GANDHI AND SOUTH AFRICA

"...the striking role of India in the development of the struggle for national and social liberation in South Africa has its firm roots in the early campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi in that country, coupled with the continuing and active interest he took in the South African situation. All South Africans have particular cause to honour and remember the man, who was in our midst for 21 years and went on to enter the history books as the Father of Free India. His imprint on the course of the South African struggle is indelible."

- Oliver Tambo, in his speech in New Delhi accepting the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding on behalf of Nelson Mandela, 1980

"Gandhiji was a South African and his memory deserves to be cherished now and in post-apartheid South Africa. The Gandhian philosophy of peace, tolerance and non-violence began in South Africa as a powerful instrument of social change... This weapon was effectively used by India to liberate her people. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., used it to combat racism in the United States of America...

"We must never lose sight of the fact that the Gandhian philosophy may be a key to human survival in the twenty-first century."

- Nelson Mandela, in his speech opening the Gandhi Hall in Lenasia, September 1992

Speaking at a prayer meeting in New Delhi on June 28, 1946, commending the passive resistance movement launched by Indian South Africans, under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf M. Dadoo and G.M. Naicker, Gandhiji said that he was born in India but was "made" in South Africa. When Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker called on him in 1947, he told them:

"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India..."

It was in South Africa - where he spent two decades in the prime of his life - that Gandhiji realised his vocation and developed his philosophy of life. It was there that his views on the problems of India crystallised. It was there that he discovered and first practised satyagraha - a most civilised and humane form of resistance to injustice, with a willingness to suffer rather than hurt, to love rather than hate the adversary.

When he was leading the satyagraha in the Transvaal, Count Leo Tolstoy wrote to him from Russia on September 7, 1910, that his activity in the Transvaal "is the most essential work now being done in the world, and in which... all the world will undoubtedly take part."

Today, as South Africa looks forward to redemption from the centuries-old legacy of racist domination - after an essentially non-violent struggle of the oppressed people, supported by the solidarity of governments and peoples around the world - the centenary of the arrival of Gandhiji in South Africa takes on a special significance. The South African people have now the opportunity to realise Gandhiji's vision of a South Africa in which "all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen".

A public servant

M.K. Gandhi, a 23-year-old barrister, arrived in South Africa in May 1893, on a one-year assignment to assist an Indian merchant in a civil suit. He had shown little interest in politics, and had little experience in organising and leading people. But he had a strong sense of duty, an attachment to truth, an urge to serve humanity, a love of his motherland and an open mind.

Within days of his arrival, he was thrown off a train, assaulted by a white coachman, denied hotel rooms and pushed off a sidewalk - all because of his colour. He saw the dispossession and oppression of the Africans, the children of the soil. And he learnt of the harassment and humiliations suffered by Indians - not only the indentured labourers who were forced to work under semi-slave conditions, but those who had completed indenture, their children born in South Africa, and the traders who had arrived on their own. He agreed to extend his stay in South Africa and try to help improve the situation.

Gandhiji's first concern was to educate and unite the Indian community consisting of a little over 50,000 in Natal and about 12,000 in the Transvaal. It was dispersed, and divided by class, religion and language. Of those in Natal, one-third were indentured labourers in plantations and mines; about 30,000 were "free Indians" who had completed indenture and their children; and 5,000 who belonged to the trading community. There was little contact between the traders and the poorer sections of the community.

The Indians were mainly Hindus and Muslims, with a few Parsis and a number of Christians. They spoke many languages - Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu etc. Most of them were illiterate and communication among them was difficult.

Gandhiji helped establish the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and the Transvaal British Indian Association in 1903 to defend Indian rights. These were mainly associations of traders, as membership fees were too high for the poorer sections of the community. But Gandhiji developed close relations with the youth and helped associate them in public work. He provided free legal services to indentured labourers and acted as a volunteer in a charitable hospital, thereby getting to know the workers and their families.

Gandhiji, at that time, had great faith in the principles professed by the British Empire. He felt that the colour prejudice in Natal was local and temporary, and would give way to the British sense of justice. He sought to persuade the Europeans that Indians were a civilised people entitled to equal rights under solemn commitments by Britain.

He lived in a European area and entertained Europeans and Indians in the hope of promoting better understanding. He drafted many appeals and petitions, organised deputations and meetings, and wrote numerous letters to the press. He led an Indian ambulance corps in the Anglo-Boer War, and later a stretcher-bearer corps during the "Zulu rebellion" - though his sympathies were with the Boers and the Zulus - to demonstrate that Indians were willing to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship.

On visits to India and Britain and through extensive correspondence, he secured understanding and sympathy among Indian leaders and British friends for the plight of Indians in South Africa.

These efforts, however, proved almost fruitless, as more and more measures were enacted to make the life of Indians miserable.

Gandhiji came to recognise that petitions could help only when they had some sanction behind them - either physical force or the immensely superior soul force, satyagraha.

Meanwhile, he had continued his quest for self-realisation, drawing inspiration from thinkers like John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy and from Hinduism and other religions which he considered different paths to God.

Concerned with human equality and quality of life, he believed that physical and manual labour was essential. He rejected uncontrolled industrial development which turned workers into slaves of machines and caused alienation.

By 1903, he began to give up most of his income for public work, established the weekly Indian Opinion to inform the Indian community and the Europeans, and set up the Phoenix Settlement as a place for simple communal living. He took a vow of celibacy in 1906, and subsequently gave up his lucrative legal practice to live in poverty and identify himself with the poor.

Non-violence, love and truth became to him indispensable in human relations. His attachment to non-violence was strengthened by his experience nursing the Zulus who had been brutally lashed by the European militia and left unattended.

