The South African Gandhi
Stretcher-Bearer of Empire
Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed



The Remains of Empire

[T]he iconic image of Gandhi is of a man of God steeped in austerity, sexually renunciate, meditating in his ashram, who the assasin’s bullet providentially transformed into a martyr. . . . All the evidence available, however, points to the real Gandhi as being very different. . . . The contrast between the icon and the blood-and-flesh individual is the result of selective memory.

—Claude Markovits (2004: 163–4)

On the brink of the twentieth century, South Africa was engulfed in a war between Boer and Brit sparked by the conflict between British imperial interests and local Boer nationalism. There was also the matter of the rich veins of gold discovered in territory claimed by the Boers which became a substantial economic prize for the victor.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi marshalled a group of mostly South African–born Indian1 stretcher-bearers and marched into the war zone to support fallen British troops. Gandhi saw the war as an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Empire. In doing so, he hoped to give impetus to his pleas and petitions for Indian equality within South African society as British subjects. Gandhi was seeking equality of a special sort: limited integration into white South African society.

The signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902 brought to an end the violent conflict between Boer and Brit. It did not, however, provide any safeguards for those who were not white and in the years following the war, racial legislation aimed at Indians gathered force. Still, Gandhi did not give up on his belief that protection could be found under the paternal embrace of Empire.

Even with ample evidence of mounting contempt towards Indians by the new British overlords of South Africa, when the Zulus rose up against crippling taxes in Natal in 1906, Gandhi marched once again to war as a stretcher-bearer of Empire. There were almost no British casualties. As artillery met assegai, three thousand five hundred Zulu were killed, seven thousand huts were burnt, and thirty thousand people were left homeless (Guy 2006: 170). Gandhi and his coolie Ambulance Corps carried the injured of the marauding white colonial militia and tended the bodies of the native victims of British retribution. At the height of this war, Empire Day was celebrated on 24 May 1906 to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria who had died in 1901. Gandhi used the occasion to reflect on Empire:

As the years roll on, the memory of that noble lady remains as fresh as ever. Her interest in India and its people was intense, and in return, she received the whole-hearted affection of India’s millions. . . . The great British Empire has not risen to its present proud position by methods of oppression, nor is it possible to hold that position by unfair treatment of its loyal subjects. British Indians have always been most devoted to their Sovereign, and the Empire has lost nothing by including them among its subjects. . . . We venture to suggest that, if there were more of Queen Victoria’s spirit of enlightenment put into the affairs of the Empire, we should be worthier followers of so great an Empire-builder (IO: 26 May 1906; CWMG 5: 228).

Gandhi’s demonstration of loyalty came to naught. Local British administrators snubbed him and ignored his request for reforms.

This led to Gandhi becoming more activist than petitioner. He began to think through and act on his ideas of satyagraha during his campaigns in the Transvaal against the 1906 ‘Black Act’ that required Indians to record their fingerprints with the Registrar of Asiatics. Gandhi envisaged resistance by highly trained satyagrahis who would attain heightened levels of consciousness and discipline before entering the battlefield where they would appropriate the moral force of passively resisting injustice, whatever blows were rained down upon them.

We do not follow the departing Gandhi too far into his return to India and the new politics that he developed there. However, we do take note of his offer, once more, to be a stretcher bearer for Empire in 1914 when the First World War broke out and then to bear arms in 1918 when the Empire was at risk. Gandhi’s avowal of violence again at the behest of Empire, when he consistently denounced violence by Indian strikers in South Africa in 1913, left many of his supporters and friends perplexed.

Gandhi did not stop lobbying for reform during the Transvaal passive resistance campaign. He made the long journey by ship to London in 1906 and again in 1909 for the support of the British government, only to be hoodwinked into believing that the British would safeguard Indian rights in South Africa. The war with the Boers had taken its toll on the British. As Burton points out, ‘the result of the South African war was a pyrrhic victory, for the British “success” on the ground came at enormous cost, both in terms of the dead and the wounded and with respect to imperial confidence’ (2011: 280). While Gandhi pursued the vocation of being the Empire’s stretcher-bearer, the war convinced many in the Colonial Office that the Empire was overreaching. The British responded by providing for self-government for the Boers in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1907, and facilitated the Union of South Africa in 1910, in which three of the four provinces were dominated by Afrikaners (Belich 2009: 386).

