From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

Jerry Coovadia, professor at the Natal University Medical School and also vice-president of the N.I.C., argues that there is a lesson for us in Gandhi's idea of 'constructive satyagraha'. He gave the following address on the 112th anniversary of Gandhi's birth. Source: Sunday Tribune, 11 October 1981.

Mahatma Gandhi (link to bio on site), the father of the Congress of Indian South Africans, was a leader who was alert to the problems of the people and also an advocate of socialism.

And the source of Natal Indian Congress philosophy is rooted in an era and in this man of achievements and ideals.

It was Gandhi who conceived and initiated a Congress of Indian South Africans in the closing years of the past century, in order to unite our people behind a single organisation and for a common purpose.

That purpose, which eludes us so many decades on, was freedom from oppression. The purpose remains unchanged for today's generation of Congresswomen and Congressmen. Therefore most of you present here are the natural successors to the ideas of Gandhi and heirs to a tradition rich in humanity, imagination and creativity.

I am one of you and I would therefore like to believe that I could lay equal claim to a heritage in which the concept of justice, freedom and equality are pre-eminent.

More than that, I would like to believe that in fact you and I are the custodians of a great and noble tradition which we should nurture, enhance and defend against the dangers of dilution. For these dangers, from the little men in our midst who wish to betray this trust by participation in the President's Council and the South African Indian Council, are indeed serious today.

The source of much of Gandhi's inspiration came from his early experiences in this country, and because of this I would like to examine those experiences of Gandhi with you and see how they can help us and our country diminish, if not eliminate, the political problems we all face today. I believe that a rational analysis of the past can be a clear, though limited, guide to the present.

Fundamentally, Gandhi was alert to the problems of people, worked among and for the people, and tried to find avenues for new and better ways of rearranging their social structures so that these might serve the greatest number in the best of ways. He was, therefore, like social engineers before him, conducting an experiment in society.

Gandhi's experiments have also given us invaluable insights into methods of struggle and forms of egalitarianism. Above all, we learn that we must be sensitive to social issues in this country, to respond to the wants of the majority of the people and to participate in the attainment of these needs. In a word, we have to be, all of us, actively involved in the restructuring of this patently unjust society, which is so unique and yet so common in its dimensions of injustice.

When Gandhi entered the Indian political scene in 1919, at a time when the Indian National Congress had fruitlessly petitioned the British Parliament for redress of their grievances, he stated:

When we are firmly of the opinion that grave wrong has been done to us and when after an appeal to the highest authority we fail to secure redress, there must be some power available to us for undoing the wrong. But every nation and every individual has the right, and it is their duty, to rise against an intolerable wrong.

One of the methods employed by both willing and unknowing agents of the state in South Africa to smother criticism of apartheid and stifle protest against injustice is to label discussions on these issues as 'political', thereby assuming an indisputable conviction with careless disregard for logic and reason.

Politics is not a dirty word. In fact it determines, in a direct manner, the quality and substance of one's life.

The only road to controlling our lives is that of political freedom.

This is an especially good time for Indian South Africans to take stock of the situation in this country as we are poised on the brink of major, but not progressive, shifts in Government policy.

The education of our children is riven with dissent and disruption.

We have these many years suffered the disadvantages of unequal, inappropriate and often irrelevant education. But now we are facing the consequences of racist education in newer and even more terrible forms. The Group Areas Act has contributed to serious problems among school children such as absenteeism, truancy, lack of parental supervision, lack of attention and food, overcrowding and poor adjustment.

The classroom and lecture theatre, these past two years, have been the focus of profound disappointment. This has spilled over into protests of attrition, into boycotts and interruptions, which in turn have elicited petty and serious punitive measures by education authorities that represent neither our interests nor us.

The social consequences of the euphemistically labelled separate development have been a disastrous undevelopment. Our people have decayed into isolation and segregation, ethnic and religious differences have been accentuated, and generations of neighbourhood and community traditions have collapsed.

