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Mahatma Gandhi Today
By Andre Brink
I feel very proud and very humble to have the privilege of delivering this Memorial Lecture just one year after the centenary of The Great Soul's birthday on 2 October 1869. It is now almost twenty-three years after that tragic day in January 1948 when the Mahatma was killed by the bullet of a fanatic, so soon after one of his noblest achievements through fasting: reconciling the two great rival religious groups in India. This was, as is so well known, one of the forms of expression by his justly famous peaceful weapon, satyagraha, "Soul Force", which, many years before, he had also applied in South Africa to ease the oppression suffered by his compatriots in this country.
In recent years there have been many disturbing reports of new unrest and new strife, of the revival of old antagonisms in India. And as far as this country is concerned: the South African Indian Congress, founded by Gandhi and based on the very principle of satyagraha, has long been paralysed. What is more, those principles of love and cooperation of people of different races on a basis of equality, are insulted and denied daily by the unmitigated evil of the apartheid system which has got its deadly grip on our society like a boa constrictor on its prey. Millions of people are insulted and humiliated and oppressed and denied their simplest human dignity simply because their skin colour is less etiolated than that of an oppressor who has lived under a moral wheelbarrow for too long. And many thousands of people who sympathise with Gandhi's belief in racial equality, in the common dignity of all men, are languishing in jail, in various forms of banishment, or in exile. In our beautiful and unhappy country a small minority is determining absolutely the lives of all and causing the deaths of many. And so it may seem as if the Mahatma is, in fact, dead; and as if his spirit of greatness and compassion has really departed from us.
But appearances are deceptive; and that is the theme of my lecture today. The Mahatma is dead. Yet the Mahatma will never be dead. And in mourning Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi today we also celebrate his undying legacy to the world.
I realised this very acutely in the past fortnight, a propos of another great man, in his way a disciple of Gandhi. In a letter in a Cape Town newspaper ex-judge Blackwell made an appeal for clemency for Bram Fischer who is at present, old and in poor health, serving a life sentence in jail. Given the authorities we have I doubt whether this plea will be heeded, although I most sincerely endorse it. But it was something else about the judge's newspaper letter which struck me even more. Bram Fischer, he said, was in danger of becoming a forgotten man. And in that, I think, he was wrong. I, for one, and there are many like me ―and several Afrikaners among them ―can never forget the impression made by Bram Fischer's profoundly moving statement from the dock before he was sentenced. It was, fortunately, widely reported at the time, and in the evolution of my own ethical and political thinking his statement marked a turning point, a decisive moment. I am not allowed to quote publicly from his speech, because even that is forbidden in this free country which the Prime Minister constantly assures us is not a police state. The important thing is that his ideals of racial harmony and cooperation did not go to jail with him. Nor did the memory of his compassion with those suffering on account of their race, his adherence to the principle that everybody should be allowed to help determine the form of government which shapes his life.
The government ―any government―can effectively silence or incapacitate an individual or even large numbers of individuals, but all the battalions of fear and all the organisations of hate, all the formidable, destructive power of armies and police, of Saracens and jails, of BOSS-laws and banishments cannot kill an idea in which the light of truth is burning.
And it occurred to me, as I read Judge Blackwell's letter, that even when Fischer dies those words he spoke in the dock would live by virtue of the simple fact that I, and many others, can never forget them. And when we, too, die one day, a new generation will be at hand to keep those ideals alive. I am reminded of an essay by the great Afrikaans poet Van Wyk Louw, "Heerser en Humanis" ("Tyrant and Humanist"), in which, on the eve of his execution, a condemned writer is visited in jail by the Head of State. The tyrant promises him a reprieve on the condition that he recant. If not, he will die and every word he has ever written will be destroyed. With quiet assurance the humanist elects to die, bolstered by the conviction that he will win in the end. "How can that be?" the tyrant asks. "I have two reasons", replies the condemned man. "One is that your executioner will see me die. The other is that you have found it necessary to visit me tonight."
It may be helpful to dwell a bit more on the history of Bram Fischer, for the sake of those who have already begun to forget about him; and also for his illumination of the spirit of Gandhi.
