Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi
SPECIAL FEATURE, 16 Dec 2013
The death of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95 has moved people all over the world. The outpouring of grief is similar to the one when Mahatma Gandhi died. It is one of those inexplicable quirks of history that both these giants who shaped the modern world started their long march for justice in South Africa.
As a young man looking for a better future Gandhi could have found any of the many countries of South and East Africa that he could have settled in as did many Indians in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. But it seems some divine force brought Gandhi to South Africa which at the time epitomized the oppression of a people in their own country in the form of apartheid. It is in South Africa that Gandhi started a struggle against injustice and his experiences there were of immense importance in his strategy to confront the British Raj in India.
Gandhi’s nascent movement for justice in South Africa inspired and galvanized a whole generation of South African freedom fighters like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu and many others. After Gandhi departed for India he left his son Manilal back in South Africa to continue the struggle. 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 the Gandhian ideal of nonviolence was in subsequent years best summarized by Desmond Tutu. He said: “Gandhi was to influence greatly Martin Luther King Jr., the leading light in the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as the South African National Congress of Nelson Mandela.
So many, many people expected our country to go up in flames, enveloped by a catastrophe, a racial bloodbath. It never happened. It never happened because in the struggle against an evil of injustice, ultimately it did not take recourse to violence, and because you and so many others in the international community supported the struggle.” Nelson Mandela wrote a wonderful article for the 3rd January 2000 issue of TIME magazine. The issue celebrated People of the Century. Mandela wrote about one of his teachers: Gandhi. His story was called The Sacred Warrior and shows some of the ways Gandhi influenced him. This is what he wrote:
“Gandhi dared to exhort nonviolence in a time when the violence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had exploded on us; he exhorted morality when science, technology and the capitalist order had made it redundant; he replaced self-interest with group interest without minimizing the importance of self. India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen. Both countries contributed to his intellectual and moral genius, and he shaped the liberation movements in both colonial theatres. He was the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary. His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally and in our century. Both Gandhi and I suffered colonial oppression and both of us mobilized our respective peoples against governments that violated our freedoms. The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged amongst the apparently powerless. Nonviolence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African ANC remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence. Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone. We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle. Even then we chose sabotage because it did not involve the loss of life and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Militant action became part of the African agenda officially supported by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) following my address to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in 1962, in which I stated, “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.” Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly. He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, “Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honour rather than remain the vile witness of dishonour …” Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”
Nelson Mandela was indeed a great soul as even though his people suffered so much under the apartheid regime and he himself spent 27 years in jail in conditions that could destroy most people, he was able to forgive the oppressors and establish a rainbow nation of peace and harmony. It is the small and often many insignificant episodes in the lives of great souls that separates them from the rest and here is one such moving incident in the life of Nelson Mandela. In around June 1961 Mandela spent some time in a farm at Liliesleaf in Rivonia a suburb of Johannesburg. His then wife Winnie brought him an old rifle for target practice. One day he shot a sparrow with it and was mortified when the five year old son of a friend rounded on him saying: “Why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad”. Mandela said, “My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to shame. I felt this small boy had far greater humanity than I did.” It was an odd sensation for a man who was the leader of a nascent guerilla army.
That regret he felt at his action and his willingness to learn from a five year old is the making of a great man. It is a matter of great pride for Indians that Mahatma Gandhi has had such a enormous impact on so many people all over the world. Mahatma Gandhi was able to articulate the glorious heritage of India which had been stifled by invading armies for around a thousand years. Newly independent India also played an active role in bringing freedom to other numerous colonized countries.
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