MAHATMA GANDHI - SOUTH AFRICA'S GIFT TO INDIA?(1)

Eighty years ago, on January 9, 1915, M.K. Gandhi returned to Bombay after 21 years in exile, wearing a loin cloth and travelling from London in the lowest class of the ship. He was acclaimed by the whole nation which was inspired by his struggle and sacrifice in South Africa for the honour of the "Motherland". As he went around the country with Kasturba, the heroine of the last phase of the South African struggle, huge receptions were held and addresses presented to him in every city. "Moderates" welcomed him as much as "extremists", Muslims and Parsis as much as Hindus.

This Gandhi had little relation to the M.K. Gandhi, the 23-year-old barrister in a suit, who had sailed from Bombay in April 1893 by first class in the hope of finding opportunity in a new land.

In later years, Gandhiji said that he was born in India but "made" in South Africa;(2)

"it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now".(3)

He told the Kanpur Congress in 1925 that "Indians of South Africa claim that they have given me to you. I accept that claim. It is perfectly true that whatever service I have been able to render... to India, comes from South Africa."(4)

To understand the evolution and transformation of Gandhiji in South Africa, it is necessary to note, as he himself stressed on several occasions, that he was not a born saint and had not had an extraordinary childhood or youth.

He said in a speech in 1925:

"I never had a brilliant career. I was all my life a plodder. When I went to England... I couldn't put together two sentences correctly. On the steamer I was a drone... I finished my three years in England as a drone."(5)

And further in a speech in 1937:

"At school the teachers did not consider me a very bright boy. They knew that I was a good boy, but not a bright boy. I never knew first class and second class. I barely passed. I was a dull boy. I could not even speak properly. Even when I went to South Africa I went only as a clerk."(6)

His primary concern as a student in London and on his return to India was to make money. He was unsuccessful as a barrister and could only earn some 300 rupees a month as a writer of petitions and memorials, a profession in which he was to excel later. Frustrated, he accepted an offer of employment from a friend of his brother in Durban. He was to get first class fare, but only 105 and local expenses for the year. He was in fact put up as a boarder in Pretoria.

He showed little interest in politics and had no organisational experience except for his work with the Vegetarian Society in London. His main assets were his honesty, spirit of sacrifice and innate love of his country.

The Gandhi who returned from South Africa was an inspiring leader - fearless, selfless and with a vision - who had led a small community in a long and difficult, yet victorious, struggle against a stubborn racist government. He had developed a philosophy of life and of non-violent defiance of injustice which were to influence millions of people around the world. He had also formed definite views on reform of the Indian society and means to secure Swaraj.

In considering the influences which moulded Gandhiji in South Africa, we are handicapped by the serious gaps in knowledge about his life in that country. He said in 1939 that he had intimate relations with many Africans and had the privilege often advising them.(7)

He was a close friend of Olive Schreiner, a prominent writer and a very progressive South African(8) and he was in contact with many other South Africans of all backgrounds. But no information is available on his discussions with them. The evolution of his thinking has often been described - relying mainly on his book, My Experiments with Truth - as the result of his "ethical experiments" and of his study of religions and some Western writers. I would suggest that a major influence on him was the Indian national movement in the early years of this century.

The incident soon after his arrival in South Africa, when he was thrown out of a train in Pietermaritzburg in bitter cold, has often been cited as a landmark in his transformation. He himself said in an interview with Dr. John Mott:

"I was afraid for my very life... What was my duty, I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date. And God put me through the test during that very journey. I was severely assaulted by the coachman for my moving from the seat he had given me."(9)

Gandhiji was, I believe, particularly shocked as he was a well-dressed barrister who had only recently returned from Britain where he would have been treated with respect. The conductor and the constable who evicted him were British and would have been considered of lower class. The fact that he was humiliated in a foreign country, especially a British colony, outraged him and aroused his patriotism.

While this incident was a turning point in his life, it did not have a significant effect on his activities for many years. Returning to India was not a serious option for him at the time. His only public activity in the following year was to encourage meetings of Indians in Pretoria to consider their grievances and to draft petitions to the authorities. One of the first petitions was to secure assurance from railway authorities that first and second class tickets would be issued to "properly dressed" Indians.

After his initial contract expired, he agreed to stay on in Durban and undertake public service. It was decided in his discussions with the local Indian merchants that he would be provided retainers of at least 300 a year so that he could set up an independent household and live in a style usual for barristers. He was firm that he would not charge for public work.

He enrolled as a barrister and his practice developed. He rented a house at Beach Grove and entertained Europeans and Indians. His service to the Natal Indian Congress, essentially an organisation of the Indian merchants, was mainly in drafting petitions to authorities and letters to the newspapers. He gave legal services to the poor Indians and indentured labourers at no charge and did volunteer work as a compounder in a hospital. He devoted much time to the welfare and improvement of the Indian community. He organised debates and other programmes for young Indians - most of them Natal-born and educated - and even led sporting activities. He gained respect as a public-spirited barrister but had not become a fighter for justice. He lived comfortably and apparently sent money to his family.

Returning in 1902 after a brief stay in India, he decided to settle in Johannesburg and enrolled as an attorney. He sought no retainers, but had a successful practice, earning as much as 5,000 a year, though devoting much of his time to public service. He spent part of his income to finance Indian Opinion and the Phoenix Settlement.(10)

The establishment of the Phoenix Settlement in 1904 was a new phase in his experiments, especially as regards simple living. This was followed in 1906 by two crucial decisions in his life - the vow of brahmacharya and a letter to his brother that he had no interest in worldly possessions. These decisions were also a preparation for a new level of public service, and were followed by the abandonment of legal practice in 1908, when his friend, Mr. Hermann Kallenbach, undertook to look after his simple needs.

