ARTICLES > GANDHI AND SOUTH AFRICA > Mahatma Gandhi, South Africa and Satyagraha
Mahatma Gandhi, South Africa and Satyagraha
By E. S. Reddy1
E.S. [Enuga Sreenivasulu] Reddy, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, was director of the Centre against Apartheid for many years. Since his retirement from the United Nations, he has devoted much of his time to research and writing on the international impact of Mahatma Gandhi and to promote access to writings by and on Mahatma Gandhi. He has collected a number of unpublished letters and writings of Mahatma Gandhi in archives in the United States, South Africa and Denmark, and donated them to the Gandhi archives at Sabarmati and other institutions. He has helped to computerise and revise the extensive index to Gandhi archives at Sabarmati. He has advised and assisted several websites on Gandhi in India and abroad, and the website of the African National Congress of South Africa. He has written extensively on the history of the freedom struggle in South Africa and on Mahatma Gandhi. His articles on Gandhi and South Africa were published in 1995 under the title Gandhiji: Vision of a Free South Africa. He edited Gandhi and South Africa, 1914-1948 with Gopalkrishna Gandhi; The Mahatma and the Poetess (correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu) with Ms. Mrinalini Sarabhai; Gandhi: Letters to Americans; Friends of Gandhi: Correspondence of Mahatma Gandhi with Esther Faering (Menon), Anne Marie Petersen and Ellen Horup (with Holger Terp) and other books. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durban-Westville and Padma Sri by the Indian government in recognition of his contribution to the struggle for freedom in South Africa and his scholarly work.
A century ago, on 10 January 1908, M. K. Gandhi, an attorney with a lucrative practice in Johannesburg, appeared before the magistrate’s court for defying an anti- Asiatic law and disobeying an order to leave the Transvaal within 48 hours. He asked for the heaviest penalty – six months’ imprisonment with hard labour – for organising defiance of this “Black Act” by the Indian community. The magistrate, however, sentenced him to two months simple imprisonment.
Gandhi gladly went to prison to enjoy “free hospitality” at “His Majesty’s hotel”, as did 150 other resisters.
That was the first of many imprisonments of Gandhi and the first non-violent challenge to racist rule in South Africa.
Discovery of Satyagraha
Gandhi had arrived in South Africa in May 1893. A 23-year-old barrister with an unsuccessful career in India, he had accepted aone-year assignment, with a modest salary, to assist the lawyer of an Indian merchant in Natal, hoping to find better prospects in the new land.
Travelling to Pretoria soon after his arrival in Durban, he was thrown off a train, assaulted by a coachman and denied a hotel room in Johannesburg - all because of his colour. These assaults on his dignity, and the knowledge of the humiliations faced by Indians, did not dishearten him but brought out the best in his personality – a strong sense of duty and an urge to serve humanity. He decided to dedicate himself to public service and settled in South Africa.
t that time, there were a little over 50,000 Indians in Natal. Of these, one-third were “indentured labourers” in plantations, mines and railways who had been brought on five-year contracts with the promise of land and rights at the end of indenture. About 30,000 were “free Indians” those who had completed indenture and their children and 5,000 belonged to the trading community.
The Indians contributed greatly to the development of Natal. But around the time of Gandhi’s arrival, the white authorities began to impose measures to deprive Indians of elementary rights. They felt that the existence of “free Indians” would undermine white hegemony. They removed the voting rights of a few Indians who had qualified.
They began to refuse trading licenses to Indians. They imposed a three-pound tax on all “free Indians” to force them to re-indenture or return to India. The position of the 12,000 Indians in the Transvaal was even worse.
Gandhi helped establish the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal British Indian Association to make representations to the authorities. He encouraged the youth to participate in public work and provided free legal services to indentured labourers.
He prepared many petitions and memoranda to the local authorities and to the British Government, and wrote numerous letters to the press in defence of Indian rights. On visits to India, he met many public leaders and editors and secured their support. He maintained frequent correspondence with Dadabhai Naoroji and Sir Muncherji Merwanjee Bhownaggree, Indian members of British Parliament, to enable them to intervene with the government and influence British public opinion.