The many who have come to think of Fischer as a bogeyman, as a symbol of darkness and evil which threaten to destroy South Africa, should be reminded that he belongs to one of the most prominent families of Orange Free State history. His father, a respected lawyer, was a mediator between the Transvaal and Britain before the Anglo-Boer War and later became Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony. He played a leading role in the drafting of the constitution of the Union of South Africa. His son became one of the most brilliant advocates in South African legal history.
Yet this remarkable man grew up as an ordinary Afrikaans farm boy. At an early age he embraced the doctrine of racial segregation as a solution for the problems of his country; and at one stage, in his own admission, he found it almost impossible to shake hands with a black man.
It was only during a period of soul-searching and mental agony that he discovered, in Hitler's terrible ascent, what the logical outcome of a theory of racial superiority was. Still he found it difficult to shed his convictions. One night, in a discussion with an elderly African, he put forward the hackneyed theory that segregation diminishes points of friction. The old man countered by pointing out that if one separates the races into different camps, the inhabitants of either camp soon forget that the others laugh and suffer and live in the same way and for the same reasons; and so they soon become suspicious ―until they learn to fear one another, which is where all racism starts.
From these elementary beginnings Fischer's uncompromising intellect soon set him on the way towards Marxism. However, it was not primarily the theory of Marxism which attracted him, but, quite simply, the practical realities of the land he lived in. These realities were twofold: in the first place, there was the pattern of oppression which characterises and dominates South African society. What would happen, he wondered, if, suddenly, all Afrikaners were herded into the Orange Free State as their "homeland" and forced to carry passes when they left it; if all the gold and coal mines of the Free State were kept in black hands, and if Afrikaners working elsewhere in the country were forced to live in locations and compounds, allowed to do unskilled work only, and if their very presence outside the Free State were only on sufferance of another race...? In the second place he discovered that the only people prepared to suffer for convictions similar to his ―people who could have all the luxury they wanted if they chose, but who identified themselves to such an extent with the deprived majority that they were prepared to forgo all that and risk imprisonment, banishment, or even death ―were members of the Communist Party. At that time, of course, the Party was completely legal on the South African political scene, so that for a law-abiding legal man like Fischer it was the natural platform for his convictions.
When the Party was outlawed in the 1950s, Fischer realised that the measure had very little to do with anti-communism as such, but that it was essentially a measure to silence opposition to the accelerating process of safeguarding white interests at the cost of black liberties. And so, with much agonising soul-searching, Fischer remained a member of the banned Party, with only one firm intention, that of helping to create a truly democratic society in the country, in which white and black would be able to decide together on their communal future.
Fischer often expressed his belief in the inevitability of the historical process: in these terms history is not an accumulation of chaotic facts and figures, but a logical development from one form of society to another. At an early stage he became convinced that the only true form compatible with the demands of the present century was Socialism. But he also believed that South Africa was not ready for it, and so he refused to impose it on the country. He knew that we had reached a stage of breakdown in the history of capitalism and imperialism, since these two great forces, which had dominated the nineteenth century, were unable to fulfill the needs of twentieth-century people. At the same time he saw that, at the very moment when imperialism was breaking down all over Africa, leading to the emergence of new states and systems, a small and desperate band of whites were trying to preserve it in South Africa, leading to more and more suffering, and to more and more oppression.
During all his free life Fischer wanted to work for the restoration of human dignity. And he accepted that it could be done only through non-violent measures. Time and time again he insisted that bloodshed would create intolerable chaos. At the same time he saw that South Africa was moving constantly closer to a state of terrorism and civil war: and, drawing on the experience of Algeria (with today's perspective he might have added Vietnam) he realised that in such a war there could be only one outcome. This prospect was against his belief, which was also Nelson Mandela's, in the creation of a just and tolerant multi-racial society with white and black working together for the future of the country they all shared.
And it was to warn South Africa against the destructive end of its own present course that he finally went beyond Gandhi's strategies and embarked, with others, on a programme of controlled sabotage. Controlled, because every target was selected so carefully that there would never be any possibility of danger to life or limb. It was done as an act of despair, to warn the authorities against their own folly, and to help create a climate in which the need for togetherness would supersede the urge towards separateness which was tearing his country apart.
