Gandhi in Africa

The title of this biography, Gandhi Before India, glances backwards and forwards. It invokes Ramachandra Guha’s previous blockbuster India After Gandhi and suggests a likely title—Gandhi After ...

The title of this biography, Gandhi Before India, glances backwards and forwards. It invokes Ramachandra Guha’s previous blockbuster India After Gandhi and suggests a likely title—Gandhi After India—for volume two of the Mahatma’s life story.

Gandhi, India, before, after: these titles quadrate nation and leader, time and space—a rather tame-looking matrix perhaps but one that this biography felicitously pulls out of joint. Stretching the last category, Guha recounts the making of Gandhi—and the making of the idea of the Indian nation—outside India itself. The biography covers the first 45 years of Gandhi’s life (1869–1914), virtually all of it spent outside British India: a childhood in the princely state of Kathiawar, a stint of legal training at an Inns of Court in London and then some two decades in what would become South Africa, where he achieved world prominence leading a mass civil disobedience movement for the rights of South African Indians.

The bulk of the book deals with Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa. He arrived in Durban in 1893, a besuited lawyer much taken with imperial justice, industrial progress, and the sovereignty of the state. He left in 1914, an ex-lawyer and proponent of satyagraha, the radical technique of self-rule/ruling the self designed to escape the machine of the state, its law, and the compulsions of progress.

In telling this story, Guha departs from popular understandings that focus on Gandhi’s Indian triumphs while downplaying his South African experiences. The biography moves from major to minor, from the Indian Gandhi to the African, from the Mahatma as a towering and solo protagonist to one surrounded by the crowded South African world of minor characters with and against whom he shaped his ideas.

I. New Wave Gandhi


Guha’s biography enters a crowded and rapidly changing domain of Gandhian studies. Divided by nationalism, area studies, and apartheid, for decades the field failed to integrate the African and Indian Gandhis. Over the last 20 years, political and intellectual changes—the formal ending of apartheid and the rise of transnational thinking—have ignited a new wave of scholarship. Across disciplinary fronts, scholars have been debating how Gandhi’s thought and action exceed the frame of the Indian nation state, a discussion that necessarily foregrounds his South African formation.

This “new school” questions India as the automatic source of all Gandhian thought. Leela Gandhi traces the roots of Gandhi’s anti-governmentality in the countercultural fin de siècle anti-imperial circles in London. Faisal Devji shows Gandhi as less interested in securing Indian national liberation, than in trying out satyagraha on a grand scale (if it could work in India, it could work anywhere). Uday Mehta, Ajay Skaria, and Tridip Suhrud have reframed Gandhi’s political thought as a series of portable ethical experiments rather than an expression of nationalism. Ritu Birla and Devji’s collection on new approaches to Hind Swaraj include essays on Gandhi’s 1909 manifesto as a South African–made text.1 Joseph Lelyveld’s brilliant biography identifies Gandhi’s brutal experiences of white settler racism in South Africa as precipitating his critique of caste, an aspect of his thought often seen as emerging in India. (Lelyveld also suggested an intimate and possibly sexual relationship between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach, his close companion and “lieutenant” in the satyagraha campaigns. Shimon Lev, by contrast, construes this relationship as that of guru and disciple who saw themselves as constituting a “two-man ashram,” an interpetation that Guha supports.2)

This South African work stands in contrast to traditions of Indian nationalist scholarship.

South African scholars have long explained Gandhi’s political experiments through the cosmopolitan worlds that he encountered in Durban (a port city constituted by imperial migration) and Johannesburg (a gold-rush town), documenting the people and organizations that informed Gandhi’s campaigns. The early sections of Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie’s magisterial biography of Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, provide a fine-grained sense of the communities in which Gandhi operated.3

This South African work stands in contrast to traditions of Indian nationalist scholarship that have treated Gandhi’s South African years as a minor prelude to his true calling as “Father of the Nation” and have passed over the lives of his less prominent peers in South Africa so that the Mahatma can emerge as a sui generis titan. Oddly, the anti-apartheid movement strengthened this Gandhi-centric tendency in Indian scholarship (and in some journalistic writings in South Africa). When historical narratives centered on the struggle between black and white, the role of the Indian community could be cast as marginal.

