Gandhi And South Africa Today
[Mewa Ramgobin was restricted under banning orders after he organised a petition for clemency to political prisoners.]
It is with a sense of awe, humility and gratitude that I stand here today on a spot hallowed by the presence 60 years ago of one of the greatest men, if not the greatest, of modern times, Mahatma Gandhi. But it is with a sense of sadness and dismay, too, at the realization that the ideals he strove for in South Africa more than half a century ago are still so far from fulfillment - to the extent that the restrictions and indignities he suffered in his struggle for justice and equality find their parallel in the restrictions and indignities inflicted today on his grandson-in-law. It is a shattering thought that, if the giant figure of the Mahatma, whom the whole world reveres and whom men will revere as long as there are men, was alive and in this country now, he, too, would be banned for the convictions he held and the courage with which he pursued them, probably even detained on Robben Island.
>Mahatma Gandhi, the Prophet
Mahatma Gandhi was a prophetic figure in the highest and noblest sense of the word, if we accept that the prophet enunciates truth that needs to be enunciated and illustrates what he says by the way he lives. For the Mahatma, truth, to be genuine truth, had to be lived.
For all great religious figures it has been the same: the truth they proclaimed had to be lived, even though it might lead to their death, as happened in the case of him whom many of us regard as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The great problem, the tragic problem, of religion is the difficulty the followers of a religious leader experience in living up to the noble truth propounded by him. It was for this reason that Gandhi could accept Christ but found it hard to accept Christians.
We are here today because people that hold power in South Africa, although by-and-large they profess faith in Christ and practise that faith to some extent, cannot see how its teachings should be expressed in the political, economic and social life of their country.
To the outsider, even to the South African who is not a member of that dominant people, this is a cause for open-mouthed astonishment: that men can publicly profess the Christian faith and yet do things in political, economic and social life that are in utter conflict with it. It looks like the worst kind of hypocrisy. It looks like the triumph of that Pharisaism that Christ fought all his life and which nailed him to a cross in the end.
And yet, I think I understand, man's views are very limited, man's vision is drastically restricted. If a man grows up in a certain culture, is taught history in a certain way and imbibes an outlook from his family and environment, he can live the most extraordinary contradictions without being aware of them. Reality is so huge, especially the reality of human life with the complexity of its historical, personal and social involvements that we can take in only a little of it in a life-time, and the little we take in may omit the application to our situation of some of the deepest and dearest values we profess.
Politics and Religion
A certain historical and religious background has made many white South Africans believe that religion and politics are two such separate areas of life that one need not, in fact, should not, influence the other. No matter how incredible this sounds, these White South Africans sincerely believe this. For the life of me I cannot see how they do, but I do not doubt their sincerity.
Obviously their view arises from their understanding of politics and religion. Religion seems to be concerned only with God, or, if it is concerned with people, then it is concerned with them only as individuals or as families, not as members of the political community.
This is what is so difficult to follow. Does it mean that the ideals of love and justice that a Christian accepts as part of his faith do not apply to politics or to large-scale economics or other broad issues of social life? Does it mean that the White Christian can say to his African, Coloured or Indian neighbour in South Africa: My religion enjoins on me to see in you the image of God and the mirror of Christ - up to the point where I notice that you are Black and then exit religion and enter politics - I no longer see in you the image of God and the mirror of Christ?
It is because Christianity is practised like this in South Africa that we are here today. Most of us can scarcely attend a meeting without encountering friends who have been banned, or without regretting the absence of friends who are banned: the Peter Browns, the Cosmas Desmonds, the Mewa Ramgobins; and the banning under which they suffer is a practical denial of a basic principle of the rule of law and civilised living: the principle that a person shall not be punished without trial, and that the trial shall be public so that everyone may see that justice is done. It took a long hard struggle in human history, a struggle inspired by the noblest religious and humanitarian convictions to get that principle established. It has been wiped out in South Africa because we, White Christians do not have the courage to live the faith we profess.
Prayer for those who Suffer
So it is with a deep sense of shame and humble apology that I, as a leader in a Christian Church, join you in this service of prayer, prayer for Mewa, a friend and a member by marriage of the family of one of humanity's greatest lights, the beloved Mahatma: prayer for all those who, like Mewa, suffer under unjust laws, (laws that do not deserve the sacred name of law, because they are a practical denial of all that law stands for): prayer for the White Christians of South Africa who find it so hard to see what political consequences flow from the faith they profess; prayer for our country and all its people that, through the witness and dedication of brave men and women who, in their thirst for justice, are prepared to accept banning, restriction and detention, and like Father Wrankmore, the agony of a long fast - that, through such people, God in his goodness may lead us along the path of love, compassion and understanding to a more just and brotherly and peaceful society.
This is our prayer, O Lord, hear and answer us.
November 15, 1971