The Union saw British capital and Afrikaner nationalism enter into what David Yudelman called a symbiotic relationship (1984: 22). Africans, Asians and coloureds were excluded from political (and economic) power. Their rights were sacrificed at the altar of British economic interests. Britain remained the Union’s dominant trading partner. In 1913, it provided 91 percent of South Africa’s overseas investment, while 88 percent of South African exports went to Britain. As Belich notes, once the Boers were entrenched in power ‘British-South Africa’s recolonisation consolidated economically’ (2009: 386).

These political developments, as they unfolded from 1902, forced Gandhi to engage with new authorities to advance the demands of Indians. His main sparring partner was one-time Boer War general Jan Christiaan Smuts who became part of the government of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Smuts moved quickly to show his government’s loyalty to Empire and his resolve to protect British investments, especially those related to the gold mines. He delivered troops to the British effort in the First World War in the face of rebellion from within his own ranks as he pursued the same strategy as Gandhi—appeasing the British (Belich 2009: 386).

During the period of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa the position of Africans worsened dramatically, culminating in the Land Act of 1913 that effectively limited African land ownership to 13 percent of the country’s land mass. The Land Act gave de jure status to the land dispossession that was already being enforced violently and which effectively squeezed millions of Africans at the pain of starvation into a brutal labour regime, administered, quite literally, by the whip. Olive Schreiner (1855–1920), novelist and anti-war campaigner, wrote that

blinded by the gain of the moment, we see nothing in our dark man but a vast engine of labour. . . . If dispossessed entirely of the land for which he now shows that large aptitude for peasant proprietorship . . . we reduce this mass to a great seething, ignorant proletariat (TL: 22 December 1908).

Yet, a widely publicised recent study, Gandhi Before India (2013) by Ramachandra Guha, suggests that because Indians were more adept at challenging white domination, the ruling class passed a myriad of laws to restrict their movements and that ‘in so far as these restrictions were later extended more thoroughly to the Africans, the Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims’ (2013: 12). This staggering claim ignores three centuries of African dispossession, consisting of a brutal migrant labour system that forced Africans from their homesteads deep underground into the mines of South Africa, the numerous taxes that crippled them economically, and the strict enforcement of curfew and laws which controlled African movement (Van Onselen 1985: 63). Competitive challenges for the colonial market from independent black producers sparked antagonism from white farmers long before the assault on Indian traders and was dealt with by a variety of state-sanctioned methods (see Bundy 1979).

By the beginning of 1913, Gandhi found his mission at an impasse as he embarked on his last major campaign in South Africa. For the first time, the indentured, women and the Indian working classes were the engine room of resistance. The end of this strike marked his departure from the shores of South Africa. How did Gandhi react to the emerging political order post 1902 that was based on ethnic and racial differentiation? Did the suffering of Africans trigger in Gandhi a feeling of affinity, or a need for alliance with them? What shaped Gandhi’s attitude towards a political alliance with Africans? As Gandhi sensed that white rule was determined not to make any concessions to Indians, did his strategies change in line with new realities?

This book shows that Gandhi sought to ingratiate himself with Empire and its mission during his years in South Africa. In doing so, he not only rendered African exploitation and oppression invisible, but was, on occasion, a willing part of their subjugation and racist stereotyping. This is not the Gandhi spoken of in hagiographic speeches by politicians more than a century later. This is a different man picking his way through the dross of his time; not just any time, but the height of colonialism; not through any country, but a land that was witness to three centuries of unremitting conquest, brutality and racial bloodletting.

