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Gandhi in South Africa - racism and non-violence

Coming face-to-face with racism

"As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect." Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth

A news story published recently, Mahatma Gandhi's house in South Africa put up for sale, started me off thinking about a man whose life has fascinated me for many years, with its sometimes ambiguous turns and controversies.

The quotation from his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, tells of his first intimation of the reality of racial discrimination in South Africa. That vague intimation was to become a very grim personal reality for him soon after his arrival.

Gandhi landed in Durban, in what is now kwaZulu-Natal Province, in May 1893, a newly-qualified barrister sent to do some legal work for a Bombay legal firm which had some interests in South Africa.

Gandhi as a stretcher-bearer in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899

Gandhi as a stretcher-bearer in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899

Gandhi in South Africa

Gandhi in South Africa

The train trip that changed his life

One of the cases he was sent out to handle involved a client in Pretoria, in the then independent Boer republic the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, later known as the Transvaal.

The firm on whose behalf he was working in Durban booked Gandhi a first class ticket to Johannesburg and he duly boarded the overnight train in his assigned compartment. When the train reached Pietermaritzburg in the Natal midlands some hours later, a white man boarded and entered the same compartment. On seeing an Indian occupying the compartment the white man called a policeman to help eject the Indian.

So it was that Gandhi, after a great deal of arguing, was summarily thrown off the train and made to wait in the public waiting room of the station on a cold winter's night with no bedding and no overcoat, as the railway authorities had removed his luggage.

His trip to Johannesburg continued the next day and he went through many more difficulties due to discrimination on the way.

As a result of his reflection on his experiences in South Africa Gandhi began to formulate his philosophy of satyagraha (roughly "truth force") and ahimsa (roughly "non-violence"), though he was still more concerned about the political freedom of Indians in South Africa. He objected strongly to the government's treatment of Indians He organised the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894 to advance Indian political aspirations in the country. The NIC became a strongly unifying force in the South African Indian community.

A painting entitled "Paying the penalty for murder" by F. Dadd in Museum Africa, Johannesburg. It shows the execution of two men found guilty of murder in 1906, Natal.

A painting entitled "Paying the penalty for murder" by F. Dadd in Museum Africa, Johannesburg. It shows the execution of two men found guilty of murder in 1906, Natal.

Gandhi with a group of Natal Indian Congress leaders

Gandhi with a group of Natal Indian Congress leaders

The charges of racism against Gandhi

However, at this stage of his life and understanding of satyagraha and ahimsa Gandhi was more interested in furthering Indian aims than addressing racism and discrimination more generally - indeed, his principle objection to the treatment of Indians at that time was that they were being treated the same as "the half-castes and kaffirs, who are less advanced than we".

His overall strategy was to press for full citizenship in the colonies for Indians. To this end he encouraged Indians to serve with the colonial forces fighting to suppress the Bambatha Rebellion, which was a war waged by the colonialists against Zulus who were fighting against the imposition of a poll tax.

The rebellion started in 1905 when the Natal colonial government imposed a tax on every Zulu male at a time when poverty was rapidly increasing among the Zulu people. Many of the Zulu people resisted the tax and in February 1906 two policemen were murdered in the Richmond district of Natal. Twelve men were found guilty of the murders and were executed by firing squad.

Bambatha kaMancinza, one of the chiefs of the Zondi clan who lived in the Mpanza valley on the Natal side of the Tugela then raised an army of his men and the colonial government declared martial law. In the ensuing fighting between 3000 and 4000 Zulu men were killed and a further 7000 jailed.

Bambatha himself was allegedly killed in battle and his body decapitated so that his head could be taken for identification, though some of his descendants dispute this, saying he fled to Mozambique where he settled and raised another family.

For Gandhi the rebellion was an opportunity to show the colonial government how loyal its Indian subjects were. This, and certain statements he made in the newspaper he published in Natal, have led to charges of racism being levelled against him. This came to the fore particularly in October 2003 when a statue of Gandhi was unveiled in Johannesburg. Gandhi, on a visit to Bombay in 1896 is said to have stated that the government wanted to keep the Indians at a level with the: "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".

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Gaandhi outside his law office in Johannesburg, with his colleagues

Gaandhi outside his law office in Johannesburg, with his colleagues

The first of three Time magazine covers featuring Gandhi

The first of three Time magazine covers featuring Gandhi

The awakening of the "Sacred Warrior"

Nonetheless his non-violent opposition to discriminatory legislation in the South African colonies was a great inspiration to Blacks in their struggle against oppression.

As Nelson Mandela wrote of Gandhi, whom he called "The Sacred Warrior", in 2000: "He is the archetypal anti-colonial revolutionary. His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anti-colonial and anti-racist movements internationally in our century."

