Before leading the Indian freedom movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi used to live in South Africa to fight against injustice and class division. Within 10 years, Gandhi propagated the philosophy of Satyagraha there and propelled the country towards a no class or ethnic discrimination society. Gandhi arrived in Durban aboard SS Safari in 1893. In no time, Gandhi became the leader of the South African Indian community. His involvement in the non-violent movement in South Africa had made such an impact that even now, he is looked up to as a leader there. From 1893 to 1914, Gandhi worked as an attorney and a public worker. In a meeting in New Delhi, Gandhi said he was born in India but was made in South Africa. So, what are all the things he did there that created such a huge impact?
Here are a list of 10 things what Gandhi did in South Africa:
1. While he was travelling by train to Pretoria, Gandhi, despite carrying first class ticket, was thrown out of the train by the authorities because a white man complained of an Indian sharing the space with him.
2. As a response, Gandhi formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. This organisation led non-violent protests against the oppressive treatment of the white people towards the native Africans and Indians.
3. In 1896, he came to India for a short time and gathered 800 Indians to serve along with him in South Africa. They were welcomed by an irate mob and Gandhi was injured in the attack.
4. During the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, Gandhi gathered around 1,100 Indians and organised the Indian Ambulance Corps for the British but the ethnic discrimination and torture continued on Indians.
5. English artist John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last inspired Gandhi and he set up Phoenix Farm near Durban. Here, Gandhi would train his cadres on non-violent Satyagraha or peaceful restraint. Phoenix Farm is considered as the birthplace of Satyagraha. However, it was at the Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi’s second camp in South Africa, where Satyagraha was molded into a weapon of protest.
6. In September 1906, Gandhi organised the first Satyagraha campaign to protest against the Transvaal Asiatic ordinance that was constituted against the local Indians. Again in June 1907, he held Satyagraha against the Black Act.
7. In 1908, he was sentenced to jail for organising the non-violent movements. But, after his meeting with General Smuts, a British Commonwealth statesman, he was released. However, he was later attacked for this and was again sentenced to jail against which he organised Satyagraha again.
8. In 1909, he was sentenced to a three-month jail term in Volkshurst and Pretoria. After his release, Gandhi went to England to seek the assistance of the Indian community there.
9. He also fought against the nullification of non-Christian marriages in 1913.
10. Gandhi organised another peaceful resistance campaign in Transvaal against the oppression that Indian minors were suffering from. He led around 2,000 Indians across the Transvaal border.
In April 1893, Gandhi aged 23, set sail for South Africa to be the lawyer for Abdullah’s cousin. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and politics. Immediately upon arriving in South Africa, Gandhi faced discrimination because of his skin colour and heritage, like all people of colour. He was not allowed to sit with European passengers in the stagecoach and told to sit on the floor near the driver, then beaten when he refused; elsewhere he was kicked into a gutter for daring to walk near a house, in another instance thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to leave the first-class. He sat in the train station, shivering all night and pondering if he should return to India or protest for his rights. He chose to protest and was allowed to board the train the next day. In another incident, the magistrate of a Durban court ordered Gandhi to remove his turban, which he refused to do. Indians were not allowed to walk on public footpaths in South Africa. Gandhi was kicked by a police officer out of the footpath onto the street without warning.
When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, according to Herman, he thought of himself as “a Briton first, and an Indian second”. However, the prejudice against him and his fellow Indians from British people that Gandhi experienced and observed deeply bothered him. He found it humiliating, struggling to understand how some people can feel honour or superiority or pleasure in such inhumane practices. Gandhi began to question his people’s standing in the British Empire.
Living in South Africa, Gandhi continued to study world religions. “The religious spirit within me became a living force,” he wrote of his time there. He immersed himself in sacred Hindu spiritual texts and adopted a life of simplicity, austerity, fasting and celibacy that was free of material goods.
The Abdullah case that had brought him to South Africa concluded in May 1894, and the Indian community organised a farewell party for Gandhi as he prepared to return to India. However, a new Natal government discriminatory proposal led to Gandhi extending his original period of stay in South Africa. He planned to assist Indians in opposing a bill to deny them the right to vote, a right then proposed to be an exclusive European right. He asked Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, to reconsider his position on this bill. Though unable to halt the bill’s passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. He helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, and through this organisation, he moulded the Indian community of South Africa into a unified political force. In January 1897, when Gandhi landed in Durban, a mob of white settlers attacked him and he escaped only through the efforts of the wife of the police superintendent. However, he refused to press charges against any member of the mob. Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War.
During the Boer War, Gandhi volunteered in 1900 to form a group of stretcher-bearers as the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps. According to Arthur Herman, Gandhi wanted to disprove the imperial British stereotype that Hindus were not fit for “manly” activities involving danger and exertion, unlike the Muslim “martial races”. Gandhi raised eleven hundred Indian volunteers, to support British combat troops against the Boers. They were trained and medically certified to serve on the front lines. They were auxiliaries at the Battle of Colenso to a White volunteer ambulance corps. At the battle of Spion Kop Gandhi and his bearers moved to the front line and had to carry wounded soldiers for miles to a field hospital because the terrain was too rough for the ambulances. Gandhi and thirty-seven other Indians received the Queen’s South Africa Medal.
In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new Act compelling registration of the colony’s Indian and Chinese populations. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on 11 September that year, Gandhi adopted his still evolving methodology of Satyagraha (devotion to the truth), or nonviolent protest, for the first time. According to Anthony Parel, Gandhi was also influenced by the Tamil text Tirukkuṛaḷ after Leo Tolstoy mentioned it in their correspondence that began with “A Letter to a Hindu”.Gandhi urged Indians to defy the new law and to suffer the punishments for doing so. Gandhi’s ideas of protests, persuasion skills and public relations had emerged. He took these back to India in 1915.
Gandhi as folk hero
According to Dennis Dalton, it was the ideas that were responsible for his wide following. Gandhi criticised Western civilisation as one driven by “brute force and immorality”, contrasting it with his categorisation of Indian civilisation as one driven by “soul force and morality”. Gandhi captured the imagination of the people of his heritage with his ideas about winning “hate with love”. These ideas are evidenced in his pamphlets from the 1890s, in South Africa, where too he was popular among the Indian indentured workers. After he returned to India, people flocked to him because he reflected their values.
Gandhi's London lifestyle incorporated the values he had grown up with. When he returned to India in 1891, his outlook was parochial and he could not make a living as a lawyer. This challenged his belief that practicality and morality necessarily coincided. By moving in 1893 to South Africa he found a solution to this problem and developed the central concepts of his mature philosophy.
According to Bhikhu Parekh, three books that influenced Gandhi most in South Africa were William Salter's Ethical Religion (1889); Henry David Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849); and 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. The most profound influence on Gandhi were those from Hinduism, Christianity and Jainism, states Parekh, with his thoughts "in harmony with the classical Indian traditions, specially the Advaita or monistic tradition"
During his stay in South Africa, along with scriptures and philosophical texts of Hinduism and other Indian religions, Gandhi read translated texts of Christianity such as the Bible, and Islam such as the Quran. A Quaker mission in South Africa attempted to convert him to Christianity. Gandhi joined them in their prayers and debated Christian theology with them, but refused conversion stating he did not accept the theology therein or that Christ was the only son of God. His comparative studies of religions and interaction with scholars led him to respect all religions as well as become concerned about imperfections in all of them and frequent misinterpretations. Gandhi grew fond of Hinduism and referred to the Bhagavad Gita as his spiritual dictionary and greatest single influence on his life. Later, Gandhi translated the Gita into Gujarati in 1930.
Gandhi was acquainted with Sufi Islam’s Chishti Order during his stay in South Africa. He attended Khanqah gatherings there at Riverside. According to Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi as a Vaishnava Hindu shared values such as humility, devotion and brotherhood for the poor that is also found in Sufism. Winston Churchill also compared Gandhi to a Sufi fakir.
Support for wars
Gandhi participated in the South African war against the Boers, on the British side in 1899. Both the Dutch settlers called Boers and the imperial British at that time discriminated against the coloured races they considered as inferior, and Gandhi later wrote about his conflicted beliefs during the Boer war. He stated that “when the war was declared, my personal sympathies were all with the Boers, but my loyalty to the British rule drove me to participation with the British in that war”. According to Gandhi, he felt that since he was demanding his rights as a British citizen, it was also his duty to serve the British forces in the defence of the British Empire.
During World War I (1914–1918), nearing the age of 50, Gandhi supported the British and its allied forces by recruiting Indians to join the British army, expanding the Indian contingent from about 100,000 to over 1.1 million.[ He encouraged Indian people to fight on one side of the war in Europe and Africa at the cost of their lives. Pacifists criticised and questioned Gandhi, who defended these practices by stating, according to Sankar Ghose, “it would be madness for me to sever my connection with the society to which I belong”. According to Keith Robbins, the recruitment effort was in part motivated by the British promise to reciprocate the help with swaraj (self-government) to Indians after the end of World War I. After the war, the British government offered minor reforms instead, which disappointed Gandhi. He launched his satyagraha movement in 1919. In parallel, Gandhi’s fellowmen became sceptical of his pacifist ideas and were inspired by the ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism.
