The great rush to colonize and claim South Africa took place at roughly the same time as the westward expansion of the United States. The attractions of open territory, of fabulous natural wealth (and nat- ural beauty), of escape from an over-populated and class-ridden Old World — these were what the two processes of economic migration had in common. But whereas the European colonists of western America had merely to deal with the natives, their counterparts in southern Africa had this additional complicating factor — the presence of Indians from India, who were not indigenous but emphatically not European either.
It was in this strange scenario that Gandhi came to acquire, and practise, his four major callings — those of freedom fighter, social reformer, religious pluralist and prophet. In fact, an early (and now largely forgot- ten) associate of his once identified as many as seventeen identities that Gandhi bore in the years he spent outside India. ‘South Africa is the grave of many reputations,’ wrote this man, adding: ‘It has certainly been the birth-place of a few, and one such is that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Diwan’s son, barrister, stretcher-bearer, pamphleteer, cultured thinker, courteous gentleman, manual labourer, nurse, teacher, agitator, propagandist, sterling friend, no man’s enemy, ex-convict, sadhu, chosen leader of his people, and arch passive-resister.’
Of these seventeen identities, the last has had the greatest impact on the history of the world. Gandhi gave the name ‘satyagraha’ (or truth-force) to the techniques of mass civil disobedience he invented in South Africa and later used in India, and which his followers or admirers used in other countries. Before Gandhi, those discontented with their superiors had either petitioned their rulers for justice or sought to attain justice by means of armed struggle. The distinctiveness of Gandhi’s method lay in shaming the rulers by voluntary suffering, with resisters seeking beatings and imprisonment by breaking laws in a non-violent yet utterly determined manner.
In 1916, not long after Gandhi left South Africa, a publisher in a small town in central India brought out a history in Hindi of the satyagrahas Gandhi had led. The book was presented as ‘the story of that heroic battle, which was the first of its kind in the history of the world’, a battle where ‘there were no guns and bombs and cannons’ (and ‘no shells thrown by aeroplanes’ either), a battle which showed that ‘strength of character can conquer any other kind of strength’. The publisher hoped the reader would ‘swell with pride’ as he learnt of how ‘coolies and labourers’ in the diaspora had ‘shamed and shocked educated elites [in India] with their resolution and spirit.’
At this time, Gandhi had been back barely a year in India. The British were solidly in control of the subcontinent. Still, what might have sounded hyperbolic in 1916 may seem more reasonable a century later. For the Indian freedom struggle, the civil rights movement in the United States, the civic resistance to Communism in Eastern Europe and China (including Tibet), the ongoing protests against military dictators in Burma and the Middle East, have all taken some or much inspiration from techniques of protest first forged by Gandhi in the Transvaal. The colossal and still expanding influence of satyagraha mandates a closer attention to the precocious protests of Indians in South Africa, to aid a deeper understanding of Gandhi in his time, and of his still unfolding legacy in ours.
Rather than rely on Gandhi’s own recollections (contained in two books published a decade and a half after he left South Africa), I have here examined his early satyagrahas through the prism of contemporary documents. These letters, speeches, newspaper accounts, court cases and government reports give a more immediate sense of how Gandhi formulated his ideas of civil disobedience, of how he designed its methods and techniques, and how he mobilized people to court imprisonment. From these varied sources we can track how the protests unfolded and what forms they took, who followed Gandhi (and why) and who opposed him (and why), and where the funds for sustaining the resistance he led were coming from. The historical reconstruction of these first satyagrahas also throws a sharp light on a crucial period of South African history, as once separate colonies came together in a territorial Union that consolidated white sentiments and prejudices against the hopes and aspirations of the darker races.
The political Gandhi may be illuminated from more angles than his own. So also the personal Gandhi. Here too, the South African experience was fundamental and formative. Most Indians of Gandhi’s generation worked and died in the same town or village in which they were born. In their everyday lives, they mostly met and spoke with people who had the same mother tongue and the same ancestral faith as they. By coming to South Africa, Gandhi was taken out of this conservative, static world into a country still in the process of being made. Durban and Johannesburg, the two cities where he lived and worked, were attracting migrants from Europe and Asia, and from other parts of Africa. In this heterogeneous and ever-changing society, Gandhi forged enduring friendships with individuals of ethnic and religious backgrounds very different from his own.
Strikingly, perhaps even tragically, the friends and associates of Gandhi’s South African years are largely absent from the historical record. This is due to a combination of factors — an excessive reliance on the Collected Works; the tendency to treat the life before India as a prelude to the real story rather than as having an integrity of its own; and the tendency among biographers and hagiographers to magnify the role and personality of their main subject. Most Indians — and, following Attenborough’s film, many non-Indians too — are moderately well acquainted with the colleagues and critics of the mature Gandhi. Yet they know very little about those who worked with him in South Africa. Here, his closest friends outside his family were two Hindus (a doctor-turned-jeweller and a liberal politician respectively); two Jews (one a journalist from England, the other an architect originally from Eastern Europe); and two Christian clergymen (one a Baptist, the other an Anglican).
These six men were, so to speak, the South African analogues of Gandhi’s famous colleagues in the Indian freedom struggle — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Madeleine Slade (Mira Behn), C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad, et al. They are much less recognized (in some cases, unrecognized), although their impact on Gandhi’s character and conduct may have been even more decisive, for they came into his life when he was not yet a great public figure or ‘Mahatma’ — as he was in India — but a struggling, searching activist.