Landau on Desai and Vahed, 'The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire'

Ashwin Desai, Goolam Vahed
Paul Landau

Ashwin Desai, Goolam Vahed. The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire. South Asia in Motion Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 344 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9608-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9717-7.

Reviewed by Paul Landau (University of Maryland and University of Johannesburg) Published on H-Empire (May, 2017) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

The image of Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa is correctly one of leadership. But what was his leadership made of? It is often presented as a quixotic bundle of things, ironclad moral certainty combined with a willingness to compromise, human feeling, and intellectual power. Gandhi pioneered nonviolent “resistance” or “passive resistance” in the anticolonial and antiracist struggle. Before he was “Gandhi,” let alone the Mahatma, he lived in South Africa for twenty years (1894–1914) and worked for Indian South Africans, as a lawyer, publisher, advocate, and organizer, in Durban and then predominantly in Johannesburg. He resisted state repatriations of Indians, fingerprint registration, and onerous specific taxes, and he worked to protect the sanctity of household against the state’s nonrecognition of Hindu and Muslim marriages. He settled with many of his family and other people in two consecutive “farms,” or ashrams: Phoenix, near Durban, and then Tolstoy, built forty kilometers south of Johannesburg, named to honor the spiritually intense, Christian, Deist novelist he most esteemed. He planted fruit trees. He articulated a philosophy for resisting injustice he named Satyagraha and expanded it to govern his ashrams’ daily life.

Gandhi is too much of a unique figure to categorize easily. Having read Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi before India (2014), and some other studies, this reviewer was surprised and educated by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s perspective.[1] Twenty-three chapters, brisk, concise, and fluid, lay bare Gandhi’s politics in South Africa. They have much to say, but will be noted here for their main thesis: “To the end of his stay ... Gandhi remained a believer in Empire” (p. 278). Even nonviolence came in second to this fealty, Gandhi extolling manliness and voluntarism in combating African rebels in 1906 and in fighting the world war. His nonviolence was an absolute only when contemplated as a political strategy by a minority protesting to a legitimate state: the British state.

Secondly, Gandhi was uninterested in collaborating with Africans. While he had close relationships with some Indian South African families and worked with some Africans on his ashram, the better part of his personal friendships were with white people. He was scarcely in contact with John Dube, founder of the Ohlanga Institute near Phoenix, in Inanda, and he neither sought out nor expressed interest in working with Pixley Seme or Solomon Plaatje, founders of the African National Congress. Gandhi praised Africans when it suited his need, extolling their modesty, praising Zulu men behaving well before half-naked Zulu women, for instance, as he shamed the boys and girls he brought to live together for their sexual curiosity—that sort of thing.

Now, as Desai and Vahed show, Gandhi was very brave, sacrificed his own body, fasted, and punished himself and those around him, but he did so in part at least because the state itself could not directly be challenged: not by Indian South African merchants and professionals, at least. Desai and Vahed trace Gandhi’s intellectual journey into what he constructed on the fly as Satyagraha. At first, he was not above signaling his understanding of common “Aryan” heritage with Europeans (pp. 32, 43), and pointedly remarked on the danger of Indian South Africans falling to the level of the “native.” But during the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, in which he supported the British and bore the wounded of both sides away, he had some kind of epiphany.[2] Renouncing “household affairs” and also sexual activity was required to become a true spiritual warrior (vanaprastha) in the Hindu tradition.

Reading Gandhi’s own account carefully, however, it is apparent that his personal assimilation of Deist Christianity (minus Jesus) is what produced Satyagraha, and that it was given its character by his Johannesburg milieu. Close to the heart of Satyagraha was the deliberate embrace of suffering. Satyagrahis (that is, people who practice Satyagraha) were to look at death while in action as an attainment of “strength” otherwise denied to them. They did not ask to be shot, but they were not “the type” (said Hermann Kallenbach on March 14, 1913, to Justice Searle of the Cape Supreme Court) to change their plans if they were threatened. Instead they would “melt ... your hearts by self-suffering.” Suffering undertaken knowingly for justice itself was good, because “God is the strength of the weak.”[3] And Satyagraha was essentially anti-ethnic, in that anyone could honestly volunteer to suffer.

It is very hard not to see a deployment of a concept designed to compete with orthodoxies and religions on their own turf. Having named Satyagraha, in fact, it was then encountered as if it were a preexisting philosophy. Satyagraha was “soul-force,” in Satyagraha “there was no room for hatred”: “The community was not bound as to when and regarding what subjects they should offer Satyagraha, in deciding which question ... they must only not transgress [their] appreciation of their own capacity.”[4]

Yet if Satyagraha were made into a general posture, it posed its own demands, as for instance on Gandhi’s son Manilal, who was still instructed by Gandhi into his twenties as to whom to see and what to eat. Kallenbach also told Manilal when to sleep and wake as his guest at his home, and forced the young man to accompany him on long walks from Johannesburg to Pretoria. Gandhi wrote gently to Kallenbach on his son’s behalf but also counseled Manilal to be true and clear and indifferent to material things.[5] The personal and the political were all wrapped up in Gandhi. If death and suffering were not defeat, one could be victorious no matter what; on the other hand, failure was “disgrace.”[6]

Desai and Vahed show quite clearly that the efficacy of such a phenomenon or even its actual implementation was uncertain, and that Gandhi was in fact less successful than commonly thought. Gandhi distinguished himself by his writing, his publications, and his newspaper, Indian Opinion (which sometimes did give coverage to Africans’ apparent issues after 1912), and he wrote in a way only a very attentive leader could, but to what end? The subtitle of the book puts the authors’ conclusions into a rather harsh phrase. Yet it is so that Gandhi never wished to take advantage of his British or Union Party protagonists in wartime. The authors even suggest that Gandhi was a useful tool for Union of South Africa Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts and further, that Gandhi’s “strategy of racial separation and hierarchy was in quick step with the segregation ideology of the emerging South African state” (p. 305). Is that not going a little far? Gandhi wrote some ugly phrases and assertions about Africans especially before 1906, but he did not go on to elaborate a racist theory or model. He appealed mostly to universal, ecumenical, and secular-Christian values, alongside the state or Empire—embarrassing the latter.

In this reviewer’s opinion, despite Gandhi’s unconcern for Africans before he left, Satyagraha was arguably a very South African notion. Unfortunately Desai and Vahed recognize Gandhi more as a transplant to South Africa than as a local. Gandhi participated in ongoing discussions with South Africa’s progressive elites, Johannesburg’s gift to him, in a way impossible in the Raj. He surrounded himself with unusual people: Jews, Rosicrucian mystics, leftist or Evangelical Christians, radicals, Sonia Schlesin, Hermann Kallenbach, the Reverend Joseph Doke, and the uncomplaining Symonds, as well as bachelors and single people, who were most of all devoted to him. Consider—as neither Desai and Vahed nor Guha do—how his synthesis and use of Christian ideas in the prevailing climate of orthodoxy and religious experimentation was much like that of the urban-born, independent, South African (African) Christian church leaders who were emerging in and around Gandhi in Natal and the Reef at the same time.

White Christians, such as Daniel Bryant, Pieter le Roux, and John G. Lake, were baptizing Africans en masse, giving this sacramental power further to some men as African ministers, while others self-designated after self-described divine experiences. These “baporofiti” (prophets), Isaiah Shembe, Daniel Nkonyane, then Christinah Nku, Engenas Lekganyane, and others, became leaders of churches. They secured bases (Wakkerstroom, Moria, ekuPhakameni) much like Tolstoy, and/or they met in big annual convocations.

Consider further that Phoenix and Tolstoy were ashrams. Especially in Tolstoy, their daily regimes were regulated by Gandhi personally “according to” Satyagraha (his own creation). From 1909 to 1913, Gandhi sought out “rural society” and focused on being a vegetarian; he practiced “hydrotherapy” in his South African ashrams; and denounced medicine and Western understandings of digestion and nutrition that were ascendant. Instead, he prescribed salt, or grain-restricted diets, or fasting, imagining himself a healer, and then recriminating with himself when he himself became ill.