One may quarrel with his means, but not with his aims. Today, after the crisis in Mozambique, more and more white South Africans are beginning to see the wisdom of moving towards a realisation of Fischer's ideals. Only, he saw it much sooner, and much more clearly and without self-interest or personal ambition.
Knowing that he was risking his life, he came back to South Africa in 1964 after being allowed to go to England to plead a case before the Privy Council. He could have stayed out, a free man. Yet he came back to certain imprisonment and a possible death sentence. When he estreated bail after being arrested, it was not to save his skin, but for the sake of continuing to work for the cause he believed in ―the cause for which so many of his friends were by then languishing in jail. He knew that many of those victims had placed all responsibility for their condition on the shoulders of the Afrikaner rulers. And so he wanted to prove that an Afrikaner could also be different.
His free life was devoted to a broadening of the image of the Afrikaner; and if Afrikaans is eventually to survive as a language, much of it will be due to the fact that men like Bram Fischer have been prepared to prove, risking their all for it, that it is more than the language of one oppressive minority and of one frightening ideology ―that it is indeed what many exiles call it today: menstaal, "the language of human beings".
That is why I feel so confident that Fischer can never be forgotten in this country. And I referred to him at some length because in his awareness of and concern for others, in his compassion, in his crusade against social and political evil, he revealed himself as a man true to the spirit of the Great Soul we mourn and celebrate today: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
A mere three weeks before his death, as he commenced his final fast, Gandhi proclaimed his willingness to die in the process: "No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life. I hope and pray that I have that purity in me to justify the step"―this was an act, above all a readiness, an inner preparedness, comparable to the immolation of Buddhist monks protesting against the senseless violence of American aggression in Vietnam or the self-sacrifice of a young Czech student to protest against the Russian occupation of his country in 1968. More than anything else the Mahatma reminds me of the words of Christ: "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." And I make this link deliberately, because Gandhi himself often acknowledged that the first great influence on the evolution of his own credo was the Sermon on the Mount: that immortal expression of the power of meekness, the force of humility, the inevitable victory of compassion. Gandhi knew that meekness was not weakness. And by making the supreme sacrifice, he also proved that he knew what protest really meant.
It was Jean-Paul Sartre who drew the most relevant distinction I knew between a gesture and an act. A gesture, he said, is something performed by an actor, intended for an audience: we can evaluate the gesture as good or bad, as successful or unsuccessful, but it really exists in a void: it has no practical or even moral significance. A gesture takes place without reference to cause and effect, without consequence. An act, on the other hand, in Sartre's definition, implies involvement in the whole chain of cause and effect: it leads to something, it has a direct moral or practical bearing on the situation in which it is performed; and thereby it commits the man who performs it. It is in this commitment that the basic difference between a Sartrean gesture and an act is to be found. We are living in a world where various forms of protest, violent and non-violent, have become almost a way of living. But so much of it―in this country too―is mere gesture, without full commitment. Gandhi knew the deepest implications of commitment; because it is only in the willingness to sacrifice that commitment is tested. That is the difference between the demo and the true rebel―in the sense in which Buddha and Christ and Mohammed and Gandhi and Paul Kruger and Bram Fischer were rebels.
I believe in rebellion as a dimension of existence; in fact, as a prerequisite for life. Not blind rebellion. But rebellion in the sense of breaking constantly more fetters limiting true human liberty. The slave who rebels against his master, said Camus, does not do so merely to be free: he does it in order to affirm the necessity of freedom as the human condition.
In other words, it is a rebellion not simply directed against something, but aimed towards something. It is not negative, but positive. When Antigone―the first rebel of Western tradition ―revolted against the State, it was not because she wanted to destroy order, but because she wanted to affirm a higher Order than that maintained by the State. Antigone's key word is: No! But it is a paradoxical thing, for she really means: Yes. No to all the forces which try to deny the human; yes to all the attributes of dignified human life. Gandhi added a specific religious dimension when he said: "I know that I shall never know God if I do not wrestle with and against evil, even at the cost of life itself."
