Madiba’s Indian connection

When Mandela was elected South Africa’s first President,he appointed six Indians as ministers.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Published: December 7, 2013 2:13 am

While Nelson Mandela was a symbol of the struggle against oppression across the globe,he and his movement always had a very special connection with India.

A Bharat Ratna awardee in 1990,he is the only non-Indian to receive the honour. (He was also given the Nishan e Pakistan in 1992).

Mahatma Gandhi,who evolved and perfected his technique of Satyagraha in South Africa,was a source of great inspiration to Mandela. On his India visit in 1990,Mandela,when informed of a veteran journalist’s 13-year-old daughter,who was his fan,said “Tell her that I was in fact inspired by a man who was born right here in India.”

Mandela used Gandhi’s tactics at several points as he went about evolving his own philosophy. In the early sixties,the ANC had a militant wing called the Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) which Mandela was part of. In 1962,Mandela spoke of the need for forceful action and quoted Gandhi as saying: “If the choice is between cowardice and violence,I will pick violence.” Later,he once again used Gandhi as a guide in his efforts to build bridges between seemingly irreconciliable forces.

Several of Mandela’s closest comrades and associates were of Indian origin. Two of his closest comrades,Ahmed Kathrada,and Ismail Meer,with whom he spent almost all of his prison years,were Indian.

An Indian,Sonny Venkatrathnam,also jailed at Robben Island in the 1970s for his role in anti-apartheid activities,got his wife to smuggle ‘The Collected Works of Shakespeare’ inside the prison and passed it off as the Robben Island Bible. Nelson Mandela,Ahmed Kathrada,Chris Hani and others read Shakespeare’s plays as a relief from the boredom of having to break stones all day.

Mandela kept a diary while in prison,and hid it in the grass to ensure that the wardens do not destroy it. After twelve years in prison with Mandela,another Indian,Mac (Sathyandranath) Maharaj,who was released after 12 years,as opposed to Mandela’s 27 years,transcribed his notes and smuggled the account out,which was known to the world on its release in 1976 as The Long Walk to Freedom.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation notes: “The first anti-apartheid activities date back to 1947 when the government withdrew its High Commissioner in South Africa in protest against the treatment of Indians in South Africa.” The UN began dissemination of information against apartheid only in 1963.

In its darkest years,India continued to support the African National Congress and opened its office in India in 1967.

Andhra Pradesh-born ES Reddy went on to join the United Nations and was one of the leading persons behind the UN Committee Against Apartheid. Reddy was later awarded the Order of the Companions by Oliver Tambo,the president of the ANC and an associate of Nelson Mandela. ES Reddy’s papers have more details on the struggle across the world with the West,then,reluctant to help.

When Mandela was elected South Africa’s first President,he appointed six Indians as ministers.

In 1996,Justice Ismael Mahomed,the son of Indian merchants and the first non-white judge of South Africa,was appointed Chief Justice by President Mandela. In May 2012,a street in Pretoria was named the Mahomed Street.

There is a Nelson Mandela Centre in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi (built in 2006) and an important street in the capital named after him (as early as in 1988),both were named,years before he died — a rare tribute in a capital which in the matter of naming streets,mostly honours the dead.

One of his first visits abroad,after his release,was to India. He was keen to visit Calcutta,where he said,“51% of indentured labour brought to South Africa came from Bengal (Presidency)”. He added,“Your heroes of those days became our heroes. Netaji Subhash Bose was among the great persons of the world whom we black students regarded as much as our leader as yours.”

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