Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gandhi in South Africa

Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi used non-violence noncooperation, known as satyagraha, to bring independence to his country India. However, the satyagraha developed not in India, but in a country across another side of the Indian Ocean – South Africa. There Gandhi stayed for more than a decade and developed his most revolutionary way of fighting oppression and discrimination.

Gandhi worked as a lawyer before going to South Africa. After studying law in England in 1891, Gandhi returned to India to establish himself as a lawyer in Bombay. Sadly, he failed to make a name for himself and advance his career. The frustrated lawyer then agreed to work for the law firm Dada Abdullah and Co. in the colony of Transvaal (today part of South Africa). In May 1893, the future father of Indian Independence arrived in Transvaal.

Mohandas K. Gandhi suffered discrimination during his early stay in Transvaal. In order to be familiar with British courts in Transvaal, Gandhi travelled to the courthouses of Durban. When he observed a litigation in a courtroom, decorum dictated that everyone should remove their hats. At that time, Gandhi wore a turban and he considered it not a hat. But the court made him remove it. But for Gandhi, the act seemed to be an indignation and he refused to remove his turban. To avoid further commotions, he decided to leave the courtroom. But his experience in the courtroom proved to be just a start of discriminations he suffered later. In a trip to Pretoria in June 1893, Gandhi rode a train sitting in a first class cabin. To his surprise, white inspectors of the train ordered him to leave the cabin and return to third class seats because first class seats were reserved for whites. Gandhi refused to do so, reasoning that he was subject of the British Empire and he had every right same to that of the white British. His arguments went in vain. The train inspectors kicked him out of the train in Pietermaritzburg Station. He stayed in the station stranded and alone under cold temperatures. Following his mishap in the train, he also suffered another form of discrimination in a carriage ride. Gandhi got beaten by a coach driver when he refused to give up his sit for a white passenger and riding in the foot board or in the side of the driver. The driver beat him hard until the passengers pleaded for mercy for Gandhi. Gandhi experienced the discrimination of more than 100,000 Indians in South Africa.

Indians in South Africa numbered around 150,000 to 200,000 during the time of Gandhi’s stay. Indians arrived in South African colonies in the 1860’s as contractual or indentured laborers to British plantations and mines. They served as what the westerners called as coolies. As time went by, the number of Indian coolies increased and precipitated also with the arrival of professional and merchant Indians. This few professional and educated Indians encompassed around 10% of Indians in South Africa and became known as Passengers or merchant coolies. Nevertheless, Indians experienced discrimination alongside with other colored people. As stated, Indians, being colored, did not have the privileges to ride first class sits in train and had to prioritize whites for seats in carriages. Furthermore, Indians could not walk in the sidewalks and their Hindu or Muslim marriages did not find any legal recognition in South African colonies.

Gandhi established the Natal Indian Congress as a response to the discrimination that Indians experienced and aimed to push the agenda of civil rights. In June 1894, Gandhi’s contract expired and he had to leave the South African colonies and head home back to India. During his farewell party, however, news of a new legislation pushed in the Natal Legislature caught the attention of the Indians and Gandhi. The Natal Legislature planned to pass the Franchise Amendment Act, aimed in removing the rights of Indians to vote for election. Indians sought his help in stopping the bill from passing. Gandhi felt that he needed to help the Indians under the pretext that Indians stood equal with any other citizens of the British Empire and that the bill aimed to degrade officially as second class citizens. Gandhi, along with the support of the elite Indian class created the Natal Indian Congress in August 1894. The Congress had the aim of pushing for equal rights for Indians in the colony. Gandhi began as a weak public speaker reinforced by his small and weak stature. But eventually, he developed his public speaking skill and became vocally loud for the rights of Indians, especially against the bill. To stop the bill, Gandhi launched a signature campaign in order to show the dismay and anger of Indians over the bill. Ultimately, it failed. The Franchise Amendment Act passed by the Natal Legislature and Indian loss their right to vote. But Gandhi made a name for himself as a civil rights activist and a rebel rouser.

An incident occurred in 1897 as a result of Gandhi’s activism. In late 1896, he left South Africa temporarily and returned to India to get his wife and kids to follow him in the colony. As they left India, however, a disease broke out in Bombay. Upon their return to South Africa, the officials quarantined them. As Gandhi left quarantine in January of 1897, a mob angry white men, delirious of the disease from India and probably critical of his activities, attacked and beat Gandhi to unconsciousness. Officials had to provide sanctuary for Gandhi for few days afterwards in order to save Gandhi from another attack. Surprisingly, as his attackers captured by officials, Gandhi showed remarkable patience and forgiveness by refusing to press charges.

Gandhi saw the Boer War as a chance for Indians to show their loyalty to the British Empire. In 1899, the British attacked the Boers to completely occupy the remaining Boer colonies in South Africa. Gandhi on the other hand supported the British to display that they shared the aspirations of Britain as same as other British citizens. He hope that if Indian supported the British they would gain recognition as equals. As a sign of support, Gandhi created an ambulance corps comprising about 1,100 members, 300 of which came from prominent backgrounds. Later on, Gandhi also did the same in 1906 during the Zulu Rebellion, where once again he formed the corps again providing medical services to both friends and foes. In 1902, the Boer War ended but Gandhi did not get the result he intended. The colonial government of Jan Christian Smuts appreciated the efforts of Gandhi and the Indians, nevertheless, he fell short of granting them equal rights with whites.

Gandhi returned to India briefly from 1901 to 1902. He wanted to restart his career as a lawyer in India. Nevertheless, he remained vocal about the grievances and problems of Indians in South Africa. In December 1901, he spoke to the Indian National Congress to detail the ordeals of Indians in South Africa. In February 1902, he met Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale who influenced Gandhi about Indian nationalism. Eventually, when he failed to restart his law career in India, he returned to South Africa in 1902.

The Asiatic Registration Act of 1907 became the next focal point of conflict. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new act aiming at Indians. The Asiatic Registration Act mandated Indians to register their names along with fingerprint. After which, certificates would be issue and must be always carried by the Indians. The act also ordered the revocation of their residency and finally deportation of those who refused and gave officials the right to enter to any homes of Indians without warrants. Gandhi and the Natal Indian Congress tremendously and unanimously opposed the act. Gandhi himself plead to London to pressure the Transvaal Government to disregard the discriminatory act. Nevertheless, the Transvaal parliament approved the registration measure and became known as the Asiatic Registration Act of July 1907.

Resistance to the act raged for the next seven years. Gandhi made a speech in front of Indians on September 11, 1906 in the Johannesburg Empire Theater. There, he unveiled his new form of protest – the satyagraha.

Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word meaning insistence of truth, became the center ideology of Gandhi and the Indians resistance and protest. Gandhi insisted that for Indians to show their true strength against the hatred and anger of their oppressors, they must be strong to take on their force. Taking it head on, without fighting back. Many called it as passive resistance but Gandhi insisted that taking on the anger of an oppressor without fighting was not passive. Satyagraha came together as a result of Gandhi’s interest about religion. Even during his days in London studying law, Gandhi began to read the Bhagavad Gita and also the Bible. Especially, Gandhi became fond of the Sermon on the Mount. And upon his arrival in South Africa, he expanded his interest from the Bible to the Koran. He also started to read the work of Leo Tolstoy titled The Kingdom of God Within You. Gandhi’s interest in religion led to a visit in a Trappist monastery near Durban in April 1895. There, he highly commended the monks for their simplicity, self-reliance, and vow of poverty. This he translated into the creation of his small self-sufficient villages called ashrams. Gandhi then used this principle or organize strikes and peaceful demonstrations and protest. He called for Indians to boycott the registration, which went successfully when only a hundred of Indians out of hundred thousand registered. Many Indians suffered beating by police and whites. Many went to jail, including Gandhi and other prominent Indians. Cases of killings of Indians reported. Civil disobedience of the Indians created disruptions in the government and created huge negative publicities not just in South Africa but also in India and Britain.

A brief compromise had been made in early 1908. Commissioner Jan Christian Smuts summoned the incarcerated Mohandas K. Gandhi to discuss a compromise that would end the satyagraha campaign. On February 10, Commissioner Smuts agreed to make the registration voluntary. Gandhi agreed and he himself volunteered first to register. However, some Indian did not felt the same and became furious. A giant named Alam Khan beat up the first Indian to voluntarily registered, which in that case, Gandhi. Gandhi did not died but suffer a tremendous beating forgave his assailant. Peace temporarily returned but lasted only until August. Gandhi hoped that his compromise with Smuts would result to the repeal of the Asiatic Registration Act. However, it never materialized and misunderstandings about the truce led to the collapse of the compromise between the government and the Indians.

On August 16, 1908, Gandhi called for the renewal of nonviolent civil disobedience against the government. He also orchestrated a mass burning of registration certificates. 2,000 Indians participated in the burning in Hamidia Mosque. The burning of the registration certificate led to the arrest and imprisonment of the leaders of the Natal Indian Congress, including Gandhi. The struggle against the registration act and other forms of government supported discrimination lasted for the next six years.

Government laws against Indians expanded during the struggle. The Transvaal Government prohibited the entry of Indians to the colonies. In 1913, Smuts imposed a £3 poll tax to any indentured men, women, and children. As recalled, about 90% of Indians in the South Africa were indentured.

Gandhi continued to fight. Even though he faced constant harassment and imprisonment, it never deterred him. Eventually, he and his compatriot’s actions resulted to huge negative publicity in South Africa, India, and England that smeared the reputation of Commissioner Jan Christian Smuts.

Another compromise made by Commissioner Smuts and Gandhi on June 30, 1914. Smuts passed the Indian Relief Act in July 1914 that gave Indian a sigh of relief. The government started to recognize Hindu and Muslim Marriages. The poll tax issued in 1913 revoked.

After compromise, Gandhi decided his time in South Africa had ended and he had to return to his homeland to bring the same justice to his fellow men and country. Gandhi returned to India and 1914 and began the more than two decades of struggle for Indian Independence. South Africa proved to be a testing ground for Gandhi’s satyagraha, in preparation for its bigger purpose – driving out the colonial powers in India.

See also:

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi", accessed July 04, 2015,

"Indian South Africans." in Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. Edited by Jamie Stokes. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2000.

Dennis, Michael. "Gandhi Mohandas." in Historical Dictionary of European Imperialism. Edited by James Olson. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Beck, Roger. The History of South Africa. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Hewison, Hope Hay. Hedge of Wild Almonds: South Africa, the Pro-Boers & the Quaker Conscience. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1989.

Marlay, Ross & Neher, Clark. Patriots and Tyrants: Ten Asian Leaders. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.

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