Gandhi passed his law exams and returned to India in search of work. He struggled to get used to life as a lawyer. His deep shyness prevented him from being able to appear in court to argue cases. In 1893, Gandhi received an opportunity to travel to South Africa to help in a legal dispute between two Indian merchants. Again, he left his family behind and set off on a business trip, which he assumed would last no longer than a few months.
South Africa at this time was a complex society. Three main groups should be listed: the native Africans of many different groups, including the Zulus, the long-established Dutch Boers or Afrikaners, and the British, who had been expanding their power in South Africa throughout the 19th century. The result of this power dynamic was the creation of independent Dutch and British zones; the areas of the Transvaal and Orange Free State fell under Dutch Afrikaner rule while Natal and the Cape Colony were governed by the British.
In both cases, native Africans were systematically excluded. To this, we need to add another important element of the development of South Africa, an element that will tell us much about the world as it was constructed around 1900. Around 1860, the British settlers in South Africa realized that the climate and land were especially conducive for large-scale agriculture of the type found in the Americas. Because of their small numbers and the earlier abolition of slavery (and the resistance of native Africans to European forced-labor) agricultural labor was in short supply. The Cape Colony, therefore, appealed to the Indian government (also British controlled) for rights to import indentured Indian laborers for work on South African plantations. The Indian government agreed and during the next decades tens of thousands of Indians came to work in what amounted to a slave-style labor force in South Africa. Over time, as the period of servitude expired, a growing number of free Indians lived in South Africa. This, in turn, attracted Indian merchants, who sought to do business in South Africa or to conduct trade between India and South Africa. By the time Gandhi arrived in South Africa, over 200,000 Indians lived throughout the territories, mostly in the British-controlled zones. South Africa’s Indians, while enjoying more rights than native Africans, were still discriminated against by the British and the Dutch. Gandhi, though a colonial subject for all of his life, found himself poorly prepared to accept his status as an Indian in South African society. Like African Americans in the segregated U.S. South, Gandhi found himself being thrown out of trains for sitting in the “European only” section, made to sit outside coaches because the driver could not accept an Indian sitting together with white passengers, and made to eat his dinner in his hotel room because a hotel’s proprietor would not allow an Indian into the dining room. Gandhi’s resistance to these humiliations provoked physical attacks. More than once in his first months in South Africa Gandhi found himself the victim of violent physical abuse.
Young Gandhi threw himself into a campaign for increasing the rights of South Africa’s Indians. At first, Gandhi’s work in South Africa oriented around meeting immediate challenges, like fighting a law that would require newly freed Indian indentured servants to pay a crushing tax. The campaigns were partly successful and partly half-measures, aimed only at preventing the most notorious cases of governmental abuse against the Indian population.
In 1899, the Second Boer War broke out between the British colonies and the two independent Dutch Afrikaner territories, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Indian community, at the urging of leaders like Gandhi himself, threw its support behind the British Empire in hopes, much like African Americans in the Civil War and the First World War, that their dedication to the nation would be rewarded in the aftermath of the hostilities. The conclusion of the Second Boer War in 1902, however, brought no improvement for South Africa’s Indians and began a period of even more rapid deterioration of rights. Why did this happen? The short answer is that the incorporation of the Dutch territories into the Union of South Africa created a European populace much more hostile to both Indians and Africans than the previous British government had been. Whereas the British ruling class was largely made up of relatively liberal-minded individuals, a racial radicalism characterized the Afrikaner population. In addition, as South Africa became an increasingly prosperous territory, especially as its agricultural and mining sectors revved into higher gear, the once abundant lands started to get carved up. Land increasingly became a scarce commodity, which meant two things. First, more Africans were being displaced from their lands. This caused constant boundary disputes, skirmishes and even violent rebellions. Second, as the Afrikaners and British swallowed more land (2.6 million acres went for sugar plantations alone) more Africans fell directly under colonial rule. Like Native American, the native African populations could not be pushed out of European territory forever. At some point both the U.S. government (in the case of the Native Americans) and South African officials needed to find a way of incorporating these people into society. The United States reacted by creating Indian Reservations. The South African government reacted by establishing a strict hierarchical and repressive society, which denied Africans even the most basic rights. Africans could live among whites (in a loose sense) but not with them, the origin of what would become the apartheid system. We recognize this phenomenon from segregation in the U.S. South in the aftermath of the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the construction of Jim Crow society.
The first phase of the transformation of South African society into what we could describe as the apartheid state took place in the years between the Second Boer War and the founding of the independent South African Republic in 1909. In the Transvaal, a former Afrikaner territory, an ordinance was decreed that systematically discriminated against the region’s Indians. The ordinance required all Indians to register with the authorities and live within strict regulations. Any violation could be met with imprisonment, expulsion from the territory, and the seizure of property. The ordinance set the stage for the creation of a new phase in the relations between Indians on one side and the British and Afrikaners on the other. Resistance to the ordinance would also begin Gandhi’s career as the most famous anti-colonialist in world history.