In several African countries (and beyond) there has been controversy over the great Indian freedom fighter – Mahatma Gandhi. The latest is Malawi . The article below rehashes this view, which is simply mistaken.
“He spent 21 years in South Africa and just like other people of colour, he suffered his fair share of discrimination. That, however, did not change his views about black people being inferior.”
This is the result of a simplistic understanding of history which arose from Gandhi’s time in South Africa. Here is an alternative view.
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi was removed from the University of Ghana in December 2018. This follows a campaign by students and staff alleging that Gandhi was a racist.
This is sad. For while it is not hard to find quotes by the Indian leader which prove this point, this campaign fail to understand that his views and thoughts developed dramatically over the years he spent in South Africa (1893–1914).
By the time he left he was an altered man – someone who was on the best of terms with Africans, including the leader of the movement that became the African National Congress, John Dube.
The racist Gandhi
First, let us accept that during his early years in South Africa he had views that were little different from many others: he viewed the African majority in racist terms. These quotes are not hard to find.
In 1893, Gandhi wrote to the Natal parliament saying that a “general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”.
In 1904, he wrote to a health officer in Johannesburg that the council “must withdraw Kaffirs” from an unsanitary slum called the “Coolie Location” where a large number of Africans lived alongside Indians. “About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.”
It is worth noting that at this time Africans too had racist views about Indians, but that is not the point of this brief article. What is clear is that by by the time of his final campaign against the South African government in 2013 before he left for India, Gandhi’s views had changed.
Gandhi’s final campaign
Gandhi had fought for years for the rights of Indians, particularly in the Transvaal and Natal. The shopkeepers and traders who had been the backbone of his campaigns were exhausted and in despair.
In 1913 Gandhi turned to a new group: the working class Indians who were employed on the mines and in the sugar plantations. On 15 October 1913 Gandhi had sent 16 protesters, including his wife, Kasturba, to march across the Natal border into Transvaal without permission – an illegal act. At the same time his supporters went to the mines, and then to the sugar plantations.
Public meetings were held and with the strike spreading across northern Natal Gandhi arrived, urging the indentured miners to support his call for action. By the last week in October 1913 some 3,000 coal miners had been joined by railway employees. A decision was taken by 1,500 workers to walk from Dannhauser in Natal to the Transvaal, to court arrest.
On 23 October Gandhi announced that he would lead miners out of their compound. Soon the strikes had spread across Natal – and despite troops being sent to break them up by force, they held out. The country was grinding to a standstill.
Betty Molteno’s witness
At this critical moment we have the account of Betty Molteno – the daughter of a Cape Prime Minister, who had become firm friends with John and Nokutela Dube – his wife.
Molteno had a cottage built on the Dube estate at Ohlange near Durban and during the bitter battles that Gandhi was waging she would walk from the cottage to Phoenix – Gandhi’s base nearby.
Sometimes she would be accompanied by Mrs Dube. What is clear from the Molteno testimony is that John Dube and Gandhi were not just neighbours – they were on friendly terms.
In a letter dated 3 December 1913, Molteno wrote: “Had a talk out with Dube – he has no fears whatever of our coming to Ohlange Heights – no matter how much I went to Phoenix – or identified myself with the Indian Question – he says the Indian cause is the native cause – that the Indians are leading the way – showing them the way to strike – should that become necessary.”
Dube had openly expressed anti-Indian views in the past. He had declared that: “the coolies will elbow us out of the country”. As the historian, Heather Hughes points out, this was a sentiment expressed many times in Dube’s paper, Ilanga.
Yet now he regarded Gandhi as not just a neighbour, but someone with whom his wife and he could mix and meet in friendship. This could only have happened if he saw Gandhi as someone who was no longer a racist.
Dube backs Gandhi’s campaign
By December 2013 Dube was being informed about Gandh’s campaign by Molteno’s almost daily contacts with Phoenix. On 14 December 1914 Molteno went further: she records how she had met Dube in Gandhi’s campaign headquarters in Durban.
This highlights the fact that John Dube was at ease in the campaign office and, more important, that he may have been party to an ‘indaba’ or discussion on the stand the Indians would take as the campaign developed.
It would have been unthinkable for the President of South Africa’s main African political party to participate in this way, if he had believed Gandhi had racist views about Africans.
