Any mention of Gandhi’s name irresistibly brings to mind the iconic image of the loin-clothed champion of independent India. The bespectacled revolutionary who cultivated the image of a humble peasant even as he shook the foundations of the British Empire. But, long before he became the Mahatma of myth, he was simply Mohandas Gandhi: a dapper, impeccably suited young law clerk who first discovered his inner rebel in South Africa.
Gandhi had studied law, not in his native India, but London. He’d moved there in 1888, and it’s curiously jarring to think that while Jack the Ripper was stalking the shadows of Whitechapel, the young Gandhi was settling elsewhere in the city to read law, take dancing lessons and become a campaigner for vegetarianism (one of his friends in the cause was Arnold Hills, who’d go on to found West Ham United).
London proved to be an exciting, welcoming city for Gandhi. It was a few years later, when he arrived to work as a law clerk in South Africa in 1893, that he had his rude awakening about what it meant to be a brown man in the British Empire. During a train journey to Pretoria, he was ordered out of the first-class carriage by an outraged conductor, despite having a valid ticket. When he refused to budge, Gandhi was forced from the train at Pietermaritzburg station.
'It was winter,' he would later write, 'the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered.'
This was a pivotal moment in Gandhi’s life. Having always considered himself the equal of any other subject of the Empire, he had become abruptly aware of the 'deep disease of colour prejudice'. Looking back on that cold night many years he later, he marked it as the moment in which he vowed to 'root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process'.
Despite his burgeoning activism, Gandhi still felt a deep-seated loyalty for the Empire
In 1894, he was incensed at the news that the Colony of Natal (a British colony that would become part of the country of South Africa) was proposing a new law that would prevent Indians from being able to vote. Gandhi, whose naturally meek nature had once made him question whether he could even carve out a career in law, went into overdrive, campaigning vigorously against the proposed legislation and helping to gather more than 10,000 signatures for a petition. Although the bill was passed, Gandhi’s campaign shone a light onto the grievances of the Indian population in South Africa, and he went on to help create the Natal Indian Congress that same year.
Interestingly, despite his burgeoning activism, Gandhi still felt a deep-seated loyalty for the Empire – a fact that led to him forming a stretcher-carrying service called the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps to aid British troops during the Second Boer War. Gandhi himself was awarded medals by the British for his brave work on the frontlines.
However, in the early 1900s, Gandhi founded Indian Opinion, a newspaper that would carry articles arguing for greater civil liberties and rights for Indians in South Africa. The journal was published on a farm where the staff grew their own food and existed together in a kind of commune. Living off the land, exercising strict discipline and agitating against the ruling classes, Gandhi was well on his way to becoming the figure familiar to world history. Indian Opinion would articulate and publicise his famous philosophy, 'satyagraha'. Literally translating as 'truth force', it emphasised the importance of non-violent resistance – a concept which would be so crucial to his later campaigns for Indian independence.
Satyagraha was encouraged by Gandhi as a way to defy the Asiatic Registration Act, which required Indians in South Africa to be thumb-printed and constantly carry registration documents with them. Gandhi encouraged mass defiance of this law, and was himself jailed multiple times for refusing to conform.
He would be embroiled in more civil rights campaigns in South Africa before eventually moving to India in early 1915, where his activism would expand with profound consequences. While his work in South Africa undoubtedly transformed him from an ordinary lawyer to a towering civil rights hero, this period has also received critical scrutiny. His attitude towards black people in South Africa has been slammed as dismissive, aloof and downright racist. Some historians have argued that Gandhi regarded black Africans with the same withering contempt that many white colonialists did, citing his use of the derogatory word 'kaffir' and other troubling remarks.
Other have defended him by reminding us that – unlike the mass-media Gandhi of posters and Internet memes – the real Mohandas was not some radiant saint but a human being – and a product of late Victorian English education and attitudes. In the words of his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, he was 'ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks' but the 'imperfect Gandhi was more radical and progressive than most contemporary compatriots'.
Despite the thorny debates over those brave but sometimes blinkered years in South Africa, there’s no denying their formative importance to one of the greatest political icons of the 20th Century.