This essentially human, metaphysical revolt―which works through on all levels of one's existence―takes place in a world where there is, of necessity, a conflict between freedom and justice. Gandhi realised this implicitly as Camus did explicitly. In absolute form, justice and freedom are mutually exclusive: absolute freedom gives me the freedom also to limit another man's freedom, even to deny him life, to kill him; absolute justice denies the merits of the individual situation and works only with common denominators. Absolute freedom makes the individual all-powerful; absolute justice makes society an absolute power. So we can always have more justice. In the balance between these two forces the individual and society meet each other. And this is precisely the territory on which Gandhi conducted his campaign of love, his war of peace.
It is this campaign which we can reassess today in the light of the conditions and needs prevalent in present-day South Africa. It is a campaign based on a series of clearly formulated precepts, all of them pervaded by the intense religiousness of Gandhi's philosophy and the humility and basic humanity of his personality.
Gandhi's vow of swadeshi seems strange to many people, particularly to Westerners. He himself defined it as "that spirit within us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote." To him it had a definite religious, political and economic significance, related to the very old concept of patriotism, of loyalty to one's own. In this respect one is reminded, again, of Van Wyk Louw's concept of "loyal resistance".
In the hands and minds of lesser men this notion of loyalty can very easily become a mere instrument of chauvinism; in the hands of the political leaders of this country today it is used as a slogan to keep people together in a small and stifling laager dominated by worn-out traditions; it is a negative approach, using fear to prevent people from dissenting, even from questioning, and it uses censorship and indoctrination to condition the writing, the reading and eventually the thinking of an entire generation.
To act against this, I should suggest a wider interpretation of swadeshi for this country at this time. I should suggest that we see it as loyalty, not to a party, or a church, or an economic system, or a language group, or a race, but loyalty to South Africa, to this country which is much more than the sum of her people, and much more permanent than any regime. I should like to see it as an unflinching and uncompromising demand for only the best and highest of human values for this country: which means an equally uncompromising resistance to everything which degrades humanity and denies dignity, everything which favours small in-groups, everything which is secondhand and inferior, and shopsoiled by irreverent politicians. Above all, let our form of swadeshi be a demand for truth and justice in this country. There is very little truth and very little justice in the world. But lies and injustice in any corner of this world should never allow us to condone it here. In this way swadeshi becomes a force to destroy evil and hypocrisy and inhumanity and to preserve the most sacred values of a multi-racial society intact. It implies Gandhi's direct statement that "politics, divorced from religion, has absolutely no meaning." And it denies the form of politics perpetrated in this country today, where religion is used as a serf of politics and a pretext for the most blatant exploitation of the majority of South Africans by a minority. "Indian nationalism," said Gandhi, "is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive." What we have in South Africa today, is a Nationalism which is exclusive, aggressive and destructive, and which inevitably evokes forms of resistance that may become equally exclusive, aggressive and destructive. It should be part of our interpretation of swadeshi to substitute the original for the vicious fake, and not to rest before the fake has been eliminated―in the name of the real South Africa.
Gandhi's ethics of khaddar (Homespun cloth, i.e., work in the widest sense of the word) is closely linked with swadeshi. To him it meant a specific form of home-industry to counter the exploitation inherent in the more imperialistic forms of capitalism. Today industrialisation is an irreversible fact. But in our context khaddar may certainly be interpreted to mean the intimate relation between a man and his work: the demand that a man should bear responsibility for his work in order to lend it dignity; and that he should share in the fruits of his labour. In other words: no man should be exploited in his work or alienated through his work. The whole of the South African economy is based on the exploitation of men, women and children with a black skin, and the policy of "homelands" is an impossible and inhuman dream. It accepts that people can be used for the labour they can provide, without acknowledging even in the most basic sense of the word, that they are people.
Insisting on the essential dignity of work means revolting against the entire system which promotes economic and spiritual exploitation of one man by another. The supreme consideration, says Gandhi, is man.
