“The South African Gandhi – Stretcher Bearer of Empire” by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

The South African Gandhi

Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa practicing law. They called him the ‘coolie barrister.’ And he called the indigenous people ‘kaffirs.’ The scantily clad man Indians recognize as the ‘father of the nation’ had an image makeover on the eve of his departure from South Africa in 1914. Gone was the coat-suit ensemble. In came the oh-so-humble dhoti. This meticulously researched book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed (South African professors of Indian origin) unravels many facets of the saint-in-the-making. Quoting extensively from ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ as well as newspaper publications including ‘Indian Opinion’ of which Gandhi himself was co-founder, they paint an unfamiliar portrait of a familiar global icon, leaving the reader shocked and saddened.

Here’s a sample of Gandhi’s pronouncements during his South African sojourn:

  • We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race. (1903)
  • We have never asked for political equality. We do not hope to get that…I have never asked for the vote. (1914)
  • About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population….(In a 1904 letter to the Medical Health Officer of Johannesburg, he demanded that Kaffirs be withdrawn from a residential area peopled predominantly by Indians.)
  • Should they (Indians) be assigned a permanent part in the Militia, there will remain no ground for the European complaint that Europeans alone have to bear the brunt of Colonial defence. (1906)

The saddest part is that Gandhi failed to acknowledge African suffering. During the Boer war, he served the Empire as stretcher bearer. In 1906 when the Zulus in Natal revolted he seized the opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the British Crown. He wrote in Indian Opinion on 14th April 1906, “It is not for me to say whether the revolt is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends upon it. It is therefore our duty to render help….” In stark contrast, the ‘arch-imperialist’ Winston Churchill condemned the ‘disgusting butchery’ and referred to ‘this wretched colony’ as ‘the hooligan of the British Empire.”

Gandhi’s associates from outside the Indian community were all whites. He remained aloof from the blacks. The authors suggest that “Gandhi’s Anglophilia possibly played a role in developing his theory of satyagraha.” They point out that he conveniently forgot the principles of non-violence and satyagraha whenever the Empire was at risk. His strategy was one of whining, petitioning, lobbying, negotiating, compromising and surrendering. At the same time he was a great publicity agent. He had Joseph J Doke write his biography in 1909. It was published with the assistance of N M Cooper in England. Gandhi purchased all 600 copies and had them distributed in Britain, Rangoon, Madras and South Africa. Ironically, the Introduction to the book was written by Lord Ampthill who sat in the House of Lords from 1909 to 1935 and opposed every move in the direction of Indian self-governance.

In 1906, Gandhi announced his vow of celibacy. Authors such as Kathryn Tidrick have suggested that it was possibly in South Africa that Gandhi commenced the practice of sleeping with nubile nymphs ostensibly to ‘test’ his self control. Gandhi hailed as his ‘soul-mate’ a German Jew, Hermann Kallenbach. They met in 1903, shared a house from 1907/1908 to 1910 and wrote inexplicably intimate letters to each other ever after. (The letters were purchased for $1.3million by the Government of India in 2012 and the contents remain under wraps.) In May 1910 Kallenbach purchased an 1100 acre farm near Johannesburg for Gandhi’s use. It was named Tolstoy Farm. Residents were compelled to practice celibacy and vegetarianism.

Gandhi’s Indian benefactors financed his activities in South Africa. Among them were the Maharajas of Bikaner and Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s mentor, visited South Africa in 1912 and helped revive his sagging political fortunes. In October 1913, Gandhi failed to get majority support within the Natal Indian Congress and he formed another outfit called Natal Indian Association. The 1913 strike by Indians workers across the mining and plantation sectors underlined the futility of passive resistance. In a letter to Marshall Campbell on 23rd December 1913, the future Mahatma wrote: “We were endeavouring to confine the strike area to the collieries only. Whilst I was in Newcastle I was asked by my co-workers in Durban what answer to give the coastal Indians who wanted to join the movement, and I emphatically told them that the time was not ripe for them to do so….(but) after my arrest….the movement became not only spontaneous but it assumed gigantic proportions.”

On 20th December 1913, following his release from prison, Gandhi appeared at a public meeting at Durban wearing dhoti and kurta. He no longer had a moustache. In July 1914, he announced he was returning to India for good.

Historians and history buffs are wondering what to make of the book. It is too compelling to be wished away.

Overall Assessment: Deeply disturbing. A must read for every Indian.


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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