Mandela pointed out in this article, written for Time magazine, that Gandhi's experiences in the Bambatha Rebellion had awoken him to the realities of colonial oppression: "The sight of wounded and whipped Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic."

As Gandhi himself later described his experiences in the colonial forces: "This was no war but a man-hunt, not only in my opinion, but also in that of many Englishmen with whom I had occasion to talk."

Gandhi stayed in South Africa for 21 years, practising as an attorney and organising non-violent campaigns against discrimination and oppression. In those 21 years he lived in a number of different places, including the house that is now up for sale in an upmarket part of Johannesburg's northern suburbs.

India's Minister of State for Coal Sriprakash Jaiswal is reported to have said that "The coal ministry intends to purchase the house and build a memorial on it."

Update - the house has been sold for R2.8m

The house mentioned above has been sold to a French tour company called Vayageurs Du Monde. The price reached was actually more than the R2.8m originally asked for by the couple who last owned it,  Nancy and Jarrod Ball. "We are absolutely thrilled with this outcome, said Mrs Ball. The Ball's have owned the house for the past 28 years.

"Voyageurs du Monde is passionate about the property and this arrangement  will enable more people to share its peaceful atmosphere. In addition, the company has invested in other heritage sites around the world, so has the expertise as well as the means to preserve and maintain it properly. It would also like to establish a Gandhi museum here."


ashraf on April 22, 2012:

this is awesome

framedkaffir on April 16, 2012:

gandhi was anti-black and called himself british. maybe most of you don't know but gandhi was not peaceful he just loved britain and the queen so much and hated the zulu people.

Madhavadasa Das from New Orleans, Louisiana on October 27, 2011:

Non-Violence must be extended to cow protection, or it will not grow.


A Business Angel Presentation

A decade ago, organic milk was available only in select health food stores. Now it is in the cooler of every major American supermarket and around the world. We are predicting that we can inaugurate another trend that will quickly prove to be far more beneficial and lucrative than organic milk from grass fed cows.

There are many millions of vegetarians and animal lovers in America and around the world who would prefer milk from happier, healthier, and more productive cows that are allowed to keep and nurse their calves within herds that will never be subject to slaughter. We call this milk Ahimsa Milk, ahimsa being the well known term for non-violence to man or beast. As experienced dairymen have demonstrated, Ahimsa Milk presently costs twice as much to produce in industrialized economies than what is popularly available. However, there are millions of consumers who will be happy to pay the extra cost to make Ahimsa Milk a reality once they grasp the vision of the health, social and ecological benefits for trending in this direction. And it is our job to create that vision, the technology, and the economic system to make it a reality. Moreover, there are already in place many cow protection organizations that will promote and distribute Ahimsa Milk.

Ahimsa Milk is healthier and happier for cows and humans, as well as the earth we all share. Those for whom the costs might appear to be too high can learn how to consume less milk and appreciate it more. And as we develop new technologies to gainfully employ oxen, the cost of Ahimsa Milk will come down. There are also many humanitarian individuals and organizations that will help to make Ahimsa Milk affordable for all.

There is nothing more pleasant, peaceful, and natural than draft animal agriculture, and no system can be more sustainable, because it is perfectly in accord with natural law. The by products of cows nourish crops, which in turn nourish people and animals. Cows, bulls, calves, and working oxen provide milk, power, manure, and peace of mind, as well as jobs, companionship and natural beauty, and their increasing use will create new industries and technologies such as oxen electric, transportation, tourism, and harnessing. The earth, man, and cows are perfectly designed for one another.

We are asking investors, agriculturalists and inventors to develop traditional cow, bull and oxen agriculture alongside modern industrial models to compliment one another, each serving as a back up for the other and maximizing the effectiveness of the other. To do so is to invoke the blessings of our God given creative intelligence as well as the genius of the natural world.

Fairfield, Iowa, home of the Maharishi University of Management, The International Government of World Peace* and Vedic City, is certainly the best place in America to do this, and quite possibly the best hope for integrating the blessings of the eternal Vedic principles of totally sustainable agriculture within the modern world.


Quotes from Cows Are Cool, Love ‘Em, by Dr. Sahadeva Das, PhD (

“According to organic farmer Rosamund Young, author of The Secret Life of Cows, cows ‘can be highly intelligent, moderately so, or slow to understand; friendly, considerate, aggressive, docile, inventive, dull, proud or shy.’

“According to recent research, in addition to having distinct personalities, cows are generally very intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. Animal behaviorists have found that cows interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time, sometimes holding grudges against cows or men who treat them badly, forming social hierarchies within their herds, and choosing leaders based upon intelligence. They are emotionally complex as well and even have the capacity to worry about the future.

