The bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi that was unveiled on 02 October 2003 has become the latest target when a group of young men pelted plastic packets filled with white paint at it and defacing the plaque on Sunday afternoon. Picture: Timothy Bernard 12.04.2015
The bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi that was unveiled on 02 October 2003 has become the latest target when a group of young men pelted plastic packets filled with white paint at it and defacing the plaque on Sunday afternoon. Picture: Timothy Bernard 12.04.2015

Was Gandhi a racist?

By Ilanit Chernick And Sihle Manda Time of article published Apr 14, 2015

Share this article:

Durban - The legacy of human rights activist and symbol of India’s liberation Mahatma Gandhi is being called into question after the defacing of his statue in Johannesburg at the weekend.

But claims that he was racist are being emphatically denied by sections of society and Gandhi’s family.

While it was not known who the person who was arrested was affiliated to, and there were reports of the group wearing ANC apparel and having placards reading “Racist Gandhi must fall”, Molefe Maila, 21, was granted R500 bail in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Monday.


The case was postponed to May 8 for further investigation.

Although Maile was in his civilian clothes, he arrived at the court on Monday with several friends clad in their ANC regalia.

Gauteng ANC Youth League chairman Matome Chiloane said the ANC had distanced itself from the incident. Chiloane said party officials were not even sure that Maile was a member of the ruling party.

ANCYL provincial secretary Bones Modise added that “action would be taken” if Maile was found to be an ANC member.

“Even if he or his friends were wearing ANC attire, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are members. They could just be supporters of the party, but we will investigate,” Modise said.

Gauteng DA leader John Moodey condemned the vandalism.

Reverend Desiree Drake arrived at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Monday, to question Maile’s motives for defacing the memorial.

“Gandhi was a man who promoted peace, he was not a colonial or political figure.

“It worries me that if people can deface such a statue then what will tomorrow bring?” the reverend wanted to know.

University of Johannesburg sociology professor Ashwin Desai said Gandhi’s stance against blacks was well documented.

Born in India, Gandhi lived in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 after studying law in Britain.

Desai said: “Gandhi’s whole operation in South Africa was that he was a man of empire. He believed that Indians needed to make alliances with whites so that they could integrate themselves into white power.”

“And during the Bambatha rebellion, he asked that Indians be armed so that they could fight on behalf of the colonialists. Despite arguing against tax for Indians, he said that Africans should be taxed because they are lazy and they don’t want to work.”

Gandhi was widely quoted as having said that “Africans are lower down on the racial scale”.

Desai said there were “undoubted” instances in which Gandhi “turned his eye away from African oppression”.

He said some people argued that Gandhi was a man “of his time”.

“Now if you’re a man of your time then you are not a mahatma – you’re not a great soul,” he said.

A mahatma is a person who is held in the highest esteem for wisdom or saintliness.

“People like Olive Schreiner and Harriette Colenso were not racist, they lived at the same time, so I don’t see how you can be a South African liberation fighter if you do not say one thing about African oppression when it was at its height in 1889 until 1905 … and exploitation.

“Now that might not be racist … but it doesn’t give him the glamour of being a mahatma.”


The KZN deputy chairman of the EFF, Jackie Shandu, said: “Gandhi is part of the greatest colonial conquest, he was for that conquest, he was a racist Indian nationalist, who was fighting for Indians and saying they must not be relegated to the position of ‘k*****’. He is not our hero.

“We are fighting also for the Indian community, but we are not going to honour Indian racists who also called us ‘k*****s’.”

Shandu said they had a programme of defacing statues representing the colonisers in KZN, but Gandhi’s statues were not on the list.

Ashwin Trikamjee, president of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, expressed shock about the allegations.

“I’ve never come across that. I’m quite astounded by these allegations that are being made suddenly. None of these allegations have been made over the past 40-50 years. Where does this come from? Who said this?”

Defacing the Gandhi statue was “unfortunate”, he said.

While the attacks on some of the statues across the country were justifiable, “Gandhi’s contribution to SA society has been recorded in the history of this country and recognition has been given to him not only by the SA government but by society”.

“The mere fact that in Durban we have a street named after him – it is unfortunate that some individuals see him in the light other than the majority see him,” he said.

Durban’s Satish Dhupelia admitted that Gandhi, his great-grandfather, had made the alleged racist remarks.

But, he argued, Gandhi later had a change of heart and “did not always think like this”.

He said: “You have to examine Gandhi’s life. He said those things when he first arrived in this country. When he arrived he was a young, novice lawyer. If you went on a holiday and met locals and they told you that this is the status quo of the people in the country, you would listen to them and repeat what is being said.”

He said Gandhi “soon learnt” and changed his stance on South African blacks.

“The man who came here was not the famous Mahatma Gandhi that we all know. He came into a country and was indoctrinated,” he said.

IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said the Indian freedom fighter was an inspiration to black struggle figures because of his peaceful struggle against oppression.

“I am not aware that he was a racist, unless there is something in black and white recording this.

“That (peaceful struggle) is something we inherited from him. It is a legacy, which he left with us as African people.”

Buthelezi also condemned the campaign to remove statues of apartheid and colonial figures.

“I think that in fact it seems very infantile to wipe off history by conducting a campaign to destroy statues because it is important to know that these things happened.”

* Additional reporting by Bongani Hans, Sphelele Ngubane and ANA

The Mercury and The Star

Share this article: