A Gandhi image, in White and Black

Posted on: February 5, 2018

Sonia Sarkar travels to South Africa, the land where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came into his own, and stumbles upon an unpleasant reality.

” You gave us Mohandas Gandhi, we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi” – Nelson Mandela

When Durban resident Thabi Myeni was nine, she learnt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a peace-loving freedom fighter and one of South Africa’s struggle icons. Says Myeni, a student of KwaZulu-Natal University, “That Gandhi was anti-Black, I discovered only now.” Since the discovery, the 20-year-old’s list of national heroes – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Teboho “Tsietsi” MacDonald Mashinini – has grown shorter by a name.

As an Indian visiting South Africa, one would like to believe that Gandhi is widely celebrated here. In recent times, the Indian government has also enforced that narrative.

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the train from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg, the same one that the young Gandhi was thrown out of in 1893. He also launched a permanent exhibition showcasing the lives of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at the Old Fort in Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, former prison complex and currently seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Last year, minister of state for defence, V.K. Singh, inaugurated a Gandhi museum in Durban.

But interactions with locals reveal a growing resentment against Gandhi. In 2015, Gandhi’s statue at Johannesburg was painted white by a man who was part of the larger campaign against Gandhi. Protesters demonstrated with placards reading “Racist Gandhi must fall”. Around that time the hashtag #Ghandimustfall took Twitter by storm. (Ghandi is a popular way of spelling Gandhi in South Africa.)

In 2012, the African grassroots organisation, Mazibuye African Forum, rejected the suggestion that Gandhi should be respected as an anti-colonial figure in South Africa’s history. And even before that, in 2007, several thousand copies of US-based Indian academic Velu Annamalai’s Gandhi: A Stooge of the White South African Government, which depicts Gandhi’s proximity to the Whites, were circulated in Durban.

Many believe that fuelling the Gandhi hatred further was the 2015 book, The South African Gandhi. Written by South Africa-based professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, one of the points the book makes is that Gandhi’s South African avatar was an Empire loyalist. The writers dwell on how Gandhi regarded the Boer-Brit war (1899-1902) as an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the Empire.

The other grouse – and perhaps a bigger one – against Gandhi is voiced by Vahed. He says, “While he was in South Africa, his concern was solely with the Indian minority.”

Indeed, historically, there is no evidence to show that Gandhi had any links with Black leaders of South Africa such as Solomon Plaatje, John Langalibalele Dube and John Tengo Jabavu or their fight against racism.

Founder of the revolutionary socialist party, Black First Land First, Andile Mngxitama says present-day Blacks regard “Ghandi” as a tool of colonialism. “He is no hero of ours,” says Mngxitama. “He supported more taxes on the impoverished African people and turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Empire on Africans,” he adds.

Lawyer Princewill Ubani, who runs a blog called Facts About Africa, is well acquainted with Gandhi’s racial speeches. He tells The Telegraph, how at a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi stated that the Europeans in Natal wished to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir“, whose occupation was hunting and whose sole ambition “to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

Says Ubani, “He [Gandhi] used the racial slur ‘ kaffir‘ repeatedly to refer to native Blacks. That’s the equivalent of a White calling an African-American ‘nigger’ in the US.”

When Ubani posted Gandhi’s racist comments on Twitter in 2015, comments poured in from fellow South Africans. One wrote, “I wish he was alive so I could shoot him again.” Another person commented, “This is why I’m always complaining about other Indians not caring about Black rights.”

In 1893, at the request of a wealthy Gujarati merchant, the 24-year-old barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, arrived in South Africa to resolve a commercial dispute with a family member. Eventually, he started raising concerns of the Indians who lived there – mostly indentured labourers, passenger migrants, traders, moneylenders and petty shopkeepers.

One of the main concerns of Indians was the bill that sought to disenfranchise them – the Natives Legislative Assembly Bill of 1894. In their petitions against it, the Indians, with Gandhi as their spokesman, complained that it would “rank the Indian lower than the rawest Native”.

