Why did Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a briefless lawyer from Bombay, have to go to distant South Africa in search of work on April 13, 1893? Why, even though his contract required him to stay for only one year, did he end up spending two decades there, returning to Bombay on January 9, 1915, exactly a century ago? The only satisfactory explanation, if we consider how South Africa transformed Gandhiji and steeled him for the epic role he would subsequently play, not only in India’s freedom struggle but also in the life of the modern world, is that destiny had willed it.
“Synchronicity” is renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s term for explaining why a pre-determined purpose or meaning impels an apparently chance event to occur, such as a person visiting a certain place as a coincidence and discovering later that it had a transformative impact on his life. Gandhiji’s encounter with South Africa was an event of destiny-driven super-synchronicity.
This transformation is best described by three eminent South Africans. Nelson Mandela said: “You gave us Mohandas Gandhi; we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi.” Hassim Seedat, the great South African student of Gandhiji’s life and literature, described it thus: “I am proud of the fact that the world’s biggest diamond was found in our mines, but what we returned to you as Mahatma Gandhi was an incomparably more precious and polished diamond.” Fatima Meer, Mandela’s close associate in the anti-Apartheid movement and a renowned Gandhian scholar-activist, wrote in her book Apprenticeship of a Mahatma: A Biography of M.K. Gandhi (1869-1914): “On the 18th of July, 1914, 21 years after his arrival, Mohan accompanied by his family, left South Africa. He had come to the country as a young man of 23, a semi-Englishman. His host, on meeting him, had wondered how he could afford to keep such an expensive-looking dandy. His tastes had continued to be expensive for a while, but they had changed through the intermingling of thoughts and experiences. Now he left the country bearing all the signs of a man who would soon be recognised as a saint. As Christ became the Saviour, Muhammed the Prophet, Gautama the Buddha, the little boy frightened of the dark became the Mahatma and paid the price of all Mahatmas.”
There was also an Indian who had seen this transformation in Gandhiji’s life first-hand, in South Africa itself, and made prophetic observations. Pranjivan Mehta, his friend and benefactor, and one who played a catalyst’s role in Gandhiji’s authorship of Hind Swaraj (1909), wrote two historic letters to Gopal Krishna Gokhale (who, unbelievable though it may seem today, had mentored both Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah). In the first letter on November 8, 1909, Mehta wrote: “During my last trip to Europe I saw a great deal of Mr Gandhi. From year to year (I have known him intimately for over 20 years.) I have found him getting… more and more selfless. He is now leading almost an ascetic sort of life — not the life of an ordinary ascetic that we usually see but that of a great Mahatma and the one idea that engrosses his mind is his motherland.” (Emphasis in the original.)
We see here that it was Mehta and not Rabindranath Tagore who first described Gandhiji as a “Mahatma”. In his second letter on August 28, 1912, nearly three years before Gandhiji returned to India, Mehta observed: “In my humble opinion, men like him [Gandhi] are born on very rare occasions and that in India alone. As far as I can see, it seems to me that India has not produced an equally far-seeing political prophet like him during the last five or six centuries and… if he was born in the 18th century, India would have been a far different land to what it is now and its history would have been altogether differently written.”
How did South Africa change Gandhiji? In five seminal ways, each of which has a continuing relevance for India and the world today. As attested by Hind Swaraj and the numerous articles he wrote in his journal, Indian Opinion, it was in South Africa that he understood, and first articulated, the idea of India and also the true meaning of India’s freedom. India, for him, had to be inclusive without a trace of discrimination of any kind. And swaraj, for him, meant a system of cooperative self-rule in which individuals, communities and the nation strove to create a new sustainable moral civilisation.
Second, after overcoming a spiritual crisis in his life, he became deeply Hindu, while simultaneously becoming deeply secular, gaining profound understanding of and unshakeable respect for all the world’s religions. His ethics-based understanding and practice of faith was very different from the bigotry being spread by divisive forces today in the name of their respective religions.
Third, he embraced the credo of truth and fearless nonviolence, not as an expedient tactic of political struggle but as an indispensable condition to change the destiny of the human race. It was in South Africa, in 1906, that he discovered — with Islam and the Islamic concept of jihad making a significant contribution to this discovery — the concept of Satyagraha (insistence on truth) and began its practice in all his personal and political struggles. So intense was his willpower to adhere to truth that he had — and he alone could have had — the audacity to declare after his return to India, “I am a servant of Truth, not a servant of India.” He often explicitly stated that he would disapprove if India deviated from the path of truth and nonviolence.
Fourth, while preparing Gandhiji for his leadership role in India’s national liberation movement, life in South Africa made him a true-blooded global citizen, strengthening the principle that he is among those Indian patriots who was also an internationalist. He devoured the noblest thoughts from foreign minds — Socrates, Plato, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Wallace, Thoreau, Carlyle, Emerson and many others. In particular, his correspondence with Tolstoy attests to Gandhi’s fascinating journey on the path of internationalism, which, in later decades, gained breadth unmatched by any other contemporary world leader.
There is widespread misconception, some of it deliberately spread by Gandhiji’s prejudiced critics, that he was, while in South Africa, insensitive towards black people’s own struggle against Apartheid. It is true that some of his earlier statements were coloured by negative notions about native Africans; however, he later developed a deep empathy for them. In 1908, he said that his dream for South Africa was of a free nation, in which “all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen.” Had he been racist, how could he have inspired Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr and countless other champions of racial equality?
Last, it is in South Africa that Gandhiji redefined the idiom and practice of politics. Constructive social work; building a community of disciplined and selfless social servants; uniting Indians of all faiths, castes and linguistic communities in a common struggle for justice; care for the needy; empowerment of women; inexpensive ways of healing and healthcare; insistence on high standards of cleanliness and sanitation (something he enlarged into his own “Swachh Bharat” mission after his return to India); conquering the adversary with love — all these and other hallmarks of Gandhian praxis first took shape in the experimental crucible of his internship in South Africa.
A hundred years after the return of this most eminent pravasi bharatiya, it’s time for us to say: Thank you, South Africa.
Kulkarni, who served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the author of ‘Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age’