Africa Speaks
Race and HistoryNews and Views
Terms of Service | Translator | Nubian School | Channel Africa | Recommended Books

Articles Archive: Page 1 - Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6

Race and History Forum

Africa And Gandhi's Expanding Humanism

I have been surprised and distressed to read about the controversy in some quarters in South Africa over Gandhi's attitude towards the African struggle. I have tried to set out the facts in my response below. The article begins with three quotations from Gandhi which I think provide some understanding of his position. The body of the article follows thereafter.

I shall be be grateful if you could, if you think it appropriate, circulate it in the abiding memory of the struggles that Gandhi conducted on South African soil and his African friends and comrades.

Kind regards

Anil Nauriya

Advocate, Supreme Court of India

A-121 New Friends Colony,

New Delhi-110065, INDIA

By Anil Nauriya

(i) "They can use the powerful argument that they are the children of the soil….. We can petition the Secretary of State for India, whereas they cannot. They belong largely to the Christian community and can therefore avail themselves of the help of their priests. Such help is not available to us." Gandhi in Indian Opinion , 24 March 1906 (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume5, p 243 )

(ii) " England has got successful competitors in America, Japan, France, Germany. It has competitors in the handful of mills in India, and 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 pigmies 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."
Gandhi, speaking at Oxford, October 24, 1931 (CWMG , Volume 48, p.225).

(iii) "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." Gandhi to Rev S.S. Tema , member of the African Congress, January 1, 1939 (CWMG, Volume 68, pp 272-273.)


The generations in England, India and South Africa which were witness to Gandhi’s struggles by and large understood the complexities of the circumstances under which he lived and worked in the three countries.

To have such a "feel" for the times is what may be called a sense of history. It is part of the essential equipment of a historian who would understand the period. That is why it is unfortunate that there should be a controversy over Gandhi’s statue in South Africa in October 2003. The controversy is based primarily on Gandhi’s earlier somewhat dismissive and casual remarks which could be considered derogatory towards a section of the local people, regardless of what Gandhi's intention may have been. However such remarks were, with extended experience, not made after 1908. There was a definite widening in Gandhi’s outlook and growth in his understanding. It is that widening that is implicitly celebrated when Gandhi is celebrated.

The second aspect of the controversy relates to the criticism that Gandhi did not draw in Blacks into his movements in South Africa.

The laws governing Blacks and Indians in South Africa were different. The provocations for protest were therefore often different. Nevertheless, Gandhi had given thought to the question of mixing the African struggle with the Indian. At the time he considered the matter – in the infant years of the 20th Century --, the issue was not as though the Africans had started a struggle and Indians had to decide whether to join them The position was the reverse. Indians in South Africa had started a struggle and had to decide whether to involve Africans in their travails. Gandhi decided against doing so not out of a lack of sympathy for the Africans but precisely because of his concern for them. Indians had another country – India – to fall back to. Africans did not. The consequences of the struggle could be different for Africans and Indians. As the one leading the struggle, he had to consider these. If the former came into the struggle and violence was resorted to there might be repression of which the Africans could have to bear the brunt. We saw later what happened in South Africa in roughly the second half of the twentieth century once the organised African struggle began. That experience appears to have vindicated Gandhi’s early decision.

In 1936 Gandhi was asked by an American Black delegation: "Did the South African Negro take any part in your movement?" Gandhi replied: "No, I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause." (CWMG, Volume 62, p.199).
He told the Press on July 8, 1939: "Bantus can only damage and complicate their cause by mixing it up with the Indian" (CWMG, Vol 69, p. 408). He advised against a non-European front.
However he added in the same article that his advice "should not deter the Indians from forming a non-European front if they are sure thereby of winning their freedom."
He was in touch with Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Naicker who sought in the 1940s to build a joint struggle of Indians, Africans the coloured and the liberal-minded whites. This was with Gandhi’s support. With the changed situation in South Africa, Gandhi did not oppose a joint struggle. However he did maintain that it ought to be non-violent. (See E S Reddy, Gandhiji’s Vision of a Free South Africa, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1995, pp 55-61).
A deputation from South Africa led by Sorabji Rustomji came to India in 1946 (CWMG, Vol 83, pp 352-354). It was protesting against racial legislation in South Africa. A member of the delegation asked Gandhi: "You have said we should associate with Zulus and Bantus. Does it not mean joining them in a common anti-white front? " Gandhi replied: "Yes, I have said that we should associate with the Zulus, Bantus, etc….It will be good if you can fire them with the spirit of non-violence". (CWMG, Vol 83, p 353). Gandhi remarked of the deputationists’ cause on May 27, 1946 : "The cause is the cause of the honour of India and through her of all the exploited coloured races of the earth, whether they be brown, yellow or black. It is worth all the suffering of which they are capable". (CWMG, Vol 84, p. 215).

