Mainstream, VOL LIII No 41 New Delhi October 3, 2015
M.K.Gandhi and the Founders of African National Congress
Saturday 3 October 2015, by
A critic had once remarked of an artist that a painting is not Indian or European simply on account of whether it is painted in India or in Europe. Similarly, one may say that scholarship is not scholarly simply because it is done by academics. Although academic writing ought to advance our knowledge rather than limit our understanding, some academic writing in the last few years appears clearly to be marked by a pursuit of sectarian politics by other means. A recent trend in writing on M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) and his struggles is a case in point as reading some of these works on Gandhi in South Africa or even on Indian nationalism in India one would hardly imagine that the Indian leader could have had any empathetic interaction with Africans in South Africa or that he might have undergone any intellectual evolution while in that country, let alone later played a momentous political role in the conceptualising and emergence of a socially composite Indian nationhood.
It is instructive in this context to explore Gandhi’s intellectual and political interface with the African leadership of his time in South Africa, a theme to which the present article is confined. The year 2012 marked the centenary of the African National Congress which was founded in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 8, 1912. Gandhi was still in South Africa then. Gandhi’s paper, Indian Opinion, welcomed the establishment of the African National Congress (then named the South African Native National Congress) as an “awakening”. [Indian Opinion, February 10, 1912] In fact, six months before the ANC was formed, Gandhi’s paper carried a report about the likely formation of such an organisation. [Indian Opinion, July 29, 1911] The report cited Pixley Seme (1881-1951), who would reputedly be the main driving force behind the establishment of the organisation, and would later become its fifth President-General. In 1911 the speculation was, as mentioned in the report, that Dr Walter Rubusana (1858-1936), the eminent African leader from the Eastern Cape, would head the organisation.
In his South Africa years, Gandhi became increasingly aware of the reasons for the seething African discontent. His journal reproduced, for example, a lengthy report on the attempt by Sir Gordon Sprigg, a four-time Premier of the Cape Colony, to address African electors in East London. Sir Gordon’s discom-fiture at the meeting, which became a kind of cross-examination by Dr Walter Rubusana and Mr (presumably A.K.) Soga (b.1861), an African editor from the Eastern Cape and also one of the future founders of the ANC, was reported in detail and even commented upon by Gandhi. (Indian Opinion, February 18, 1904) Dr Rubusana was the author of a History of South Africa, from the Native Standpoint. The meeting at the Wesleyan School in the African Location in East London ended with a motion of no-confidence in Sir Gordon being moved by Dr Rubusana and seconded by Mr Soga, which, “on being put to the meeting was carried unanimously”. Given the condemnatory references Gandhi had been making only recently prior to this to a revival of slavery and to crimes against humanity, this act of defiance by Dr Rubusana and his companions could not but have evoked Gandhi’s enthusiastic admiration. At the confrontation with Sir Gordon, Dr Rubusana had said, with reference to the Cape Colony, that he “believed there was no other town in the Colony except Sir Gordon Sprigg’s constituency, which com-pelled natives to carry passes, and none other had bye-laws compelling natives to walk in the roads. Therefore, he wanted to know whether Sir Gordon Sprigg’s government had consented to the regulations with regard to passes, the footpaths, and the increase of rents in the locations.”
Commenting on Sir Gordon’s meeting and specifically on Dr Rubusana’s questions to the former, Gandhi wrote: “One of the speakers at the meeting rightly reminded him (Sir Gordon— A.N.) that he had done nothing for the natives, and that East London is the only place in the Cape Colony where the natives have not the right to walk on the foot-paths. The speaker rightly blamed Sir Gordon for having sanctioned the municipal regulations referred to, and the only lame reply that he (Sir Gordon) could make was that it was a municipal matter, and that he did not wish to judge the Council’s action.” (Indian Opinion, February 18, 1904, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 4, pp. 131-132) This appears to have been Gandhi’s first available published endorsement of Dr Walter Rubusana.
