South Africa


Gandhi and Mandela: A tentative interpretation

Gandhi and Mandela: A tentative interpretation

Both Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were complex personalities, whose character could not be defined at any single moment in time, nor by any single utterance. They both changed a great deal at various points in their lives. They were both open to a range of influences, never being complacent or arrogant about their understandings and willing to change, if necessary.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

This contribution is adapted from a presentation to a panel hosted by the Consulate General of India, to honour the centenary of Nelson Mandela and in preparation for next year’s 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, at Constitutional Hill on 2 October 2018.

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi and Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela were very different types of persons in most respects. But it is too easy to dismiss a comparison by virtue of Mandela having taken up arms and Gandhi devoting his life to peace and incorporating his commitment to non-violence within his overall world view of satyagraha (roughly meaning “soul force”). We need to avoid essentialising the advancing of peace and war, in the case of both, because the course they followed, when they chose their strategies and tactics, were never unqualified.

Beyond that, there are certain key features of their lives that enable us to talk about common characteristics.

Both changed a great deal in their lives, undergoing many journeys and transitions, moving from one place to another but also becoming different people over time, either by the adaptations that changed physical conditions induced or necessitated or through being influenced to adopt new understandings.

Mandela changed a great deal, most significantly in his various phases of developing from his early life in Thembuland, described in Long Walk to Freedom, where he says he did not grow up with a hunger for freedom, for he believed he was already free, believing he had everything he wanted or conceived to represent freedom. On arriving on the Witwatersrand in 1941 and significantly, after meeting and becoming close to Walter Sisulu, he changed substantially, not through the influence of Sisulu alone but also the range of people with whom he developed contacts, in the law firm where Sisulu arranged for him to serve articles, and in politics.

As a maturing politician he underwent various transformations from the early years as possibly the most chauvinistic and aggressive nationalist in the ANC Youth League, through the 1950s where he became committed to non-racialism and, recent evidence appears to suggest, also communism. In the prison period, he served a sentence for advancing armed action but he emerged from jail with a different goal – to advance peace.

Mandela, like Gandhi had the sense of restlessness within himself and what he saw around him, that Gandhi refers to as “experiments with truth”. Mandela, like Gandhi, was not afraid to change, even if it meant becoming a different person.

Neither of these men were complacent and they remained open and continually grew in the breadth of their experiences and understandings. In Gandhi’s case he made no virtue of consistency and advised people to consider what he last said as what he truly believed at that time, what represented his understanding of truth at the time.

This is how we ought to understand Gandhi’s relationships with Africans in South Africa. Initially absorbing some of the discourse and attitudes of the colonial power, Gandhi evolved over time and in fact became close to those involved in the liberation struggle, welcoming the formation of the South Africa Native National Congress (SANNC), the forerunner of the ANC, and continuing contact with African and Indian leaders of the South African struggle after his return to India. Significantly, when the ANC was in the doldrums – at a national level– in the 1930s, a committee was formed to revive the organisation and one of its members went to India to consult with Gandhi. (Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa. 1970).

While there is no denying that the early Gandhi aligned himself with the British in many respects and made racist statements, it is ahistorical to treat those statements in isolation from Gandhi’s developing consciousness, where those attitudes were transformed and, as indicated, a high level of trust was developed between Gandhi and the ANC. (See E.S Reddy, Gandhi and Africans in South Africa, unpublished, 1993 and Gandhi and the formation of the African National Congress of South Africa, unpublished, undated).

Far from Gandhi’s inconsistency and Mandela’s changing ideological directions, being weaknesses we need to see this willingness to change as the mark of people with inquiring and open minds.

Both resisted oppression to the death. The most obvious point of similarity in both of their lives was that both Gandhi and Mandela resisted oppression unto death. Gandhi was assassinated, and Mandela indicated in the Rivonia Trial that he was, if necessary, ready to die.

They both understood and acted on the understanding of what they believed was right, irrespective of the personal consequences. It is important to understand in the times we live in, that the choices Mandela and Gandhi made were with full awareness of these consequences. They debated their choices, but they were very clear that it was not simply a case of disputation or arguing over theories and understandings and strategies and tactics. Both were men of action, with dire consequences, that did ensue.

