How Gandhi inspired Nelson Mandela

With Nelson Mandela’s illness and President Obama’s recent South Africa visit, it is a good time to assess the impact of Mahatma Gandhi on the South African icon.

“As he toured Robben Island [where Mandela was imprisoned] with his family, Obama was looking back at the legacy of others,” the L.A. Times reports. “As he stood in the quarry, he was heard telling his daughters, Sasha and Malia, about Mahatma Gandhi’s early work in South Africa as a lawyer.”

Gandhians have been eager, not too surprisingly, to claim Mandela. At a function organized in New Delhi last July on Mandela’s ninety-fourth birthday, Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan asserted his grandfather’s influence on Mandela was so immeasurable that when Rajmohan met South Africans, they regarded the Mahatma as a fellow countryman.

“The locals were surprised to learn that Gandhi was an Indian,” he said. “I want Indians, too, to embrace Mandela and make him an Indian hero.”

“While Nelson Mandela is the father of South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi is our grandfather,” Harris Majeke, South Africa’s ambassador to India, said at the same event. “Mandela was inspired by the Satyagraha campaign led by Gandhi. It was a compelling act of passive protest against oppression. This would later inspire the formation of the African National Congress and strengthen Mandela’s belief in our shared humanity.”

It is true that there is a direct connection between Gandhi’s campaign against discrimination in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement there.

“The African National Congress, which in 1952 launched the first mass movement against apartheid under the leadership of Dr. Albert Luthuli, had been founded in 1912 on the model of the Natal Indian Congress, with which Gandhi had been closely associated,” writes Claude Markovits in “The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and the Afterlife of the Mahatma.”

This link was reaffirmed when Gandhi asked his second son, Manilal, to stay in South Africa and continue his work. It gets more complicated from there. Manilal was present at a crucial meeting of the ANC in 1949, where he pressed the party to unconditionally adopt nonviolence, but with little success. The attitude of the party toward Gandhianism in subsequent years was best summarized by Mandela.

“Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do,” Mandela stated in his autobiography, unfavorably comparing the dominant Afrikaner minority in his country to British imperialists. “But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me. nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy.”

It was with such a mindset that Mandela attempted the sabotage that he was arrested for. As Gandhi scholar David Hardiman points out, however, Mandela never ceased regarding Gandhi as an inspiration, and, in fact, saw nonviolence as an integral part of the movement. “Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle,” Mandela said.

In keeping with that outlook, the use of violence by the African National Congress was limited. And Mandela learned from Gandhi the essential virtues of forgiveness and compassion, values that served him and his country very well on his assumption to power.

Besides, how much of a role did violence play in the liberation of South Africa? While some scholars, such as Gay Seidman, emphasize the role that armed struggle played, many other scholars say that it was not very big.

“Rioting, sabotage, murder of suspected collaborators and other violent tactics were very much part of the anti-apartheid resistance movement,” writes Professor Stephen Zunes. “Yet, these were not as important as the ongoing and potentially greater noncooperation with the apartheid regime and the economic system that sustained it.”

And the predominance of nonviolence in the apartheid struggle was crucial in other ways.

“Sanctions had discernible effects in supporting the successful opposition campaign in South Africa,” write Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan in “Why Civil Resistance Works.” “The ANC leadership had demanded sanctions for decades but they came about only after mass nonviolent resistance had spread.”

Mandela and the African National Congress took a large amount of their inspiration and strategy from Mahatma Gandhi and his campaigns in South Africa and India. The world emerged a much better place for that.


This article was written by Amitabh Pal on the website Progressive.

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