In the event, however, not Dr Rubusana, but John Dube (1871-1946), the African leader from Natal and Gandhi’s neighbour in Inanda, near Durban, was chosen to be the first President-General of the African National Congress when it was formed in January 1912; Dr Rubusana became the Vice-President. Gandhi’s paper welcomed the choice of John Dube, “our friend and neighbour”, and published in detail the ‘manifesto’ issued by Dube. [Indian Opinion, February 10, 1912]
At least seven years earlier, in 1905, Gandhi had met John Dube and heard him speak. He then praised John Dube and wrote in favour of African land rights. [ Indian Opinion, September 2, 1905] In the following year in 1906 Gandhi’s paper praised a ‘manifesto’ issued by John Dube against colonial policies that worked unfairness towards Africans. [Indian Opinion, November 24, 1906]
Both John Dube and Gandhi had been impressed with the work of Booker T. Washington, the African-American educationist, in the field of African-American education.
In South Africa, Gandhi had supported initiatives on African education and endorsed the efforts of John Tengo Jabavu (1859-1921), the pioneering African editor-educationist, for an inter-state African College at Lovedale (which later developed into Fort Hare University where Nelson Mandela would study). [Indian Opinion, December 30, 1905, March 17, 1906] Clearly, Gandhi appreciated the importance of education and industrial training for Africans.
There was enough familiarity between Gandhi’s Phoenix institution and John Dube’s Ohlange for developments at the Ohlange institution to be reported in Gandhi’s paper every now and then. For example, the addition of a building at Ohlange was reported. [Indian Opinion, February 2, 1907] So also a musical competition and performance held there in which young Africans from far and wide had participated. [Indian Opinion, June 19, 1909]
The Indian statesman, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) visited South Africa in October-November 1912 at the invitation of Gandhi. In November 1912, Gandhi along with Gokhale called on John Dube. (See the report in John Dube’s paper, Ilanga lase Natal, November 15, 1912) The historical significance of this meeting must not be underestimated. Gokhale had been the President of the Indian National Congress in India in 1905. Gandhi would become the President of that organisation in 1924, a decade after his return to India. Thus it was a past and a future President of the Indian National Congress who were, in November 1912, calling on the founding and current President of the African National Congress.
In an editorial in its issue of November 15, 1912, Ilanga lase Natal affirmed the calibre of leaders like Gokhale and Gandhi.
Gandhi’s paper severely condemned the Natives Land Act, 1913 as an “Act of confis-cation” and supported John Dube’s criticism of the Act. [Indian Opinion, August 30, 1913]
As early as in 1905, Gandhi had supported the Africans’ rights in land. He and his journal welcomed the Transvaal Supreme Court judgement in the case of Edward Tsewu (b. 1866), another future founder of the African National Congress, upholding the Africans’ right to hold land. [Indian Opinion, April 15, 1905, August 12, 1905]
From Gandhi’s speech at the YMCA in Johannesburg on May 18, 1908, we know that he had moved beyond expressing his concern merely over Indian issues; in his speech he made a forthright rejection of the policy of segregation and envisioned a South Africa in which the various races “commingle”. [Indian Opinion, June 6, 13, 1908]
The Gandhi-led passive resistance, or ‘satya-graha’ in South Africa was appreciated and commended in Dube’s Ilanga lase Natal and by the editors of The Basutoland Star in 1908. (Editorial and article reproduced respectively in Indian Opinion, January 18, 1908 and February 1, 1908) Of the editors of The Basutoland Star [Naledi Ea Lesotho], we know that Monyakuane was himself among the founders of the ANC. (The Bloemfontein Post, January 10, 1912)
In 1909, when the draft South African Constitution was being debated in the British Parliament in London, delegations representing Africans, Coloured people and Indians went from South Africa to England to present their points of view. Pixley Seme and Alfred Mangena (1879-1924), another leading African activist who would be among the founders of the ANC, were asked in 1909 by the Transvaal Native Congress to co-ordinate with W.P. Schreiner, John Tengo Jabavu, Gandhi and others in connection with the African delegations going from South Africa. [See Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa, 1912-1952, p. 22 and Andre Odendaal, Vukani Bantu! : The Beginnings of Black Protest Politics in South Africa to 1912, p. 205 and 347n]
Apparently, Pixley Seme and Alfred Mangena were already based in London at the time.
In July 1909, at least one future founder of the ANC, Dr Walter Rubusana, had been present together with John Tengo Jabavu, Gandhi and Dr A. Abdurahman in the gallery of the House of Lords in London where the draft South African constitutional legislation was being debated.
