Gandhiji and the struggle for liberation in South Africa

As important as the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Gandhiji which is observed on January 30, 1988, is the eightieth anniversary of his first imprisonment in South Africa in January 1908, which was a turning point in his life. Gandhiji always considered himself an Indian and a South African. Not only had he spent twenty-one years of his adult life in South Africa, but he had served four of his ten terms of imprisonment in that country - in the prisons of Johannesburg, Volksrust and Dundee. It was in South Africa that he developed his philosophy of Satyagraha. In a sense, his last Satyagraha was also in South Africa. Though he could not be physically present, he guided and inspired the great Indian passive resistance movement of 1946-48 and lent it enormous support.

Birth of Satyagraha

The small Indian community in the Transvaal had launched, in July 1907, a passive resistance campaign against the Asiatic Registration Act (the Black Act) designed to humiliate, harass and eventually expel them from the territory. Volunteers picketed registration offices and most of the Indians refused to take out permits under the Black Act. Gandhiji found that "passive resistance" was seen even by European friends as a "weapon of the weak." He sought a term which could be understood by Indians and make it clear that the resistance was out of moral strength rather than any weakness. He invited suggestions and, in November 1907, invented the term "Satyagraha" (firmness in truth). The choice of the term itself appears to have helped crystallise his thinking. On December 28, 1907, Gandhiji and several of his colleagues were taken to court for refusing to register and were ordered to leave the Transvaal within two weeks. They defied the order and were sentenced on January 10, 1908, to two to three months` imprisonment. General Smuts, however, was obliged soon to negotiate a settlement with Gandhiji and the prisoners were released on January 30th - the very day that Gandhiji was to be assassinated forty years later. The brief imprisonment was not only the "baptism of fire"for Gandhiji but transformed him from a public servant and adviser to the Indian community into the leader of resistance. In the many years that the struggle lasted with its ups and downs - jailings, beatings, torture and deportations of resisters, as well as the intervals when they were obliged to while away their time on the Tolstoy Farm - Gandhiji developed the concept of Satyagraha which was later to inspire the national movement in India. There was little discussion at the time of non- violence, for no one had contemplated an armed struggle which was, in any case, unthinkable for an unarmed and vulnerable community of a mere 15,000 people. Gandhiji had not yet become an uncompromising devotee of non- violence: he had in fact favoured the enlistment of Indians in the armed forces. The emphasis was on the duty to defy an unjust law and to defend the honour of India. Satyagraha - the common heritage of India and South Africa The Satyagraha in South Africa was not only a struggle for the rights of the Indians or the redress of their grievances, but a part of the struggle of India for freedom and dignity. It was influenced by the upsurge in India in protest against the partition of Bengal and the mass boycott of British goods in the Swadeshi movement. The experience of Gandhiji in the struggle in South Africa had, in its turn, a great influence on the Indian national movement. Out of his close association with the Muslims in South Africa, and their great contribution to the passive resistance campaign, came his stress on Hindu- Muslim unity as a tenet of the Indian national movement. Out of his outrage at the treatment of Indians in South Africa by the Europeans as virtual untouchables came his determination to eliminate untouchability in India. Out of his experience in trying to unify the Indian people in South Africa, speaking many languages, came his advocacy of a lingua franca for India. It was in Indian Opinion in Durban on August 18, 1906, that he first called for the adoption of Hindustani as the common language for India. As the national movement developed in India under Gandhiji`s leadership - from non-cooperation to civil disobedience and then to the "do or die" struggle in 1942 - it became radicalised. It stopped seeking a compromise settlement with the oppressors and became committed to the complete independence of India. It also became strongly internationalist under the influence of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and by 1946 Gandhiji began advocating the unity of all the oppressed peoples of the world for the elimination of colonialism. Gandhiji, meanwhile, kept in contact with developments in South Africa. He encouraged the Indian passive resistance movement of 1946 under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf M. Dadoo and Dr. G.M. Naicker, and lent it great support. While he had confined the first Satyagraha in South Africa to the Indian and Chinese settlers whose security was threatened, he gave his blessings to the efforts of the Dadoo-Naicker leadership to build a united democratic front. He was, in a sense, a patron of the movements both in India and among Indians in South Africa. In the last year of his life, when he felt anguish at the eruption of violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, he seemed to find some solace in the Satyagraha in South Africa. One of his last speeches - at the prayer meeting in Delhi on January 28, 1948 - was devoted to the struggle in South Africa. He said:

"Today we are also a free country as South Africa and are members of the same Commonwealth, which implies that we should all live like brothers and equals. ... Why should they look down on the coloured people? Is it because they are industrious and thrifty? I shall tell the Government of South Africa through this meeting that it should mend its ways."