This framing has obscured Gandhi’s collaborators and co-organizers. Elevated above his peers, the Mahatma, a symbol of non-violent resistance, acquired a powerful afterlife in South Africa where the African National Congress (ANC) used Gandhian tactics in the 1950s before turning to armed struggle in the 1960s. This apotheosis was somewhat ironic given that Gandhi had long opposed a common political front between Indians and Africans, a position informed by his colonial views of Africa that ranked below India in the hierarchy of civilization. This rosy view of the Mahatma was routinely placed alongside an equally simplified image of Mandela, a hagiographical confluence of the great man as sui generis maker of history.

II. Gandhi After Guha


Where does Guha stand in this field? Astride it, one might suggest—the book is colossal and like all Guha’s work, massively researched and exquisitely written. At the same time, it straddles old and new styles of Gandhian scholarship. A national historian at heart, Guha is concerned with how South Africa made Gandhi Indian. Unlike Devji’s theory that Gandhi was more invested in universalizing satyagraha than in national liberation, Gandhi Before India bypasses Gandhi’s non-national thinking. Guha certainly tells a transnational, global story but one whose end product is the idea of India rather than other, less territorial and nation-state based forms of belonging.

One common mode of transnational history relies on abstraction and epic: capital, commodities, and ideologies act as major protagonists. Guha favors a more novelistic method with a bustling cast of characters and a sprawl of person-to-person links through which larger ideas and social movements emerged. Guha does note in the prologue that Gandhi has elements of an epic figure and resembles Ram, the protagonist of the Ramayana. Both travel far and wide, spend time in exile, and mistreat their wives. Yet, Guha’s preference leans more towards the novel: “What really matters are the stories, the richness of the human experience they contain, the fascination of the central character and of those who worked with or fought against him.” Indeed the biography resembles a transnational 19th-century novel with a cast of cosmopolitan characters. We meet “Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, and even the odd atheist” as well as “farmers, craftspeople, shopkeepers, housewives, scavengers and mineworkers” along with the rich and powerful—“prosperous businessmen, powerful proconsuls, decorated generals and elected heads of state.”

The cosmopolitan circuits that Gandhi established across London, Durban, and Johannesburg furnished the milieu in which he discovered India. Whereas most of his peers in India “worked and died in the same town or village in which they were born,” Gandhi was constantly on the move. He “had studied law in one city, London, and practiced it in four other cities—Rajkot, Bombay, Durban and Johannesburg. His life … had been marked by multiple dislocations—as an adult he had lived in a dozen different houses.” Guha’s Gandhi combines the skill of constant travel with the capacity of forming devoted communities and intense friendships across social boundaries. Gandhi’s immersion in London’s countercultural fin de siècle world is well known. Guha extends this theme by recreating fine-grained portraits of the groups of people with and against whom Gandhi was to shape his thinking in South Africa. These minor characters emerge with a clarity that previous biographies have never fully captured.

Members of the Tolstoy Farm created by Gandhi in South Africa (1910). Wikimedia Commons /

Members of the Tolstoy Farm created by Gandhi in South Africa (1910). Wikimedia Commons /

Guha is able to bring these second-order figures to light because the book is based on such prodigious research (undertaken on four continents and in five countries). As Guha indicates, he was determined to move away from a project that relied too heavily on the hundred-volume Collected Works, an easily accessible but Gandhi-centric archive. Instead Guha explores Gandhi’s “words and actions in the context of the words and actions of his family, friends, followers and adversaries.” The biography more than delivers on this aim: it is certainly the most exhaustive account of Gandhi’s South African sojourn to date and is based on years worth of trawling through national and provincial archives, collections of personal papers, colonial state records (produced inter alia by surveillance of Gandhi), tens of thousands of newspaper pages, dozens of scrap books, yards worth of parliamentary papers, and hundreds of pamphlets and ephemera.

The research has unearthed some gems. Who knew that in 1897 the young Gandhi corresponded with M. A. Jinnah, subsequently head of the Muslim League and great foe of the Mahatma? The actual letters do not survive, only a record in a logbook, but Guha speculates on what the correspondence might have contained: sympathy in the wake of Gandhi’s near lynching at the hands of white men at the end of 1896? Inquiries from one Gujarati lawyer to another about coming to work in South Africa?

We gain a graphic sense of the busy swirl of friends, family, confidantes, comrades, and colleagues around Gandhi.

