Gandhi & the History & Memory of Racism in South Africa

Statue of Cecil Rhodes being removed. Image from You Tube screenshot
Statue of Cecil Rhodes being removed. Image from You Tube screenshot

The vandalising, and then the removal of, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town has received a good deal of coverage in the international media. The protest by the university student began as opposition to an arch imperialist, who was venerated on their campus. It soon degenerated into intimidation. Lecturers were abused and when the University Council met to discuss the issue protesters stormed the room shouting, “Down with white supremacy!” This was followed by: “One settler, one bullet,” complete with machine-gun sound effects. The Council chairman, former Anglican archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, asked them to leave. They refused, demanding: “Vote, vote!” The removal of the statue has done nothing to enlighten the students, or the public in general, about Rhodes’s role in South African history, for good or ill. Worse still it has unleashed an unprecedented campaign of vandalism. The statue of Paul Kruger, who resisted the British during the Anglo-Boer war, had paint thrown at it. General Louis Botha and Queen Victoria suffered similar fates, but perhaps most worrying of all has been the attack on the statue of Mohandas Gandhi.

The attack was accompanied by noxious accusations against Gandhi that he was as bad a racist as any white during his time in South Africa (1893–1914). One widely posted blog entitled “Gandhi Spreads Racial Hatred of Africans” summed up this viewpoint.

“Gandhi was passionately prejudiced towards black Africans, as clearly displayed by his own writings over his 21-year stint in Gandhi’s writings during his 20 years in South Africa. He promoted racial hatred, in theory, and campaigned for racial segregation, in practice… Indeed, his efforts to improve the status of the Indian community in South Africa were primarily focused on ensuring Africans were treated worse than Indians. His goal, thus was greater social inequality rather than universal equality.”

There then followed a long list of quotes from Gandhi’s Collected Works which were, indeed, as bad as the author suggested. The author also castigates Gandhi for the use of the word ‘Kaffir’ – today a term of abuse as hateful as ‘nigger’ is in the United States. What he ignores (or is unaware of) is that it was a term that was used even by Africans in this period and did not then carry the derogatory connotations it now does. More importantly, the last quote was in 1910 and the majority from considerably earlier. What the author fails to grasp is that Gandhi changed his position towards Africans and in the last few years of his time in South Africa he had warm relations with many – including the leadership of the South African Native National Congress, the movement we know today as the African National Congress. This is not just the view of a single maverick blogger. Allegations of racism against Gandhi have surfaced at intervals down the years. (1) A group, borrowing from the language from the University of Cape Town campaign, calling itself “Gandhi must fall”, was behind the attack on his statue. (2) Other blogs have carried similar critiques.

Until recently there was little understanding of Gandhi’s relations with African political leaders. (3) Even academics could state baldly that he had no links with the leadership and that even a man like John Dube, the President of the South African Native National Congress was “…apparently unknown to Gandhi.” If true this would have been extraordinary, since the two men lived within about two miles of each other for a number of years.

In fact quite the reverse is the case. Through the letters of Betty Molteno we now know that there was a close and supportive relationship between these two men. Molteno was one of a handful of truly extraordinary white South African women, who broke the mould of their country’s politics. She was a campaigner for the Afrikaners during the Boer war, a highly unpopular stand for a young English speaking woman, and one that cost her her job as a teacher. After the war she became an ardent supporter of black rights, backing both African and Indian causes.

During Gandhi’s last, decisive South African campaign in 1913 – 1914, Molteno went to stay with the Dubes, so that she could be close to and support Gandhi’s work. She travelled between the two communities on an almost daily basis and her letters to her partner, Alice Greene, provide vivid insights into how these families interacted. Molteno was at Gandhi’s settlement at Phoenix when it was attacked by mounted police and subsequently gave evidence in of what had taken place in court. She was there to witness friendly visits by the Dubes to Phoenix and – most importantly of all – Molteno saw Dube participate in an important strategy meeting that Gandhi held at his headquarters in Durban in December 1913. By this date it is indisputable that Gandhi had changed his attitude towards Africans and that a friendly and supportive relationship existed between him and John Dube, the most important African leader of his generation.

This testimony is of more than academic interest. No-one can ignore the underlying tensions between the Indian and African communities down the years. The anti-Indian riots carried out predominantly by Zulus in January 1949 left 142 people dead and a further 1,087 injured. Subsequently the Congress movement did much to build fences. In recent years President Jacob Zuma has frequently relied on Indian South Africans – with Mac Maharaj only retiring as presidential spokesman in recent weeks. But the underlying issues remain and the president’s close and sometimes questionable ties with the Gupta family have been widely criticised. (4)

Very high unemployment, lack of services for the poorest in the country, and endemic government corruption all contribute heavily to the South Africa being a society ill at ease with itself. More than two decades after the end of apartheid South Africa is also still mired in the politics of race and identity. By no means all of these ills can be laid at the door of the ANC, nor can the legacy of three centuries of colonialism and apartheid be brushed aside. The attacks on Gandhi’s statue and the justification for this vandalism on social media provide a stark reminder of the tensions between South Africa’s African and Indian communities that still lie just beneath the surface.


(1) See for example: Guardian, 17 October 2003, “Gandhi branded as racist as Johannesburg honours freedom fighter

(2) Times of India, 13 April 2015, “Group calls Gandhi ‘racist’, defaces statue with white paint in South Africa”

(3) The evidence for this is from an article I published jointly with Catherine Corder: Gandhi’s Decisive South African 1913 Campaign: A Personal Perspective from the Letters of Betty Molteno. South African Historical Journal, Volume 66, Issue 1, 2014.  The Molteno-Greene letters, as well as their other writings such as daily diaries, poetry and political commentary, are housed in the Molteno Murray Family Papers in Special Collections, University of Cape Town Libraries, B.C. 300. Poorly indexed and containing vast quantities of material in Betty Molteno’s difficult handwriting, they have been little consulted by scholars until the present, when Catherine Corder began working on them.

(4) See: BBC Online, 21 January 2015 Guptagate: The scandal South Africa’s Zuma can’t shake
City Press, 21 January 2015, Guptagate: Zuma not off the hook… yet


  1. Those who claim that Dube and Gandhi had no relations are dead wrong; the two collaborated closely and in fact, whenever Gandhi had guests at Phoenix, he would bring them to Inanda to visit the Ohlange Institute and John Dube. That was the case for instance when Mr. Gokhale came to Phoenix in the early 1900s.

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