USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Introduction: Gandhi, M.K., Satyagraha in South Africa pp. 301-326

The following chapters you will read are from Mohandas Gandhi’s book Satyagraha in South Africa, a history of the non-violent campaign in memoir form. The work explores the history of Indian communities in South Africa and their confrontation with South African governments, including the British government, the Afrikaner governments, and the Union of South Africa, which was created by parliamentary act in 1909. Throughout the late 19th century and during the first decade of the 20th, the government(s) of South Africa had passed a series of laws aimed at restricting Indian rights. These laws touched on most aspects of Indian existence in the territory including the legality of traditional Muslim and Hindu marriage, property ownership, immigration, working conditions, documentation, and taxation. Apart the insulting ways in which South African law treated Muslim and Hindu marriage, the most burdensome ordinance was the so-called £3 tax. The tax required indentured servants who had come to the end of their service to pay a £3 tax or to signup for an additional period of servitude. Failure to pay the tax without agreeing to another period of indentured labor was punished by imprisonment or deportation.

In October 1913, in protest against anti-Indian laws (especially the £3 tax), Gandhi called on Indian indentured servants who were serving in the mines in the town of Newcastle to go on strike. By the end of the month, 4,000 indentured Indians had gone out on strike. The strikes would continue for the next months, eventually growing to about 16,000 strikers throughout the country. 
The massive response to Gandhi’s call for indentured Indians to go on strike surprised him. The movement quickly spread and threatened to get out of hand, certainly beyond Gandhi’s immediate control. Gandhi, fearful that such an uncontrolled, uncoordinated movement might prove self-defeating, thereby squandering the energy and enthusiasm of his supporters, called on the strikers to leave the mines and to join him for a march from the territory of Natal into the territory of the Transvaal by way of the town of Volksrust. Movement of indentured servants and other unregistered and undocumented Indians into the Transvaal was prohibited. All told, some 2,000 men, women, and children joined Gandhi for the march into the Transvaal with the destination being the movement’s Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg.

Some of the significant characters you will meet in these chapters include:

Hermann Kallenbach
Hermann Kallenbach was a German-Jewish architect who left Germany for Johannesburg in the 1896. His success as an architect made Kallenbach quite rich and he was able to acquire ample lands in the Transvaal. In 1904, Kallenbach met and befriended Gandhi. He was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s spiritual and moral philosophy and became out of the principle patrons of Gandhi personally and the Satyagraha movement. Kallenbach provided over 1,000 acres of land for the Satyagrahis’ Tolstoy Farm.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale
Gopal Krishna Gokhale was the founder of the non-violent resistance campaign in India. He was a mentor to Gandhi and supported Gandhi’s campaign in South Africa. Like Gandhi, Gokhale received an English education, including an education in English political philosophy. Gokhale pushed mainly for social reforms, educational opportunities and maintained a relatively positive view of British imperial institutions. One of the most interesting elements of these chapters is Gandhi’s realization that the movement requires him to go against the wishes of his mentor at one point and to become more radical than Gokhale would have desired.

Henry Polak
A newspaperman and vegetarian, Henry Polak became close friends with Gandhi beginning in 1904. His wife Millie Downs (Polak) also shared an intimate bond with Gandhi. Polak shared and in many respects deepened Gandhi’s explorations of justice and morality and became one of the leading figures in the Satyagraha movement, actively participating in the precursor to the Tolstoy Farm, the Phoenix Settlement, and working as an editor for the main organ of Gandhi’s movement, the Indian Opinion.

General Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts came from an Afrikaner family. Though he was at first an ardent anglophile and supporter of elite like Cecil Rhodes, his politics shifted in the mid-1880s Afrikaner independence and nationalism. During the Anglo-Boer War he served as a Boer general, proving to be a talented military tactician. After the war, he came to favor South African unification. After unification in 1909 and the formation of the Union of South Africa, Smuts became Minister of Interior, Mines and Defense, ruling in partnership with another Boer, Louis Botha. The Indian resistance and the concurrent strikes by South African labor unions in 1913 presented a stark challenge to Botha and Smuts’ increasingly authoritarian rule. During WWI, Smuts would lead successful military campaigns against German Southwest Africa, earning him recognition and ultimately a place in the British command. He would act as a negotiator in the Paris peace conference. Smuts would lead South Africa to break its neutrality and join with the allies to flight against Nazi Germany in WWII.

As you read, consider the following prompts:
1) How would you describe the composition of Gandhi’s movement? Who is involved? Who are left out? What are the motivations of the different people who are dedicated to satyagraha? How does Gandhi attempt to balance these motivations to achieve his goals?

2) These chapters are very interesting because we see Gandhi reacting to circumstances as they develop. What are some of the key moments in these chapters? How does Gandhi react? What lessons to do think he learns about leading a resistance campaign from this experience? What does he learn, more specifically, about the nature of power and opposition or resistance?

3) How does Gandhi react to the broadening of the strikes at the end of 1913 and beginning of 1914? This seems to be a real chance for Gandhi to challenge the authority of the state. Why do you think he acts as he does?

4) Gandhi set the precedent for many later anti-colonial movements by simultaneously talking to his people (in this case the South African Indians) and people/leaders in the home country. As you can imagine, it can be tricky to be trying to address both of these very different audiences at once. How does Gandhi attempt this in the following chapters? 

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