Over the decades the complexities, ironies and blemishes of Gandhi’s South African years have been smothered to serve the political expediencies of the day. Commemorating Gandhi is part of a vigorous debate in post-apartheid South Africa about ‘history and heritage, “truth” and “lies”, and memory and make-believe’ (Coombes 2003: 5). The cultural historian Annie Coombes asks us to consider seriously how best to represent national history through cultural institutions and monuments because elites tend to invent stories and historical figures which are seen as the glue to reconcile competing interests in transforming societies (2006: 8). While Coombes calls for an understanding of South Africa’s past that goes beyond a simple binary between apartheid and resistance, Gandhi has been reinvented as an icon of non-racialism and as one of the foremost fighters against segregation.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela wrote in Time magazine in 1999:

India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen. Both countries contributed to his intellectual and moral genius, and he shaped the liberatory movements in both colonial theaters. He is the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary. His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century. . . . The sight of wounded and whipped Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic (Mandela 1999).

At the Chief Albert Luthuli Centenary Celebration at Kwa Dukuza on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, Mandela said:

It was also around this region that Mahatma Gandhi spent so much of his time conducting the struggle of the people of South Africa. It was here that he taught that the destiny of the Indian Community was inseparable from that of the oppressed African majority. That is why, amongst other things, Mahatma Gandhi risked his life by organising for the treatment of Chief Bhambatha’s injured warriors in 1906 (Mandela 1998).

South African President Thabo Mbeki said at the launch of the film Gandhi, My Father at the Monte Casino in Johannesburg:

Launching this film in South Africa is no coincidence, since Gandhi spent many years in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914, a period during which he used his extraordinary energies to fight racism. I think we will agree that the launch of this kind of movie, focusing on one of the greatest opponents of colonialism and racism, is long overdue. We welcome this movie because I trust it can only reactivate our collective memory and deepen our understanding of the great sacrifices of this gigantic human being. . . . We now know that the greatness of his soul was not limited only to people of Indian descent who called him ‘Mahatma’, but to the human race as a whole (Mbeki 2007).

Gandhi is publicly commemorated in many ways in South Africa. The Gandhi statue in Pietermaritzburg commemorates the May 1893 incident when he was thrown off the train en route to Pretoria; the area in Johannesburg’s central business district where he appeared regularly at the court house is now called Gandhi Square; and the Gandhi Memorial outside the Hamidia Mosque in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, also known as ‘Burning Trust’, commemorates the burning of passes by Indians in 1908 when the Black Act came into existence.

The need to make a claim on the legacy of Gandhi, the Mahatma, is so great that many inconvenient truths about Gandhi the South African politician, are easily forgotten. The result, as the feminist historian Antoinette Burton points out, is that the

sacrality with which his South Africa career tends to be treated, together with an understandable yet nonetheless selective Indian diasporic struggle/heritage narrative, means that seeing both his relationship with Africans and of Indian–African relationships more generally is a huge challenge (2012: 11).

How should we remember and what should we remember through the monuments dedicated to Gandhi? What exactly are we commemorating? What are we communicating? How do we address the competing constituencies, ambiguities and tensions surrounding Gandhi’s South African years?

While a corpus of critical work on Gandhi has emerged over the years, individually, these works have done little to dent the overwhelming storyline of his heroism—of an individual who slowly but inexorably transformed into a Mahatma by the time he left the shores of South Africa in 1914.2

The early hagiographies of Gandhi relied on his own writings and on biographies of him by his close friends and contemporaries who were often in awe of him, such as his South African associates Reverend Joseph Doke and Henry Polak, the American journalist Louis Fischer, and the French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland. Fischer described Gandhi as ‘the greatest individual of the twentieth century, if not the twenty centuries’ (Fischer 1954: 88). Rolland became Gandhi’s ‘self-appointed advertiser’ in Europe. He once wrote to Gandhi: ‘I regard it as one of the honours of my life to have been able to put my efforts to your service and to spread your thought in the world. I am proud of my role’ (in Bhole 2000).

The historian Claude Markovits writes that Gandhi’s An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927) and Satyagraha in South Africa (1928), upon which much of Gandhi scholarship is based, are problematic because they ‘were written in the 1920s, more than ten years after Gandhi’s departure from South Africa, entirely from memory, without the help of written notes, and serious doubts exist as to the reliability of such personal memories uncorroborated by other testimonies.’ Markovits accuses Gandhi, through these works, of seeking to ‘take charge of all subsequent representations of his own life, and to impose an interpretation in terms of his spiritual quest which ought not to be seriously questioned afterwards’ (2004: 46). As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and Satyagraha in South Africa, it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up’. He was effectively rewriting his own history.

