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Mohandas Gandhi

In South Africa: I

From London to South Africa

In South Africa: II

In the months following his initial speech, Gandhi was preoccupied with legal work, and had little time for public activity. He did find time to read some of the works of Tolstoy, notably The Kingdom of God is Within You, which argued for the practical application of the Sermon on the Mount. This work, with its harsh attacks on the use of force in human society, had a profound influence on Gandhi, who would later write a letter to the reclusive Russian genius, thus beginning a fruitful correspondence between two of the world's most famous pacifists.

With his year finished and the lawsuit concluded, Gandhi prepared to return to India. But political events in South Africa intervened. On the day of his farewell party, Gandhi became aware of an "Indian Franchise Bill" that was before the Natal legislature–a bill that would deprive Indians of the right to vote. He was amazed to learn that no organized opposition to the bill existed, and when he asked his friends about it, they begged him to remain and assist them in the struggle. He agreed to stay, but for only a month–a month that became a year, then two; by the time Gandhi finally left South Africa for good, he had lived and worked there for the better part of twenty years. Gandhi has always been associated with India, and rightly so, but it is important to note that it was in this long, twilight struggle against the encroaching racism of South African politics that he first earned the title of "Mahatma," or "Great Soul."

From the beginning of his involvement in South Africa, Gandhi adopted the personal philosophy of selflessness. A public man he might be, but he refused to accept any payment for his work on behalf of the Indian population, preferring to support himself with his law practice alone (which was primarily sustained, it must be noted, by Indians: twenty Indian merchants contracted with it to manage their affairs.) His central idea was self-denial in the service of his fellow men, which he, as a follower of the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad-Gita, regarded as not being self-denial at all, but rather a higher form of self-fulfillment.

This philosophical clarity coexisted with intense spiritual turmoil, as Gandhi struggled to define his religious beliefs. It was during this period that Gandhi enjoyed a wonderful correspondence with a friend in Bombay named Raychandra, a highly educated, deeply religious Jain, with whom he discussed spiritual topics drawn from a range of traditions from Hinduism to Christianity. Raychandra, who read even more widely than Gandhi, led his friend to a deeper appreciation of the Hindu faith and scriptures, while at the same time he encouraged Gandhi in his quest to define his religious beliefs in terms of his own inner illumination, rather than an external dogma. In the end, Gandhi concluded that it was best to seek God within his own tradition, as a Hindu, even though other faiths might contain their own truths as well.

On the political front, a last-minute petition drive failed to stop the passage of the Indian Franchise Bill; however, Gandhi remained undeterred. He proceeded to organize a still larger petition, which was sent to London, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and distributed to the press in Britain, South Africa, and India. It caused a considerable stir, and prompted both the Times of London and the Times of India to write editorials in support of the Indian right to the vote. Meanwhile, Gandhi set about establishing a political organization for the Natalese Indians, which came to be called the Natal Indian Congress (a clear reference to the Indian National Congress, at that point a relatively tame body). Gandhi faced difficulties in financing the Congress, but the body soon possessed a library and a debating society, held regular (and lively) meetings, and published two major pamphlets. They were entitled An Appeal to Every Briton in South Africa, and The Indian Franchise–An Appeal, and offered a cogent, detailed case for putting an end to discrimination in South Africa.

The work of the Congress was hardly easy, however, as discrimination against "coolies" (as Indians were disparagingly termed) was an entrenched part of South African life–especially in the Boer-ruled regions, where Gandhi and his friends could exercise little influence. In Natal, Indians were not allowed to go out after nine p.m. without a pass; in the Orange Free State, they could not own property, run businesses, or manage farms; in the Transvaal, they could not own land, and were forced to live in the worst urban slums. Even in the Cape Colony, British-ruled for decades, Indians were often forbidden to walk on the sidewalk, and could be kicked off–quite literally, often–by passing whites. It was in this social climate that Gandhi and the Congress were to struggle for the next twenty years.

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