Drawing on his exhaustive research, Guha demonstrates how these “‘secondary’ characters were considerable figures in their own right.” We gain a graphic sense of the busy swirl of friends, family, confidantes, comrades, and colleagues around Gandhi. Outside his family, these included Pranjivan Mehta, a diasporic Gujarati professional whom Gandhi first met in London; Henry and Millie Graham/Polak, he a Jewish Tolstoyan, she a Christian freethinker and supporter of woman’s suffrage; Thambi Naidoo and A. M. Cachalia, the veterans of the satyagraha campaigns; Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect; and Sonia Schlesin, a Lithuanian Jew who arrived in Johannesburg via Moscow and Cape Town. Others were the Baptist minister Joseph Doke, and Charles Freer Andrews, the India-based Anglican priest who visited Gandhi in Durban.

While some of these figures (especially Andrews and, to a lesser extent, Doke) have been relatively well-documented, the others are less visible. Mehta, Naidoo, Cachalia, and Henry Polak remain unbiographied, while Kallenbach only acquired that status in the last decade. Millie Polak wrote her own memoir of her years with Gandhi but it has long been out of print.4 Sonia Schlesin is memorialized in a short and obscure biography.5 Guha comes to the rescue by providing mini-biographies of these characters as their lives converge with Gandhi and the satyagraha struggle.

One significant emphasis is on the friendships that Gandhi formed with white women. Had Gandhi stayed in India, says Guha, he might have absorbed conventional views in which friendships between men and women were rare, and men knew women as family members but generally not as friends. The biography provides sharply observed portraits of the white women who clustered around Gandhi, part of a broader pattern of white women supporting anti-colonial activists of color in symbiotic but tense relationships in which each could open social doors closed for the other.

As Guha points out, these white women were often the ones to challenge Gandhi.

Sonja Schlesin worked as a secretary and articled clerk in Gandhi’s legal practice in Johannesburg (becoming especially adept at deciphering his scrawl). With Gandhi’s support, she sought, unsuccessfully, to register as an attorney, hoping to become the first woman lawyer in the country as Gandhi had been the first person of color to become a lawyer. Drawn into the satyagraha struggle, she worked tirelessly, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages” involving herself especially in the case of women satyagrahis. “Hers was a double or perhaps triple transgression: a white, Jewish woman expressing her solidarity with persecuted Indian males.”

As Guha points out, these white women were often the ones to challenge Gandhi. Millie Polak produced an insightful memoir of her time with Gandhi which deflated overly utopian ideas of Gandhian life. Of the supposed rural idyll of ashram life at Phoenix, she wrote to her sister-in-law: “beetles everywhere, spiders, ants in the milk, no baths, water bad, people half naked, filth too, lift a plate and you will find an insect underneath, snakes hanging from the tree, you have not only to tolerate this but love the insect life, you may not destroy any life.” Another of her trenchant insights concerned the functioning of the printing press on Phoenix. In theory, this was meant to be operated by hand so that the ashramites might be uplifted by manual labour. Millie couldn’t resist the following: “But Mr. Gandhi, ever a believer in man doing his own work, soon altered this, and four … Zulu girls were procured for a few hours on printing day.”6

Millie’s observations on the insect life at Phoenix were written to her sister-in-law Maud Polak who had encountered Gandhi on one of his trips to London and had fallen in love with him. She duly made her way to South Africa to work tirelessly for the cause. Maud is a figure who has made only the most fleeting appearance in other biographies of Gandhi but gets her due exposure here.

The biography also gives an impressive line-up of Gandhi’s enemies from the mightiest (like the imperious proconsul Alfred Milner and the cunning General Smuts) to obscure figures like Montford Chamney, the bumbling Protector of Asiatics in Johannesburg. Another important cluster of minor characters comprise Gandhi’s enemies within the Indian community. Given the Gandhi-centric emphasis of much of the scholarhip, these characters never get much of a hearing, the assumption being that all Indians must have supported Gandhi. C. M. Pillay, a Tamil-speaking descendant of indentured labourers who regarded himself as a spokesperson for his fellow Tamilians resented Gandhi’s influence and the backing he received from Gujarati merchants (although in subsequent years Pillay did recant). P. S. Aiyar was a more substantial opponent and one of the few Indians to commit his critical views to print. Editor of the Tamil/English paper, African Chronicle, Aiyar, after initially supporting Gandhi, criticized his tactics. Aiyar also questioned Gandhi’s close reliance on white advisors. A lover of polemical language, Aiyar accused Gandhi of being an “omnipotent Czar” while Polak, whom Aiyar especially disliked was the “white Dinizulu [the Zulu chief] for the Indians.”