At least from 1909 onwards, we find Gandhi commending passive resistance to Coloured and African activists and peoples. [Indian Opinion, June 12, 1909 and January 1, 1910] In 1910 Gandhi criticised the new constitutional set-up in South Africa under which a leader like Dr Rubusana was not considered entitled to contest for Parliament although he could be a member of the Provincial legislature in the Cape. [Indian Opinion, September 24, 1910] Gandhi specifically referred to Dr Rubusana in this context. As we have seen above, years earlier, in 1904, Gandhi had endorsed Dr Rubusana’s interrogation of Sir Gordon Sprigg in East London and Dr Rubusana’s criticism of discriminatory pave-ment regulations in that Eastern Cape city. [Indian Opinion, February 18, 1904]
The personal achievements and activities of some of those who went on, in the future, to found the ANC were reported in Gandhi’s paper. Alfred Mangena’s attendance at a meeting in London to discuss South African affairs, and his being called to the Bar in England were reported in the paper as was the calling to the Bar of George Montsioa (b. 1885), who would be another future founding member of the ANC.[Indian Opinion, May 26, 1906, September 5, 1908, June 18, 1910]
Gandhi’s paper covered in detail the proceedings before the Magistrate in the case concerning the ejection of Sefako Makgatho (1861-1951), the President of the Transvaal Native Organisation, on January 3, 1912 from a first class railway carriage on the Delagoa line near Pretoria. [Indian Opinion, March 23, 1912] The incident had occurred five days before the founding of the ANC, and nearly 20 years after Gandhi’s own ejection from a train in Pieter-maritzburg in 1893. Sefako Makgatho, a founder of the ANC, would succeed John Dube as its President General in 1917.
About Gandhi’s links with Dr Pixley Seme, the active force behind the formation of the ANC, we know from multiple sources. Pauline Podlashuk was a future medical doctor active in the suffragette movement in South Africa as the Secretary of the Women’s Enfranchisement League. She had translated Tolstoy’s Russian language letter which the famous writer and thinker had written to Gandhi in 1910. In her memoirs Dr Podlashuk refers to a meeting, to which she was witness, between Gandhi and Pixley Seme at the Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg in 1911. Dr Podlashuk, who was there along with Ms Stewart Sanderson, the Joint Secretary of the League, recalls that Pixley Seme and Gandhi discussed the latter’s passive resistance movement. Gandhi’s friend and associate, Hermann Kallenbach, was also present. [Pauline Podlashuk, Adventure of Life : Reminiscences of Pauline Podlashuk, (eds. Judy Nasatyr and Effie Schultz), London, family published : ehbeitz@ yahoo.com, 2010, pp. 69-75]
Another founding member of the ANC, Selby Msimang (1886-1982), records that he worked with Pixley Seme whose law offices in Johannesburg were close to Gandhi’s. Selby Msimang notes that in the absence of Pixley Seme he would consult with Gandhi. In the natural course of things, this could not have happened unless there was a high degree of understanding between Pixley Seme and Gandhi. [See my article, “Gandhi and Some Contem-porary African leaders from KwaZulu-Natal”, Natalia, No 42 (December 2012),pp. 45-64]
Several years later, in 1939, Gandhi would reminisce that he had often advised the African people. It is clear that he had multiple contacts with some of the founders of the ANC, that Gandhi respected them and that they respected him. He backed non-violent African struggles against restrictive laws. For instance, in 1913 Gandhi’s paper hailed the African women’s anti-pass struggle in the Orange Free State as a “brave stand”. [Indian Opinion, August 2, 1913] Earlier, Gandhi’s paper had cited the outrages on the Coloured and African women in the Orange Free State and had noted that the women in the OFS had resolved on passive resistance “as the only means of fighting against the immorality of the white unwashed of the Free State”. [Indian Opinion, July 5, 1913] The same year witnessed the largest movement led by Gandhi in South Africa. This time Indian indentured labour, miners and plantation workers and Indian women as a bloc courted arrest and went to prison. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, was imprisoned in Pietermaritzburg and Gandhi himself was sent to prison in Bloemfontein.
This record indicates that by the time the not-yet-45-year-old M.K. Gandhi left South Africa in July 1914 there had been significant and positive points of contact between him and the early African leadership. It is noteworthy that an appreciable part of this interchange went back to several years before the African National Congress was actually founded.
The author is a writer and an advocate of the Supreme Court.