Some of Gandhi's Early Views on Africans Were Racist. But That Was Before He Became Mahatma

It is important to remember that the early Gandhi had little contact with Africans and did not understand their sensitivities.


Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Ita Mehrotra

The recent agitation at the University of Legon in Ghana for the removal of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was provoked by a few statements made by the young Gandhi soon after he arrived in South Africa in 1893, long before he came to know the Africans. These statements, plucked from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi – published by the Indian government without any attempts at contextualising or annotating them – completely distort what his life represents.

Gandhi said, “My life is my message”. His life shows how an ordinary human being who has many weaknesses can rise to great heights by shedding his early prejudices and by adhering to love and non-violence instead of hate and greed. This message should be an encouragement for the youth.

Gandhi practiced what he preached. He conquered fear and defied the racist regime in South Africa and in imperialist Britain. He went to prison five times in South Africa and nine times in India during his struggle against racism and colonialism. He was incorruptible and forsook consumerism, which had become a menace to progress. He espoused dignity of labour and the need to protect the environment. He became a symbol of peace and non-violence and his appeal is universal.

As Nelson Mandela had said in February 2007:

“In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and nonviolence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century. He rightly believed in the efficacy of pitting the soul force of the satyagraha against the brute force of the oppressor and in effect converting the oppressor to the right and moral point.”

Gandhi, an immature settler in Natal

In 1893, the 23-year-old Gandhi arrived in Durban. He was enrolled as a barrister at the Inner Temple in London, but failed in his profession in India. He only excelled at drafting petitions and memoranda. A merchant in Durban offered him a one-year job to assist his lawyer in a litigation.

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa in 1985. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa in 1895. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This consisted mainly of translating accounts written in Gujarati to English. Even though the salary was a mere 100 pounds a year, Gandhi accepted the offer in the hope of finding better opportunities in South Africa.

In a 1937 speech he would look back on his early life:

“At school the teachers did not consider me a very bright boy. They knew that I was a good boy, but not a bright boy. I never knew first class and second class. I barely passed. I was a dull boy. I could not even speak properly. Even when I went to South Africa I went only as a clerk.”

After the year was over, Gandhi managed to get an assignment from the merchants in Durban to advise and assist them on dealing with the actions of the Natal government and the local authorities against them. They offered 300 pounds a year in retainers. The immediate issue was the proposal to remove the voting rights of the few rich Indians who had them.

The class and colour prejudices Gandhi carried from India were reinforced by those of the merchants and the white officers he dealt with. In countering the arguments of the white racists, he tried to show that Indians, unlike the Africans, had an ancient civilisation. He used the language of the whites, which was offensive to Africans, and referred to them as ‘kaffirs.’

Mandela was well aware of the racist statements made by Gandhi when he was young. He wrote in an article in 1995, “Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”

The term kaffir was not considered offensive at that time in South Africa as it became in later years. It was widely used, for example ‘Kaffir express’ for the train and ‘kaffir corn’ for the grain. The educated Christian Africans, who were known as ‘kholwa’, sometimes called the illiterate Africans kaffirs. Yet, it is surprising that Gandhi used that term. He must have known how the term kaffir – meaning infidel – was a derogatory term used by Muslims against Hindus in India.

Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi had little contact with Africans then and did not understand their sensitivities. From today’s perspective, some of his statements in the first two years of his employment are unpardonable and very un-Gandhian.

But Gandhi possessed no malice. He was aware that the race prejudice of the whites was against Indians and Africans and all other non-white people. He wrote to the Times of Natal on October 25, 1894:

“The Indians do not regret that capable natives can exercise the franchise. They would regret if it were otherwise. They, however, assert that they too, if capable, should have the right. You, in your wisdom, would not allow the Indian or the native the precious privilege under any circumstances, because they have a dark skin.”

In opposing the system of import of indentured labour from India, Gandhi pointed out that it was detrimental to the interests of the Africans. India prohibited export of labour to Natal in 1911.

During his stay in Natal from 1893 to 1901, Gandhi considered himself a temporary settler. He left for India in October 1901, but returned after the end of the Anglo-Boer War a year later at the request of the Indian community to lead deputations to the British secretary of state for colonies in Natal and the Transvaal.

Awakening of Gandhi

John L. Dube. Credit: Wikimedia.

John L. Dube. Credit: Wikimedia.

Gandhi settled in Transvaal as an attorney and developed a flourishing practice, earning as much as 5,000 pounds a year. He founded the weekly Indian Opinion in 1903.

In 1904, he set up an ashram in Phoenix in Durban, in the midst of Africans and close to the industrial school of John Langalibalele Dube – the first president of the African National Congress. Dube’s weekly called Ilanga lase Natal was initially printed in the press of Indian Opinion and the people from his school often visited the ashram.

