Between 1893 and 1914, Gandhi mainly lived in Durban and Johannesburg, although he did make comparatively short visits to India and London. During these 21 years, he developed political ideas which were to impact not only on South Africa, but also, later on, on India and the rest of the world.
Mandela died nearly 100 years after Gandhi left, and whilst Madiba’s legacy has been widely discussed, Mahatma’s South African sojourn, has, for the most part, been overlooked. Of course, there is the statue in Gandhi Square and the marvellous Satyagraha House near Norwood, but until recently, you would be hard-pressed to find much about his stay in South Africa.
This neglect has, however, now been addressed with the publication of Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial biography Gandhi before India. He has researched archives in four continents; it is fortunate that a historian of Guha’s stature has pieced them together, and he has provided us with a detailed, and fascinating account.
There are many unusual characters that Gandhi befriended in South Africa and he would not have survived without them; they have been dragged out of obscurity, highlighting the fact that progressive thought in South Africa has a long and proud history which has unfortunately, for the most part, been overlooked. We forget them at our peril because the fight against racial discrimination has been long and has included many, from varied social, ethnic and religious backgrounds, who could add to the nation’s sense of well-being. We need to remember them all.
Gandhi’s dealings with the British imperial authorities are at the crux of the book, and it is in this regard that he developed a political philosophy that would have such far-reaching consequences.
In 1914, Lord Herbert Gladstone, Governor-General of South Africa, seemed to be aware that Gandhi’s ideas might get the upper hand. He wrote: “It is no easy task for the European mind to conduct negotiations with Mr Gandhi. The workings of his conscience are inscrutable to the occidental mind and produce complications in wholly unexpected places. His ethical and intellectual attitude, based as it appears on a curious compound of mysticism and astuteness, baffles the ordinary processes of thought.”
Gladstone found Gandhi’s strategy of passive resistance difficult to deal with. The following incident, which really is the genesis of the idea in action, reverberated long after it occurred in January 1908, a decade before Mandela was born:
Gandhi had pleaded guilty to the charge of disobeying the order to leave the Transvaal in 48 hours, in protest to the Asiatic Act, which imposed registration on Indians. He knew that his cause would be strengthened if he went to prison and demanded the “heaviest penalty” under the law. The judge refused to comply, sentencing him to two months without the hard labour that Gandhi had requested. He was sent to Fort Prison.
Many more passive Indian resisters in the next few days also poured into the prison, having been sentenced, and the warders had to erect tents in the yard, whilst Indian stores closed in honour of Gandhi.
The government soon recognised that the situation was spiralling out of control. General Smuts wrote that to “take 10,000 men by the collar” and put them in prison was “not only physically but morally impossible”. As a result, Gandhi was soon released along with his fellow prisoners, and was taken to meet Smuts in Pretoria. He then tried to reach a compromise by offering voluntary registration on the basis that the Asiatic Act would be repealed.
Militant Pathans were enraged by Gandhi’s willingness to compromise and on his way to voluntary registration he was badly beaten up by them. He was fortunate enough, however, to be rescued and was nursed back to health by a family of British Baptists. Gandhi was extremely lucky not to have been killed and the incident revealed just how dangerous and complex, the game of passive resistance was to play.
In November 1907, Gandhi said that passive resistance “may well be adopted by every oppressed individual, as being a more reliable and more honourable instrument for securing the redress of wrongs than any which has heretofore been adopted.” And on the eve of his departure from South Africa he described “satyagraha” (passive resistance) as “perhaps the mightiest instrument on earth.”
Now assuming that Gandhi is miraculously resurrected and actually returns to Johannesburg on July 18th 2014, how would he react to the various challenges that South Africa faces? Would he feel that passive resistance is still relevant in post-Apartheid South Africa?
In the wake of Marikana, Gandhi would, I believe, inevitably think that passive resistance is not an obsolete tool and should be sharpened to confront government.
Gandhi would recall that in 1913 a number of striking sugar cane workers were shot dead by the police and others were seriously injured. The police claimed that they were acting in self-defence, although it was evident that, as at Marikana, this was an exaggeration. Smuts ordered mass arrests which included Gandhi and other anti-government leaders.
And what about e-tolls? Wouldn’t Gandhi endorse a strategy of non-registration and non-payment?
Gandhi would certainly be perplexed, although not surprised, by South Africans and their continued adoration of the automobile. After all, he took pride in walking from Tolstoy Farm into Johannesburg, a trip of 22 miles, refusing to use the motor-car, a mode of modern transportation that he reviled. Perhaps this could inspire South Africans to leave their cars at home, for one day at least, to commemorate his centenary?
So if Gandhi is to be resurrected on 18th July 2014, he might support the 24hrs “Don’t Drive” campaign as a show of public defiance against an arrogant government that seems to be increasingly out of touch with public opinion.
Gandhi’s centenary could be “The Day of Passive Resistance” and South Africans might find their own individual ways to celebrate it. Assuming that the idea catches on, it would show that South Africans are willing to empower themselves and that they would be willing to do something to ensure that government becomes more accountable. It might be a start, and who knows where it would lead?
Just voting every five years does not seem to be sufficient.
After all, you have nothing to lose but your bicycle chains. DM
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An Oxford University study established that highly religious people and atheists are the least afraid of death.