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On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.54 n.1 Durban  2009




Satyagraha in South Africa: Principles, practice and possibilities


Satyagraha in Suid-Afrika: Beginsels, uitvoering en moontlikhede



Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie is Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape and author/editor of From Cane Fields to Freedom: a Chronicle of Indian South African Life (Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2000); Sita: Memoirs of Sita Gandhi (Local History Museum and SA History online, Durban, 2003); and Gandhi's Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi's Son Manilal (Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2004)




This article elucidates the key principles of satyagraha by noting how they evolved during the campaign of 1906 to 1914. It then seeks to analyse the extent to which the essence of satyagraha survived in struggles between 1915 and 1952. It argues for a recognition of earlier acts of satyagraha before the 1946-1948 passive resistance campaign. The article also examines the relevance of satyagraha in contemporary struggles over AIDS treatment and housing struggles. While the evidence suggests that there was a strong influence of satyagraha on several struggles in the 1930s to the 1950s, not all its principles were accepted and there was a whittling down and reshaping of its meaning. There were but a few adherents of satyagraha in its fullest meaning by the 1950s. Satyagraha has relevance for contemporary struggles largely because the wielder retains a strong moral high ground, but non-violent protest needs to be heeded by the democratic state. Gandhi's abhorrence for a society based on unequal wealth and his concern for the poor have important contemporary relevance.

Key words: Aids activism; anti-eviction campaign; defiance campaign; fasts; Gandhi; housing struggles; hunger strikes; informal settlements; non-violence; passive resistance; satyagraha


Hierdie artikel verduidelik die sleutelbeginsels van satyagraha deur te kyk hoe dit gedurende die veldtog van 1906 tot 1914 ontwikkel het. Dit probeer vervolgens analiseer tot watter mate die wese van satyagraha in stryde tussen 1915 en 1952 oorleef het. Dit betoog ten gunste van die erkenning van vroeëre dade van satyagraha voor die passiewe weerstandsveldtog van 1946-1948. Die artikel ondersoek ook die betekenis van satyagraha in tydgenootlike stryde rondom die behandeling van Vigs en behuising. Terwyl die getuienis aandui dat satyagraha verskeie stryde van die 1930's tot die 1950's sterk beïnvloed het, is nie al die beginsels daarvan aanvaar nie, en is die betekenis daarvan gesnoei en hervorm. Teen die 1950's was daar maar slegs enkele aanhangers van satyagraha in die volste betekenis daarvan. Satyagraha het betekenis vir eietydse stryde veral omdat diegene wat dit beoefen, 'n sterk posisie op die morele hoë grond inneem, maar ook omdat vreedsame protes geneig is om die oor van die demokratiese staat te wen. Gandhi se weersin in n gemeenskap gebaseer op ongelyke welvaart en sy besorgdheid oor armes het is ook van groot hedendaagse belang.

Sleutelwoorde: Behuisingstryde; Gandhi; geweldloosheid; hongerstakings; informele nedersettings; passiewe weerstand; satyagraha; teen-uitsettings veldtog; vaste; Vigs aktivisme; weerstandsveldtog



Full text available only in PDF format.