“For meat eaters, once they were a byword for mindless docility. But modern research is finding out that cows have a complex mental life. Of course, even a child in traditional cultures knew this all along.”


1. Oxen have traditional uses such as plowing, turning grist mills, and hauling loads.

2. They are now being used to turn generators attached to mills and can power generators attached to ox carts to charge and distribute batteries.

3. Their manure is used to fertilize fields, dry and burn for fuel, make incense, and produce smoke for mosquito repellent.

4. Manure can also be used in flooring.

5. Manure has antiseptic qualities.

6. Placed in anaerobic digesters, manure produces heat, as well as methane and carbon dioxide that can be bubbled at high pressure through water to free up the methane by absorbing the carbon dioxide, thus producing CO2 enriched water to grow algae for food and bio-fuel. The solid residue has also been used as a replacement for sawdust providing bedding for cows.

7. Cow urine is used medicinally in traditional cultures, especially India.

8. Oxen give happiness to their mothers and fathers as well as their human handlers to increase health and productivity.

9. They provide therapeutic companionship (or cowpanionship) for humans and even across animal species.

10. They aerate and fertilize grass meadows with their hooves, manure, and urine, thus facilitating the rapid development of rich, fresh meadows when grazed rotationally.

11. They can haul loads and equipment in terrain not accessible to machinery.

12. Grazing cows and oxen restore fields compacted by tractors and poisoned by chemical fertilizers.

13. Cows and oxen have an uncanny gift for creating safe, easy to climb cow trails up hills and mountains, as every hiker knows.

14. Oxen create tourist appeal simply by their presence as well as use in transportation.

15. Oxen evoke love from their mothers that results in high quality milk and longer lactation periods.

16. Oxen are used in Vedic ceremonies to promote happiness and auspiciousness.

17. After their natural death, their bodies provide leather, meat for pets, and calcium rich bones, and so forth.


Charging twice as much for Ahimsa Milk should easily cover the maintenance costs for twice the number of members of the herd. Grazing oxen do not require the expense of milking parlors, milking machines, milk processing, storage and refrigeration, packaging and handling. Moreover, they can be an economic asset as described above.

HerdShare Community Supported Agriculture is already in use in the United States, and provides a model for funding the production of Ahimsa Milk. It also provides small producers with a vehicle for avoiding government regulations on commercial dairies which would stifle small producers and communities.

Please click LIKE at

mib56789 on July 18, 2011:

Good day tonymac04! I placed links to some of your HUBs following my HUB "Heroes of South Africa". I didn't realize what a dreadful topic I had picked until I'd received my first comment. I decided that since I was so far removed and my points of reference were only historical, I'd redirect any readers having a serious interest that came to my HUB to HUBs like yours.

electricsky from North Georgia on July 11, 2011:

Thank you for sharing your history of the famous Gandhi.

And his travails in Cush.

Maybe we will see a movie about this part of his history.

I would like to see the home where he lived.

I think the Indians in the caste system was wrong too.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 25, 2011:

Alfred - thanks for the comment!

Love and peace


Alfred Rosenberg on March 24, 2011:

An inspiration to right wing nationalists everywhere. Great man.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 16, 2011:

TKI - thank you so much!

Love and peace


toknowinfo on March 16, 2011:

Fascinating story. Well done and made for great reading! Thanks for educating me more about this amazing man. Rated up and awesome.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on December 17, 2010:

Katie - thanks for stopping by. And for the kind words. Gandhi was indeed a wonderful, though certainly not uncontroversial, man. I too have long been fascinated by him.

Love and peace


Katie McMurray from Ohio on December 16, 2010:

Gandhi is an amazIng figure to learn about. I too was fascinated from the first moment I began to learn about him. What an amazing man to reflect on. Thank you and well done :)

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 17, 2010:

Jama - I believe, on the contrary, that we all have the potential to learn and grow, and I believe that the Mahatma did. He tried, as I understand it, very hard to change the caste system, going out of his way to touch "untouchables" and so on.

Without a doubt his views on blacks in the early days of his stay in South Africa was regrettable indeed.

Thanks for the comment.

Love and peace


Jama on November 16, 2010:

A leopard could never change its colours. Even in old age! The Mahatma's disdain for the more melinated peoples is supported by his own Religion's Caste System!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 15, 2010:

Gamer - you are most welcome and glad to have helped.

Love and peace


gamer96 on November 15, 2010:

Thanks this really helped with a school project.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on October 07, 2010:

Surbhi - thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I appreciate it.

