Gandhi and Mandela - Timeless Legends
Dr Neha Sinha, Associate Fellow, VIF

On the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and 100th birth anniversary of Nelson Mandela, it is significant to look into the lives of these two prominent leaders. In addition, their interaction with people in Africa deserves special attention.

Gandhi and Mandela were two different men, belonged to two different eras with one goal, i.e. both struggled for freedom for their countrymen. In 1893, Gandhi had first travelled to Africa when he was offered a job to serve as a legal counsel to a merchant in South Africa. In a very short period during his stay, he turned out to be a great leader in the eyes of the Indian community of South Africa and very quickly spread the doctrine of Satyagraha. Just after ten days of Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa, an incident occurred which stained his experience in the continent. One day when Gandhi was travelling to Pretoria he was thrown off the train for sitting in a first-class compartment despite holding a ticket to travel in that category (primarily due to his race).

This experience turned out to be one of the most ‘creative nights of his life’. It was that moment when Gandhi decided at the Pietermaritzburg station that he would focus on issues related to racial prejudice, injustice and exploitation directed against his fellow Indians in South Africa by the European colonists. The incident not only affected his notion of Indian identity and nationhood but also his understanding of colonialism. Despite being born in India, Gandhi always said that ‘he was born in India, but he was made in South Africa’. He fought against the oppressive treatment of whites against the native Africans and Indians, and later in 1894 formed the Natal Indian Congress. By 1986, Gandhi’s ideology was extensively welcomed by the oppressed classes which made him a political leader in South Africa.

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Satyagraha left a deep impact on Nelson Mandela during his struggle to fight against apartheid. “His philosophy contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid,” said Mandela. After returning to India in 1915, Gandhi kept up his interest in South Africa and often wrote about the oppression of Africans as he was of a firm belief that India’s freedom should be accompanied by Africa’s freedom too. Hence, as a source of inspiration, he received occasional visits of dignitaries from South Africa. Rev. S.S. Tema, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), was one of the dignitaries who conducted an interview with Gandhi in his Sevagram Ashram. In reply to Mr. Tema’s first question, as to how can ANC be made as successful as the (Indian National Congress (INC), Gandhi responded with great honesty underlining the need for the ANC members to be self- sacrificing by adopting simple living.

Mandela who is often called as the 'Gandhi of South Africa', had strong Indian links and similarities with India's 'Father of the Nation'. So influenced was he by Gandhi that he credited the victory of South Africa’s truth and reconciling committee to Gandhi’s ideology. Mandela, unlike Gandhi, advocated nonviolence and truth to be inseparable. Mandela said, “Gandhi is most revered for his commitment to non-violence and the Congress Movement was strongly influenced by this Gandhian philosophy, it was a philosophy that achieved the mobilisation of millions of South Africans during the 1952 defiance campaign, which established the ANC as a mass-based organization”.

The anti-apartheid icon shared a special bond for India as Mandela chose the land of Gandhi (his political guru and role model) as his first destination abroad in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars. During that time he was also conferred with Bharat Ratna, which is India’s highest civilian honour, and he was the first non-Indian recipient of Bharat Ratna. This was even before he got the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993. Mandela affectionately known as Madiba, while unveiling of Gandhi Memorial in South Africa once said, “The Mahatma is an integral part part of our history because it is here that he first experimented with truth; here that he demonstrated his characteristic firmness in pursuit of justice; here that he developed Satyagraha as a philosophy and a method of struggle," (Economic Times 2013). As a strong follower of Gandhi's teachings, he was also awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize in 2001 for his peacemaking efforts by the Indian government. For Mandela, “in a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century”. Whenever Mandela visited India he considered it a pilgrimage to the land of his political guru.

Mahatma Gandhi was admired by many other black Africans leaders too and was successful in inspiring nationalists like Nkrumah, Julius Nyrere, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Kenneth Kaunda. Nkrumah turned into a disciple of his nonviolent strategy of Satyagraha and mentioned that he owed his success to Gandhi. He termed Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence as “Positive Action” (Biney, 2008). In a similar vein, Nyrere also advocated Gandhi's strategy to attain independence through non-violent protests in Tanzania. Mandela and Gandhi remain an integral part of South Africa’s history and their contribution from liberating people from apartheid and bringing peaceful transition in the country cannot be ignored. Mandela has further said, “Gandhi’s political technique and elements of the nonviolent philosophy developed during his stay in Johannesburg became the enduring legacy for the continuing struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa” (E.S. Reddy, The Wire 2016).

Both Gandhi and Mandela, for their own people, went by another set of names - Gandhi was Bapu and Mandela was famously known as Tata. Both words mean ‘father’ as they were father figures to their nations. Moreover, aspiring and motivational personalities for the world of yore and today. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to state that both Mandela and Gandhi were great leaders. Their efforts to unite people of all classes and opposition to racism are respected and appreciated worldwide. What began with Gandhi’s initiation of a struggle culminating in India’s Independence and sowed the seeds of a birth of a free South Africa should be carried forward in the current times. Given such a strong bond between the two countries and their father figures, the onus is on the current policy-makers to take this relationship to new heights.


(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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