Gandhi in South Africa

  • The young barrister who landed at Durban in 1893 on a one-year contract to sort out the legal problems of Dada Abdullah, a Gujarati merchant, was to all appearances an ordinary young man trying to make a living. But he was the first Indian barrister, the first highly-educated Indian, to have come to South Africa.
  • Indian immigration to South Africa had begun when the White settlers recruited indentured Indian labour, mainly from South India, to work on the sugar plantations. In their wake had come Indian merchants, mostly Meman Muslims. Ex indentured labourers, who had settled down in South Africa after the expiry of their contract, and their children, many born in South Africa itself, constituted the third group of Indians.
  • None of these groups of Indians had much access to education.The racial discrimination to which they were subjected, as part of their daily existence, they had come to accept as a way of
    life, and even if they resented it, they had little idea about how to challenge it.
  • But young Mohandas Gandhi was not used to swallowing racial insults in order to carry on with the business of making a living. He had spent three years in London studying for the Bar. Neither m India nor in England had he ever come in contact with the overt racism that confronted him within days of his arrival in South Africa.
  • During his South Africa stay, Gandhi’s ethical thinking was heavily influenced by a handful of books. They included:
      • Plato’s Apology and John Ruskin’s Unto this Last (1862) (both of which he translated into his native Gujarati);
      • William Salter’s Ethical Religion (1889);
      • Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849);
      • Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894).
    • Ruskin inspired his decision to live an austere life on a commune, at first on the Phoenix Farm in Natal and then on the Tolstoy Farm just outside Johannesburg, South Africa

Racial Discrimination faced by Gandhi

  • His journey from Durban to Pretoria, which he undertook within a week of his arrival on the continent, consisted of a series of racial humiliations.
  • Apart from the famous incident in which he was bundled out of a first-class compartment by a White man and left to spend the night shivering in the waiting room, he was made to travel in the driver’s box in a coach for which he had bought a first-class ticket, when he ignored the coach leader’s order to vacate even that seat and sit on the foot-board, he was soundly thrashed.
  • On reaching Johannesburg, he found that all the hotels became full up the moment he asked for a room to stay the night.
  • Having succeeded in securing a first-class train ticket from Johannesburg to Pretoria (after quoting extensively from railway regulations), he was almost pushed out again from his railway compartment and was only saved this humiliation by the intervention of a European passenger.

Gandhi's Activism in South Africa

  • On his arrival in Pretoria, where he was to work on the civil suit that had brought him to South Africa, he immediately convened a meeting of the Indians there. He offered to teach English to anybody who wanted to learn and suggested that they organize themselves and protest against oppression.
  • He voiced his protest through the Press as well. In an indignant letter to the Natal Advertiser. Even though he had no plans of staying in South Africa at that stage, he tried his best to arouse the Indians in Pretoria to a sense of their own dignity and persuade them to resist all types of racial disabilities.
  • By virtue of being a British-educated barrister, he demanded many things as a matter of right, such as first-class train tickets and rooms in hotels, which other Indians before him had never probably even had the courage to ask for.
  • Having settled the law suit for which he had come, Gandhiji prepared to leave for India. But on the eve of his departure from Durban, he raised the issue of the bill to disenfranchise Indians which was in the process of being passed by the Natal legislature.
  • The Indians in South Africa begged Gandhiji to stay on for a month and organize their protest as they could not do so on their own, not knowing even enough English to draft petitions. Gandhiji agreed to stay on for a month and stayed for twenty years. He was then only twenty-five.

Moderate Phase of Gandhi's Activism (1894-1906)

  • Gandhiji’s political activities from 1894 to 1906 may be classified as the ‘Moderate’ phase of the struggle of the South African Indians.
  • During this phase, he concentrated on petitioning and sending memorials to the South African legislatures, the Colonial Secretary in London and the British Parliament. He believed that if all the facts of the case were presented to the Imperial Government, the British sense of justice and fair play would be aroused and the Imperial Government would intervene on behalf of Indians who were, after all, British subjects.
  • His attempt was to unite the different sections of Indians, and to give their demands wide publicity.
  • This he tried to do through the setting up of the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and by starting a paper called Indian Opinion in 1903. The newspaper was published in Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and English.
  • The Phoenix settlement in Natal, was inspired in 1904 by a single reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last.
  • Gandhiji’s abilities as an organizer, as a fund-raiser, as a journalist and as a propagandist, all came to the fore during this period.
  • During the Boer War, Gandhi volunteered in 1900 to form a group of ambulance drivers. He wanted to disprove the British idea that Hindus were not fit for “manly” activities involving danger and exertion. Gandhi raised eleven hundred Indian volunteers. They were trained and medically certified to serve on the front lines.
  • In 1906, when the British declared war against the Zulu Kingdom in Natal, Gandhi encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship.The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers.
  • But, by 1906, Gandhiji, having fully tried the ‘Moderate’ methods of struggle, was becoming convinced that these would not lead anywhere.

Passive Resistance or Civil Disobedience Phase of Gandhi's Acivism (1906-1915)

  • The second phase of the struggle in South Africa, which began in 1906, was characterized by the use of the method of passive resistance or civil disobedience, which Gandhiji named Satyagraha.
    • It was first used when the Government enacted legislation making it compulsory for Indians to take out certificates of registration which held their finger prints in 1906. It was essential to carry these on person at all times.
  • At a huge public meeting held on 11 September, 1906, in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, Indians resolved that they would refuse to submit to this law and would face the consequences.
  • Gandhiji formed the Passive Resistance Association to conduct the campaign.
    • The last date for registration being over, the Government started proceedings against Gandhiji.
    • The passive resisters pleaded guilty, were ordered to leave the country and, on refusing to do so, were sent to jail. Others followed. The fear of jail had disappeared, and it was popularly called King Edward’s Hotel.
  • General Smuts called Gandhiji for talks, and promised to withdraw the legislation if Indians voluntarily agreed to register themselves.
    • Gandhiji accepted and was the first to register. But Smuts had played a trick; he ordered that the voluntary registrations be ratified under the law.
    • The Indians under the leadership of Gandhiji retaliated by publicly burning their registration certificates.
  • Meanwhile, the Government brought in new legislation, this time to restrict Indian immigration in Transvaal.
    • The campaign, widened to oppose this.
    • In August 1908, a number of prominent Indians from Natal crossed the frontier into Transvaal to defy the new immigration laws and were arrested.
  • Gandhiji landed in jail in October 1908 and, along with the other Indians, was sentenced to a prison term involving hard physical labour. Government resorted to deportation to India, especially of the poorer Indians.
  • Government was in no mood to relent. Gandhiji’s visit to London in 1909 to meet the authorities there yielded little result. The funds for supporting the families of the Satyagrahis and for running Indian Opinion were fast running out.
  • At this point, Gandhiji set up Tolstoy Farm,(1910-1913) near Johannesburg made possible through the generosity of his German architect friend, Hermann Kallenbach, to house the families of the Satyagrahis and give them a way to sustain themselves.
    • Tolstoy Farm was the precursor of the later Gandhian ashrams that were to play so important a role in the Indian national movement.
    • Funds also came from India — Sir Ratan Tata, Congress and the Muslim League, Nizam of Hyderabad, made their contribution.
  • Meanwhile, Gokhale paid a visit to South Africa, was treated as a guest of the Government and was made a promise that all discriminatory laws against Indians would be removed. The promise was never kept, and Satyagraha was resumed in 1913.
  • This time the movement was widened further to include resistance to the poll tax of three pounds (initially it was 25 pounds but was reduced to 3 pounds) that was imposed on all ex-indentured Indians with the aim of reducing immigration.
    • The inclusion of the demand for the abolition of this tax, a particularly heavy charge on poor labourers, immediately drew the indentured and ex-indentured labourers into the struggle, and Satyagraha could now take on a truly mass character.
  • Further fuel was added to the already raging fire by a judgement of the Supreme Court which invalidated all marriages not conducted according to Christian rites and registered by the Registrar of Marriages.
    • The Indians treated this judgment as an insult to the honor of their women and many women were drawn into the movement because of this indignity.
  • Gandhiji decided that the time had now come for the final struggle.
    • The campaign was launched by the illegal crossing of the border by a group of sixteen Satyagrahis, including Kasturba, Gandhiji’s wife, who marched from Phoenix Settlement in Natal to Transvaal, and were immediately arrested.
  • A group of eleven women then marched from Tolstoy Farm in Transvaal and crossed the border into Natal without a permit, and reached New Castle, a mining town. Here, they talked to the Indian mine workers, mostly Tamils, and before being arrested persuaded them to go on strike.
  • Gandhiji reached New Castle and took charge of the agitation. Gandhiji decided to march this army of over two thousand men, women and children over the border and thus see them lodged in Transvaal jails. Gandhiji was arrested and sent to jail.
  • The morale of the workers, however, was very high and they continued the march till they were put into trains and sent back to Natal jail.
  • The Governments’ action inflamed the entire Indian community; workers on the plantations and the mines went on a lightning strike. Gokhale toured the whole of India to arouse Indian public opinion and even the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, condemned the repression as ‘one that would not be tolerated by any country that calls itself civilized’ and called for an impartial enquiry into the charges of atrocities.

Final Settlement

  • Eventually, through a series of negotiations involving Gandhiji, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, C.F. Andrews and General Smuts, an agreement was reached by which the Government of South Africa conceded the major Indian demands relating to the poll tax, the registration certificates and marriages solemnized according to Indian rites, and promised to treat the question of Indian immigration in a sympathetic manner.

Significance of South African Activism of Gandhi

  • Non-violent civil disobedience had succeeded in forcing the opponents to the negotiating table and conceding the substance of the demands put forward by the movement.
    • The blueprint for the ‘Gandhian’ method of struggle had been evolved and Gandhiji started back for his native land. The South African ‘experiment’ was now to be tried on a much wider scale on the Indian subcontinent.
  • South African experiment prepared Gandhiji for leadership of the Indian national struggle.
    • He had had the invaluable experience of leading poor Indian labourers, of seeing their capacity for sacrifice and for bearing hardship, their morale in the face of repression. South Africa built up his faith in the capacity of the Indian masses to participate in and sacrifice for a cause that moved them.
  • Gandhiji also had had the opportunity of leading Indians belonging to different religions:
    • Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis were all united under his leadership in South Africa.
    • They also came from different regions, being mainly Gujaratis and Tamils.
    • They belonged to different social classes; rich merchants combined with poor indentured labourers. Women came along with the men.
  • South African experience also stood Gandhiji in good stead.
    • He learnt, the hardest way, that leadership involves facing the ire not only of the enemy but also of one’s followers. Gandhiji learnt that leaders often have to take hard decisions that are unpopular with enthusiastic followers.
    • South Africa, then, provided Gandhiji with an opportunity for evolving his own style of politics and leadership, for trying out new techniques of struggle, on a limited scale, untrammelled by the opposition of contending political currents.
    • In South Africa, he had already taken the movement from its ‘Moderate’ phase into its ‘Gandhian’ phase. He already knew the strengths and the weaknesses of the Gandhian method and he was convinced that it was the best method around. It now remained for him to introduce it into India.
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