The Indian people in South Africa benefitted from the lessons of their own Satyagraha of 1907-14, as well as the experience of the Indian national movement. The concept of Satyagraha was enriched by their passive resistance of 1946-48 which was joined by several Africans, Coloured people and whites out of solidarity. The Indian Satyagraha was the precursor of the great non-violent resistance under African leadership in 1952, aptly named the "Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws" and, indeed, the beginning of mass resistance in South Africa. The heritage of Gandhiji and of Satyagraha is thus a common heritage of South Africa and India.

Continuing inspiration of Gandhiji

One does not need to be a Gandhian to recognise that the philosophy and example of Gandhiji remain a powerful force in the world, spreading wider and adapting to the traditions and circumstances in different countries. The leaders of the freedom movements in many colonial countries acknowledge the inspiration of Gandhiji. The civil rights movement in the United States, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by his example, as was much of the movement against the Vietnam war. The mass movement for disarmament and against nuclear war, and the environmentalist movement, have been influenced, among others, by Gandhiji. Non-violent resisters in the Philippines played a significant role in the struggle to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship. The mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of unarmed people to surround and protect the armed forces which turned against Marcos was a crucial event in the struggle and added a new dimension to the history of non-violent resistance. Liberation theology, which has spread in Latin America, Africa and Asia, draws some of its inspiration from Gandhiji. A dramatic affirmation of the vitality of the heritage of Gandhiji was the Delhi Declaration of Mikhail Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi in November 1986 - calling for a non-nuclear and non-violent world - the reference to non-violence reportedly included at the suggestion of Gorbachev. None of the recent non-violent movements perhaps strictly follows the tenets of Gandhiji, as understood by his disciples in India, but he has been an inspiration as people tried to choose the most peaceful and effective means of struggle against injustice and oppression in the light of the relevant conditions. The philosophy of Gandhiji cannot be codified into immutable rules, but must always be creative. It evolved with his experience in forty years of struggle. He kept his windows open to receive inspiration from all sources. He learnt from the humblest in the resistance campaigns. He welcomed discussion and debate. He changed his views many times and never hesitated to admit errors. It is a pity that Indian thinkers and public leaders have not followed the spread and development of Gandhian ideology and have made little contribution to the movements inspired by it.

Is non-violent resistance relevant to South Africa?

Has Satyagraha lost all relevance in South Africa as a means of resistance, especially after the Sharpeville massacre? The answer is not simple. I believe that patient suffering with love has hardly ever melted the hearts of oppressive rulers. Satyagraha has succeeded to the extent that it aroused public opinion in the camp of the adversaries and beyond so as to restrain and exert pressure on the oppressors. That is why Gandhiji always devoted great attention to publicity. Given the possibility to reach and arouse public conscience, non-violent resistance makes it difficult for the oppressors to resort to extreme savagery and thereby saves lives. It helps the oppressed people to overcome fear of prison and torture and steels them in the struggle. It makes it possible to reach settlements without bitterness. In South Africa, however, the movement faced not only an enemy which became ever more brutal, refusing to recognise the humanity of the black people, but powerful international forces of greed and prejudice hindered effective pressure against the racist regime. Regrettably, many people in the Western world are not outraged by violence against people with a black skin and such violence gets little press and public attention. As powerful vested interests from abroad became involved in South Africa, they tended to exert their influence to protect the racist structures which ensure them exorbitant profit. Perhaps even more important, mass resistance in South Africa began at a time when the world was divided by the "cold war" and cold war calculations began to influence the policies of powerful nations much more than justice. The ANC was branded by Western intelligence services as pro-Communist, because like most national movements it tried to encompass all the people and had not excluded Communists or followers of other ideologies. This has largely determined the actions of Western Governments, particularly that of the United States, whatever the public pronouncements of their leaders. As a result, even on occasions when some of the white rulers in South Africa contemplated a change of course, powerful influences from abroad reinforced those who advocated reliance on ever greater violence to perpetuate racist domination. It is, therefore, understandable, to say the least, that the leaders of the liberation movement felt that they had to undertake violent resistance. But that does not necessarily mean that non-violent resistance has become totally irrelevant nor that the spirit of Satyagraha had disappeared. In many countries, non-violent resistance took place at the same time as violent resistance, or threat of such resistance. There was, for instance, violent resistance in India on many occasions and a threat of violence in the United States when Dr. King was leading the Civil Rights Movement. The oppressors are often obliged to choose between compromise with the mainstream of the movement pursuing non-violent resistance and confrontation with the growing trend toward violent resistance. In South Africa, the movement has used peaceful means whenever possible and hardly any other country has seen such persistent non-violent resistance, even alongside armed struggle, as South Africa. There are also situations where effective non- violent resistance by the oppressed people is not practicable while non-violent action can be carried on by those abroad outraged by the injustice. For instance, the Vietnamese peasants could not non-violently resist unseen persons throwing bombs from high up in the sky, but the American people could carry on such resistance against involvement in the Vietnam war. In the case of South Africa, too, there have been times when Satyagraha abroad in solidarity with the oppressed people was more feasible and effective than non-violent resistance inside the country. Mass Satyagraha against apartheid and all its protectors and accomplices all over the world may well be the most effective means to put an end to the continuing tragedy in South Africa. The answer to the question of relevance is then that even though the oppressed people and their leaders are convinced that clandestine activity, sabotage and armed struggle have become essential or indispensable, the spirit of Gandhiji has not lost all its relevance. I would like briefly to trace the course of the liberation struggle, in the context of violence and non- violence, to underline this conclusion.

Unconcern for African lives

One of the first mass actions of the ANC was the 1919 campaign against the pass laws, reminiscent of the Indian Satyagraha a few years earlier. Thousands of men and women threw away their passes and were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour; those who were sentenced to fines refused to pay fines and chose to go to prison. The regime reacted with savagery. Many Africans, including even children, were trampled under horses` hoofs as mounted policemen charged on a peaceful demonstration outside a Johannesburg court and shot at by white vigilantes. Several were killed. But there was hardly a murmur of protest in the world - though that was the time when leaders of Allied Powers were waxing eloquent about human rights - as the victims were Africans. When the Indian people launched passive resistance on June 13, 1946, the police in Durban stood by without arresting the resisters and let white ruffians attack them with bicycle chains. At least two resisters fell unconscious, and one bystander died. Fortunately, a white priest, the Reverend Michael Scott, felt compelled to join the resisters and get public attention to the vigilante violence. Gandhiji expressed his outrage and sent a personal appeal to General Smuts so that the violence was curbed. The great Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws in 1952 attracted attention and sympathy around the world as 8,000 people of all racial origins courted imprisonment. The regime responded with inhuman laws for whipping passive resisters. There was hardly a protest from the governments of the great Western democracies. The ANC, however, managed to carry on non-violent resistance - bus boycotts, school boycott, potato boycott and resistance against the removal of African communities - over the next few years. Its leaders were subjected to arbitrary restrictions and even a four-year trial for High Treason. But there was not even verbal condemnation of apartheid violence by the major Western Powers until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Instead, they called for sympathy and understanding for white fears for the future rather than for the suffering of the black majority. They invited the Pretoria regime to discussions of Western military strategy and alliances in Africa and the Middle East. Britain signed the Simonstown military alliance with the Pretoria regime in 1955. When some National Party leaders advocated a change of course in the wake of the flight of capital after the Sharpeville massacre, Western financial interests bailed out the regime and thereby strengthened the position of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and other advocates of greater repression.

Combination of armed struggle and non-violent resistance

As a result, the ANC leaders felt obliged, in 1961, to abandon strict adherence to non-violence and prepare for armed resistance. As Nelson Mandela explained in his statement to the court in April 1964, members of the ANC had begun to lose confidence in the ANC policy, as fifty years of non-violence seemed to have achieved nothing, and were developing ideas of terrorism. Scattered incidents of violence had broken out in the country and there was a danger of uncontrolled violence. The ANC leaders felt that a properly controlled violent resistance, under the guidance of the ANC, was essential to avert the danger of terrorism and make any progress. The Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, said in its first manifesto on December 16, 1961:

"We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realisation of the dangerous situation to which the Nationalist policy is leading. We hope we will bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war."

The Umkhonto carried on some three hundred acts of sabotage between 1961 and 1963 against symbols of apartheid and some economic installations in order to warn the regime and its supporters, give hope to the people and promote international action. Every care was taken to avoid loss of human life. Only one person - a police informer in the eastern Cape - was killed by the ANC underground while the regime tortured several leaders of the people to death. Vuyisile Mini, the respected composer of freedom songs, and his colleagues were executed. Until today, the total number of persons killed in numerous ANC armed actions is perhaps less than two hundred. Several of the casualties were possibly unintended and resulted from malfunction of the timing mechanism of explosives. Even after gruesome killings of refugees in Maputo and Maseru by South African raiders, and a series of tortures of detainees to death, the ANC was able to prevent retaliation in kind. It was not beyond the capacity of ANC, or of the black people in spontaneous eruptions of anger, to kill thousands of whites. The absence of such terrorism was due to the enormous restraint of the ANC and its influence among the people, an influence which it would not have had if it had opposed all violence. During all these years since 1961, the freedom movement has also utilised every opportunity for non- violent defiance of unjust laws at great sacrifice. The student upsurge in the 1970`s was essentially non-violent. The funeral processions defying laws prohibiting the display of the ANC flag and symbols - thereby making the laws virtually inoperative - were non-violent resistance, as are the rent boycotts and consumer boycotts and the "end conscription" campaign. The United Democratic Front and allied organisations have contributed an impressive chapter to the history of non-violent resistance. The growth of non-violent resistance in South Africa, and the development of international solidarity, encouraged and enabled Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Reverend Alan Boesak and other churchmen to defy the laws on many occasions and force the regime to retreat. Since 1985, the violence of the apartheid regime under its State of Emergency - the indiscriminate shootings and the mass torture of detainees - as well as the series of ghastly murders by vigilante groups provoked counter-violence. Enraged youth groups resorted to killing suspected informers by "necklacing," and that was used by the regime and its friends to malign the liberation movement. The ANC could perhaps have said - as even Mahatma Gandhi wrote from jail in 1942 - that it could not condemn, without full information, people who were provoked to violence by the "leonine" violence of the regime when their leaders were confined and exiled. But Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC, declared last year that the ANC opposed "necklacing". He was reported to have advised African youth last September to try to win over informers and vigilante groups. I can think of none but a Mahatma Gandhi who could show such courage and humanism in the midst of a difficult battle and popular emotions.

Spirit of Gandhiji lives on in South Africa

The spirit of Gandhiji lives on in South Africa eighty years after he went to prison in the Transvaal defying unjust racist laws, forty years after his ashes were immersed in the ocean off the mouth of the Umgeni river in South Africa - not least in the hearts of the leaders of the liberation struggle. They have stood firm on truth, despite constant provocation and bestiality by a racist regime, resisting all forms of racism and constantly upholding the objective of a non-racial democratic society. They have resisted unjust laws with exceptional courage and sacrifice. They have recognised that ends and means are inseparable, and have avoided the temptation to reply to the massive terrorism of the white racist regime with terrorism against white civilians. Even in the course of armed resistance, they have avoided the loss of innocent lives. Gandhiji did not condemn Sant Bhagat Singh or those who resorted to sabotage when he was jailed along with other leaders of the national movement in 1942 - but placed the blame squarely on the violence of the British Raj. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not condemn John Brown or Malcolm X, but only slavery and racism. Chief Albert Lutuli did not condemn Nelson Mandela for founding and leading the military wing of the African National Congress, but declared when Mandela and his colleagues were sentenced in June 1964:

"... in the face of the uncompromising white refusal to abandon a policy which denies the African and other oppressed South Africans their rightful heritage - freedom - no one can blame brave just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony...

"They represent the highest in morality and ethics in the South African political struggle..." The ANC is attacked by the Botha regime, which relies on violence and terrorism, as violent; and that charge is echoed by the friends of that regime who instigate and support violence and terrorism in many countries of the third world. But it has earned the understanding, sympathy and even active support of the greatest pacifists of our time, many of whom acknowledge the inspiration of Gandhiji.