He spent much of his income for public service. He launched a weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion, not only for the Indian community, but to inform the whites in South Africa, as well as people in India and Britain, of the plight of Indians and secure their understanding and support. He set up a settlement at Phoenix, a place for simple communal living, and developed his philosophy based on truth, love and non- violence.
He led an ambulance corps of more than a thousand Natal Indians in 1899-1900, at the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War to show that the Indians were prepared to fulfil the responsibilities of citizenship. In 1906, during the Zulu rebellion in Natal, he organised a stretcher-bearer corps, though his sympathies were with the Zulus. The Zulus had rebelled against a poll tax. When some violence occurred, the whites launched a manhunt, rounded up “suspects” and brutally flogged them. Fortunately, the corps was requested to treat the Zulus. Gandhi said later: “I shall never forget the lacerated backs of Zulus who had received stripes and were brought to us for nursing because no white nurse was prepared to look after them”. This experience reinforced Gandhi’s faith in non-violent resistance.
Soon after the corps disbanded, the Transvaal authorities gazetted an Ordinance requiring all Indians to register with ten finger prints, and to show the registration certificates whenever demanded by the police. Gandhi saw the ordinance as full of hatred against the Indian community and an affront to the honour of India. He decided to defy the law.
At a large public meeting on 11 September 1906, attended by three thousand Indians, Gandhi warned that they should be prepared for the worst if they defied the law. The Indians considered the law so humiliating that they chose to suffer rather than submit, and took a vow “in the name of God” not to register.
When appeals to the authorities and to the British government failed, Gandhi and other Indians began to picket registration offices and court imprisonment.
When a European friend suggested that Indians were pursuing “passive resistance”, the weapon of the weak, Gandhi rushed to reject that term. He called the movement an expression of “soul force”. Through Indian Opinion, he invited suggestions for a term to describe the movement and in November 1907 decided on “satyagraha”, meaning determined opposition in a right cause.
Thus began a new phase in the life of Gandhi to which the years of petitions and appeals were a preparation. He developed the philosophy of satyagraha - fearless defiance of unjust laws, with a willingness to suffer and adherence to non-violence in thought and deed. A civilised and humane form of resistance to injustice, it seeks to convert the adversary and looks forward to reconciliation.
Struggle and Sacrifice
Over two thousand people defied the “Black Act” in the Transvaal and went to prison, some of them repeatedly, despite increasingly severe sentences, harsh prison conditions, confiscation of property and deportations.
The satyagraha was suspended in 1911, after the formation of the Union of South Africa, in the hope of a negotiated settlement, but the talks failed. Moreover, the Cape Supreme Court ruled that all marriages not performed according to Christian rites - that is, most Indian marriages - were invalid. That made the children illegitimate and deprived them of inheritance. The Union Government ignored appeals for remedial action. Meanwhile, the authorities in Natal began to prosecute, in criminal trials, Indians who could not pay the exorbitant annual tax of three pounds each.
Satyagraha was resumed in September 1913 in both Natal and the Transvaal, and this time women were invited to join. A number of women courted imprisonment, some with infants. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, was in the first batch of resisters and her health was shattered in prison. The resisters included men and women of all faiths, rich and poor, speaking several languages. None flinched at the increasing severity of repression. A few Europeans like Henry Polak and Hermann Kallenbach identified themselves with the Indian cause and went to prison.
Exhorted by the women satyagrahis, the Indian workers in the mines went on strike.
Gandhi led the great march of 2,200 workers and their families from Newcastle to the Transvaal border – a distance of over 40 miles - and was jailed. There was then a spontaneous strike by 40,000 workers – in plantations, mines and municipalities - the biggest general strike that the country had ever seen. The government called in the army and responded with brutality. Mine compounds were turned into prisons. Ten thousand workers were jailed.
Gandhi inspired the community by his example. He was sentenced to prison four times, served more than seven months in prison, and suffered hard labour and solitary confinement. He was paraded through Johannesburg in prison garb. He gave up his lucrative legal practice and adopted celibacy to devote all his energies to service. In turn Gandhi was inspired by the courage and sacrifice of women and the steadfastness of the workers. He said of the workers:
“These men and women are the salt of India; on them will be built the Indian nation that is to be.”