They were never observers, but put their bodies in the line of fire. They consciously chose to become freedom fighters, though what that meant changed at various phases. Their leadership has to be judged by whether or not they apprehended the need to change correctly, that it was necessary and that their evaluations proved to have been correct, which is not the same as securing immediate victories. Not every evaluation made by either Gandhi or Mandela was proved correct, but we need to accept that these were made in good faith and with the cause of freedom (as each understood that at the time), in mind. This will be and has been contested by some.

In this regard, it is impossible to make in this space, an adequate assessment of the various ways in which Gandhi engaged South African and British authorities. There are multiple situations, and many are very controversial. That has been done by others with more than one conclusion. But we can note that Gandhi placed a lot of weight on the moral power of ethical action and sacrifice as a force leading to change and there is no doubt that in some situations it did lead to a cessation of hostilities and goals being realised. In other cases, it did not succeed. While Mandela did see his actions as guided by moral standards, they did not have the independent value that was accorded to these in Gandhi’s philosophy.

Mandela was aware that his actions in his life, especially his acts of defiance would be an example that others might choose to follow. He did not see this in the same sense of sacrifice as a moral force that had an independent value, for Gandhi, whether or not it would lead the oppressor to give in. He seemed to hope that his defiance might serve as patterns of behaviour that could inspire others to similar action.

Preparing for danger. We live in a time of betrayal, where people who were once brave have engaged in conduct that many see as turning their backs on what the freedom struggle entailed. Neither Gandhi nor Mandela assumed that they were automatically ready to undertake the tasks and sacrifices on which they embarked. Gandhi engaged in a range of processes of purification in order to prepare himself.

Both prepared for sacrifice, including death and this is found in Gandhi’s early references to oaths, later adopted for members after the formation of the Natal Indian Congress, and oaths figured again in those who joined in the bonfire of Indian identification documents in Newtown, Johannesburg in 1908, where Indians defied the authorities and burned the documents that they were supposed to carry.

This notion of an oath being used to bind one to action was later adopted by the ANC in the Defiance campaign of 1952 and by the soldiers of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). (On a binding oath in the Defiance Campaign in the Natal ANC, when Chief Albert Luthuli became its leader, see Mary Benson, South Africa. The Struggle for a Birthright. International Defence and aid fund. London 1985, 144-5)

In Gandhi’s case, oaths formed part of his upbringing, unlike Mandela. It was part of Hinduism and his family life. Oaths were also a very important way of ensuring that he stayed the course, that he carried out what he undertook. An early case related to his travelling to Britain to study to become a barrister. This filled his mother with apprehension because she feared that he would be among meat eaters. He took an oath to strengthen his resolve to honour his mother’s wish that he remain a vegetarian.

His later oaths related to political decisions and they were a way of preparing for adversity.

Gandhi believed furthermore that oaths and vows “could foster unity not only within the self but also be of use in the structures of the organisation”. (Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought. Exploring a Perspective on His Life and Work (Promilla Publishers and Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi and Chicago, 2007).

While taking the oath for the Defiance campaign and possibly for MK – though it was introduced formally at a later stage – Mandela nevertheless felt equally strongly on the need for preparation, with or without an oath, inwardly steeling himself. He says in Long Walk to Freedom that if you say you are prepared to die you must be ready to act on that statement and be sure that you are ready to act it out and not falter at the last moment.

Gandhi and Mandela and the use of imagery. Both placed weight on imagery to convey their message – Gandhi changed from barrister’s clothes to simple khadi (home spun cloth) and cap, communicating identification with the poor and downtrodden and antagonism to British imported cloth. (E. Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (London and Chicago, 1996); and Raymond Suttner Periodisation, Cultural Construction and Representation of ANC Masculinities through Dress, Gesture and Indian Nationalist Influence*, in Historia, May 2009, (

Mandela was identified with clothes, initially purely in the sense of fashion, as the smartly dressed lawyer who often featured in magazines of the time. But when he appeared in court for incitement, in the 1962 trial before the Rivonia trial he wore Thembu attire. In so doing he emphasised the alien character of the “white man’s court”, that he belonged to a conquered people, the Thembu, an identity that coexisted with his being an African nationalist and advocate of non-racialism.