This concept is intimately associated with Gandhi's religious background as a conservative Hindu, living within the framework of a Hindu caste society. He accepts the inevitability, in many ways even the necessity of caste, but―in his own words ―"not to restrict or regulate social intercourse". For his views on caste are based on his fundamental assumption that, even as a devout Hindu, he cannot accept Hinduism as an exclusive religion. In other words: accepting, as premise, the existence of different religions and different castes, he nevertheless accepted them in a completely "open" sense: "Let us not deny God," he writes in one essay, "by denying to a fifth of our race the right of association on an equal footing." Transposed into South African terms it would read: "Let us not deny to 80 per cent of our people the right of association on an equal footing."
Given the existence of different groups, Gandhi insists that all men and women are essentially brothers and sisters. Some pious advocates of apartheid proclaim ―and some of them actually believe ―that this system eliminates the possibility of friction and creates an atmosphere for happier and more complete self-realisation. But this denies the essential fact that separation and the barriers it constructs between people can only lead to suspicion and fear and hate. In a world already overpopulated, in which mass media and international communication systems are rapidly eliminating all artificial barriers and increasing contact, South Africa alone tries to reverse the process by erecting more and more barriers between people―aimed at the final utopia of apartheid, with separate heavens, separate hells, and separate lavatories for all.
Without denying one iota of the inherent differences distinguishing individuals and groups, we have a need today, more urgent than ever before, of Gandhi's vision of the common dignity of all men. "The only thing that is really worth while", said one writer, "is being together." He said it of man and woman, of lovers. We should say it, as Gandhi did, of people ―of all the people in this country. All it requires is the acknowledgement of the fact that we are all here together, sharing this country, and that we are all equal in our love of it.And now we come to what, for a Westerner, is an extremely difficult aspect of Gandhi's credo as a Hindu: that is, his tenacious belief in the Hindu custom of Cow Protection as a religious obligation. To many this may seem parochial or outdated. To the Mahatma it was an essential part of his philosophy. But the important thing is that he also said: "I believe in Cow Protection in a much larger sense than the popular belief." As I interpret it, it is not so much the cow as cow that matters to him―for then cow-worship can easily degenerate into a fossilised symbol which can prevent the true and full development of a community. It is rather that he saw the cow as ―in his own magnificent phrase ―"a poem of pity". The cow, cherished beyond all treasures in early Hindu society, is gentleness and plenty incarnate. The life of the community depends on her milk: she should be protected and loved. And she is never aggressive: she bears patiently whatever misfortunes befall her ―and that is why she eventually survives. In this I find, for our situation, the humble but necessary demand for a reverence for life.
We live in what is essentially a violent society. Alcohol―suicide―murder ―assault―insanity―road accidents―all of these are symptoms of our violent society. Even South Africa's national sport, rugby, is popular because of its violence. I should not like to sound pedantic; but could not one reason for the incredible proliferation of violence in South Africa be a basic disrespect for life, a disrespect for others? And why? Once again I find the roots in apartheid. A system which uproots whole communities, which callously shrugs at deaths in prisons and prison vans, which forbids families to live together, and which is based on discriminating laws and humiliating measures like reference books, "immorality", which restricts a man's advancement in his work and limits his income, which forces the majority of citizens to use third and fourth rate beaches and places of entertainment and which prohibits their attending theatre performances or symphony concerts... Such a system has as its premise the conviction that man's life is not worth two sparrows. It turns man into an object, and once he is dehumanised, anything can be done to him without any qualms. Gandhi revered cows. We do not even revere people. It is time for such a system to be eradicated in order to create a new scope of life for people; in order to create a society in which human beings can be acknowledged simply for what they are: human beings.
And with this we have reached the two final, and basic, forces in Gandhi's life and work: the vow of truth and the vow of non-violence.
Gandhi's injunction to be faithful to truth contains the intrinsic and explicit demand that one shall never be afraid of speaking the truth or of bringing it to light. "I found through my wanderings in India", he said, "that my country is seized with a paralysing fear. We may not open our lips in public: we may only talk about our opinions secretly.... I suggest to you that there is only one whom we have to fear, that is God. When we fear God, then we shall fear no man, however high placed he may be; and if you want to follow the vow of truth, then fearlessness is absolutely necessary."