The average man and woman is confused and benumbed by decades of propaganda and repression. What are we to make of a recent survey which shows that while 58 per cent of Indians were prepared to live under African rule given certain guarantees, the overwhelming majority of 81 per cent would deny the basic human right of one-man one-vote, to Africans and settle for a qualified franchise.

This absurd fear of democracy is the solid achievement of apartheid. There are ambitious people in our midst who clutch at the vestments of power in local affairs committees, the South African Indian Council and the President’s Council. They mask opportunism as commitment and mediocrity as genius.

Our working people who once formed the vanguard of our struggle have been bypassed by the mainstream of progressive trade unions. In sports, our young people are denied the achievement of their full potential.

It requires little imagination to guess what Gandhi would have done if he were alive today and surveyed the sorrowful spectacle of our public life. For he was uncompromising on certain principles. He aimed for self-government, or as he called it, organic swaraj. This was made up of four essential freedoms: political, economic, social and moral. His code of social freedom which rejects distinctions on the basis of birth, sex, caste, creed or colour would have, as it indeed did during his stay in South Africa, made him lead the fight against apartheid. Not for one minute would he have tolerated the continuation of this racist oligarchy for he swore by 'government by the consent of people ascertained by the vote of the largest number of the adult population, male or female, native-born, or domiciled, who have taken the trouble of having their names registered as voters'.

Gandhi saw quite clearly that having a vote was only the beginning of self- government. Much more was required for freedom to be achieved. Only within an equal economic society could men and women hope to attain development of their personalities, liberation from exploitations, and the fulfilment of their hopes and joys.

Socialism is a beautiful word, and so far as I am aware in socialism all the members of society are equal ”” none low, none high. In the individual body the head is not high because it is the top of the body, nor are the soles of the feet low because they touch the earth. Even as members of the individual body are equal, so are the members of society. This is socialism.

His argument was for a system and not against the individual capitalist. He bore no personal animosities. 'By the non-violent method we seek not to destroy the capitalist, we seek to destroy capitalism.'

Gandhi believed in allowing people to decide for themselves.

They are the final arbiters of independence and democracy. This is the single most important lesson we have to learn from Gandhi's experience ”” the absolute necessity for working with the people and articulating their demands.

The Congress must progressively represent the masses. They are as yet untouched by politics. They have no political consciousness of the type our politicians desire. Their politics are confined to bread and salt ”” I dare not say butter, for millions do not know the taste of ghee or even oil. Their politics are confined to communal adjustments. We must share their sorrow, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the pariahs we must be pariahs and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. We must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots, and in which their cattle drink and roll. Then, and not till then, shall we truly represent the masses for they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond to every call.

One way of involvement with the masses was 'constructive satyagraha', by which Gandhi hoped to build up people by political education.

His belief in the power of the people is reflected in the concept of the village being the unit of political and social life and the management of the people at this level by democratic representation in the Panchayat. The core of power was therefore to rest among the people in their villages throughout India, and the scale of this power would diminish progressively as the levels of control moved away from the people through municipal, provincial and state levels.

Therefore, if we are to learn from the past, there is no substitute for involvement with people's problems if we are to succeed against apartheid.

You may ask how does one assimilate the relevance of Gandhi's experiences for all South Africans. If I were to reduce all this to a few points, I would say:

The people in South Africa have an absolute and unchallengeable right to determine their own destinies. This can be achieved only through self-government decided on by the majority of the people.

Independence alone is a hollow achievement if it is not combined with the elimination of economic, political and social inequalities.

The only road to this type of freedom is through the organisation of the broad majority of working people.

Authentic organisations, which can advance the cause of the majority, must .be rooted in the people.

The philosophy of liberation must arise from and be augmented by practical experience.

There is no alternative for the progressive individual or community but to be involved in the struggles of the masses.

This is, therefore, the quintessential legacy of Gandhi for you and me.