In the paper “Gandhi and the Black People of South Africa”, James D. Hunt writes: “When his civil disobedience began Indians were jailed with the Natives, and Gandhi led protests over being given the Native diet and about having to share cells with them.”

Ela Gandhi is the granddaughter of the Mahatma and the caretaker of the Gandhi museum at Durban’s Phoenix settlement, which is also considered the birthplace of Satyagraha. When asked about Gandhi’s discriminatory ways, she says, “His views were a result of his lack of contact with the African people in the early years of his stay in South Africa. His later experiences made him understand things differently and his views changed.”

Adds Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, “Gandhi was not born a Mahatma. He was born an ordinary person but had the innate desire to become a better person. As a young barrister he was full of arrogance and British culture.”

Gandhi might be a much debated, even disliked figure in present-day South Africa, but loved or hated, he has always been part of the popular discourse of the country.

“Many of those fighting apartheid did take lessons from Gandhi. His philosophy remains embedded in the culture of South Africa as it does globally,” says Sello Hatang, the CEO of Nelson Mandela Foundation, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation. Mandela himself was inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence.

The small and big Gandhi memorials all over South Africa are proof of the embeddedness Hatang talks about. Johannesburg’s central business district, where Gandhi appeared at the courthouse, is called Gandhi Square. There is a Gandhi Memorial in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg to commemorate the protests by the Indian community in 1908, when the anti-Asian Black Act came into existence. There is also a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital in Durban.

A lot of these memorials came up during the Mandela years, when the idea of a multicultural or Rainbow nation was still popular. “But that Rainbow faded as economic problems and race tensions surfaced,” says Vahed.

Other social scientists also point out that the tension between Indians and native South Africans is not new. There are reasons enough for this. During the apartheid era (1948-1991), Indians managed to build their own institutions of education and trade networks, while the Blacks enjoyed minimum rights. Even after apartheid ended, a significant portion of Indians was well placed to take up new opportunities – economic and political – but a large section of Blacks was still doing menial jobs. This animosity has only intensified over the years.

Blacks believe that like Gandhi, Indians are also influenced by colonial conditioning. Last July, South African revolutionary socialist political party Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, said the success of Indian businesses in KwaZulu Natal was based on their strategies of exploitation and monopolisation of the economy. Educated unemployed Blacks believe Indians are being given preference for jobs and government tenders. Many young Blacks have, in fact, resorted to violence to press forth their demands.

In this climate, it has become easier to project a racial hostility stemming from political, social and economic inequalities onto a representative figure. Hence, the altered reading of Gandhi. Says Hatang, “Gandhi and his statues have become sights of contention over the hierarchy of inequality that apartheid sowed and its continued manifestations in democratic South Africa.”

In “Gandhi And The Black People Of South Africa”, Hunt puts things in perspective. He speaks of the general tendency to wish that heroes would have been consistently heroic throughout their lives. And then drawing attention to the reality of Gandhi, he writes, “Gandhi began as a perfectly ordinary intelligent lawyer trying to establish a career. In time he transformed himself into something else. It is that transformation which should interest us.”




2 Responses to "A Gandhi image, in White and Black"

Interesting, Sonia! And I live here. I have decided to ignore people’s strong views. Malema, for the best part, is rather lacking knowledge and at worst, purely politically-motivated. Politicians are not good people, as a general rule. The other Andile guy, as I gathered, is a corrupt puppet of the Guptas. Not knowing politics too much makes me less stressed, less angry, happier, and more at peace with my world. ☺

Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.

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  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
  • Anne J.: Interesting, Sonia! And I live here. I have decided to ignore people's strong views. Malema, for the best part, is rather lacking knowledge and at wor
  • ranginee: Learning cannot be forced or hammered. We only learn what we want to. So such attempts to brain-wash might not give the desired effect or might have a
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