It was in 1906 that Gandhiji decided to defy a humiliating law and soon became a leader in struggle rather than an adviser to the community. I believe Gandhiji was greatly influenced by the rise of national movement in India in taking this step.

He had visited India for five months in 1896 and met a number of public leaders to secure their support to redress the grievances of Indians in South Africa. But it was his second visit for a year in 1901-2 which had a profound effect on him. He attended the Congress session in Calcutta and spent more than a month with G.K. Gokhale whom he admired greatly for his efforts to "spiritualise" politics and to organise a corps of "servants of India" for whom politics would be a wholetime occupation.

Returning to South Africa, he began to follow the national movement in India. He called for united opposition by Hindus and Muslims against the partition of Bengal, and supported the swadeshi movement. Soon after, he abandoned "petition politics" as useless, unless there was some sanction behind the petitions, and decided to defy the Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance. One of the most dramatic events of the satyagraha was the burning of the passes, similar to the burning of British cloth in the swadeshi movement. Throughout the satyagraha, Gandhiji emphasised that it was not so much for the rights of the Indians in South Africa as for the honour of the "motherland". Many young people who were not particularly affected by the discriminatory laws repeatedly went to prison for that cause. Significantly, the first biography of Gandhiji, by the Rev. J.J. Doke, was entitled "An Indian Patriot in South Africa".(11)

During this time, Gandhiji began to express his views on the situation in India and they reflected his own experience with the Indian community in South Africa which included people of many religions and castes who spoke many languages and were mostly illiterate.

He repeatedly stressed the need for Hindu-Muslim unity. He was strongly opposed to untouchability, especially as all Indians were treated almost like untouchables by South African whites. (Many of the Indians in South Africa were descendants of untouchables.)

In an article in Indian Opinion on July 8, 1905, he called for the abolition of the salt tax in India. In another article in August 1906, he advocated the adoption of Hindustani as the common language for India. He "discovered" the spinning wheel while on a deputation from South Africa to London in 1909.(12)

He had already been advocating total prohibition, especially because of the effect of liquor in degrading the indentured workers.

(Non-violence was not an issue in South Africa as armed resistance by the small Indian community was unthinkable. Gandhiji's emphasis was on the duty to defy unjust laws and on the need for sacrifice. He wrote about non-violence mainly in relation to terrorism in India and his discussions with Indian revolutionaries in London.)

But perhaps more important was the experience he gained in the seven-year satyagraha in which thousands of Indians courted imprisonment and suffered brutal assaults with hardly a single instance of weakening or apology. Tens of thousands of workers went on strike, with little organisation, even while he was in prison and defied intimidation and violence by the police and military.

Gandhiji was inspired by the heroism of the people even as they were inspired by his example.(13)

The courage and sacrifice of women, who responded to his invitation to join the satyagraha in its final phase, was particularly striking. He had closely followed the suffragette movement in Britain and admired the tenacity of the women. He was perhaps also inspired by the sacrifices of Boer women during the Anglo-Boer War.(14)

Yet his call to the Indian women was bold and their response magnificent.

Equally impressive was the discipline and steadfastness of the poor workers. Gandhiji recognised:

Benefiting from this experience, Gandhiji was able to lead the Indian national movement to an entirely new stage by encouraging the active participation of peasants and workers, as well as women, and by making people lose fear of jail.

Gandhiji - or rather his philosophy and outlook - was thus a gift from South Africa to India, but it had its roots both in India and in South Africa.


1. Published in Mainstream, weekly, New Delhi, January 21, 1995

2. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 84, page 380.

3. Collected Works, Volume 87, page 257.

4. Collected Works, Volume 29, pages 358.

5. Speech at Law College in Travancore, March 1925. Mahadev H. Desai, Day-to-Day with Gandhi, Volume VI, pages 103-04.

6. Speech to Gandhi Seva Sangh, Hudli, April 17, 1937. Collected Works, Volume 65, pages 100-1.

7. Collected Works, Volume 69, page 377.

8. Collected Works, Volume 29, page 361 and Volume 31, page 208.

9. Collected Works, Volume 68, pages 165-73.

10. He spent nearly 5,000 for this purpose. He transferred the Settlement to a Trust in 1912.

11. Gandhiji approved this biography.

12. Collected Works, Volume 37, page 288. He said he had referred to the handloom in Hind Swaraj which he wrote that year, as he did not know the distinction between the spinning wheel and the loom.

13. Gandhiji said in a speech in Madras on April 21, 1915:

"You have said that I inspired these great men and women, but I cannot accept that proposition. It was they, the simple-minded folk, who worked away in faith, never expecting the slightest reward, who inspired me, who kept me to the proper level, and who compelled me by their great sacrifice, by their great faith, by their great trust in the great God to do the work that I was able to do."(Collected Works, Volume 13, pages 52-53.)

14. Gandhiji said in a speech to college students in Lahore in 1920: "Every woman in the Transvaal was a Rani of Jhansi. When will our women be so brave?" (Collected Works, Volume 18, page 364.)

15. Speech in London on August 8, 1914. Collected Works, Volume 12, page 524.