Love and peace


Surbhi Munot on October 04, 2010:

Gandhi was great man

I enjoy reading about him and his work

I like things done by him in South Africa

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on May 20, 2010:

Gandhi was indeed a complex person and there are many things about him that are puzzles. Thanks for the comment.

Love and peace


Anit Ghandi on May 20, 2010:

Ghandi was a racist when he was in South Africa… In India too he showed signs of racism againt the Dalits and muslims of india… Jinnah was aware of this evil side of him that is why he opted a separate home land for the muslims of india i.e. Pakistan…. But I wonder why the world media does not expose all this???

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on April 28, 2010:

Adam - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it. Hope you've looked at my other Hubs about South Africa?

Love and peace


AdamCairn from UK on April 27, 2010:

Really interesting hub. I don't think I can include much of this is the South Africa holiday guide I'm researching for but interesting none the less!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on April 10, 2010:

Thanks SS for this comment. I appreciate your dropping by and reading my Hub.

Love and peace


SummerSteward from Duluth MN on April 09, 2010:

Great hub, I really enjoyed this tribute to a change-maker in our world. Well organized and brilliant! Cheers!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 11, 2010:

Thank you everyone for reading and commenting. I realloy do appreciate it. Sorry for the delay in responding here.

Love and peace


gladysmabvira on March 11, 2010:

well researched and insightful

prettydarkhorse from US on January 28, 2010:

Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi is one of the inspirational people of all time, Thanks Tony for this one, Maita

SXP from South Africa on December 17, 2009:

In essence Ghandi was even a worse type of racist. He was only out to further the caste system and it is wellknown that he had no love lost for black people, which he saw as a threat to high caste Indians and the Bristish crown, which he loved so much. maybe he changed his story and ways of doing later, but his goals aways remained the same.

wordsword on September 25, 2009:

Gandhi always used to say this, if a person slaps your face show him the other part too. That was the courage he used to sport. And he always used to say this, if you point your finger against any one, there are three fingers that point you. I also recollect this saying " the person who criticizes you is your real friend".

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 19, 2009:

Mancinza - thanks for the comment, though I could never agree that assassination is ever a good thing. It is always, and without exception, a very bad thin. And as for Gandhi not being a freedom fighter, I don't think the people of India would agree with you either. He is generally acknowledged as the person who led the struggle against colonialism and earned India its independence.

His early racism and support of colonialism I think was because he was a product of his time and upbringing - aren't we all? He certainly seems to have changed later in life.

And remember that even in the Bhambatha rebellion his services and those of his fellows was only as medical orderlies and not as combatants.

Gandhi was a great man, who had his faults like all of us. But his witness for peace and non-violence later in life was great and meaningful. The ANC has recognised his contribution - even Mandela has praised him.

Love and peace


Mancinza Zondi on September 19, 2009:

I never knew anything about the so called ghandi up until now,i was reading the history of my people(Zulus), based on his statement and service he offered to former british colonialist during the Bhambatha rebellion,i will never recognize him as a freedom fighter.whoever assisinated him did a great job.

Vizey on September 08, 2009:

Mahatma Gandhi was truly a great man but his own people killed him in India. He was a true representative of India . He did not wear much clothes even on His London visit as people were very poor in India at that time. Great Hub.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on August 16, 2009:

Thanks you all for your great comments which I appreciate beyond words!

Gandhi was indeed a great person, one of the greatest ever. May he continue to inspire us to build a better world.

To the Indian readers, finsofts and countrywomen particularly, happy freedom day!

Love and peace


Divya Devarajan from India on August 15, 2009:

Yesterday we celebrated our freedom, 63 rd independence day of India, We thank and admire great man Gandhi our bapugi...

countrywomen from Washington, USA on August 13, 2009:

A million thumbs up for this wonderful hub. I am one of the greatest fans of this man. I would rate Gandhi, Mandela, MLK among the top change agents in 20th century. My favorite quote of Mahatma Gandhi "Be the change you want to see in the world."

dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on August 13, 2009:

Great hub in celebrating a celebrated man. He was definitely a beacon of hope for millions, including Martin Luther King Jr. I learned that he was an avid reader and read the Indian classic, Bhagavad Gita everyday as a source of inspiration.

gusripper on August 13, 2009:

Gandhi the philosopher of non violance,almost a Saint.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on August 13, 2009:

Interesting hub about a very interesting man

Peter Kirstein on August 13, 2009:

Thanks for the interesting hub Tony. I've always greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi. I was unaware of his early thoughts on native Africans.

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on August 12, 2009:

A wonderful hub about a great man... Thank you.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on August 12, 2009:

Gandhi is one of the greatest. I really enjoy reading about him, his life and his philosophy. His influence is far reaching. Much of what you write about Mahatma is new to me. Thanks for that.

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