Gandhi's success in South Africa
by Radha Rajan on 02 Jul 2009 7 Comments

[This chapter presents a detailed timeline of Gandhi's political activism in South Africa and examines the build-up to being and becoming a mahatma. It demonstrates how Gandhi's political activism in South Africa was confined merely to getting the Transvaal and the Natal governments to amend laws affecting Indians in a manner to raise them to a level above that of native Africans. Gandhi was confronting entrenched Apartheid and this would not end until 1990; nothing changed for Indians or native Africans for as long as Gandhi stayed in South Africa and until 1990. This chapter shows how Gandhi's satyagraha in South Africa was gently nudged and and directed by the colonial governments in SA and in London to give Gandhi a halo and his satyagraha the reputation that it was the only effective tool for engagement with the British, and infinitely superior to armed resistance. Granting the bare minimum to give Gandhi an air of infallibility, Gen. Smuts gave him the appellation ‘the saint’ and bid Gandhi a permanent farewell – Author]

Even as the British government in India was removing Tilak and Aurobindo from the INC and from the political arena in 1909, the Imperial Government in London was shaping Gandhi’s political career in such a way that would make him the unchallenged leader of the INC in India in the not-too-distant future; crafting him to occupy the political space created by them with foresight and flawless planning.

From 1910, until Gandhi’s hurried departure to India in 1914, there was little or no advance in Gandhi’s ‘struggle’ in South Africa, though in 1913 Smuts precipitated a crisis that facilitated Gandhi emerging center-stage again. The events following the ‘crisis’ enabled the imperial British government, the South African government, and the INC, to act in tandem to catapult Gandhi to India as de-facto leader of the Congress. 

- 1913 November, the third Satyagraha campaign launched; Gandhi arrested thrice in four days; at the second trial he received a sentence of three months’ imprisonment, but was released before completing the term.

Very little is known about this Satyagraha, also known as the Natal Indian Strike or Miners’ Strike, Gandhi’s last campaign before finally departing from South Africa in July 1914 [1].  By this time the opposition to Gandhi was growing among the Indian community; one section began to get both disillusioned and dissatisfied with his Satyagraha and his refusal to even consider more effective methods of resistance and protest; this resulted in a split in the Natal Indian Congress. The timing of the last South African Satyagraha is significant. 

- Gandhi undertook this campaign within a month of the split in the NIC, almost as though to drive home the point that he alone could organize people into a mass-protest movement and that the regime would deal with Indians only with and through him. Yet the split in the NIC was the first crack in the myth about Gandhi’s leadership, namely, that he was so saintly and his methods so moral and noble that his leadership was beyond criticism, his methods beyond reproach.

Gandhi had to repair the image of his infallibility among the community for the sake of his political career in the immediate future in India; the British Empire had a stake in that mission because if Gandhi had to take over the leadership of the Congress and steer it away from armed resistance and political independence, towards passive acceptance of self-rule within the Empire, then Gandhi had to return to India with the image of being not only infallible but also morally superior to others in the INC. The British Empire could not afford to have Gandhi’s authority eroded nor have Indians perceive him as impotent.

- The South African government, for no tangible political reason and knowing that it would cause grave unrest within the Indian community, almost as if eager to present Gandhi with an explosive issue guaranteed to inflame passions and enable him to bring people to the streets, decided to de-recognize all marriages not conducted according to Christian rites and/or not registered with the Registrar of Marriages. In one stroke, it rendered illegal the unions of Indian Muslims and Hindus married according to their respective religious customs.

- Gandhi organized his satyagraha jointly against three laws: to protest the March 1913 ruling by Justice Searle in the Cape Supreme Court which de-recognized Hindu and Muslim marriages; the June 1913 Immigrants Regulation Amendment Act; and the notorious Three Pound Tax which came into effect in March 1911 and made it mandatory for every Indian family who did not wish to continue their contracts as indentured labour and chose to stay on in South Africa as ‘free’ Indians, to pay a tax of three pounds per head to the South African state. In this way, an ex-indentured family paid as much as 15, 20 or even 25 pounds, depending on the size of the family. Children of ex-indentured Indians were not spared, and boys above 16 years and girls over 13 had to pay this crippling tax. Clearly the South African regime was determined to precipitate a crisis.

- Gandhi’s last Satyagraha in South Africa thus brought to the streets indentured and ex-indentured Indians along with vast numbers of the Indian community, making this his largest campaign in South Africa, and covering a large segment of Apartheid laws in force against the Indian community. The coal miners from Newcastle in northern Natal were the first to down tools and join Gandhi in the strike, followed by workers across Natal. The satyagraha coincided with a general and paralyzing railway strike, and Gandhi was in a position to push the government into a corner, demanding immediate repeal of discriminatory laws in return for ending the non-cooperation movement. 

- As a perfect prelude to what would become a pattern in India, first in 1922, and then in 1931, even as many Indians were brutally beaten up, killed in police firing, and as more and more Indians, particularly women, joined the strike, choosing to die for Gandhi’s satyagraha, the leader himself was simply lodged in jail. As protests mounted over his ‘arrest’ and over police brutality, Gandhi called off the civil disobedience movement.

In this instance, Gandhi called off the strike at a time when it had gained optimum momentum and reached its peak, because he allegedly did not want to add to the troubles of the South African government which had already been brought to its knees by the general railway strike. So as a loyal citizen of the Empire, having demonstrated his ability to inflame passions and get people killed by repressive State power, he withdrew the strike and rendered the sacrifice of ordinary Indians completely futile.

Gandhi’s unique ability to arouse and deflate human passions somehow always benefited the colonial government and increased his own grip over the organizations he headed: first NIC, then NIA, and finally INC. Each time his moral halo was burnished by his acolytes, yet it pushed the people’s movement into an abyss of vulnerability and impotence, because every time Satyagraha or civil disobedience ended prematurely, it ended in failure. 

1] The timing of his departure is significant. Though tensions had been building up in Europe, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 proved to be the spark that finally triggered off World War I. G.K. Gokhale was already dying and Britain would have worried about Tilak and the other nationalists.

Excerpted from

Eclipse of the Hindu Nation: Gandhi and his freedom struggle
Radha Rajan
New Age Publishers (P) Ltd., Delhi, 2009
Price: Rs 495/-
ISBN 81- 7819 - 068- 0
The book may be ordered from the publishers at or at 011-2649 3326/ 27/ 28

The author is editor,

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