Gandhi’s article in the Harijan of September 22, 1946 sums up his attitude:
" News comes from Durban that a group of Indians has sprung up in South Africa who have lost faith in satyagraha. They cherish the dream that they can overthrow the rule of the White man there, only by joining forces with the Negroes, the coloured people, other Asiatics and European sympathizers and adopting violent means. The rumour, if there is any truth in it, is disturbing and a definite fly in the ointment. All, whether they believe in non-violence or not, should realise that Indians in South Africa gained world-wide esteem simply because in spite of being a handful, they showed infinite capacity for suffering and did not, through losing their patience, resort to sabotage and violence. They learnt the wholesome lesson that true well-being springs from suffering and that victory lies in unity. From my own experience, my firm advice to Indians in South Africa is that they should, on no account, be lured away into throwing aside the matchless weapon of satyagraha.
This does not, however, imply that they are not to accept the help of the coloured people, Negroes and any other sympathizers or that they will not help them in their need, should occasion arise. The only condition is that satyagraha should be their one and only weapon." (CWMG, Vol 85, pp297-298).

The same number of Harijan carried a statement by Jawaharlal Nehru : "The issue raised in South Africa is something more than an Indian issue. It is an issue which affects all Asians and, of course, all Africans. Therefore, this co-operation is necessary between all those affected. But the co-operation can only be effective and succeed on the basis of peaceful methods and it would be folly to indulge in violence."
During his major struggles in South Africa and after his return to India in 1915 Gandhi remained conscious
that when he worked for Indian rights or for Indian freedom back in India, it would be of benefit to other oppressed peoples.
Gandhi said on July 12, 1944: "Today there is no hope for the Negroes, but Indian freedom will fill them with hope" {Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,[CWMG] Volume 77, p.351} .

He knew that his struggles were based on the principle of racial equality and advanced that cause regardless of who suffered for that cause by participating in them. In South Africa Gandhi reached out to Africans like John Dube, who was the first President General of the African National Congress, and who had an industrial school , the Ohlange Institute, in Inanda near Phoenix. "There was frequent social contact between the inmates of the Phoenix settlement and the Ohlange Institute" (See E S Reddy, Gandhiji’s Vision of a Free South Africa, op. cit. p.49) Reddy writes that John Dube’s paper Ilange lase Natal, an African weekly in English and Zulu , used to be printed in the Indian Opinion press until the Ohlange Institute acquired a press of its own. Gandhi commended Dube’s work as he did that of Tengo Jabavu to set up a college for Africans. (See also CWMG, Vol 5, p. 55)
Gandhi left something permanent behind him in South Africa – and what he left behind was for all South Africans. A decade after Gandhi’s return to India in 1915, Sarojini Naidu, the famous Indian woman who later headed the Indian National Congress, visited South Africa. On February 29, 1924 she wrote to Gandhi from Johannesburg: " I cannot sleep in South Africa and it is all your fault. You haunt the land and its soil is impregnated with the memory of your wonderful struggle, sacrifice and triumph. I am so deeply moved, so deeply aware all the time that here was the cradle of satyagraha -- do you wonder that I have been able to move thousands of men and women in the last two days to tears under the influence and stimulus of your inspiration? …. I have seen your legion of old friends and followers – white, brown and black – the whole gamut of the polychromatic scale of humanity in this land -- all send you their love…." (See Mrinalini Sarabhai (Ed) The Mahatma And The Poetess, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai and Sarvodaya International Trust, Bangalore, 1998 pp 37-38)
Even later Gandhi remained in touch with African struggles and the state of civil liberties in Africa. In October 1920 he was in the midst of a struggle in India. But we find him commenting in Young India: "Look at the trial of an English officer and the farcical punishment he received for having deliberately tortured inoffensive Negroes at Nairobi." (CWMG, Vol 18, p 321). Gandhi remained in contact also with leading American Black personalities like W E B Dubois. He wrote in Young India on October 14, 1926 about the "injustice that is being daily perpetrated against the Negro in the United States of America in the name of and for the sake of maintaining white superiority." In the same article he reminded Indians that: "Our treatment of the so-called untouchables is no better than that of coloured people by the white man". (CWMG, Vol 31, pp 492-493).
In 1933 he commended the work done for Blacks in the United States by the Hampton Institute, Virginia and Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. These two institutions were associated with Armstrong and Booker T Washington respectively. (CWMG, Vol 55, pp 322-324). He praised the work of the "white men" at Hampton, comparing it with the work done by some ‘upper caste’ Hindus for Dalits, or Harijans, in India. Hampton was for him a "great enterprise and a noble monument of the industrious and exceedingly well-informed zeal of a handful of white reformers" .
He referred to Tuskegee as a "noble edifice" built by Booker T Washington with his "limitless faith and equally limitless application".
Gandhi sent a message on the centenary of the abolition of slavery for the international celebration that was fixed for July 29, 1933 in Hull, England. This was Wilberforce’s native town. (CWMG, Vol 55, p.317). In his message Gandhi said: "India has much to learn from the heroes of the abolition of slavery for we have slavery based upon supposed religious sanction and more poisonous than its Western fellow."
He compared the abolition of slavery with the abolition of untouchability. (CWMG, Vol 56, pp 88-90).

His concerns against racial oppression are not limited to Blacks. They extend to "Red Indians",or American Indians (CWMG Vol 56, p 103) the Chinese miners in South Africa (CWMG, Volume 5, pp 60-61 ), and other peoples.
Gandhi understood the essential unity of struggles for racial equality

Trinicenter Int. | Africa News Links | 9/11 Home | Latest News | Sources | Search | Homepage

NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. is a 100% non-profit Website.