1 Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad In this article the revised second edition, 1951 is used
2 D Hardiman, Gandhi in His Time and Ours: the Global Legacy of His Ideas (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2003), pp 39-65         [ Links ]
3 B Parekh, Gandhi: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, Oxford, 1997), p 73         [ Links ]
4 See M Swan, Gandhi: the South African Experience (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1985);         [ Links ] U S Mesthrie, "From Advocacy to Mobilisation: Indian Opinion, 1903-1914", in L Switzer (ed), South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880-1960 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997), pp 99-126;         [ Links ] S Bhana and G Vahed, The Making of a Political Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 (Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 2005)         [ Links ]
5 Gandhi, Satyagraha, p 102
6 Gandhi, Satyagraha, p 102; The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi VIII (hereafter CWMG), 1908 (Government of India, New Delhi), pp 22-23; Indian Opinion (hereafter IO), 11 January 1908 (Gujarati, hereafter G) and pp 131-132; IO, 7 March 1908 (G)
7 IO, 26 October 1907
8 IO, 5 March 1910
9 CWMG IX (1908-1909), pp 225-227; IO, 29 May 1909 (G)
10 IO, 25 September 1909 (editorial)
11 CWMG XII (1913-1914), pp 510, 513; Golden Number of Indian Opinion
12 IO, 6 July 1907
13 CWMG VIII (1907), p 401; IO, 30 November 1907
14 CWMG XI (1908-1909), pp 2, 6; IO, 5 September 1908
15 See U Dhupelia-Mesthrie, "Gandhi in 1906: Towards a Critical Appreciation", opening address to symposium on "Gandhi in His Times and Ours", Wiser, University of the Witwatersrand, 20 September 2006, pp 9-10
16 CWMG XII 1913-1914, p 319; Letter to IO, post 5 January 1914
17 U Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi's Son Manilal (Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2004), pp 108ff, 128         [ Links ]
18 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, pp 113-114
19 Hardiman, Gandhi, p 51; Parekh, Gandhi, pp 72-73
20 See R Gandhi, Mohandas: a True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire (Penguin, New Delhi, 2006), pp 440, 500-501         [ Links ]
21 For a recent analysis of Gandhi and fingerprinting, see K Brekinridge, "Gandhi, Smuts and the Origins of Satyagraha", unpublished paper, 2008
22 Hardiman, Gandhi, p 52
23 Gandhi, Satyagraha, pp 292-295
24 CWMG VIII (ebook) (1908), p 154; IO, 22 February 1908 (G)
25 Louis Fisher, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Granada Publishing, London, 1982), p 53
26 CWMG VIII (ebook) (1908), pp 329-330; IO, 23 May 1908 (G)
27 CWMG VIII (ebook) (1908), p 154; IO, 22 February 1908 (G)
28 CWMG VIII, pp 328-329; IO, 23 May 1908 (G)
29 Golden Number of Indian Opinion: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa 1906-1914, pp 26-27
30 Mesthrie, "From Advocacy to Mobilisation", p 119
31 CWMG IX, pp 225-227; IO, 29 May 1909 (G), pp 236-237; IO, 5 June 1909 (G)
32 CWMG XII (1913-1914), Gandhi on the last satyagraha campaign, p 510
33 Golden Number of Indian Opinion, p 9
34 IO, 18 December 1909
35 CWMG IX (1909), pp 224-225; IO, 29 May 1909 (G)
36 The following is drawn mainly from Mesthrie, "From Advocacy to Mobilisation", pp 114-121
37 J D Hunt, "Thoreau and Gandhi: a Re-evaluation of the Legacy", Gandhi Marg, 14, 3, 1970, p 328         [ Links ]
38 While this section highlights the influence of the west on satyagraha, the eastern roots of satyagraha have been pointed to by Hardiman, Gandhi, pp 41ff
39 F Meer, "Satyagraha in South Africa", Africa South, 3, 2, January-March 1959, p 24         [ Links ]
40 See Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, p 129
41 Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, p 8
42 CWMG XI (1911-1913), p 99; IO, 3 June 1911 (G)
43 Meer, "Satyagraha", p 26 See also Hardiman, Gandhi, p 277; M Swan, "Ideology in Organsied Indian Politics 1890-1948", in S Marks and S Trapido (eds), The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa (Longman, London and New York, 1987), pp 182-208 To her credit,         [ Links ] Swan does, however, look at the growth of radicalism in Indian politics in the 1930s
44 U S Mesthrie, "Indian National Honour versus Trader Ideology: Three Unsuccessful Attempts at Passive Resistance in the Transvaal, 1932, 1939 and 1941", South African Historical Journal, 21, 1989, pp 39-54 Swan does look at 1939 but not 1932 and 1941         [ Links ]
45 IO, 28 March 1919
46 These are fully discussed in his biography See Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?
