Mahatma Gandhi’s reputation in Africa is marred by his history of prejudice against blacks. Protests against statues of the Indian independence leader are spreading across Africa.
Just the Basics
Gandhi’s time as a young lawyer in South Africa was marred by his prejudice against Africans and support for the colony’s racial hierarchy
Debate rages about Gandhi’s African legacy and his changing attitudes on race, causing problems for his global image
India uses Gandhi as a brand ambassador, donating statues of the Indian independence leader across the world, a tactic which backfires in Africa
Whether it is the debate surrounding civil war monuments in the southern United States; the Soviet-era statuary detritus that litters Eastern Europe, or effigies of colonial-era figures in Africa, the implications of exactly who societies decide to honour in statue form is spurring debate. Alongside those protesting the public depictions of Robert E. Lee and Cecil Rhodes, others are campaigning against another historical figure, albeit one who, to outsiders, appears to be poor company.
Demonstrators in several African countries are campaigning for the removal of statues of Mahatma Gandhi. One of the fathers of Indian independence and widely regarded as a paragon of virtue, Gandhi is one of the most recognizable figures in world history. Consequently, Gandhi’s status as sculpture non-grata in Africa will come as a surprise to many of us. Even those among us with a only a passing familiarity with world history will nonetheless be able to associate Gandhi with pacifism, non-violence and anti-colonialism (and - for some - dropping nukes).
Indeed, it is Gandhi’s very anti-colonial legacy that is inverted, with the Indian independence leader accused of supporting racist colonial attitudes towards Africans during his time working as a lawyer in South Africa. Gandhi spent much of his life outside India, and moved to South Africa as a young man, setting up a law practice in the colony upon his arrival. Having been educated at the kind of elite British institutions which furnished the Empire with leaders and with no prior interactions with Africans, the words and deeds of Gandhi in South Africa make for troubling reading for those accustomed to the image of the elderly, humble pacifist portrayed in books and films (but not video games) alike.
Gandhi in South Africa
It is this young Gandhi that protesters in South Africa, Ghana and Malawi are fighting against, arguing that while he may be a positive symbol for many Indians, he does not invoke such feelings among many Africans. Research on Gandhi’s time in South Africa has revealed many troubling incidents and writings that conveyed his prejudice against Africans, often referring to them as kaffirs - a derogatory colonial era term for the native population of South Africa.
In The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer for Empire, South African professors Ashwin Desai (University of Johannesburg) and Goolam Vahed (University of Kwazulu-Natal) present a scathing picture of Gandhi’s thoughts and deeds during his time in South Africa. As a young man, Gandhi harboured strong negative opinions about blacks, and has been characterized as a racist and someone who (initially) supported the British Empire. By citing Gandhi’s own writing and his record of public advocacy during his time in South Africa, Desai and Vahed present us with a radically different Gandhi than most are accustomed to.
One of Gandhi’s first battles was for the establishment of a separate entrance for Indians at the Durban post office, arguing that it was an insult to the Indian community to have to use the same door as black South Africans. “We felt the indignity too much” writes Gandhi, “and [...] petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.”
In an open letter to the Natal parliament in 1893, Gandhi played on notions of racial superiority to complain against prejudice directed at the Indian community. His letter elaborates as follows: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. A general belief seems to prevail in the colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the natives of Africa.” Similarly, in a 1895 petition against Indians being viewed as second-class residents, Gandhi argued that Indians would be degraded to the level of natives if they were afforded less rights.
During a speech in 1896 in Mumbai, Gandhi told the assembled crowd that Europeans in Natal wished “to denigrate [Indians] to the level of a raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” In response to White League agitation in 1903 against Indian immigration and Chinese foreign workers, Gandhi publicly declared that “we also believe that the white race is South Africa should be the predominating race.”
Furthermore, in response to a 1904 decision to allow blacks to live alongside Indians in Johannesburg, Gandhi complained that local authorities “must withdraw the kaffirs [...] I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.” In 1906, Gandhi even took part in the fighting during the Zulu Rebellion, working as a stretcher-bearer for the British military, being appointed sergeant-major and undertaking an oath “to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Edward.”
Lastly, in what is likely the most bizarre instance of Gandhi’s prejudice against blacks, he also complained about being given prison garments with the letter ‘N’ on them during the few weeks he was imprisoned in 1908. Having been sent to jail for refusing to carry an obligatory identity card, Gandhi wrote of the conditions facing him and others in prison, paying particular attention to the clothing he was issued. After his release, Gandhi reflected on this particular facet of his prison experience, writing - in a frankly melodramatic manner - that “we were all prepared for hardships but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites but to be placed on the same level with the natives seemed too much to put up with.”
Not just a case of judging history by modern morals
These are not the kind of attitudes that most of us would associate with Gandhi, yet it is interesting to note that Gandhi’s prejudice against blacks has a consistent theme: namely of highlighting the dignity of Indians within the colonial racial hierarchy by contrasting them with Africans. Gandhi’s various protests in South Africa all centre around the various indignities endured by the Indian community there. In doing so, Gandhi is fighting against a dualistic racial hierarchy - that of whites and ‘everyone else’ - as conceptualized by some whites in South Africa.
To this end, Gandhi is using received wisdom about racial distinctions to fight against racist attitudes towards Indians; a strange exercise which employs and promotes racist ideas against blacks to fight against racist ideas about Indians. Using such a tactic demonstrates how Gandhi’s existence in a colonial society compromised his very thinking on race, even when his ultimate aim was for greater racial equality (at least for Indians). Of further note is also the fact that the reason that many are not aware of this aspect of Gandhi’s life is that he actively omitted it from his later writings.
Speaking about their research, Desai and Vahed noted that: “as we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and ‘Satayagraha in South Africa’ it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up’. He was effectively rewriting his own history.” While it is normal for people to change their opinions over time, and most, if not all figures of note engage in some (whether conscious or unconscious) editing of their autobiographies, the mythos surrounding Gandhi and his humanitarian legacy makes this especially problematic.
When delving into the writing of historical figures, there is always the risk of imposing 21st century standards on persons of the past. While we may disagree with particular statements that have not aged well, in many cases it is unfair to condemn those who (like us) were products of their time. Gandhi apologists include his grandson and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi, who concedes that his grandfather “was undoubtedly at times ignorant and prejudicial about South African blacks [...] Gandhi too was an imperfect human being [...] the imperfect Gandhi was more radical and progressive than most contemporary compatriots.
Conversely, Desai and Vahed reject this reading of Gandhi’s time in South Africa in their book. Similarly, Patrick French, author of Gandhi before India takes a line that counters the apologist view. Speaking on the issue, French argues that “the point is not that someone born in the 19th century should be expected to have 21st century racial attitudes: it is that, even by the reformist standards of his own time [Gandhi] was regressive. Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology.”
French goes on to note that despite having lived in Africa for over two decades, Gandhi had no personal or professional interaction with black people during his time in South Africa. When he did finally leave the continent for India he did not say goodbye to a single African:
“to them alone were Gandhi’s connections too slight to merit a formal and public farewell,” writes French.
A similar line of reasoning is taken by protestors in Ghana, where in 2016, professors at the University of Ghana began a petition to remove a statue from the institution’s Accra campus. With the hashtag #GandhiMustComeDown (a similiar hashtag, #GandhiMustFall is trending in Malawi) staff and students of the university succeeded in having the statue removed.
Daniel Osei Tuffour, a former student at the university spoke to the BBC, stating that “Ghanaians should be confident in themselves and seek to project our own heroes and heroines. There is nothing peaceful about the activities of Gandhi. Anyone who claims to uphold peace and tranquility but promotes racism is a hypocrite.” Resistance to the erection of a Gandhi statue should not be construed as resistance to Indian investment: indeed, India built the Ghanaian parliament building and the country’s presidential palace.
As a quick aside, the fact that this protest is being orchestrated by Ghanaian academics has further significance. Despite its small size, Ghana punches above its weight in continental affairs and has long been an influential voice regarding issues of African identity and anti-colonialsm. As the first African country to achieve independence, Ghana’s contribution to historiography, philosophy and Pan-African thought should not be underestimated. Consequently, when Ghana’s academics take action, many others will sit up and take notice.
Malawi is the scene of the latest protest movement against Gandhi, as a Malawian court has (as of November 2nd) halted work on a statue of Gandhi in Blantyre, the country’s second largest city after protestors collected more than 3,500 signatures. Kambewa Mpambira, a Malawian activist feels that hosting a statue of Gandhi in the country offends Malawian sensibilities and clashes with the country’s international image. “We feel that in Malawi, our country, which is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, there’s no place here for racists, we don’t have space to celebrate racists.”
In the midst of these protests, one may rightly wonder why statues of Gandhi litter Africa when many in the region hold negative attitudes towards the man. Whereas the presence of said statuary in South Africa is understandable given the time he spent there, his presence further afield makes less sense. The answer to this quandary is that the Indian government uses Gandhi as a marketing tool, capitalizing on his worldwide name recognition and (generally) positive associations. Like Che Guevara or Einstein, Gandhi has become a prolific symbol adorning everything from statues to sweatshirts.