Through its evocations of this varied world the book demonstrates how Gandhi’s thinking on India was shaped by these cosmopolitan networks in South Africa:

Had Gandhi lived and worked in India, he would never have met dissident Jews or Nonconformist Christians. Life in the diaspora also exposed him more keenly to the heterogeneity of his own homeland. Had he followed the family tradition and worked in a princely state in Kathiawar he would never have met Tamils or North Indians. Had he practiced law in Bombay he could not have counted plantation workers or roadside hawkers among his clients.

Encountering a diversity of Indian communities thrown together in South Africa, Gandhi was able to imagine a unified India in a way not possible on the sprawling subcontinent itself. The satyagraha struggle welded these groups together. In Polak’s words, “Hindu, Mahomedan, Parsi, Christian, and Sikh have … stood in the same prisoner’s dock and starved in the same gaol.”

Yet there were real limits to Gandhi’s cosmopolitanism. Drawing on ideas of a civilizational hierarchy, Gandhi regarded Africa as being at the bottom of the pile and he never sought any political alliance with Africans. He had sporadic contact with John Dube, the first president of the ANC (and Gandhi’s neighbor at Phoenix). On one occasion, Gandhi met Pixley ka Isaka Seme, founder member of the ANC. Guha does however demonstrate that Gandhi’s ideas on Africans were not static and did shift marginally during his South African sojourn.

Encountering a diversity of Indian communities thrown together in South Africa, Gandhi was able to imagine a unified India in a way not possible on the sprawling subcontinent itself.

If ideas of India emerged in South Africa, the reverse was equally true—notions of South Africa had to be invented in India in order to make the satyagraha struggle real and to attract supporters in India. Another signal contribution of the book is to outline how the support and solidarity networks for Gandhi’s campaigns were created in India, an aspect of the Gandhian saga that has never been fully explored. Important in this regard was Polak’s 1909 trip to Bombay, Gujarat, South India, Rangoon, and Calcutta. In an exacting programme of public lectures and journalistic writing, Polak was able to bring the South African struggle to Indian audiences and draw in support from across the political spectrum, with Rabindranath Tagore forwarding a “humble contribution” of Rs 100. These solidarity activities continued across a range of media and in several Indian languages: poetry, plays (or at least one), editorials, pamphlets, lectures and, in Benares, burning of the effigies of Generals Smuts and Botha.

III. Guha After Gandhi


Guha’s biography is a book written with India in mind. It is a story of how South Africa made a London-trained barrister “think more like an Indian.” Like a capacious novel, this biography depicts how the affective idea of India took shape in sprawling networks of ordinary people, through their passions for each other and for Gandhi. The richest account of Gandhi’s South African years we will see for a long time, this book reminds us of the power of the minor: the minor Gandhi, in a minor country, working alongside minor folk. The consequences were, of course, major. icon

  1. Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Duke University Press, 2006); Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence (Harvard University Press, 2012); Itineraries of Self-Rule: Essays on the Cententary of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, edited by Ritu Birla and Faisal Devji, Public Culture vol. 23 no. 2 (2011).
  2. Uday S. Mehta, “Patience, Inwardness, and Self-Knowledge in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj,” Public Culture vol. 23 no. 2 (2011) pp. 417–29; Ajay Skaria, “Gandhi’s Politics: Liberalism and the Question of the Ashram,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101.4 (2002): pp. 954–86; Suresh Sharma and Tridip Suhrud, “Editor’s Introduction,” MK Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj: A Critical Edition (Orient Black Swan, 2010), pp. xxi-xxiv; Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India (Alfred A Knopf, 2011); Shimon Lev, Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach (Orient Black Swan, 2012).
  3. Maureen Swan, Gandhi: The South African Experience (Ravan Press, 1985); Surendra Bhana and Goolam Vahed, The Making of a Political Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 (Manohar, 2005); Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Inside Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914 (Madiba Publishers, 2007); Jonathan Hyslop, “Gandhi, Mandela and the African Modern,” in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, edited by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall (Duke University Press, 2008) pp. 119-136; Eric Itzkin, The Transformation of Gandhi Square: The Search for Socially Inclusive Heritage and Public Space in the Johannesburg City Centre (University of the Witwatersrand: MA Thesis, 2008); Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press, 2013); Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi’s Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi’s Son Manilal (Kwela, 2004).
  4. Millie Polak, Mr. Gandhi: The Man (George Allen and Unwin, 1931).
  5. George Paxton, Sonja Schlesin: Gandhi’s South African Secretary (Pax Books, 2006).
  6. Polak, Mr. Gandhi, p. 53.
Featured image: Gandhi in South Africa (1909). Wikimedia Commons