satyagraha was not immune to racial stereotyping. Only the Indians who have ‘drunk the nectar of devotion’ could lead the people on the right path of Satyagraha. One close associate of Gandhi, Cachalia, goes to say that the native of South Africa need many generations of culture and development before they can hope to be passive resisters in the true sense of the term.

There is a debate on the intellectual origins of Satyagraha. The standard narratives trace this to European thinkers, his mother’s piety, and many Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist influences. The authors hint that European influences could have been more vital in the evolution of Satyagraha principles. These include the works of Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God is Within You), William Salter (Ethical Religion), and Thoreau (An Essay on Civil Disobedience). This influence is understandable since he spent most of the period between 1888 to 1914 in England and South Africa and was an Anglophile of note.

Anglophilia may have played a role. A satyagrahi invested a certain amount of trust in the opponent’s sense of ‘fair play’. Throughout Gandhi’s political life, the opponent was European; and English most often. Gandhi was witness to two wars – the second Boer war and the Bhambatha Rebellion of 1906 (the second Zulu war) between the colonials and the settler minority.

In both, there were a tremendous amount of harsh brutalities inflicted by the colonials. In both, Gandhi was a stretcher-bearer and viewed the participation of Indians as a defense of the colony. He was silent on the horrors visited on the African war. Clear in his writings, the rebellion provided an opportunity for Indians to show loyalty to the Empire.

In 1913, Gandhi was part of a campaign against the now Afrikaner nationalism replacing the old Englishmen. This spiraled out of control as the indentured labor went into a severe rioting and bloodshed mode. Mass support came from outside his ashrams. He assured one sugar baron that the ‘strike and the subsequent courting of imprisonment were not for the sake of indentured Indians, but against the government’s breach of the promise given to Gokhale before and the introduction of a cruel land tax’. Gandhi was unsympathetic to the workers gunned down in defending themselves by chiding that they had brought this upon themselves. There was silence on the violence of the ruling class.

Contradictions During Wars

In the Empire’s hour of need during the wars, Gandhi showed a startling reversal of the general philosophical drift of Satyagraha and non-violence, say the authors. Gandhi himself acknowledges in 1920 (To Every Englishman in India), no Indian had cooperated with the British government more than he had in twenty-nine years of public life instead of becoming a rebel.

He writes that he put his life in peril four times for the empire: Boer War and the Zulu (Bhambatha) revolt where he raised the Ambulance Corps; the First World War where he similarly raised an Ambulance Corps but could not personally serve due to attack of pleurisy; and finally, as a promise to Lord Chelmsford at the War Conference in Delhi, when he went on a recruiting spree in the Kheda district and had a severe attack of dysentery. Gandhi writes, ‘I did all these in the belief that acts such as mine must gain for my country an equal status in the empire.’

When Gandhi landed in England in 1914 en route to his back-home trip to India, the First World War broke out. He surprised his supporters by recruiting Indians in England for non-combatant roles in the war arguing that volunteering would prove their readiness for self-government. It would also be an act of reciprocation to the British who were protecting the Indians and this would enhance the standing of the Indians.

Many contemporary liberal South African friends of Gandhi and later scholars too found this stance objectionable. The authors quote James Hunt who says, ‘there were never any words of the horrors of war or of the folly of European nations in their descent of barbarism.’ Gandhi persisted with the arranging of the Ambulance Corps despite criticisms and objections. In a letter, Gandhi wrote that he was not supportive of any war, but he was not yet a ‘perfect’ satyagrahi. He gathered 150 Indian volunteers but was ill with pleurisy and hence had to sail back in 1915 to India.

The departure from his philosophy was more severe in 1918 where he appealed to Indians to take up arms during the First World War to prove that they were ‘worthy partners of the Empire.’ Previously, in 1899, 1906, and 1914, it was recruiting of only non-combatants. In 1918, however, after Lord Chelmsford’s Indian War Conference in Delhi to increase Indian support to fight the English war in Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, Gandhi traveled extensively to help recruiting soldiers. In 1918, he wrote letters and spoke publicly in the demand to become equal partners in the Empire.

Surprisingly, Gandhi wanted a dominion status for India (like for Australia and Canada) which did not involve getting rid of the British. In 1918 Gandhi wrote, ‘I love the English nation, and I wish to invoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.’