In truth Gandhi’s attitudes towards Africans had altered dramatically. He ceased to sneer at them and regarded as Africans as the equals of Indians.
After returning to India, Gandhi built perhaps the largest mass movement in history of the Indian freedom struggle by uniting people of all classes and encouraging women to participate.
He kept up his interest in South Africa and often wrote about the oppression of the Africans.
Gandhi said in a speech at Oxford on October 24, 1931:
“… as there has been an awakening in India, even so there will be an awakening in South Africa with its vastly richer resources – natural, mineral and human. The mighty English look quite pygmies before the mighty races of Africa. They are noble savages after all, you will say. They are certainly noble, but no savages and in the course of a few years the Western nations may cease to find in Africa a dumping ground for their wares.”
In referring to “South African races,” he declared in Cambridge on November 1, 1931, “Our deliverance must mean their deliverance.”
Is it any wonder that Nelson Mandela had the highest regard for Gandhi?
“His [Gandhi’s] philosophy contributed in no small measure in bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid…” “He is the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary. His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally.” (Message to a conference in Delhi on the centenary of satyagraha in January 2007)
Those who campaign against Gandhi and Gandhi statues need to consider the development of the man’s thought and views over time.
The Indian lawyer who arrived in South Africa in 1893 a racist, left the country in 1914 a changed man.
A Gandhi bust has just been quietly unveiled in Malawi despite protests
MILDRED EUROPA TAYLOR Oct 2, 2020 at 01:28pm
- October 02, 2020 at 01:28 pm | NEWS
MILDRED EUROPA TAYLOR | Head of Content
October 02, 2020 at 01:28 pm | NEWS
Two years after activists in Malawi prevented a statue of Mahatma Gandhi from being erected at the heart of the city of Blantyre, a bust of the Indian national icon has been unveiled at the country’s capital, Lilongwe. The bust was unveiled at the Indian High Commission on Friday, October 2, coinciding with the birthday of the Indian independence icon who was assassinated at the age of 78 in 1948.
Malawi’s Foreign Minister Eisenhower Mkaka, who attended the ceremony said Gandhi’s bust will promote the Indian leader’s values. “Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s freedom movement through non-violent struggle, is not only an icon for India but also a global icon that set the ball rolling for emancipation from the colonial struggle,” he was quoted by the BBC.
In 2018 when the Indian government with the approval of the Malawi government announced that they were going to erect a statue of Gandhi in the city of Blantyre, activists raised issues with it. They argued that the statue does not mean anything to Malawians as many do not even know who Gandhi is.
A group of over 3,000 young activists signed an online petition calling for the Malawian and Indian governments to put on hold the construction of the statue. Operating under a movement dubbed “Gandhi Must Fall”, the group argued that the Indian icon of peace was a racist.
“He (Gandhi) did not like the idea that Africans and Indians were given the same entrance at work. He actually fought for Indians to have their separate entrance away from Africans,” the group said.
Malawi, with a population of 18 million, has a small Indian community of around 8,000, most of whom are of Gujarati origin. Largely residing in cities such as Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu, many of them are engaged in agriculture, trading, pharmaceuticals, and the retail and hospitality industries.
When Malawians raised issues with the decision to erect a Gandhi statue, the Malawi government insisted that the monument will highlight the formidable role that the Indian leader played in his home country and Malawi.
This was not the first time that a proposal to erect a Gandhi statue sparked controversy. In 2015, a Gandhi statue in Johannesburg’s Mahatma Gandhi Square in South Africa was defaced with white paint. In Ghana, a statue of the independence icon in the University of Ghana was pulled down in 2018 two years after protests by a group of academics and supporters who wanted it removed due to the social activist’s racism toward Blacks.
Why Mahatma Gandhi is being called racist?
Widely remembered as an influential revolutionary who played a very important role during India’s struggle for independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi expressed resentments towards black people and made racist comments in his writing.
After graduating as a lawyer from the prestigious Inner Temple in London, Gandhi moved to South Africa and served as an expatriate lawyer, representing resident Indian communities in their struggle for civil rights.
He spent 21 years in South Africa and just like other people of colour, he suffered his fair share of discrimination. That, however, did not change his views about black people being inferior.