But his real concern was serving the Indian community in South Africa. He felt that Indians would be respected if they showed that they were loyal subjects of the British Empire. He had led an Indian ambulance corps of about a thousand volunteers for nearly six weeks during the Anglo-Boer War.

In 1906, he committed a blunder which proved to be a blessing. During the military operations of the Natal militia against chief Bambata and his followers – who refused to pay a new poll tax – he organised a small stretcher-bearer corps of about 20 Indians. Gandhi did not understand the nature or scope of the rebellion. The corps, which served for a little over a month, was asked to take care of the wounded and whipped Africans since no white would treat them. Seeing the brutality of the whites against the Africans was a traumatic experience for Gandhi.

Nelson Mandela wrote in an article in Time magazine on December 31, 1999:

“His awakening came on the hilly terrain of the so-called Bambatha rebellion…  British brutality against the Zulus roused his soul against violence as nothing had done before. He determined on that battlefield to wrest himself of all material attachments and devote himself completely and totally to eliminating violence and serving humanity.”

He took a vow of celibacy and wrote to his brother that he had no interest in worldly possessions.

Mahatma Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Soon after he returned to Johannesburg, the Transvaal government gazetted a humiliating ordinance against the Asiatics. Gandhi recognised that making petitions and deputations to the racist rulers were of no avail unless there was force behind them. He decided to defy the law and mobilised the Indian community to court imprisonment. He discovered non-violent resistance (satyagraha) which was, in essence, pitting the power of the people against guns.

By 1914, more than 50,000 Indian workers had gone on strike, 10,000 Indians had been jailed, more than a dozen Indians had been killed and many more tortured or injured. This non-violent resistance forced the racist white government of South Africa to concede the main demands of the struggle.

During the course of the struggle, Gandhi widened his horizon and publicly supported African rights. He declared in an address to the YMCA in 1908:

“South Africa would probably be a howling wilderness without the Africans…”

“If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen.”

In October 1910 he said:

“The whites… have occupied the country forcibly and appropriated it to themselves. That, of course, does not prove their right to it. A large number even from among them believe that they will have to fight again to defend their occupation. But we shall say no more about this. One will reap as one sows.” (Indian Opinion, October 22, 1910)

He also praised African leaders. In his reporting of a speech made by Dube for Indian Opinion on September 2, 1905, he said that Dube was an African “of whom one should know.”

John Tengo Jabavu and his son Davidson Don Tengo around 1903. Credit: Wikimedia

John Tengo Jabavu and his son Davidson Don Tengo around 1903. Credit: Wikimedia

He commended the efforts of John Tengo Jabavu to raise the enormous sum of 50,000 pounds from Africans for establishing a college for Africans. He wrote:

“… it is not to be wondered at that an awakening people, like the great native races of South Africa, are moved by something that has been described as being very much akin to religious fervour… British Indians in South Africa have much to learn from this example of self sacrifice. If the natives of South Africa, with all their financial disabilities and social disadvantages, are capable of putting forth this local effort, is it not incumbent upon the British Indian community to take the lesson to heart, and press forward the matter of educational facilities with far greater energy and enthusiasm than have been used hitherto?” (Indian Opinion, March 17, 1906)

He congratulated W.B. Rubusana on being elected to the Cape Provincial Council and commented:

“That Dr. Rubusana can sit in the Provincial Council but not in the Union Parliament is a glaring anomaly which must disappear if South Africans are to become a real nation in the near future.” (Indian Opinion, September 24, 1910)

These statements were published in the Gujarati section of Indian Opinion in order to rouse respect towards Africans.

Hermann Kallenbach, an associate of Gandhi, spoke of their identification with Africans in an interview in June 1937:

“A black man may not use tramcars, so we walked together for miles. A black man may not use a hotel lift and bathroom, so both of us gladly left the use of both. A black man may not eat in the common dining room [so] I said I would not go there myself and we had our food in our rooms.” (Harijan, June 12, 1937)

Gandhi came to know several educated Africans who were impressed by the organisation and by the struggle of Indians, which was led by him. In 1910, there were discussions on the formation of a national body to defend African rights. Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who initiated the proposal, visited Gandhi at the Tolstoy Farm for consultation.

The South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress) was formed in 1912 and was welcomed by Gandhi. He never sought to impose his leadership over the African people, the sons of the soil, but presented them with the example of satyagraha as a means of deliverance from oppression.

India’s freedom must lead to Africa’s freedom

Gandhi was moved by the courage and determination of women in the last stage of satyagraha in 1913. The heroism of the working men and women led him to declare in 1914, “These men and women are the salt of India; on them will be built the Indian nation that is to be.”

Gandhi with the leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi with the leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

He 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.”

In an interview to Reverend S.S. Tema – a member of the ANC – on January 1, 1939, he said:

“The Indians are a microscopic minority. They can never be a ‘menace’ to the white population. You, on the other hand, are the sons of the soil who are being robbed of your inheritance. You are bound to resist that. Yours is a far bigger issue. It ought not to be mixed up with that of the Indian. This does not preclude the establishment of the friendliest relations between the two races. The Indians can cooperate with you in a number of ways. They can help you by always acting on the square towards you.”

In an interview to a South African Indian delegation in April 1946, he said, “Their slogan today is no longer merely ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ or ‘Africa for the Africans,’ but the unity of all the exploited races of the earth. On India rests the burden of pointing the way to all the exploited races.”

He abandoned his hesitation over joint action when Africans, people of colour and whites, all went to prison to show their solidarity with the Indians during the Indian passive resistance in South Africa. In May 1947, he told Y.M. Dadoo and G.M. Naicker, the leaders of the resistance, “Political cooperation among all the exploited races in South Africa can only result in mutual goodwill if it is wisely directed and based on truth and nonviolence.”

Indian passive resistance in South Africa 1946. Credit: Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre

Indian passive resistance in South Africa 1946. Credit: Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre

Gandhi’s declaration that India’s freedom must lead to freedom of other oppressed people formed the basis of the foreign policy of India after independence. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India espoused the cause of freedom in the United Nations and the Commonwealth, in sports bodies and other forums. India imposed sanctions against South Africa in 1946 and earned the hostility of the western powers.

Mandela on Gandhi

Leaders of South Africa have often praised Gandhi’s contribution to their liberation from apartheid and for the “miracle” of peaceful transition.

In a letter to India, which was smuggled from prison in 1980, Nelson Mandela wrote, “… in 21 years of his stay in South Africa we were to witness the birth of ideas and methods of struggle that have exerted an incalculable influence on the history of the peoples of India and South Africa.”

Nelson Mandela. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nelson Mandela. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After his release from prison, Mandela made a number of statements that are worth recalling:

“Gandhi’s political technique and elements of the nonviolent philosophy developed during his stay in Johannesburg became the enduring legacy for the continuing struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa.” (Speech made during the unveiling of the statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg in October 2003)

“The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity, for which he stood and acted, had a profound influence on our liberation movement and on my own thinking. They inspire us today in our efforts of reconciliation and nation building.” (Speech made in Pietermaritzburg on April 25, 1997)

“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)

“The Mahatma is an integral part of our history.” (Speech made in Pietermaritzburg on June 6, 1993)

“India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen.” (Article in Time, December 31, 1999).

In a speech made in New Delhi on October 15, 1990, he referred to Gandhi as the hero of both India and South Africa.

Mandela was well aware of the racist statements made by Gandhi when he was young. He wrote in an article in 1995, “Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”

Many other African and African American leaders, as well as leaders of other movements for freedom and peace, acknowledged that they derived inspiration from Gandhi. None of them were distracted or disturbed by the statements made by the young Gandhi.

India honours leaders of freedom movements

Honouring the leaders of the movements for freedom and peace in other countries and publicising their lives is an important contribution towards human solidarity. The United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on January 24, 1979 recommending that leaders of struggles against apartheid, racial discrimination and colonialism, and for peace and international cooperation be honoured by the international community and that their contributions be made widely known for the education of world public opinion, especially of the youth.

In New Delhi, the capital of India, there exists an Africa Avenue. There are streets named after Mandela, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Nkrumah. There are similar streets in other cities. The government of India gave its highest honour, Bharat Ratna, to Mandela and the International Gandhi Peace Prize to Julius Nyerere, Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The statue of Gandhi which some students are now opposing was presented to Ghana by the president of India as a token of friendship between the two countries. The recent events at the University of Legon should not be allowed to undermine that friendship. Let it be remembered that J.B. Danquah and Kwame Nkrumah, leaders of the freedom movement in Ghana, both acknowledged the inspiration of Gandhi. It was India which enabled Ghana (then Gold Coast) to attend the Asian African Conference in Bandung in 1955, even before it was independent, while excluding the racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the University of Legon in Ghana. Credit: Twitter

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the University of Legon in Ghana. Credit: Twitter

India and Ghana have been partners in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism at the United Nations and other international fora. Gandhi’s statue in Ghana and Nkrumah’s road in New Delhi should symbolise their continued partnership in protecting human dignity and promoting human welfare.

E.S. Reddy is a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and director of the UN Centre against Apartheid. He helped to build the international campaign against apartheid in consultation with the liberation movement of South Africa.