His description of India as a State of Fear strikes one as singularly familiar. Ours is indeed a Society of Fear. The authorities use fear to strengthen their hold on the people. Individuals fear lest by speaking the truth they will be prosecuted. Let us shake off the bond of fear and proclaim the truth wherever we find it, and however dangerous it appears. Truth is always dangerous: that is why authorities prefer to keep it hidden from view. And one basic truth hidden very securely in South Africa is the fact that society is not a fate which must be endured as if it had been handed down by God: it is a practical organisation of men, by men, for men and it can and must be changed when it no longer expresses adequately the wishes and needs of the individuals within it.
After twenty-two years of Nationalist domination a whole generation of people in South Africa know no other rule and seem to resign themselves to its inevitability. But it need not be suffered as a fate. It can be changed. It must be changed, for it has long ceased to be ―it never was―the expression of the needs and wishes of the majority of people in the country. There is one force that can kill the fear which often threatens to paralyse us when we wish to bring the truth to light. "That force is the love which drives out fear".
For love is in the centre of Gandhi's teaching of ahimsa which is, in Milton's words, "the irresistible might of meekness". Literally ahimsa means "non-killing". Hence its usual translation as "non-violence" or "passive resistance", both of which terms were severely disliked by Gandhi. For it is not a negative but a positive force. And the power within it is love: "To one who follows this doctrine there is no room for an enemy.... But I go further. If we resent a friend's action, or a so-called enemy's action, we still fall short of this doctrine."
Then follows the very important qualification. "When I say, we should not resent, I do not say that we should acquiesce." In fact, Gandhi states that it means the opposite of acquiescence: he illustrates how a surgeon can wield his knife on the patient's body for the latter's benefit, cutting out disease in order to heal, practising, in the process, "the purest ahimsa". Likewise, ahimsa demands of us to rebel actively against all evil and not to rest before it has been destroyed: "Ahimsa is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. It does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. On the contrary, love requires you to resist the wrong-doer by dissociating yourself from him even though it may offend him or injure him physically."
This is the supreme message of Gandhi, as exemplified by his whole life and very specifically by his satyagraha in South Africa: there was nothing "passive" about his resistance and certainly no consideration for personal comfort or safety. His imprisonment and constant persecution prove this form of resistance, insisting that "Soul-Force is infinitely superior to body-force. If people, in order to secure redress of wrongs, resorted to Soul-Force, much of the present suffering would be avoided. There is no such thing as failure in the use of this kind of force. `Resist not evil' means that evil is not to be repelled by evil but by good."
Something achieved through violence, Gandhi rightly maintains, can be held only through violence. Something achieved through the highest activity of a mind bent on love and on doing good, on opposing evil by good, can be retained simply by remaining worthy of it.
It can be argued that Gandhi's adversaries, the British, with at least a token tradition of "doing the gentlemanly thing" might have been more susceptible to moral persuasion than the South African Government would be in similar circumstances; that Gandhi's satyagraha would have availed nothing against Hitler. It may also be argued that some situations become so inextricably bound up with violence that only violence can break the deadlock. What Gandhi indicated was that violence, in its gross oversimplifications, is always an insult to humanity ―to the man who has recourse to it as much as to the victim. And what he does make eminently clear is that, whatever road South Africa may choose in the future, whether that of violent revolution or of relatively peaceful change, there can be no victory over evil unless there is Soul-Force in the struggle, unless those of us committed to the fight against oppression and injustice are also morally superior to our adversaries.
If we evaluate, in the light of everything Gandhi represented, the situation in South Africa today and agree on the need for urgent and radical change, we should be reminded by his example that change involves more than the destruction of what exists, more than the replacement of one system by another; it is a process directed inward as much as outward, to the self as much as to the other. It involves, in the words of a poem dear to the Mahatma, a movement from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to Deathlessness. What we need is to change the country into a better place to live in, and ourselves into people more worthy of living in it.
From: Andre Brink, Writing in a State of Siege, New York, Summit Books, 1983.
Courtesy : http://www.anc.org.za/Official website of African National Congress. South Africa.