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Gandhi in South Africa - racism and non-violence

Updated on August 16, 2011

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.

Gandhi landed in Durban, in what is now kwaZulu-Natal Province, in May 1893, a newly-qualified barrister sent to do some legal work for a Bombay legal firm which had some interests in South Africa.

Gandhi as a stretcher-bearer in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899
Gandhi as a stretcher-bearer in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899
Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi in South Africa

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.

A painting entitled "Paying the penalty for murder" by F. Dadd in Museum Africa, Johannesburg. It shows the execution of two men found guilty of murder in 1906, Natal.
A painting entitled "Paying the penalty for murder" by F. Dadd in Museum Africa, Johannesburg. It shows the execution of two men found guilty of murder in 1906, Natal.
Gandhi with a group of Natal Indian Congress leaders
Gandhi with a group of Natal Indian Congress leaders

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".

Gaandhi outside his law office in Johannesburg, with his colleagues
Gaandhi outside his law office in Johannesburg, with his colleagues
The first of three Time magazine covers featuring Gandhi
The first of three Time magazine covers featuring Gandhi

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."


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    • profile image

      ashraf 6 years ago

      this is awesome

    • profile image

      framedkaffir 6 years ago

      gandhi was anti-black and called himself british. maybe most of you don't know but gandhi was not peaceful he just loved britain and the queen so much and hated the zulu people.

    • Madhavadasa Das profile image

      Madhavadasa Das 6 years ago from New Orleans, Louisiana

      Non-Violence must be extended to cow protection, or it will not grow.


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      15. Oxen evoke love from their mothers that results in high quality milk and longer lactation periods.

      16. Oxen are used in Vedic ceremonies to promote happiness and auspiciousness.

      17. After their natural death, their bodies provide leather, meat for pets, and calcium rich bones, and so forth.


      Charging twice as much for Ahimsa Milk should easily cover the maintenance costs for twice the number of members of the herd. Grazing oxen do not require the expense of milking parlors, milking machines, milk processing, storage and refrigeration, packaging and handling. Moreover, they can be an economic asset as described above.

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    • profile image

      mib56789 6 years ago

      Good day tonymac04! I placed links to some of your HUBs following my HUB "Heroes of South Africa". I didn't realize what a dreadful topic I had picked until I'd received my first comment. I decided that since I was so far removed and my points of reference were only historical, I'd redirect any readers having a serious interest that came to my HUB to HUBs like yours.

    • electricsky profile image

      electricsky 6 years ago from North Georgia

      Thank you for sharing your history of the famous Gandhi.

      And his travails in Cush.

      Maybe we will see a movie about this part of his history.

      I would like to see the home where he lived.

      I think the Indians in the caste system was wrong too.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Alfred - thanks for the comment!

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Alfred Rosenberg 7 years ago

      An inspiration to right wing nationalists everywhere. Great man.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      TKI - thank you so much!

      Love and peace


    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Fascinating story. Well done and made for great reading! Thanks for educating me more about this amazing man. Rated up and awesome.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Katie - thanks for stopping by. And for the kind words. Gandhi was indeed a wonderful, though certainly not uncontroversial, man. I too have long been fascinated by him.

      Love and peace


    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      Gandhi is an amazIng figure to learn about. I too was fascinated from the first moment I began to learn about him. What an amazing man to reflect on. Thank you and well done :)

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Jama - I believe, on the contrary, that we all have the potential to learn and grow, and I believe that the Mahatma did. He tried, as I understand it, very hard to change the caste system, going out of his way to touch "untouchables" and so on.

      Without a doubt his views on blacks in the early days of his stay in South Africa was regrettable indeed.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Jama 7 years ago

      A leopard could never change its colours. Even in old age! The Mahatma's disdain for the more melinated peoples is supported by his own Religion's Caste System!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Gamer - you are most welcome and glad to have helped.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      gamer96 7 years ago

      Thanks this really helped with a school project.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Surbhi - thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Surbhi Munot 7 years ago

      Gandhi was great man

      I enjoy reading about him and his work

      I like things done by him in South Africa

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Gandhi was indeed a complex person and there are many things about him that are puzzles. Thanks for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Anit Ghandi 8 years ago

      Ghandi was a racist when he was in South Africa… In India too he showed signs of racism againt the Dalits and muslims of india… Jinnah was aware of this evil side of him that is why he opted a separate home land for the muslims of india i.e. Pakistan…. But I wonder why the world media does not expose all this???