Guha’s study (2013), despite being well researched, partakes of this logic. However, we contest the overall thrust—that Mohandas transmogrified into Mahatma on African soil, and that a cosmopolitan anti-colonial fighter prefigured the anti-apartheid struggle by both developing personal relationships across race lines and by his opposition to white minority rule.

Set against the existing narrative of Gandhi as a great inventor of the new tactic and philosophy of nonviolent popular politics and as a pioneer of anti-colonial nationalism, this study seeks to demonstrate that principally, his political imagination was limited to equality within Empire. We show that his tactics were shaped in crucial ways by a conservative defence of class, race and caste privilege. T.K. Mahadevan (1982), Maureen Swan (1985), Surendra Bhana and Goolam Vahed (2005), Joseph Lelyveld (2011), Patrick French (2011), Isabel Hofmeyr (2013), and Arundhati Roy (2014), amongst others, point to some of these arguments in different ways, while Faisal Devji (2011) examines Gandhi as an imperial thinker.3

Our work expands this literature with its point of departure being that it is situated within the context of studies of Empire and nationalism. We are careful to place the voluminous detail on Gandhi in its historical and historiographical contexts. Gandhi’s views on race, class, caste, nation and Empire are contentious and even distressing at times to his supporters. This is an aspect of his South African years that we fully engage with. We agree with Burton that it is ‘time, arguably past time, for unsentimentalised histories of cross-racial, interracial community’ and a time to strive for ‘histories that acknowledge racial difference and conflict’ (2012: 7).

In the immediate aftermath of South Africa’s transition to a nonracial democracy there was a genuine desire to evoke history not in ways that could inflame and divide, but by finding common ground. Nothing exemplifies this more than Mandela, the first president of South Africa’s non-racial democracy, lending his name to the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2003—Cecil John Rhodes, the arch imperialist, racist, colonialist whose business empire was built on rapacious dispossession and a brutal labour regime, and Mandela, freedom fighter turned statesman. In proposing the foundation, Mandela said, ‘Combining our name with that of Cecil John Rhodes in this initiative is to signal the closing of the circle and the coming together of two strands of history’ (in Maylam 2005: 134).

Many believe that South Africa’s history was reconciled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s and that the country moved forward from its violent racist past. Remembering was trumped by reconciliation, forgiveness and forgetting. As John Rowett, the secretary of the Rhodes Trust, put it: ‘The linking of Mr Mandela with Cecil Rhodes in symbolic partnership affirms once more the commitment to the reconciliation of different historical traditions that is so central to the new South Africa’ (in Maylam 2005: 136). In the conclusion to his biography of Rhodes, Paul Maylam wrote:

With the end of apartheid and the achievement of majority rule, history seems to have lost much of its salience. The subject has been downgraded in schools and has declined at many universities. Historical figures like Rhodes do not matter anymore. The quiet way in which the centenary of his death passed by in 2002 is one indication of this (2005: 138).

A decade after Maylam’s book was published, the circle of this history was burst open. In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal of Rhodes’ statute which stands on the main steps of the university’s upper campus. The students brought to the fore Rhodes’ colonialist history and questioned the statue’s continuing relevance in contemporary South Africa. This protest was followed by others countrywide that sought to remove the monuments of those associated with South Africa’s racist past from their prominent positions in public spaces, and has spawned an intense debate on the politics of remembering and forgetting. We hope that our “South African Gandhi” contributes to this renewed interest in South Africa’s contending colonial and liberation histories.

This study centres around four of Gandhi’s key campaigns: the South African War, the Bhambatha Rebellion, mobilisation against fingerprinting in the Transvaal, and significantly the 1913 strike that resulted in Gandhi’s South African stay being narrated as a successful one. We pay close attention to the rationale Gandhi offered for the politics he pursued, and examine the possible options that he discounted, the effects of the strategies that he chose, and their ensuing results.