47 See IO, 2, 9, 23, 30 December 1921; 17 February and 4, 11 August 1922
48 The Gold Law of 1908 forbade all coloured people from living or trading on proclaimed land It was never, however, fully enforced, which led to many Indians, Coloureds and Chinese establishing interests on these lands over many years
49 This account of the 1932 move to resistance and its failure is drawn from Mesthrie, "Indian National Honour versus Trader Ideology", pp 42-48
50 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, pp 199-206
51 IO, 9 September 1932 (editorial)
52 IO, 9 September 1932
53 See Mesthrie, "Indian National Honour and Trader Ideology", pp 48-51
54 IO, 3 and 10 March (editorials), 21 and 28 April, 12 May 1939 and editorial, 19 and 26 May (editorials), 9 June 1939
55 Mesthrie, "Indian National Honour versus Trader Ideology", pp 52-53
56 See S Bhana, Gandhi's Legacy: the Natal Indian Congress 1894-1994 (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1997), pp 33ff         [ Links ]
57 ES Reddy and F Meer (compilers), Passive Resistance - 1946: a Selection of Documents (Madiba Publishers, Institute for Black Research, Durban, 1996), p 397         [ Links ]
58 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, pp 308-309
59 Swan, "Ideology in Organised Indian Politics", pp 192, 203-204
60 G Vahed, "Monty . Meets Gandhi . Meets Mandela: the Dilemma of Non-Violent Resistance in South Africa, 1940-1960"
61 Reddy and Meer, Passive Resistance, p 164
62 Reddy and Meer, Passive Resistance, pp 128-129
63 Reddy and Meer, Passive Resistance, p 74
64 Reddy and Meer, Passive Resistance, pp 208-209
65 Swan, "Ideology in Organised Indian Politics", pp 203-204
66 N Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Abacus, London, 1995), p 119
67 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, pp 325-326
68 R St John, Through Malan's Africa (V Collancz, London, 1984), p 308
69 IO, 2 June 1950
70 See Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi's Prisoner?, pp 343-351
71 Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, pp 74-75
72 T Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1983), pp 41-46         [ Links ]
73 See M Morris, "The People's Doctor", Cape Argus, 26 March 2008 He was released after serving half his term
74 Parekh, Gandhi, pp 73-75
75 See Hardiman, Gandhi, pp 279-280
76 See S Robins, "'Long Live Zackie, Long Live': AIDS Activism, Science and Citizenship after Apartheid", Journal of Southern African Studies, 30, 3, September 2004, p 651         [ Links ]
77 Robins, "Aids Activism", pp 662,664-665
78 Cape Argus, 9 October 2008
79 Cape Argus, 2 October 2008
80 Cape Argus, 16 October 2008
81 Cape Argus, 23 October 2008
82 SA Government Information, "N2 must be protected from anarchy", 19 February 2008 Accessed at http://www info gov za/speeches/2008/08022009451002 htm
83 Sunday Times, 24 August 2008
84 Sunday Times, 23 November 2008
85 M Legassick, Western Cape Housing Crisis: Writings on Joe Slovo and Delft (Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and Socialist Alternative Publication, 2008), p 38
86 For these arguments against the plan, see Legassick, Western Cape Housing Crisis and Sowetan, 21 August 2008 (article by Anna Majavu)
87 For an account of the situation in Delft, see report by Kerry Chance at http://antieviction org za/2008/05/21/housing-and-evictions-at-the-n2-gateway-project; also articles at http://antieviction org za/category/archives/brutal-eviction-in-delft/, especially those dated 29 June and 4 July 2008; Cape Argus, 11 February 2008 (article by Diane Hawker) and 4 March 2008 (article by Tanya Farber)
88 Cape Argus, 13 October 2008
89 See Legassick, Western Cape Housing Crisis, pp 4-5, 11
90 Cape Argus, 5 March 2008 For an account of the police action, see article by Chance at http://antieviction org za/2008/05/21/housing-and-evictions-at-the-n2-gateway-project
91 Legassick, Western Cape Housing Crisis, p 37
92 http://antieviction org za/about-us/
93 Legassick has argued that both the Ministry of Housing and Thubelisha Homes (the company charged with the N2 Gateway project) have failed to consult with the people (see Western Cape Housing Crisis, pp 29-32)
94 See Cape Times, 22 January 2009; Sunday Times, 1 February 2009 The prolonged fasts by Kumi Naidoo, to be followed by Nomboniso Gasa, have sparked worldwide support with many fasting for a day in solidarity
95 For a full exposition of this, see Parekh, Gandhi, pp 92-110
96 http://amtieviction org za When accessed in October 2008 the quote appeared just below the name of the organisation suggesting a guiding thought It has more recently been replaced by a quote from Steve Biko

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