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Gandhi branded racist as Johannesburg honours freedom fighter

Rory Carroll in Johannesburg
Friday October 17, 2003
The Guardian

It was supposed to honour his resistance to racism in South Africa, but a new statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg has triggered a row over his alleged contempt for black people.

The 2.5 metre high (8ft) bronze statue depicting Gandhi as a dashing young human rights lawyer has been welcomed by Nelson Mandela, among others, for recognising the Indian who launched the fight against white minority rule at the turn of the last century.

But critics have attacked the gesture for overlooking racist statements attributed to Gandhi, which suggest he viewed black people as lazy savages who were barely human.

Newspapers continue to publish letters from indignant readers: "Gandhi had no love for Africans. To [him], Africans were no better than the 'Untouchables' of India," said a correspondent to The Citizen.

Others are harsher, claiming the civil rights icon "hated" black people and ignored their suffering at the hands of colonial masters while championing the cause of Indians.

Unveiled this month, the statue stands in Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, not far from the office from which he worked during some of his 21 years in South Africa.

The British-trained barrister was supposed to have been on a brief visit in 1893 to represent an Indian company in a legal action, but he stayed to fight racist laws after a conductor kicked him off a train for sitting in a first-class compartment reserved for whites.

Outraged, he started defending Indians charged with failing to register for passes and other political offences, founded a newspaper, and formed South Africa's first organised political resistance movement. His tactics of mobilising people for passive resistance and mass protest inspired black people to organise and some historians credit Gandhi as the progenitor of the African National Congress, which formed in 1912, two years before he returned to India to fight British colonial rule.

However, the new statue has prompted bitter recollections about some of Gandhi's writings.

Forced to share a cell with black people, he wrote: "Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves."

He was quoted at a meeting in Bombay in 1896 saying that Europeans sought to degrade Indians to the level of the "raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness".

The Johannesburg daily This Day said GB Singh, the author of a critical book about Gandhi, had sifted through photos of Gandhi in South Africa and found not one black person in his vicinity.

The Indian embassy in Pretoria declined to comment, as it prepared for President Thabo Mbeki's visit to India.

Khulekani Ntshangase, a spokesman for the ANC Youth League, defended Gandhi, saying the critics missed the bigger picture of his immense contribution to the liberation struggle.

Gandhi's offending comments were made early in his life when he was influenced by Indians working on the sugar plantations and did not get on with the black people of modern-day KwaZulu-Natal province, said Mr Ntshangase.

"Later he got more enlightened."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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