We also scrutinise more critically the ideological predispositions of Gandhi’s white comrades who usually appear in his story as kindly and philanthropic helpers straining against the racial boundaries of the time. We evaluate what their being such close compatriots of Gandhi says about the man himself. This is not a story that stops at the door of moralism, delinked from the context in which Gandhi found himself. It situates Gandhi’s life against the backdrop of the profound socioeconomic change taking place in South Africa during these decades and the myriad of contestations and new subjectivities that these changes brought in their wake.

This book is as much about Gandhi as it is about our own intellectual and political lives lived through the memories of our mothers’ and fathers’ stories of the Mahatma, the long years of apartheid, and the present attraction of ‘Salt Marches’, ‘Peace Marches’ and Satyagraha Awards in South Africa. In these spectacles Gandhi merges into Albert Luthuli into Nelson Mandela and the seamless thread of African and Indian holding hands across the boundaries of race is seen as if they have marched together through the twentieth century into the present. In rereading this history we are rereading our own biographies. In challenging the story of Gandhi transforming from a Mohandas to a Mahatma on African soil, we are also asking questions about the dominant narrative of the liberation struggle.


1. Terminology around race can be confusing at the best of times in South Africa. While we accept that race has no biological basis, it was and continues to be relevant in South Africa. ‘Indian’ refers to those who came from, or whose ancestors came from, present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; ‘black’, ‘African’, ‘Zulu’, and ‘Native’ refers to the population in Natal/South Africa in the nineteenth century prior to the arrival of European settlers and Indians; and ‘white’, ‘European’, ‘Boer’ and ‘Brit’ refers to those whose origins are to be found in present-day Europe; ‘coloured’ refers to those of mixed European (‘white’) and African (‘black’) or Asian ancestry. We consider terms like ‘Kaffir’ and ‘coolie’ derogatory, but have used them as they appeared in official documentation, newspapers and speeches.

2. One of the early South African undertakings was Meer’s Apprenticeship of a Mahatma, written in 1970 following the commemoration of Gandhi’s centenary celebrations at Phoenix a year earlier. In his foreword, the liberal politician and author Alan Paton wrote that the book ‘makes it clear that his [Gandhi’s] twenty-one years in our country was an apprenticeship for the stupendous task he was to set himself, and that was nothing less than the liberation of India’.

3. Mahadevan’s study critically questions the circumstances under which Gandhi came to remain in South Africa, suggesting that he manipulated the situation to his advantage. This is developed further by Swan who argues that Indians in South Africa were ridden by class divisions and that Gandhi focused primarily on the interests of the trader class. Bhana and Vahed focus on how and why Gandhi tried to forge an ‘Indianness’ in South Africa. He learnt to be ‘Indian’ as he brought together migrants divided by religion, caste, language and class. The Indian nation would be forged when Gandhi’s infatuation with Empire ended. Devji approaches Gandhi counter-intuitively by exploring his ‘temptation to violence’. He provocatively argues that Gandhi’s real mission was not nationalistic (Indian independence) but to free the entire world from violence. He therefore undertook campaigns that invited violence because he believed that suffering would result in ‘higher rewards’ than could be achieved through an imposed peace. Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi was banned in Gujarat, India, for hinting that Gandhi and his compatriot, Hermann Kallenbach, enjoyed an intimate relationship that may have been sexual in nature. This thoughtful study argues that Gandhi’s experiences of racism in South Africa helped develop his critique of caste. However, because Lelyveld focuses on South Africa and India, he is unable to fully develop his arguments for the South African period. Patrick French portrays Gandhi as a ‘weirdo’ fixated on people’s bowel movements, while Arundhati Roy entered the debate on Gandhi’s attitude towards caste in “The Doctor and the Saint”, her introductory essay to the annotated, critical edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, by arguing that he never renounced his belief in chaturvarna, the system of four varnas, and described him as ‘the saint of the status quo’. A book in quite a different vein, but one which also focuses on Gandhi’s South African years is Gandhi’s Printing Press by Isabel Hofmeyr (2013). Hofmeyr focuses on Indian Opinion, the newspaper that Gandhi founded in 1903, and through it on broader questions of political activism and global media flows in the Indian Ocean world of the early twentieth century. Gandhi was not an impartial journalist but an active social reformer who sought to advance change through the material that he published. But as Hofmeyr’s study also shows, Africans hardly appear on Gandhi’s radar.