At Nadiad, during the war efforts, he wondered, ‘if there were no Empire, with whom would we be partners? Our hope lies in the survival of the Empire.’ Gandhi’s recruitment leaflet ‘Appeal for Enlistment’ dated 22 June 1918 calls for Indians to learn the use of arms and acquire the ability to defend themselves and to prevent the tag of ‘effeminacy and cowardice’ of the Gujaratis.

This was echoing the racial stereotyping of Gujaratis in South Africa too. Gandhi’s recruitment efforts bore fruit. The number of recruits increased from an average of 16,000 a month until May 1918 to 37,500 by September 1918.

Throughout his stay in South Africa and later during the First World War, the authors say that Gandhi consistently maintained that loyalty to Empire was the best way to get the British to recognize the equality of Indians and thus would have a progressive enhancement of rights.

Race and Caste Understanding

Swami Vivekananda lived in contemporary times and Gandhi was certainly aware of his writings where the former was critical of the racial Aryan theory. Yet, it is surprising, as the authors show, that Gandhi subscribed to the notions of Aryan theory which the British propagated. The supposed connection of the Indian Aryans and the Europeans was an important narrative in justifying the colonial mission.

The authors say that Gandhi was clear in the racial hierarchy of the Indians over the native Africans. Gandhi consistently fought for South African Indians for treatment at par with the white subjects being a part of the Empire and having a common Aryan lineage. His not speaking about the twenty thousand Africans who died in the concentration camps reflected his attitude of placing the Africans below the Indians in an imagined racial hierarchy.

In an explosive charge, the authors say that statements on African laziness and inferiority makes Gandhi stand out not as apartheid’s first opponents, as later politicians seem to construct, but as one of its first proponents. He considered the Africans inferior to the Indians in a racial hierarchy; the latter were at par with the white colonials in culture and tradition hence eligible for an equal status. In both the wars of South Africa where the blacks suffered greatly, Gandhi was clear in his loyalties towards the Empire. There were never any words for the brutalities inflicted on the native population.

India occupied a privileged position in the hierarchy of British imperial possessions. Some British colonials thought that Indians, because of the common Aryan roots, positioned higher up in the civilizational chain than the Africans. The Empire was always keen not to offend India or even inflame nationalistic passions by offending Indians at other parts of the globe. For Britishers, Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu natives, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into, say the authors.

This partiality to Indo-Aryan bloodlines made the Black African stand outside the civilized standards for Gandhi. This comes out clearly in his speeches and writings. The Gandhian vision for claiming the equality of the diasporic Indians and the Europeans did not include the Africans unfortunately. The Black African movement went in parallel to Gandhi’s fights; there is little evidence to show that Gandhi interacted greatly with the leaders fighting for African rights. The authors quote Patrick French who writes, ‘Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology.’

African leaders like Dube and Plaatje did not interact with the Indian leaders who were trying to seek only concessions with the Empire. The Black leaders saw themselves as indigenous people systemically dispossessed of their land and forced to labour under oppressive conditions on white farms and mines.

The Indians were mostly alien to their issues. Gandhi rarely spoke about African issues and their right to independence. A strong and unwavering attachment to Empire underpinned and contained Gandhi’s strategic choices in South Africa. His involvement for Indian rights also was largely unsuccessful or weakly so with huge compromises, basically accepting a second-rate status to Indians.

Gandhi’s views on race, class, caste, nation, and Empire were contentious and even distressing to his supporters, the authors say. Like for race, he implicitly believed in the hierarchical construction of the ‘caste-system’ which the colonial narratives had firmly implanted. Gandhi did not question the popular colonial race and caste constructions of his times. His contemporaries like Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo, however seriously questioned the same constructions.

A Tool of The Empire

One of the serious criticisms of Gandhi was that his non-violence was a weapon to the liking of his opponents. His power and hold over the Congress and the masses did neutralize the call of those who sought to use more revolutionary methods, including war, to advance Home Rule. In the 1913 strike of South Africa or later in 1922 (Chauri-Chaura incident) during the post-Jallianwala Bagh non-cooperation call, Gandhi would suddenly call off the movement with incidents of violence on part of the rioting mobs.

Some argue, as the authors say, that Gandhi was a powerful tool of the Empire and the British Raj gave him an audience because they saw in Gandhi a useful person who could keep the natives in place. This would secure their dominance. The Indian natives hopelessly outnumbered the British in India and any mass armed movement would have the English quickly eliminated.

Non-violence as a tool was just perfect for them as many English officials admitted in private.
George Orwell did not much like Gandhi and his policies as he expresses in his essay, Reflections on Gandhi.