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Adam - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it. Hope you've looked at my other Hubs about South Africa?

      Love and peace


    • AdamCairn profile image

      AdamCairn 8 years ago from UK

      Really interesting hub. I don't think I can include much of this is the South Africa holiday guide I'm researching for but interesting none the less!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks SS for this comment. I appreciate your dropping by and reading my Hub.

      Love and peace


    • SummerSteward profile image

      SummerSteward 8 years ago from Duluth MN

      Great hub, I really enjoyed this tribute to a change-maker in our world. Well organized and brilliant! Cheers!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you everyone for reading and commenting. I realloy do appreciate it. Sorry for the delay in responding here.

      Love and peace


    • gladysmabvira profile image

      gladysmabvira 8 years ago

      well researched and insightful

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 8 years ago from US

      Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi is one of the inspirational people of all time, Thanks Tony for this one, Maita

    • SXP profile image

      SXP 8 years ago from South Africa

      In essence Ghandi was even a worse type of racist. He was only out to further the caste system and it is wellknown that he had no love lost for black people, which he saw as a threat to high caste Indians and the Bristish crown, which he loved so much. maybe he changed his story and ways of doing later, but his goals aways remained the same.

    • wordsword profile image

      wordsword 8 years ago

      Gandhi always used to say this, if a person slaps your face show him the other part too. That was the courage he used to sport. And he always used to say this, if you point your finger against any one, there are three fingers that point you. I also recollect this saying " the person who criticizes you is your real friend".

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Mancinza - thanks for the comment, though I could never agree that assassination is ever a good thing. It is always, and without exception, a very bad thin. And as for Gandhi not being a freedom fighter, I don't think the people of India would agree with you either. He is generally acknowledged as the person who led the struggle against colonialism and earned India its independence.

      His early racism and support of colonialism I think was because he was a product of his time and upbringing - aren't we all? He certainly seems to have changed later in life.

      And remember that even in the Bhambatha rebellion his services and those of his fellows was only as medical orderlies and not as combatants.

      Gandhi was a great man, who had his faults like all of us. But his witness for peace and non-violence later in life was great and meaningful. The ANC has recognised his contribution - even Mandela has praised him.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Mancinza Zondi 8 years ago

      I never knew anything about the so called ghandi up until now,i was reading the history of my people(Zulus), based on his statement and service he offered to former british colonialist during the Bhambatha rebellion,i will never recognize him as a freedom fighter.whoever assisinated him did a great job.

    • Vizey profile image

      Vizey 8 years ago

      Mahatma Gandhi was truly a great man but his own people killed him in India. He was a true representative of India . He did not wear much clothes even on His London visit as people were very poor in India at that time. Great Hub.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks you all for your great comments which I appreciate beyond words!

      Gandhi was indeed a great person, one of the greatest ever. May he continue to inspire us to build a better world.

      To the Indian readers, finsofts and countrywomen particularly, happy freedom day!

      Love and peace


    • finsofts profile image

      Divya Devarajan 8 years ago from India

      Yesterday we celebrated our freedom, 63 rd independence day of India, We thank and admire great man Gandhi our bapugi...

    • countrywomen profile image

      countrywomen 8 years ago from Washington, USA

      A million thumbs up for this wonderful hub. I am one of the greatest fans of this man. I would rate Gandhi, Mandela, MLK among the top change agents in 20th century. My favorite quote of Mahatma Gandhi "Be the change you want to see in the world."

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Great hub in celebrating a celebrated man. He was definitely a beacon of hope for millions, including Martin Luther King Jr. I learned that he was an avid reader and read the Indian classic, Bhagavad Gita everyday as a source of inspiration.

    • gusripper profile image

      gusripper 8 years ago

      Gandhi the philosopher of non violance,almost a Saint.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Interesting hub about a very interesting man

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 8 years ago

      Thanks for the interesting hub Tony. I've always greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi. I was unaware of his early thoughts on native Africans.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 8 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      A wonderful hub about a great man... Thank you.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Gandhi is one of the greatest. I really enjoy reading about him, his life and his philosophy. His influence is far reaching. Much of what you write about Mahatma is new to me. Thanks for that.


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