The government was obliged in the face of the determination of the Indian community, backed by national agitation in India and pressure from Britain, to sign an agreement with Gandhi, conceding all the main demands of the satyagraha.
Gandhi presented the Minister of the Interior, General J.C. Smuts, with a pair of sandals he made in prison. General Smuts wore them for many years “even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”.
Africans Inspired by Gandhi
Gandhi then left for India on 18 July 1914, where he was to lead millions of people in an epic struggle for independence.
The success of the satyagraha in South Africa and of the independence struggle in India was a source of inspiration to peace movements, to Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates in the movement against racism in the United States and to non-violent revolutions for freedom in Africa and for the overthrow of corrupt dictators around the world.
In South Africa, Gandhians and Communists united, under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Dr. G.M. Naicker, to launch passive resistance in 1946 against legislation to restrict Indian land ownership (the “Ghetto Act”). Gandhi guided them until he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. The Indian Government complained to the United Nations, making the struggle a matter of international concern. Over two thousand people went to prison, including some Africans, whites and Coloured people who joined the resisters in solidarity.
While the resistance did not succeed in securing the repeal of the “Ghetto Act”, it inspired Nelson Mandela and other young leaders in the African community to organize mass action against racist rule. Children of Gandhi’s adversaries – Bram Fischer and Patrick Duncan – joined the struggle and suffered persecution.
In 1952, the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress launched the “Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign” in which more than 8,000 people of all racial origins went to prison. The government was able to provoke some violence and enacted new legislation providing for the whipping of resisters.
When the government closed all avenues of peaceful protest, banned the people’s organizations, and restricted all their leaders, Mandela and others decided that they could no longer limit the struggle to strict non-violence. They formed a multi-racial underground organisation to conduct sabotage and other actions while taking care to avoid loss of innocent lives.
The government resorted to indiscriminate arrests, torture and long terms of imprisonment to suppress the movement. But the urge for freedom could not be extinguished. It burst forth in the 1980s in a mass democratic movement, a fearless non-violent confrontation with the rulers which made several racist laws inoperative. This movement and international pressure forced the white rulers to release Mandela and other prisoners and negotiate a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
Nelson Mandela on the Relevance of Gandhi
The world marvelled when Mandela and his colleagues eschewed any spirit of revenge and achieved the “miracle” of national reconciliation as they proceeded to establish a non-racial democratic government in May 1994.
Mandela, who had become the symbol of resistance even while incarcerated for more than 27 years, said in the 1990s: “The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity for which he (Gandhi) stood and acted had a profound influence on our own liberation movement, and on my own thinking”. Gandhian philosophy, he said, had enabled them to mobilise millions of people in the defiance campaign. It “contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid.” It continued to inspire South Africans in their efforts for reconciliation and nation-building.
The present President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, elaborated in Phoenix on 27 February 2000:
“For our present fight against poverty, against homelessness, our struggle for the sustainable development of all our people, in our efforts to overcome the inequalities of apartheid and colonialism, in all our battles, the legacy of Gandhi lives on and has become rooted in the heartbeats of our people.”
World-wide Interest in Gandhi
Interest in Gandhi spread widely in the West in the 1950s with the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States and the protests against nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam. It has increased with the passage of time and spread to all continents as ethnic and other conflicts, corrupt dictatorships protected by major powers, international terrorism and fear generated by the amassing of arms made people search for a saner alternative.
The interest in satyagraha led to the study of the views of Gandhi on other aspects of life and encouraged movements for simple life, deep ecology, animal rights and respect for all religions.
Illustrative of the influence of Gandhi are numerous scholarly studies on his life and thought published each year. The number of websites on Gandhi and the content of those websites have greatly increased in the past decade, and the number of those looking at those websites has increased even more. Search engines for news report that Mahatma Gandhi is in newspapers around the world every day. I have been receiving numerous requests from students in universities and high schools, and even primary schools, especially in the United States for information on Mahatma Gandhi.
Sixty years after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a fanatic, the thought of Mahatma Gandhi not only lives on but has caught the imagination of people all over the world. They feel, as Mandela stressed in his message to the international conference on the centenary of satyagraha in New Delhi in February 2007:
“In a world driven by violence and force, Gandhi’s message of peace and non- violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.”