A statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the world-renowned human rights activist, Indian revolutionary, and proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience, was vandalised on Sunday afternoon (12 April 2015).
One man was arrested for allegedly defacing the statue, granted R5,000 bail, and his case postponed until 8 May.
The statue stands in Gandhi Square, which was renamed from Van der Bijl Square in the late 1990s after property developer Gerald Olitzki was granted permission to revamp the bus terminus as part of Johannesburg’s inner city renewal project.
In 2002, the year that the revamp of the square was completed, the South African government conferred the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Gold on Mahatma Gandhi.
“Mahatma” is sanskrit for “Great Soul”, an epithet used similarly to the modern Christian term “saint”.
The South African government explains on its websites related to the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo that it recognises three categories of eminent foreign nationals for friendship shown to South Africa.
“It is therefore concerned primarily with matters of peace, cooperation, international solidarity and support and is integral to the execution of South Africa’s international and multilateral relations,” the Presidency states on its website.
In the year following the revamp and the awarding of the Order, the South African government — and Nelson Mandela in particular — welcomed a 2.5m high bronze statue of Gandhi in the square.
What, then, could Gandhi have said or done to deserve the ire of South Africans to the point that they would put themselves on the wrong side of the law?
Gandhi a racist?
To understand where this comes from, you have to dig into Gandhi’s past.
In the collected works of Gandhi, in his early years as an activist, one will find letters and speeches where he liberally used a highly charged racial slur (the “k-word”), and referred to black South Africans in a derogatory fashion.
“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw K***** whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness,” Gandhi said in a 1896 speech in Bombay attributed to him.
“There, the deliberately expressed object is not to allow the Indian to rise higher in the scale of civilization but to lower him to the position of the K*****,” Gandhi said.
When he shared a prison cell with black people, he wrote: “Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves.”
These statements are unequivocal. There is no excusing them.
At the time, Gandhi must have believed that Indians were superior to native-born black South Africans, or why would he have said or written things like those quoted above?
The impossibility of living up to “Mahatma”
What is so easily forgotten when reading the early speeches and writings of Gandhi is that they come from a very early time in his career as an activist.
For whatever reason, we live in a time where there is no room for error, and no opportunity for redemption. Surely a person must be judged on the balance of their life, on both the good they did as well as the bad?
It also doesn’t help that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is recognised more by the title bestowed upon him, mahatma, than by his name.
No matter how much we may want it to be so, no-one can live up to the kind of divinity that Gandhi is being held to.
Whether he is called Mahatma, or Bapu (a term of endearment for “father”), or whether the word “Gandhi” is reverently breathed when naming him, many don’t seem to realise that Gandhi was just a man.
And like any other man, just because he believed something at one point in his life does not mean that he thought that same thing was the truth by the time he died.
For instance, some historians argue that Gandhi’s experience in a South African prison sensitised him to the plight of black people in the country.
History without context is vain
Gandhi is honoured in South Africa in spite of his faults. He launched the fight against white minority rule in South Africa, and it is for that reason the recently vandalised statue was built.
One can’t help but wonder whether in a few decades from now, someone will read an unflattering part of Nelson Mandela’s history and vandalise the statues we have of him?
Just as many remember Gandhi as “Bapu”, so too many South Africans think fondly of Mandela as “Tata”. Can the sanitised image we have of our Tata really hold up to the kind of scrutiny Gandhi’s younger years are now under?
Despite Gandhi’s youthful failings, the ANC government honoured him for the role he played in South Africa’s fight for liberty, and for the example he set to do so non-violently.
Perhaps it is pertinent, then, to think of Gandhi in the context which Mandela painted him:
“The Mahatma is an integral 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.”
Headline image by Yusuf Omar on Twitter