Was Gandhi a racist?
This month marks Mohandas Gandhi’s 150th birthday commemoration. The Mahatma lived in South Africa for 21 years between 1893 and 1914 and honed much of his satyagraha – soul force – passive resistance civil rights methods and anti-imperial philosophies on the continent. He was one of the greatest moral figures of the bloody twentieth century.
His successful leadership of India’s independence struggle ensured that the sun eventually set on the British empire, and helped catalyse the decolonization of Asia and Africa. Gandhi’s beliefs were to inspire leaders like H.O. Davies, Obafemi Awolowo, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Kenneth Kaunda, as well as seven Nobel peace laureates of African descent: Ralph Bunche, Albert Luthuli, Martin Luther King Jr., Anwar Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama. Gandhi’s legacy has, however, recently come under much closer scrutiny.
With the Mahatma’s statue having been removed from the University of Ghana campus by irate students in 2016, the once unthinkable question has been increasingly asked: “Was Gandhi a racist?” A 2015 book by two Indian South African scholars, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire provided incontrovertible proof of Gandhi’s collaboration with the British empire and disdain for the black population in South Africa. D
uring the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, determined to prove his worth as a loyal subject of the British Raj, Gandhi mobilised Indian stretcher-bearers as an Ambulance Corps to assist wounded British troops. When the Zulus launched a rebellion in 1906 to resist British annexation of their lands and livelihoods, Gandhi once again acted as a stretcher-bearer for imperialism against the oppressed. About 3,500 Zulus were killed and 30,000 rendered homeless.
The British were determined to make Natal into a typical albinocracy that privileged the rights of white settlers over the black majority and Indian migrants, amidst fears of “noble black savages” and the “Asiatic Menace”. Gandhi was an Orientalist, one of the Western anthropological creatures criticised by Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said, for viewing the Third World through Western prisms and prejudices.
In September 1896, Gandhi complained that whites in Natal wished to “degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” Gandhi was deeply offended by Indians being equated with blacks – whom he termed the “Kaffir races” – and successfully called for separate amenities for Indians and blacks in public facilities. He complained in 1896 that “the sons of this land of light [India] are despised as coolies and treated as Kaffirs.”
Continuing this repeated “Kaffir-bashing,” Gandhi, in 1895, complained that Indians being given a lower legal standing in terms of the franchise would impact them “so much so that from their civilised habits, they would be degraded to the habits of the aboriginal Natives.” It was only after his demands for equal rights were ignored by British mandarins that Gandhi took up the struggle for South African Indians. He fought – at the behest of Indian merchants – to restore the Indian franchise in Natal in 1894, giving birth to the Natal Indian Congress. He started his passive resistance demonstrations after the 1906 “Black Act” in Transvaal that required Indians to be finger-printed.
Gandhi naively believed that the British would grant equal rights to Indians. The Union of South Africa in 1910 – in which the British and defeated Boers effectively shared out the land and its bounties and marginalised the black majority, Indians and “Colured” – proved once more the treachery of “perfidious Albion.” But, Gandhi still blindly supported British imperialism. He would in his later writings try to whitewash his parochially Indian struggles and racism towards the black majority. In his voluminous writings about his 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi only mentions three African individuals, only one of whom he had ever met. He regarded culturally backward and intellectually inferior blacks as irrelevant to the future of their own country.
A statue commemorating Gandhi’s 1893 expulsion from a train – having sat in the first-class compartment – still stands in KwaZulu Natal’s city of Pietermaritzburg. A bronze statue is located in Gandhi Square near where he regularly attended court in Johannesburg’s central business district. Post-apartheid South Africa was on a quest to play out the myth of Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation of God” in the country’s great national dramaturgy of reconciliation. National heroes were thus needed across all races and unity was stressed over division, even as deep wounds were papered over which did not fit the new official narrative of “no victor, no vanquished.”
Politicians everywhere in Africa typically are the ultimate myth-makers in wanting to build united, viable nations out of polyglot, artificial states. The country’s “Founding Father” Nelson Mandela, rushed to embrace India’s own revered “Founding Father” in noting: “He was both an Indian and a South African citizen…..It was here that he taught that the destiny of the Indian Community was inseparable from that of the oppressed black majority.”
Similarly, Thabo Mbeki noted that “Gandhi..spent many years in South Africa….during which he used his extraordinary energies to fight racism.” We know, of course, that both statements do not accurately reflect Gandhi’s activities in South Africa. There are parallels in the way post-apartheid South Africa sought to rehabilitate the racist arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Mandela linked his name forever to Rhodes in the monstrous marriage of the Mandela Rhodes Trust in 2003, portraying this as an act of reconciliation between blacks and whites.
There were clear parallels between Rhodes and Gandhi: both were migrants who moved to South Africa from their native countries in search of fame and fortune; both were British-trained lawyers and admirers of British institutions; both had laudatory hagiographies written about them, before more balanced assessments emerged; both have had their legacies re-examined, and their statues removed and/or defaced in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Ghana.
Even though both Rhodes and Gandhi are often said to have been “men of their times” and some of their apologists often urge us not to judge them by the standards of our age, there were many white and Indian individuals such as Olive Schreiner and Yusuf Dadoo during the age in which both lived who fought for the rights of the black majority and did not use racist slurs, practice social apartheid, or engage in acts of dispossession against locals. But Gandhi was also different from Rhodes.
After leaving South Africa in 1914, he lived another 33 years in India where he fought an innovative, relentless, and ultimately victorious battle against British imperialism. Gandhi’s legacy is somewhat redeemed by the fact that he was instrumental in destroying the edifice of British imperialism in 1947, resulting in the liberation of Asia and Africa. His satyagraha inspired not just African leaders but was used by Martin Luther King to wage the civil rights struggle in America that made possible the presidency of the first African-American, Barack Obama, between 2009 and 2016.
Ghana has removed a statue of Gandhi. Rhodes’s statue has also been toppled at the University of Cape Town. Will the other Gandhi statues in Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg survive the harsh verdict of history based on his odious racist utterances? If both memorials are to survive intact, it may be prudent for the South African government to erect a statue of ANC leader, John Dube, in conversation with Gandhi in Pietermaritzburg, and another of ANC stalwart, Lilian Ngoyi, in dialogue with the Mahatma in the heart of Johannesburg.
Professor Adebajo is Director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.