//Some African Gandhians, The Telegraph

Some African Gandhians, The Telegraph

I have been reading the memoirs of the Kenyan novelist
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Here Ngugi writes of how, as a little boy in the 1940s, he saw pictures of a mysterious bespectacled man in the shop of an Indian merchant near his village. A schoolteacher told Ngugi of who that man was and what he meant to their lives. ‘The British had colonized India for hundreds of years’, said the teacher: ‘Led by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, Indian people demanded their independence. Just like our people are now doing, led by Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange. And look at their leader’. He then described ‘the frail figure of Mahatma Gandhi, dressed in a loincloth they call a dhoti, and how Indians all over the world loved him and hang his picture on the walls of their shops.’

Hearing his teacher, Ngugi made sense of his early memories: ‘Mahatma Gandhi? Their leader? A loincloth? That was the very picture I used to see hanging on the walls of the Limuru Indian shops. I had taken it that he was one of the Indian gods because my mother had once told me so.’

Ngugi’s teacher also told him that since India got its independence in 1947, ‘there is no reason we should not get ours in 1957. Gandhi fought the British with truth; Kenyatta will smite the British Empire with his call for justice. India [and Gandhi] led the way.’

The teacher then spoke of an older connection between Gandhi and Kenyan nationalists. In the 1920s, the labour leader Harry Thuku had been helped by a Gujarati immigrant named Manibhai Desai, a follower of Gandhi. Much later, as an academic in the United States, Ngugi found documentary evidence to support this. Gandhi’s friend, the activist Christian priest C. F. Andrews, had met Thuku and was impressed; he was, said Andrews, ‘one of the brightest lads in that country’.

When Thuku was arrested and deported following a strike, Desai pressed Andrews to intervene. The priest did his ‘very best at the time to make his voice heard in England, but without effect’. He then wrote to Gandhi about Thuku’s troubles. Gandhi publicized the matter through his newspaper Young India. ‘Poor Harry Thuku!’, he wrote: ‘His appeal to Mr. Andrews and my publication of it in these columns will secure no relief for this victim of lust of power. If however he ever sees these lines, he will perhaps find comfort in the thought that even in distant India many will read the story of his deportation and trials with sympathy.’

Contemporary accounts suggest that Thuku saw himself as a Kenyan analogue of the Mahatma. A British settler wrote in disgust that ‘this lad Harry Thuku… likens himself to [Gandhi] in India’. When, after a successful strike, some Indians in Kenya threw a party for Thuku, he is reported to have said; ‘Gandhi is going to be King in India and I’m going to be King here.’

As a pioneer of anti-colonial struggle, Gandhi was admired by such (widely different) African nationalists as the Kenyans Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya, the Zambian Kenneth Kaunda, the Tanzanian Julius Nyerere, and the Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah. Gandhi’s legacy also played some part in shaping the history of Botswana. In 1952, when the British exiled the extremely popular King, Seretse Khama, chiefs and headmen refused to elect a new leader, and said they would not pay taxes either, unless Seretse returned with his honour and position intact. Their movement of civil disobedience was inspired by their knowledge of the satyagrahas Gandhi had led.

But of course it was at the bottom of the continent, in South Africa, that Gandhi’s influence was strongest and most enduring. He had lived for long periods in that country. After he returned to India, he deputed his son Manilal to run the Phoenix settlement and the journal Indian Opinion. Manilal Gandhi naturally admired his father; so, more significantly, did the two leading Indian activists in South Africa, Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker. Dadoo and Naicker were in regular correspondence with Gandhi, and his ideas animated a major satyagraha they led in 1946 against discriminatory land laws.

In March 1947, Dadoo and Naicker aligned the Indian struggle with the broader movement against racism, led by the African National Congress (ANC). Through the 1940s and 1950s, the African leaders of the struggle were committed Gandhians. Many meetings of the ANC in Johannesburg were held in a hall named after Gandhi. Chief Albert Luthuli, leader of the ANC in the crucial decade of the 1950s, had read Gandhi, visited India, and exalted the power of non-violence. Another important ANC leader, Z. K. Matthews, was likewise ‘heartened by the practical and moral effectiveness of Gandhi’s struggle’.

In 1952, there was a countrywide ‘Defiance Campaign’ against the apartheid regime. The methods used bore Gandhi’s mark. They included: (i) entering a location without a permit; (ii) going out at night without a curfew pass; (iii) occupying seats in trains meant for Europeans; (iv) entering European waiting rooms; (v) entering the European section of the Post Office.

The satyagraha of 1952 embraced all provinces of South Africa. In all, some 8,500 people were imprisoned in the protests. Among the leaders of the campaign were Maulvi and Yusuf Ahmed Cachalia, sons of Gandhi’s close associate A. M. Cachalia. In a speech in March 1952, Yusuf Cachalia insisted that ‘the power of man is greater than the power of machine guns. The determination of one black man, whether he be an Indian or a Coloured or an African, is greater than the determination of any other man. And if justice and truth is on our side, no machine [guns], no police, no power can stop us from marching onwards’.

In the South Africa of the 1950s there were Gandhians who were Indian, who were African, and who were white. Among the last group was a man named Patrick Duncan, whose father had helped design the racially exclusive laws in the Transvaal that Gandhi had once opposed. Duncan fils was to become a major vehicle for the propagation of Gandhian ideals. He read anything by Gandhi he could lay his hands on, and helped translate Gandhi’s writings into African languages, in the belief that ‘the greatest service anyone could render to this country would be to increase the awareness of South Africa’s peoples in Gandhian methods.’

After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the ANC abandoned non-violence. Even so, leaders like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela often praised Gandhi generously, as having first shown the power of collective resistance to the arbitrary exercise of state power in South Africa. After the ending of apartheid, Mandela in particular reached out to his opponents in an affectingly Gandhi-like manner. As his former jailmate Ahmed Kathrada recently remarked, ‘Nelson Mandela, like Mahatma Gandhi, is wholly free of the emotions of anger and animosity’. There are also odd personal details that bind them: Mandela and Gandhi were both lawyers, Mandela and Gandhi both lived in Johannesburg, Mandela and Gandhi were both incarcerated in that city’s Fort Prison. This prison now houses South Africa’s Constitutional Court, on whose premises one can find permanent exhibits devoted to the life and example of Mandela and of Gandhi.

No one knows more about Gandhi’s impact in South Africa than a man named E. S. Reddy. A student radical in India in the 1940s, Reddy was the moving spirit behind the United Nations’ Centre Against Apartheid from the 1960s to the 1980s. Writing in 1996, Reddy noted that Gandhi’s example and methods animated both the Indian passive resistance of 1946 and the broader Defiance Campaign of 1952. Then he continued: ‘Even when the ANC decided on armed struggle, there was great emphasis on avoiding loss of life. Non-violent resistance continued in new forms throughout the struggle. The influence of Gandhi may also be discerned in the spirit of reconciliation which followed the establishment of a democratic government in 1994. I believe that the thought of Mahatma Gandhi was tested and enriched in South Africa’s struggle for liberation.’

by Ramachandra Guha
published in The Telegraph, 5th October 2013