The Making of a Social Reformer
[ Gandhi In South Africa, 1893-1914 ]


A 2.5 meter high bronze of a statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi was unveiled on October 2, 2003, in Johannesburg. Gandhi is depicted as a dashing, young, human rights lawyer. That there should be twenty-four hour security to protect the statue from vandalism, suggests that his legacy in South Africa is not free from controversy. Nhlanhla Hlangwane, writing in THIS DAY, said that Gandhi had barely noticed the African people during his twenty-one years in South Africa. They were mostly invisible and deemed beneath him. “For him, Black people were the ‘untouchables’ of this land.” Hlangwane quoted Gandhi who had said in a speech in Bombay, September 26, 1896, “Ours is a continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”1 Hlangwane’s article sparked fierce debate about Gandhi’s South African contribution and legacy. Some letters to newspapers insisted that Gandhi displayed no love for Africans; others even argued that he hated Africans. A few said that he was hypocritical in ignoring the suffering of Africans at the hands of the colonial rulers while championing the cause of Indians. One writer pointed to the picture of distaste painted by Gandhi at having to share a prison cell with Africans, some of whom he had described as “only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves.” On the other hand, Khulekani Ntshangase, a spokesperson for the African National Congress Youth League, defended Gandhi by saying that his critics had missed the larger picture of his contribution to the liberation struggle.
This debate constitutes a small part of the way in which the recent past is contested by South Africans. It also reflects present-day concerns about the attitudes of Indians towards Africans in a democratic South Africa. For example, in 2002, playwright Mbongeni Ngema, well known for his roles in Sarafina, Woza Albert, and Asinamali, produced the following song in a record album entitled AJive Madlokovu. The song “AAma-Ndiya” stirred strong feelings about the seeming inability of Indians to accept Africans as equals. The translation, as provided in Post, May 24-26, 2002, read:

Oh brothers,
Oh, my fellow brothers,
We need strong and brave men
to face the Indians.
This situation is very difficult,
Indians do not want to change
Whites were far better than Indians
Even Mandela has failed to convince them to change,
Whites were far better than Indians.
Even you people in power
Don’t want to intervene in the situation.
They bribed you with roti [unleavened bread] and paku [beetlenut]
They don’t vote when we vote
but they are full in Parliament.
What do you say, Chief of Tellers when you see people of the Zulu nation?
They are in shacks.
Where is S’bu Ndebele?
Where is Gideon Zulu?
Dabla Manzi, get up from your grave!
Indians have conquered Durban.
We are poor because all things have been taken by the Indians.
They are oppressing us.
Mkhize wants to open a business in West Street,
Indians say there is no place to open a business.
Our people are busy buying from Indian shops.
What do you say, Thabo Mbeki?
Indians are playing with us!
What do you say fellow brothers?
They are speaking fanagalo now saying,
Athenga lapha duze kamina yena shibile. [Buy from me, I am cheap]
They don't want to support a single black shop.
Indians keep coming from India.
The airport is full of Indians.
They come here to open their business.
Oh brothers,
Oh my fellow brothers.