In a 1920 essay, after World War I, Gandhi wrote, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Rahul Sagar interprets Gandhi’s efforts to recruit for the British military during the War, as Gandhi’s belief that, at that time, it would demonstrate that Indians were willing to fight. Further, it would also show the British that his fellow Indians were “their subjects by choice rather than out of cowardice.” In 1922, Gandhi wrote that abstinence from violence is effective and true forgiveness only when one has the power to punish, not when one decides not to do anything because one is helpless.
After World War II engulfed Britain, Gandhi actively campaigned to oppose any help to the British war effort and any Indian participation in the war. According to Arthur Herman, Gandhi believed that his campaign would strike a blow to imperialism. Gandhi’s position was not supported by many Indian leaders, and his campaign against the British war effort was a failure. The Hindu leader, Tej Bahadur Sapru, declared in 1941, states Herman, “A good many Congress leaders are fed up with the barren program of the Mahatma”. Over 2.5 million Indians ignored Gandhi, volunteered and joined on the British side. They fought and died as a part of the Allied forces in Europe, North Africa and various fronts of World War II.
In 1938, Gandhi stated that his “sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions.” Philosopher Martin Buber was highly critical of Gandhi’s approach and in 1939 wrote an open letter to him on the subject. Gandhi reiterated his stance that “the Jews seek to convert the Arab heart”, and use “satyagraha in confronting the Arabs” in 1947. According to Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi’s political position on Jewish-Arab conflict evolved over the 1917–1947 period, shifting from a support for the Arab position first, and for the Jewish position in the 1940s.
Along with many other texts, Gandhi studied Bhagavad Gita while in South Africa. This Hindu scripture discusses jnana yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga along with virtues such as non-violence, patience, integrity, lack of hypocrisy, self-restraint and abstinence. Gandhi began experiments with these, and in 1906 at age 37, although married and a father, he vowed to abstain from sexual relations.
Untouchability and castes
Gandhi spoke out against untouchability early in his life. Before 1932, he and his associates used the word antyaja for untouchables. In a major speech on untouchability at Nagpur in 1920, Gandhi called it a great evil in Hindu society but observed that it was not unique to Hinduism, having deeper roots, and stated that Europeans in South Africa treated “all of us, Hindus and Muslims, as untouchables; we may not reside in their midst, nor enjoy the rights which they do”. Calling the doctrine of untouchability intolerable, he asserted that the practice could be eradicated, that Hinduism was flexible enough to allow eradication, and that a concerted effort was needed to persuade people of the wrong and to urge them to eradicate it.
Nai Talim, basic education
Nai Talim evolved out of his experiences at the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, and Gandhi attempted to formulate the new system at the Sevagram ashram after 1937. Nehru government’s vision of an industrialised, centrally planned economy after 1947 had scant place for Gandhi’s village-oriented approach.
Followers and international influence
Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at York UniversityMahatma Gandhi on a 1969 postage stamp of the Soviet UnionMahatma Gandhi at Praça Túlio Fontoura, São Paulo, Brazil. Statue by Gautam PalLargest Gandhi statue located between Vidhana Soudha and Vikasa Soudha, Bengaluru
Gandhi influenced important leaders and political movements. Leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, including Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, and James Bevel, drew from the writings of Gandhi in the development of their own theories about nonviolence. King said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.” King sometimes referred to Gandhi as “the little brown saint.” Anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was inspired by Gandhi. Others include Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Steve Biko, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In his early years, the former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was a follower of the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. Bhana and Vahed commented on these events as “Gandhi inspired succeeding generations of South African activists seeking to end White rule. This legacy connects him to Nelson Mandela…in a sense, Mandela completed what Gandhi started.”
Gandhi’s life and teachings inspired many who specifically referred to Gandhi as their mentor or who dedicated their lives to spreading Gandhi’s ideas. In Europe, Romain Rolland was the first to discuss Gandhi in his 1924 book Mahatma Gandhi, and Brazilian anarchist and feminist Maria Lacerda de Moura wrote about Gandhi in her work on pacifism. In 1931, notable European physicist Albert Einstein exchanged written letters with Gandhi and called him “a role model for the generations to come” in a letter-writing about him. Einstein said of Gandhi: