Gandhi in South Africa

One of the greatest leaders that the world has ever seen, Mahatma Gandhi, was a political figure, a social and political reformer, a humanist, a visionary and a spiritual leader, who took the country on the road to freedom. Gandhi, popularly known as the Mahatma, not only led the freedom struggle in India but also performed a pivotal role in the struggle of the Indians for civil rights in South Africa. Victimized by incidents of racial discrimination, Gandhi embarked on a crusade against injustice in South Africa that he continued the rest of his life. The twenty long years that Gandhi lived in South Africa, had a considerable influence on the formation of his political ideologies and the philosophies of his life. It was in South Africa that Gandhi's stature gradually began to gain height. His experiences and activities in South Africa provided the necessary background for his subsequent emergence onto the Indian political scenario. His greatest achievement in South Africa was perhaps the unification of the heterogeneous Indian community that comprised of disgruntled merchants and the bonded laborers.

The ideological concepts with which Gandhi revolutionized the Indian political scenario were molded to a large extent in South Africa. The celebrated notion of satyagraha emerged as a consequence of various influences that worked on him. He extensively read religious books on Hinduism, like the Bhagwat Gita, and Christianity in South Africa. The works of Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin and Ralph Waldo, also had significant influences on his thoughts. The notion of Non-Co-Operation Movement, as a civilian weapon to fight governmental tyranny was discussed by all these major writers, but it was Gandhi who gave practical shape to the concept. He was the first one to organize satyagraha struggle in South Africa. For Gandhi the doctrine of satyagraha entailed passive resistance and commitment to the forces of truth.

His second weapon, non violence or ahimsa also evolved in South Africa. This cardinal principle of Gandhian philosophy was imbibed from Jainism and Vaishnavism. Gandhi showed to the world how non violence could be used as an effective political tool to fight the injustices hurled by an oppressive government. For Gandhi, ahimsa entailed self control, swaraj or self rule, and chastity. Alongside, Gandhi embraced a philosophy that disapproved of the norms of Western civilization and conceived of moral reformation of the Indians.

Gandhi's Arrival in South Africa

Upon returning from England with a degree in law, Gandhi began a legal practice in Mumbai and Rajkot, Gujarat. However, he was unsuccessful to establish a career as a lawyer in both the places. At this point, Gandhi received an offer from the firm Dada Abdulla Seth and Company, to be the legal representative of the firm in South Africa. Gandhi accepted the offer and set sail for a whole new world in April, 1893.

In the month of May, 1893, Gandhi reached Durban. Accompanied by Dada Abdulla, one of the richest Indian traders in Natal, who also happened to be his employer, he went to visit the Durban Court. The European magistrate at the court instructed Gandhi to remove his turban. He not only disobeyed the commands of the magistrate but issued a protect letter to the press. This was, however, just the lull before the storm. The final provocation took place during his journey to Pretoria from Durban shook the consciousness of the young lawyer to such an extent that he assumed a staunch position against racial prejudice. This incident played a major role in carving out the future course of Gandhi's life.

Gandhi was traveling on a first class ticket, bought by his client to Pretoria. When his train drew into Petermaritzburg, a white man entered his compartment and sought the help of an officer to move Gandhi to the third class compartment. This was only because Gandhi was a 'colored' person, of Asian origin. When Gandhi refused to oblige the white man, a constable turned him out of the compartment to suffer in the bitter cold at the waiting room. Humiliated and insulted, Gandhi reflected on his next action. It was at this moment that a steadfast determination took hold of him. He resolved that under no circumstances would he allow racial discriminations to get an upper hand. The larger cause of human respect and the honor of the Indian community became critical to him. After few weeks in Pretoria, Gandhi called a meeting and addressed the Indian community, where he upheld before them the dismal conditions under which they lived. To represent Indian interests, Gandhi and other Indians, decided to form a permanent body. This organization was named the Natal Indian Congress and Gandhi assumed its leadership. At the same time Gandhi worked assiduously for the lawsuit that brought him to South Africa.

As Gandhi was preparing to return to India, after the completion of his lawsuit, the news of a proposed bill, to be introduced by the Natal Government, reached him. This bill would lead to disenfranchising of the Indians in South Africa. Pleaded by his fellow Indians, Gandhi remained back and took up the issue. Although the bill was passed inspite of Gandhi's attempts, his crusade continued for twenty long years. As part of his struggle, he drafted memorandums, distributed petitions and wrote to the newspapers. His activities in South Africa enabled him to gain an image as the patron of Indian civil rights and an important political leader.

In the year 1896, Gandhi returned to India for a period of six months. During this period, he sought to present before the Indians, the pitiful situation of their fellow men in South Africa. However, Gandhi's activities were blown out of proportion by the press in South Africa. When he landed in South Africa, an agitated mob comprising of the whites, attacked him. As the news of this attack, spread rapidly, Joseph Chamberlain, enjoined the prosecution of the assailants. During his second phase of stay in South Africa, Gandhi adopted a simple mode of living, renouncing the lavish standards of living. When the Boer War broke out, Gandhi requested the Indian community, to extend their support to the British. In 1901, Gandhi returned to India but he had to return to appear before Joseph Chamberlain, to plead the Indian case. However, he failed to win over the understanding of Joseph Chamberlain. It was also at this time that Gandhi resolved to lead a celibate life and took to reading Ruskin.

Satyagraha in South Africa

The first satyagraha struggle that Gandhi launched in South Africa was against the background of the passage of Asiatic Registration Act by the government of Transvaal in 1907. Realizing that his techniques of prayers and petitions had been rendered ineffectual, the tactic of passive resistance emerged as the new method of opposing. He urged the Indian community to disobey the Act and resort to picketing of the major offices like the permit offices. In 1908, in the month of January, Gandhi and other satyagrahis were jailed. Following this a movement commenced where the satyagrahis began to burn the certificates in a bonfire. In the month of September, Gandhi was arrested for the second time, this time sentenced for two months. The following year, saw Gandhi once again behind the bars for three months. It is pertinent to mention here that Gandhi founded a small colony by the name Tolstoy Farm, where his fellow satyagrahis could lead a bare existence.

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