Ngema’s song is really not about Indians being entrenched in national politics. There are six Indians on the ANC National Executive Committee. Two hold ministerial portfolios, Asmal Kader in Education and Moosa Vally Moosa in Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Aziz Pahad is a deputy minister in Foreign Affairs. In Parliament, there are twenty-four Indians out of a total of 442, twenty-one of whom belong to the ANC and three to the Democratic Party. The song is mainly about those aspiring African classes who feel they are being elbowed out by Indian businessmen in retail trade even as they service a predominantly African clientele. It is a historical grievance, and one that has some validity. This issue came up most forcefully at the hearings after the Durban riots in 1949. Indeed, it goes back to the 1890s, and continues in post-apartheid South Africa as White businesspersons in CBDs increasingly drift to suburban malls, and their place is taken by Indians who have always struggled against unfair White business competition.
In the public debate that followed the song in newspaper articles and radio talk-in shows, some Africans and Indians agreed but many were appalled by the inflammatory tone of the song. They felt that it perpetuated the myth that Indians had bribed their way into positions of trade advantage, and that their influence was so pervasive that even Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were unwilling to speak out against them. The reference to roti and paku is intended to conjure unfavorable ethnic association. The call on the ancestors to arms was alarming to many who remembered the 1949 riots. The reference to the use of fanagalo, a system of communication from Natal’s colonial days, and still widely used, implied that Indians were essentially outsiders who were unwilling to embrace Africans as their equals, but instead continued to exploit them.
How can we place the charges of racism against Gandhi, and the sharp ill-feelings reflected in the unveiling of Gandhi’s statue and Ngema’s song in their proper historical context? Several studies have argued that there was strong racial antagonism between Africans and Indians in the 1930s and 1940s as the two groups increasingly gravitated towards cities like Durban, a process that started in the 1890s. They competed for jobs in the manufacturing sector, and for scarce resources in the informal settlements that mushroomed in the outlying parts of the city. Bill Freund, for example, showed in his study that the fear of African competition persisted among Indian workers in spite of their industrial militancy and non-racial rhetoric.2 Africans resented the perceived favored status of Indians. They disliked Indians monopolizing the retail sector, from which their own aspiring entrepreneurs were kept out. They believed that Indians deliberately maintained a social distance from them, and abused and exploited them. All of these reasons were articulated after the 1949 race riots in Durban that took the lives of 148 people. Iain Edwards has shown in his study that Africans regarded the conflict as war against Indians.3 The relationship between Indians and Africans has been problematical since then. Even if the Indian and African congresses proclaimed inter-racial unity between the two groups in the 1950s and beyond, tensions have remained. Apartheid capitalized on these feelings, and in fact used them to demonize the consequences of African majority rule in Indian minds. Such fears continue to find fertile ground among Indians well into the 1990s and beyond.4
Our study revisits the early years from the 1880s when the process of ethnic and racial identification began to take shape. Labels mislead, and we argue that South Africans must come to terms with their historical past in order to build a true non-racial country. Those who seek to appropriate Gandhi for political ends in post-apartheid South Africa do not help their cause much by ignoring certain facts about Gandhi; and those who simply call him a racist are equally guilty of distortion. In the 1890s when Gandhi was in his twenties, he thought of Africans as being different and inferior. He shared much of the prejudices against Africans prevalent at the time. His views matured in the 1900s. While he still thought of them as being on a different plane, this has to be placed in the context of his maturing ideas generally. He became absorbed in assessing the value of modern industrialization with its deleterious consequences on the human spirit. By 1910 his views, as articulated in Hind Swaraj (1909), were that modern civilization was on the wrong track primarily because it privileged materialism over spirituality. He believed that the simple life of farming was the best way to counteract the evils of rampant materialism. He linked this with his holistic view about the individual’s well being. Individuals, who took charge of their physical well being, were best suited to combat industrialism’s inherent alienation. Those who achieved self-control deserved to be politically free.
To be sure, much of what he was saying connected South Africa to British rule in India. For Gandhi, the nature of Indian society was forever at the center of his thinking. Although he spent over two decades in South Africa, his gaze was always on India. But as he developed these thoughts, he began to see the value of African society. He believed that Africans possessed a truer perception of life because they were a rural people engaged in living off the land. On Tolstoy Farm, he and Kallenbach wanted to be just in their treatment of “native John” to whom they had leased a parcel of land.5 Indian Opinion increasingly wrote about things Africans from 1910. But Gandhi probably missed the fact that there were growing numbers of Africans who were becoming dislodged from their traditional, rural moorings as a consequence of the colonial state’s destruction of their economies. Africans and African life remained mainly hidden to him. He made no effort to get to know Africans. Indeed, his autobiography, Satyagraha in South Africa which was published as a book in 1928, fails to mention a single African leader by name.
In promoting “Indianness” to unite Indians in South Africa with their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, he did not see South Africa as unique and distinct but as part of British India. His vision connected South Africa’s Indians with those in India. For all that, however, he believed that the rights of Africans should not be ignored. As he told Joseph J. Doke, his first biographer, Africans deserved a voice in their own affairs. Gandhi feared there would be collision between White ascendancy and African aspirations. When this happened, he hoped that Africans would resort to passive resistance. "When the moment of collision comes, if, instead of the old ways of massacre, assegai, and fire, the natives adopt a policy of passive resistance, it will be a great change for the colony." The solution was to give Africans a voice directly or indirectly in their affairs. He wanted Africans to have voting rights when they were "fit to exercise the vote," that is, "when the native people had risen sufficiently high in the scale of civilization to give up savage warfare and use the Christian method of settling a dispute …." If Africans adopted passive resistance, there need be no fear of the "horror of a racial uprising."6
Gandhi promoted Indianness as a matter of strategy. It was to him the best way to make a case for Indian rights. White rule, however, found it convenient to treat Indians as if they were an undifferentiated mass, and in time, Indians would think of themselves as one, different from the Africans. The root causes of racism in South Africa in the 1890s and 1900s must be found in the institutions White supremacy created. As we show in chapter two, political economy played a significant role in creating racial divisions. Gandhi did not create divisions, but he shared in them, and did not warn Indians against participating in the divisive state structures.
Gandhi’s focus on Indianness did not allow him to think of Africans as potential political allies. If he included the Chinese, it was because he saw some parallels between them and Indians. Maureen Swan’s Gandhi: The South African Experience (1985) seeks to debunk the myth of Gandhi’s centrality in the politics of the two decades from 1890. She has a point, and her work highlights groups other than Gandhi that played a role in these decades. But her lens is too narrow in fully grasping Gandhi’s role in the politics of South Africa’s Indians. He stressed that Indians must move away from caste thinking, and in his views about how Hindus and Muslims should relate to one another (again as part of his vision of an independent India), he came up with interfaith harmony that is unique. This book stresses how Gandhi negotiated the narrowness he found among Indians who were absorbed with cultural and religious issues, and in this we see his reforming spirit even if he was not free from racial prejudices against Africans.

  1. CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 410.
  2. Bill Freund, Insiders and Outsiders: The Indian Working Class of Durban, 1910-1990, Portsmouth, NH: Heineman, 1995.
  3. Iain Edwards, AMkhumnane, Our Home: African Shantytown in Cato Manor Farm, 1946-1960, Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Natal, 1989.
  4. Surendra Bhana, Gandhi's Legacy: The Natal Indian Congress, 1894-1994, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1997, p.44.
  5. See Gandhi’s correspondence with Hermann Kallenbach in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 36, Supplementary Volume 6, pp. 63-64, 72-73, 74, 76.
  6. Joseph J. Doke, Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa, (originally published in 1909), reprinted in New Delhi, 1994, pp.103-04.