Gandhi and Mass Action in South Africa: A Reassessment

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Dr Archana Verma


Gandhi remains the most intensely scrutinised persona in the history of Indians in colonial South Africa between 1893 and 1914, the year of his arrival and the year of his departure from South Africa. He has been described in extremes, from being a charismatic leader,[1] a representative of toilers,[2] to being a mascot of commercial elites,[3] or a promoter of upper-class Indians.[4] Gandhi had spent good number of years in South Africa fighting for justice against virulent racial discrimination, practised by Europeans, that denied to Indians their basic civic and human rights. Within a decade, he transformed the struggle of Indians by launching passive resistance, the non-violent Satyagraha, fighting hard to make the people aware of their rights for a better society. In South Africa, the Indian masses joined Gandhi to find political solutions against racial injustices in an entirely novel way – as warriors without arms and weapons. In the process, Gandhi got transformed from a barrister to a leader, a journey that meandered through several phases. This paper argues that Gandhi not only believed in his own capacity to fight against an unjust rule but he also believed in inculcating the capacity of common people to fight against an unjust rule. This he showed through his actions and the people got the courage to follow him.

When Gandhi reached South Africa in 1893 in connection with a lawsuit, it comprised of Natal and the Cape – the two British colonies, and the Transvaal and Orange Free State – the two Boer Republics. At the time, Indians predominantly lived in Natal, and, in reasonable numbers in the Transvaal, with a sprinkled and inconsequential population in the Cape and Orange Free State. Indians first arrived in Natal in 1860 as indentured labourers by ship vessels that sailed on storm-tossed high seas for months together. Between 1860 and 1911, thousands of Indian indentured labourers had entered Natal, their numbers reaching 1,521,84, with 1/3rd of them arriving in the last decade.[5] At least 23% of this proportion also returned to India.[6] Sent by recruiters in India, with the consent of the Natal and the British colonial governments, indentured Indians reached Natal on contract of five years with their employers. They became



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