African men were permitted to assemble under the law in South Africa (after 1927) only if they were being “ethnic” or praying to God. Their healers, acclaimed as holy, thought similarly about health; it was a moral issue to them as well. They ran communities according to their own brand of Christianity, which also did not feature Christ as much as their own presence, insight, decrees, and prohibitions. They incorporated the wounded, the retrenched, the displaced, and the jobless, not elites. Meanwhile, at the end of his stay, indentured Indians pressed themselves to Gandhi’s attention by their impromptu participation in the 1914 strike, with Indian coal miners and sugar plantation laborers and debtors joining in. Gandhi altered his formerly elitist stance to embrace them, and changed his corporeal aspect to reflect simplicity and poverty. Note that not just Gandhi, however, adopted a long white smock as his symbolic public outerwear in the 1910s as a leader: dozens of “Zion” style ministers did as well.

That Sir Benjamin Robertson and the Solomon Commission recommended mild reforms, finally, so as not to drive urban Indian South Africans to distraction, was hailed a great victory for Gandhi. Desai and Vahed argue that he bent the meaning of his earlier demands to appear as if he had been aiming for a smaller shift in policy than he had. He traveled around the country, praising his former nemeses, including Smuts, before leaving for India. And Desai and Vahed demonstrate how some “retrospective tidying-up” of history was done by Gandhi himself and his allies later on in writing about his aims.

All this is demonstrated, but perhaps Desai and Vahed undervalue Gandhi’s flexibility. Adopting a new costume to match his confected philosophy of ascetic principles and spiritual aims was a genuine departure. By crafting a movement in the peculiarly South African part-political and part-religious vocabulary, inherited from nineteenth-century mobilizations—and overlapping with colonial Hindu traditions—he had occupied a space big enough for the maneuverability he needed. He could speak like a preacher and compromise like a mayor. And when he reached India, he began to consider the British presence there differently.

Desai and Vahed have illuminated Gandhi’s unwavering effort to raise Indian South Africans to legal parity with Europeans, conceded to be the proper rulers of South Africa. Still, Gandhi left behind, for better or worse, not only the Natal Indian Congress but also the very practice of a Congress representing a population in a manner officially unrecognized by the legitimate state. Even more, he pioneered much of the essential pattern of the urban South African leader: ecumenical, spiritual, self-sacrificing, participatory, and media-aware. His reworked memory was deployed again in “passive resistance” campaigns, in favor of unity after the terrible killings in Cato Manor in 1949, and in the 1950s and beyond. Was this a baneful legacy? Did he bequeath South African progressive politics a viable mode for opposing oppression? That is the difficult question. Was the South African Gandhi wrong for India? Did Satyagraha help to unify people and liberate the subcontinent, or did Gandhi, in the critical hours, fail to understand the coherence of power as did his Dalit compatriot Bhim Rao Ambedkar? When he looked back from India at South Africa in the postwar world, he saw the land question there seemingly for the first time, and commented on its injustice to Africans. “I would not shed a tear if all the satyagrahis in South Africa are wiped out,” he wrote in 1946. “Thereby they will not only bring deliverance to themselves”—let us recognize the strangeness of this statement—“but point the way to the Negroes and vindicate the honour of India.”[7]


[1]. Particularly useful are Anil Nauriya, The African Element in Gandhi (New Delhi: National Gandhi Museum, 2006), James D. Hunt, Gandhi and the Nonconformists: Encounters in South Africa (London: Promilla & Co., 2011); and several works by Surendra Bhana on Gandhi and his milieu.

[2]. Here and throughout I refer to M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, trans. (from the Gujurati) Valji Govinji Desai, introduction to the American edition by M. J. Chatterjee and Ira Sandperl (1928; American ed., Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints, 1954).

[3]. Ibid., 275.

[4]. Ibid., 187.

[5]. Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi's Son Manilal (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005), 127.

[6]. Ibid., 189 ff.

[7]. The Complete Works of Mohandas K. Gandhi, vol. 84, 422, quoted in Nauriya, African Element in Gandhi, 86.

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