In 1906, when the Transvaal Government issued the Asiatic Ordinance (later enacted as Asiatic Registration Act), he saw it not only as a measure designed to ruin the Indian community but as an affront to the dignity and honour of India. He decided to defy the law, whatever the consequences. The Indian community followed his lead and refused to register under the Act.

Thus began a new phase in the life of Gandhiji to which the years of petitions and appeals were a preparation. He discovered satyagraha - an active, yet non-violent, defiance of injustice with fearlessness, sacrifice and suffering. He said in 1909:

"A satyagrahi must be afraid neither of imprisonment nor of deportation. He must neither mind being reduced to poverty, nor be frightened, if it comes to that, of being mashed into pulp with a mortar and pestle." (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 9, page 447).

The Satyagraha

The resistance by the small Indian community against the racist laws was difficult and lasted eight years from 1906 to 1914. But thousands of people, young and old, joined the struggle and displayed great heroism.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who visited South Africa in 1912, observed that Gandhiji had shown "the marvellous spiritual power to turn ordinary men around him into heroes and martyrs."

In January 1908, after 150 Indians went to prison in defiance of the Act, a compromise was reached between General Jan Smuts, the Interior Minister, and Gandhiji, but it soon broke down as the Government refused to repeal the Act. Satyagraha was resumed and over two thousand persons out of a total Indian community of a little over ten thousand went to prison, several of them repeatedly.

The satyagraha was again suspended in 1911, after the formation of the Union of South Africa, in the hope of a negotiated settlement, but again the talks failed. The Union Government, moreover, declined to take action when the Supreme Court ruled that all marriages not performed according to Christian rites - that is, most Indian marriages - were invalid. It prevaricated on its promise to Gokhale to repeal the Natal law requiring former indentured labourers and members of their families to pay an unjust and exorbitant annual tax of 3 each.

So the third phase of the satyagraha was launched in September 1913 all over the country. Gandhiji invited women to join and called on the workers to strike until the 3 tax was abolished.

"The whole community rose like a surging wave. Without organisation, without propaganda, all - nearly 40,000 - courted imprisonment. Nearly ten thousand were actually imprisoned..." (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 20, page 15)

Gandhiji led the great march of 2,200 workers and their families from Newcastle to the Transvaal border and was jailed for the fourth time. There was then a spontaneous strike by all Indian workers in Natal, the biggest general strike that the country had ever seen. Thousands were confined in prisons and mine compounds and the prisoners were subjected to cruel treatment. Many striking workers were brutally assaulted and a number of them were killed or wounded.

Gandhiji led in sacrifice and members of his family repeatedly went to prison. The resisters included men and women of all faiths, rich and poor, and none flinched at the increasing severity of prison conditions and repression. Even when Gandhiji and other leaders were in prison, the resisters showed commendable discipline and adherence to non-violence.

Europeans like Henry Polak, Hermann Kallenbach and A.H. West, who had become admirers and associates of Gandhiji, identified themselves with the Indian cause and even went to prison. Supporters of the struggle in the European community, though a small minority, included many churchmen and prominent public figures - such as Olive Schreiner, the writer, William Hosken, leader of the Progressive Party, and Vere Stent, an editor.

General Smuts was obliged in the face of the determination of the Indian community, backed by a powerful national agitation in India and pressure from Britain, to sign an agreement with Gandhiji, conceding all the main demands of the satyagraha.

Gandhiji then left for India on July 18, 1914 - exactly four years before Nelson Mandela was born - leaving behind him the example of a righteous struggle which knows no defeat.

South Africa to India

Gandhiji carried with him to India not only his philosophy of satyagraha, but firm views derived from his South African experience on the problems of India.

His close association with the Muslims in South Africa, and their contribution to the satyagraha, convinced him that Hindu-Muslim unity must be an essential tenet of the Indian national movement. Outraged at the treatment of Indians in South Africa as virtual untouchables, he sought to eliminate the scourge of untouchability in India. His experience in trying to unite the Indian people in South Africa led him to advocate a national language for India.

He also brought with him respect for women who played a crucial role in the final stage of the satyagraha, braving imprisonment with hard labour, many of them with their infants. Valliamma, a 16-year-old girl, gave her life for the cause rather than accept early release from prison, and his own wife, Kasturba, came out of prison in shattered health.

Gandhiji was most impressed by the way the poor workers had acquitted themselves in the struggle. He said in London on August 8, 1914:

"These men and women are the salt of India; on them will be built the Indian nation that is to be."

He proceeded to bring the mass of the people of India, including women, into action while leading the struggle for the independence of India. He combined political struggle with a constructive programme to promote respect for manual labour, the regeneration of village industries and simple living.

The heritage of Gandhi

Gandhiji was against any cult of his followers. He disliked the term "Gandhism", as much as the title Mahatma, bestowed on him by a grateful nation. What he left for posterity was the example of his life, his search for truth and his actions in practising what he believed. "My life is my message," he said.

His outlook was universal. To him all religions make for "peace, love and joy in the world". "Let us all merge in each other", he exhorted, "like drops of ocean."

The example of Gandhiji and the satyagraha he led in South Africa and India have encouraged and inspired the struggles for freedom of oppressed peoples in many lands around the world where the leaders absorbed his thought and creatively applied it in the light of their own traditions and situations.

Non-violent defiance has been a major phenomenon in the world, especially in recent years, when powerful dictatorships have been toppled by popular resistance. It has been practised by many public movements for causes which Gandhiji cherished - such as peace, disarmament, and protection of the environment.

These struggles and movements have, in turn, enriched the heritage of Gandhiji.

As Nelson Mandela declared recently, the spirit of Gandhiji - that is, the satyagraha conceived and tested in Africa at the beginning of this century - may well be a key to human survival in the twenty-first century.