The Complicated History of the South African Gandhi

Indian scholars tend to brush over Gandhi's racist attitudes and ignore the resistance of the Africans to white settlers in South Africa

Over the past decade many South Africans awaited with great anticipation the works of Indian scholars on Gandhi’s South African years. Sometimes the pre-publicity material builds up this expectation by describing particular authors as ‘one of the world’s great minds’ or ‘a genuinely independent-minded Indian intellectual’. Often, such works raise more questions than answers.

There is a trend to these studies. They tend to argue that it was on African soil that Gandhi honed his sense of empathy, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and quest for equality, and occasionally even that he had links with Africans. Sometimes these studies muddle or complicate the image of the South African Gandhi, but it is largely a sanitised, universalist Gandhi that is portrayed.

Troublingly, these studies tend to largely ignore the brutal subjugation of Africans and their myriad resistances and victories against the British Imperial army, as well as Gandhi’s racism towards Africans, his neglect of the indentured and often hasty need to reach agreements that fell far short of intended goals. Indians are portrayed as the first victims of racism and as leading the challenge against white domination, while the resistances of Africans to the colonial wars of dispossession is written out of history, as is their being pushed off the land and into a dehumanising migrant labour system, being forced to carry passes to control their entry into urban areas, and confinement to single sex hostels as their family lives were destroyed by settler rule.

This ignore important aspects of South African history. White society lived in constant fear of the “native”. There were always rumours of rebellion and white society was militarised precisely because of this threat. Also occluded are the large number of mission educated Africans, many of whom even played cricket, and the highly successful farmers who were destroyed through legislation in the late nineteenth-century. To argue that relative to Indians, Africans did not have a presence in urban areas and were uneducated and therefore Indians were more of a threat to settler power flies in the face of historical evidence.

Viewing through racial lens

The question this raises is: what inspires such glib misreadings? Is it these scholars’ own racial lens that is keen to make Gandhi and Indians central to the liberation narrative in South Africa? Possibly, because in hundreds of pages, Africans are rendered almost invisible and the struggle for equality and justice is seen as one between Gandhi and successive white minority administrations. To write a history of this kind in a period when the African population was being dispossessed at breakneck speed and resistances and collaborations were breaking out everywhere reveals an incredibly jaundiced eye to understanding the emergent social relations at the centre of the racist capital accumulation project.

In response to our new book The South African GandhiStretcher-Bearer of Empire, it is uncanny that this is exactly the line taken by Rajmohan Gandhi in a September 2015 article in The Indian Express in which he wrote that ‘the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle for black rights.’ Written out of history is African resistance to colonialism that unfolded much before Gandhi even arrived on the shores of Africa and which he was quite keen to subvert by siding with white colonial power. Rajmohan adds that ‘on racial equality, (Gandhi) was greatly in advance of most if not all of his compatriots’. This is the same Gandhi who openly proposed that Indians and Whites were higher up on the scale of civilisation than Africans who were deemed to be lazy and needed to have more taxes heaped upon them.


Such interpretations say much about the historians’ own blinkers which allow them to write in such a matter-of-fact way about Gandhi’s siding with Empire in the subjugation of Africans. At a time of rising India, it is understandable that some scholars are keen to emphasise the seminal role of Gandhi and the vanguard role of Indians in the South African liberation struggle. But they end up in a racist narrative if not by intent then by methodological default which lies in their writing African oppression and subjugation and agency out of history or, to borrow from Eric Wolf, ‘Indians and the people without History’.

Every day in contemporary South Africa, both in people’s struggles and in intellectual endeavours, liberation history is coming under critical scrutiny. The “Rhodes Must Fall Campaign” in early 2015, which saw a cry to remove Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town, raised serious questions about Mandela’s attachment of his name to that of the arch imperialist. And the big man and single liberation movement theories of history have also come under scrutiny, stimulated no doubt by the way in which the new rulers have used their struggle credentials to close down dissent and the easy use of the heavy hand of repression when there is resistance.

It was some 60 years after Gandhi arrived in Port Natal that Indians and Africans first embarked on a joint struggle in the 1952 Defiance Campaign. This came after a violent conflagration between African and Indian in 1949. It is sobering that in 2015 more and more Indian South Africans are becoming insular and even displaying a sense of superiority over African people in a South Africa of rising racisms, xenophobia and chauvinism. Histories that seek to elevate Gandhi and Indians to some kind of vanguardist role in the liberation struggle while writing out African agency feed into this chauvinism.

Ashwin Desai teaches Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and is co-author of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire