In the pantheon of global liberation heroes, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has pride of place. Leaders like Mandela have lauded him as being part of the epic battle to defeat the white regime and prepare the way for a non-racial country. A popular sentiment in South Africa goes: ‘India gave us Mohandas, and we returned him to you as Mahatma’.
Against this background, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire unravels the complex story of a man who, throughout his stay on African soil (1893–1914), remained true to Empire while expressing disdain for Africans. For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bound by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African. His racism was matched by his class (and caste) prejudice towards the Indian indentured. He persistently claimed that they were ignorant and needed his leadership, and wrote their struggles out of history—struggles this book documents.
Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed show that Gandhi never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Empire, with a particular penchant for war. He served as stretcher-bearer in the war between Brit and Boer, demanded that Indians be allowed to carry fire-arms, and recruited volunteers for the imperial army in both England and India during the First World War.
Praise for the book
‘In this impressively researched study, two South African scholars of Indian background bravely challenge political myth-making on both sides of the Indian Ocean that has sought to canonise Gandhi as a founding father of the struggle for equality there. They show that the Mahatma-to-be carefully refrained from calling on his followers to throw in their lot with the black majority. The mass struggle he finally led remained an Indian struggle’—Joseph Lelyveld author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhiand His Struggle with India
‘The South African Gandhi’s detailed treatment of how Gandhi operated in the South African political context is a significant contribution to the growing revisionist literature. Most arresting perhaps to readers familiar only with the hagiography will be Gandhi’s persistent attempts to improve the position of South African Indians by emphasising their superiority to Africans and reliability as subjects of Empire’—Kathryn Tidrick, author of Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life
‘This is a wonderful demonstration of meticulously researched, evocative, clear-eyed and fearless history-writing. It uncovers a story, some might even call it a scandal, that has remained hidden in plain sight for far too long. The South African Gandhi is a big book. It is a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi’—Arundhati Roy, author of The Doctor and the Saint
‘By critiquing the sanctimonious and nationalistic historiography around Gandhi, the authors allow us to recover a Gandhi beyond moralism’—Faisal Devji, author of Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence
‘This book demonstrates that Gandhi’s fundamental political imagination was wholly within the horizon of Empire, and that his actual strategies were shaped by a conservative defence of class, race and caste privilege’—Thomas Blom Hansen, author of Melancholia of Freedom: Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa