Gandhi in South Africa - racism and non-violence
Coming face-to-face with racism
"As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect." Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth
A news story published recently, Mahatma Gandhi's house in South Africa put up for sale, started me off thinking about a man whose life has fascinated me for many years, with its sometimes ambiguous turns and controversies.
The quotation from his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, tells of his first intimation of the reality of racial discrimination in South Africa. That vague intimation was to become a very grim personal reality for him soon after his arrival.
The train trip that changed his life
One of the cases he was sent out to handle involved a client in Pretoria, in the then independent Boer republic the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, later known as the Transvaal.
The firm on whose behalf he was working in Durban booked Gandhi a first class ticket to Johannesburg and he duly boarded the overnight train in his assigned compartment. When the train reached Pietermaritzburg in the Natal midlands some hours later, a white man boarded and entered the same compartment. On seeing an Indian occupying the compartment the white man called a policeman to help eject the Indian.
So it was that Gandhi, after a great deal of arguing, was summarily thrown off the train and made to wait in the public waiting room of the station on a cold winter's night with no bedding and no overcoat, as the railway authorities had removed his luggage.
His trip to Johannesburg continued the next day and he went through many more difficulties due to discrimination on the way.
As a result of his reflection on his experiences in South Africa Gandhi began to formulate his philosophy of satyagraha (roughly "truth force") and ahimsa (roughly "non-violence"), though he was still more concerned about the political freedom of Indians in South Africa. He objected strongly to the government's treatment of Indians He organised the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894 to advance Indian political aspirations in the country. The NIC became a strongly unifying force in the South African Indian community.
The charges of racism against Gandhi
However, at this stage of his life and understanding of satyagraha and ahimsa Gandhi was more interested in furthering Indian aims than addressing racism and discrimination more generally - indeed, his principle objection to the treatment of Indians at that time was that they were being treated the same as "the half-castes and kaffirs, who are less advanced than we".
His overall strategy was to press for full citizenship in the colonies for Indians. To this end he encouraged Indians to serve with the colonial forces fighting to suppress the Bambatha Rebellion, which was a war waged by the colonialists against Zulus who were fighting against the imposition of a poll tax.
The rebellion started in 1905 when the Natal colonial government imposed a tax on every Zulu male at a time when poverty was rapidly increasing among the Zulu people. Many of the Zulu people resisted the tax and in February 1906 two policemen were murdered in the Richmond district of Natal. Twelve men were found guilty of the murders and were executed by firing squad.
Bambatha kaMancinza, one of the chiefs of the Zondi clan who lived in the Mpanza valley on the Natal side of the Tugela then raised an army of his men and the colonial government declared martial law. In the ensuing fighting between 3000 and 4000 Zulu men were killed and a further 7000 jailed.
Bambatha himself was allegedly killed in battle and his body decapitated so that his head could be taken for identification, though some of his descendants dispute this, saying he fled to Mozambique where he settled and raised another family.
For Gandhi the rebellion was an opportunity to show the colonial government how loyal its Indian subjects were. This, and certain statements he made in the newspaper he published in Natal, have led to charges of racism being levelled against him. This came to the fore particularly in October 2003 when a statue of Gandhi was unveiled in Johannesburg. Gandhi, on a visit to Bombay in 1896 is said to have stated that the government wanted to keep the Indians at a level with the: "raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness".
The awakening of the "Sacred Warrior"
Nonetheless his non-violent opposition to discriminatory legislation in the South African colonies was a great inspiration to Blacks in their struggle against oppression.
As Nelson Mandela wrote of Gandhi, whom he called "The Sacred Warrior", in 2000: "He is the archetypal anti-colonial revolutionary. His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anti-colonial and anti-racist movements internationally in our century."
Mandela pointed out in this article, written for Time magazine, that Gandhi's experiences in the Bambatha Rebellion had awoken him to the realities of colonial oppression: "The sight of wounded and whipped Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic."
As Gandhi himself later described his experiences in the colonial forces: "This was no war but a man-hunt, not only in my opinion, but also in that of many Englishmen with whom I had occasion to talk."
Gandhi stayed in South Africa for 21 years, practising as an attorney and organising non-violent campaigns against discrimination and oppression. In those 21 years he lived in a number of different places, including the house that is now up for sale in an upmarket part of Johannesburg's northern suburbs.
India's Minister of State for Coal Sriprakash Jaiswal is reported to have said that "The coal ministry intends to purchase the house and build a memorial on it."
Update - the house has been sold for R2.8m
The house mentioned above has been sold to a French tour company called Vayageurs Du Monde. The price reached was actually more than the R2.8m originally asked for by the couple who last owned it, Nancy and Jarrod Ball. "We are absolutely thrilled with this outcome, said Mrs Ball. The Ball's have owned the house for the past 28 years.
"Voyageurs du Monde is passionate about the property and this arrangement will enable more people to share its peaceful atmosphere. In addition, the company has invested in other heritage sites around the world, so has the expertise as well as the means to preserve and maintain it properly. It would also like to establish a Gandhi museum here."
More by this Author
"Oom Bey" Naudé came from deep Afrikaner Nationalist roots to become a champion of human rights in South Africa. This is an overview of that remarkable "Pilgrimage of Faith"
Smuts continued to dominate South African politics and began to be seen as a leading figure on the international stage as well.
Empathy is an attitude and more than that, it is a skill that can be used to deepen all kinds of relationships - at work and at home.