Mandela was associated in his younger life with an aggressive image, as a boxer and that later created a specific type of political image, that conformed with becoming the first MK commander. That he was viewed as being able to fight signified imagery that prepared people for his later becoming a soldier. The fighting image of Mandela as a boxer coexisted with Mandela wearing a suit as a conventional lawyer. It also resonated with his militant image. Letsau Nelson Diale, recruited to the ANC while working as a waiter, read the newspapers. “The people I worked with said: ‘This young man is very clever.’ They asked me: ‘What’s in the Rand Daily Mail?’ I told them: ‘Mandela is coming to court.’ They said: ‘He will beat the hell out of the boers. He is going to beat them.’” (In Suttner “Periodisation, Cultural construction, cited above). Here we see this image directly translated in the minds of ordinary waiters into violent action against the apartheid regime (“the boers”).

When Mandela went to jail he was associated with militant and military imagery and also a level of aggression. This was not so much in what he wore because much of the time, in the last years before imprisonment he was not seen much in public, but because he was known as someone who was relatively impetuous and short tempered compared with his close comrades Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

When he emerged from prison, however, he had a different task, which he had largely carved out for himself, to ensure that the peace worked. He had in the course of his imprisonment come to see the possibility of finding a negotiated settlement to the apartheid conflict (at more or less the same time as the ANC leadership, outside, had reached similar conclusions and started to take steps to realise that).

This was not derived from a philosophy of non-violence like satyagraha. He was not as fervent an advocate and believer in the power of non-violence as Gandhi, but they shared a belief that violence was not good for human relations and to secure peace became the primary effort of the post-prison Mandela. It was also reflected in the imagery surrounding Mandela after his release, this avuncular man, waving and smiling, reassuringly and how he entered together with those dancing the toyi toyi, with a gentle shuffle, contrasted with the aggressive, militaristic origins of the dance.

Violence and non- violence in Mandela and Gandhi. While the taking up of arms by Mandela, did not mean that he stood as the opposite of peace-loving Gandhi, Gandhi’s non-violence was also not without limits. Thus in 1947 Gandhi wrote:

“… The violence we see today is the violence of cowards. There is also such a thing as the violence of the brave. If four or five men enter into a fight and die by the sword, there is a violence in it but it is the violence of the brave. But when ten thousand armed men attack a village of unarmed people and slaughter them along with their wives and children it is the violence of cowards. America unleashed its atom bomb over Japan. That was the violence of the cowards. The non- violence of the brave is a thing worth seeing. I want to see that non-violence before I die.” (G. Gandhi, ed., The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), 649. See also M.V. Nadkarni. Ethics for our times. Essays in Gandhian perspective, OUP, 2011 pp 41ff regarding Gandhi’s non-violence not being unqualified.)

Non-sectarianism. Both Gandhi and Mandela were non-sectarian, being open to a range of influences. This was not always the case in Mandela, when he was young and used to break up meetings of the Indian Congress and Communists, but paradoxically, at the same time some of his closest friends were non-Africans and also Communists whom he admired from his work in a law firm and also from the role of the Communists in the strike of African miners.

Over time both were influenced by a range of doctrines, in the case of Mandela, non-racialism and Marxism, and he was always willing to listen to other standpoints, as is evident from his years of engagement with members of other political organisation in prison.

In the case of Gandhi, he was remarkable in his openness to Christianity and also to the influence of people like John Ruskin (whose writings, he says, changed his life, notably towards asceticism) and Tolstoy and Thoreau. In many cases he had long correspondence with these people and with Christian thinkers. In his Johannesburg office he had a photograph of Christ hanging on the wall.

Complexity. One cannot interpret individuals as complex as Mandela and Gandhi without adequate contextualisation of every statement and action they took. Even then, it requires a great deal of work to adequately capture what their lives embodied. That is a task that has already taken the time of many great scholars and political actors. But it is by no means complete. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s Prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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