Backlash against Gandhi in Africa a brand meltdown for India
It is within this context that the protests against statues of Gandhi in various African countries are taking place. These protests are not being lodged by African governments, but rather by ordinary citizens and civil society organizations. Despite his chequered history in South Africa, the government there has largely glossed over Gandhi’s legacy. The parallels between the anti-Apartheid movement and Indian independence efforts are obvious and some in South Africa choose to view the country as the crucible in which ‘Gandhi the man’ was transformed into ‘Gandhi the icon’. “In a sense Mandela probably forgave Gandhi for his racism,” argues Tirthankar Chanda for RFI - “[Mandela] in fact went on to say, when he went to India, that ‘you gave us a lawyer and we gave you a Mahatma’, Mahatma meaning great soul.”
Gandhi is an institution, a brand: upon entering the Senate, Barack Obama hung a portrait of Gandhi in his office. This international idolization is a boon for India’s soft power, making the jobs of New Delhi’s diplomats easier. “Simply having a Gandhi photo on an office wall or his bust donated to some school or university institutionalizes the Indian government’s presence in the foreign country,” explains Suraj Yengde, a research associate at the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Something similar happened in Ghana [and beyond] but it was met with a backlash.” In Ghana, the statue in question was a gift presented by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, and other Gandhi statues have been gifted by top Indian officials across Africa.
In Malawi, the statue was part of an Indian aid project, with New Delhi building the Mahatma Gandhi Convention Centre (located on Mahatma Gandhi Road no less) in Blantyre. India is using the Gandhi brand to promote its infrastructure efforts in Africa, with Gandhi convention centres sprouting up in over twenty countries, including; Gambia, Uganda, Liberia, Niger, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Togo, among others. These Gandhi centres are part of India’s effort to rectify the lack of adequate spaces for large events in many African countries. For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi International Convention Centre being built in Niamey - the capital of Niger - is slated to be the venue of the 2019 African Union Summit.
As none of the countries mentioned above have the capability to host sub-regional or pan-African political summits or business events, India sees an opportunity. Alongside the concrete benefits of these meeting places, India is seeking to invoke Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence and dialogue, with his statues acting as benevolent totems calling on users of the new convention centres to be convivial and cooperative.
The Bottom Line
Few could imagine that the young Indian lawyer that arrived on South Africa’s shore would eventually become one of the leaders of Indian independence and an international symbol for peace and non-violence. Anyone looking at Gandhi’s words and actions during his time in South Africa would have been doubly surprised by his eventual fame - due to both the unlikelihood of any single person becoming a household name, as well as Gandhi’s views on race and empire.
Far from a benign figure in Africa, Gandhi’s legacy on the continent is tainted by his attitudes towards Africans. Paradoxically, in fighting for the rights of South Africa’s Indian community, Gandhi used racial stereotypes and epithets about black people, protesting that he would not stand to see Indians reduced to the level of the blacks. This tactic left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Africans who in turn view Gandhi as another problematic colonial figure. Consequently, protesters in South Africa, Malawi and Ghana argue that Gandhi does not deserve to be publicly honoured.
This public backlash to statues of Gandhi mirrors similar reactions against other colonial figures such as Cecil Rhodes. The problem is that while no one is building statues of Rhodes any more, Gandhi remains the - for a lack of a better word - mascot for Indian soft power both in Africa and further abroad. Indian projects in Africa often throw in token Gandhi statues as part of their wider efforts to instil goodwill towards New Delhi. The problem is that this one-size-fits-all approach (which usually meets with no complaint in other parts of the world) often runs afoul of local sensibilities in various African countries.
Indian politicians view Gandhi within a single lens - that of global peace icon. Similarly, many Africans conceptualize him through a single (in this case negative) lens. While both groups are justified in their perceptions of Gandhi, the discrepancy between the two perspectives demonstrates that neither view encapsulates the full story. Gandhi in Africa and Gandhi in India are two elements of the same imperfect person. While not dismissing his actions in South Africa, it is important to remember that people do change. Gandhi may not have bothered to say goodbye to any Africans, but he did return one last time nonetheless. Following his death in 1948 some of his ashes were flown thousands of miles to Jinja, Uganda where, at the source of the Nile, they were scattered into the river. And of course there is also a statue there.
Title image credit: Sérgio Valle Duarte
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.