Maybe, he had his biases against Gandhi but what he says may reflect the attitude of the Britishers in general to Gandhi. The authors quote Orwell who says, “…. the British were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence – which from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever – he could be regarded as ‘our man’.”

During his entire stay in South Africa, he was keen to show his loyalty to the Empire to gain concessions. For some time in India too after 1915, his interest was that of dominion status of India as equal partners in the British Empire and not that of complete independence and Home Rule. Complete independence demand had to wait till 1930.


Gandhi was a deeply patriotic great man. However, like all great men, despite having the heart in the right place, his ideas had many contradictory strands. Post-1915, in India too, Gandhi desperately sought unity between the Hindus and Muslims despite a hard and hostile stance on the Muslim’s side. He bent over backward to appease the Muslims.

Gandhi’s repeated fasts mostly against his own followers but never against the Muslim League; support of Ali Brothers; support of Khilafat movement; support to the Amir of Afghanistan when the latter was contemplating to attack British India; asking Hindu refugees to go back to Pakistan even at the risk of death; attempting to appease Jinnah by excessive concessions; allowing Sindh and North-West Frontier Province to split away from Mumbai Presidency in 1925; befriending Suhrawardy, who as a Chief Minister of Bengal remained inactive on the Direct Action Day (August 16, 1946); the opposition to Arya Samaj and his silence on the killing of Swamy Shraddhananda; forcing the Indian government to pay 550 million rupees to Pakistan, who in turn, in all probabilities, used it to attack India; stopping Vande Mataram singing because it displeased Muslims; avoiding references to Shivaji; getting a green stripe instead of pure saffron in the Indian flag; and a continuing retreat to the extent of proposing a 100% Muslim cabinet were all hard-core Muslim appeasement politics. Ironically, Muslims use Gandhi’s death by a Hindu nationalist as a stick to beat the Hindus constantly ever since.

A letter to Hitler as a ‘friend’ in a naïve bid to change his heart and asking Jews to peacefully accept killing as an example of supreme non-violence were dents in his image of peace. Koenraad Elst in his book on Godse’s defense statement (Why I Killed the Mahatma) says Gandhi made a grave mistake in thinking that one can make the enemy disarm by first disarming oneself.

Despite Nehru losing all votes to Patel, the most mysterious move of Gandhi was perhaps asking Patel to step down in favor of Nehru as the leader and future PM of the country.

All his life in India, it was the Hindus who always supported him and were the object of his blackmailing fasts. Ironically again, Hindus and Hindu thought became objects of ridicule and to charges of ‘fundamentalism’ after his death. It made permanent villains out of any platform related to the Hindu cause.

Gandhi was a great politician who could mobilize the masses like no one else. Gandhi was deeply Hindu in his philosophy, unlike the almost communist Nehru. He was proud of his Hindu status and his major crusades against untouchability, his mobilization of masses, and his almost divine status prevented the nefarious communists to gain a major foothold in India. The communists considered him the foremost public enemy. This prevention of communists to enter India was perhaps his greatest contribution.

There was a certain construction of his image in his own writings where he gave a more sanitized version of his South African years; a ‘tidying up’ as Desai and Vahed say. Post-independent India also constructed a saintly image, perhaps a little more than deserved. The Quit India collapsed in 1942, and our independence had a lot more reasons equally important, if not more, apart from non-violence: Subhash Bose, the Naval mutinies, World War 2, Labour Government in England, and the economic hardships of England.

For Indians with a deep spiritual heritage, Mahatma is a term applied to only a few individuals, like an Adi Shankara or a Ramana Maharishi who have gained Self-Realization or moksha, the highest purpose of human life. The criteria for being a Mahatma are exacting and apply only to a chosen few and it is surprising, a great mystery in fact, what made one of the greatest intellectuals of India, Rabindranath Tagore, to give the title of Mahatma to Gandhi as early as 1919 when there was nothing in Gandhi’s life to show such spiritual attainment.

Gandhi’s life, especially in South Africa, show him as an astute politician rooted in spirituality and as a proud Hindu, not shy to publicly call himself as one, but with some quirky and contradictory ideas. He deserves respect but he was no Mahatma as the author’s rue at the end portion of the brilliantly written book. A book which gives a more realistic assessment of Gandhi, quite different from the hagiographic accounts we grow up within India and surprisingly in South Africa too.

The South African Gandhi is available on Amazon.


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