Gandhi and Mandela: Two South Africans

Johan Galtung

By Johan Galtung

Mohandas Gandhi invented the nonviolent approach to basic social change, Satyagraha, in South Africa in the early 20th century; Nelson Mandela presided over the birth of a one person-one vote democracy at the end of the century. Both were lawyers, trained in English Common Law; good in the sense of a keen consciousness of what is right and wrong, bad in the sense of a court process identifying who is in the wrong rather than solving underlying conflicts, and wrong in the sense of punishing the wrong-doer; violence rather than cooperation.

Both built on the positive side of law – the indelible rights of the people for whom they were fighting by comparing empirical facts with normative rights; immigrant Indians in the case of Gandhi, original inhabitants in South Africa, the Blacks, in the case of Mandela.

Gandhi (1869-1948) did not live to see equality between Indians and whites in South Africa, but in India, his mother-father land; Mandela (1918-2013) did. They won their struggles – but the societies that emerged still suffer from other and major ones.

A deep culture united them: the culture of law. They accepted some aspects and rejected others; went beyond, questioning laws but not Law, submitting laws to the same test, right or wrong, unjust.

Gandhi broke wrong, unjust laws through a non-cooperation and civil disobedience ultimately leading to Swaraj, self-rule for India, in 1947. Mandela did the same – being the incarcerated victim of CIA – Boss for 27 years; Gandhi maybe as many times – unto freedom in 1994.

And then Mandela went further, together with the last white South African president Frederik de Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – black, white and brown together – suspending, superseding the punishment aspect of law in favor of Truth and Reconciliation.

Gandhi paved the way for his people – his racism blocking for an extension to Blacks – Mandela traveled that road till its end. So far.

But there was more uniting them in spite of civilizational gaps between Hinduism and African culture.

There was a deep cultural similarity in the sense of unity of all humans, a part of both Hindu and the humaneness, humanity to all, of Ubuntu culture. Hence the Zulu greeting Sabona–I see you, take you in, you are a part of me (and I in you)–I exist because you exist. Very different from the sharp individualism in the West that also separates and categorizes individuals as good and evil, and their actions as right and wrong.

The West celebrated their nonviolence, very fearful that the response to colonialism all over the world would be massive violence against the colonizers–themselves. The Western moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy in so doing lies not only in how they established slavery and colonialism but in how they try to maintain it in some form, supporting the violence of Anglo-America and Israel – not demanding from them what they celebrate in their own victims. That bankruptcy-hypocrisy may one day become their undoing. And the day seems to be near.

Obama was awarded a highly undeserved Nobel Peace Prize from one of those countries celebrating post-colonial violence, doing its own part by killing for the USA in Afghanistan and Libya.

He gave the most belligerent acceptance speech in the history of the peace prize; acknowledging the Parks-King-Selma!-nonviolence that brought a black Obama power but rejecting it for inter-state, inter-nation conflicts.

The end of English rule in India – and with that colonialism falling like dominoes? The end of the successor system to slavery in USA and other places, Jim Crow? The end of the Cold War mainly peacefully in 1989? Till the USA resumed it, declaring that they had won, working to recover the victor’s rewards – deciding over the future of former Soviet Union – and now reopening lynching by US police killing Blacks.

Three nonviolent gifts neglected by the deficient intellectualism we would expect from somebody trained at places like Columbia and Harvard.

Why was South Africa the nonviolent battlefield they shared?

A very special colony, colonized by two racist European nations, the Dutch from 1852 and the English, justified by the extremist Christianity of Calvinism by the former and the more pragmatic Christianity of the Anglican church by the latter.

But unlike other places with skirmishes between colonizers they clashed indeed: the Boer war 1899-1902 between Dutch settlers and the English out to fulfill the dream of the key English colonialist, Cecil Rhodes–an icon for Western intellectualism–from Cairo to the Cape.

The most famous aspect of the war was the concentration camps invented by the English for the detention of Dutch women and children, under atrocious conditions. 20,000 reportedly died. It was later imitated by Nazi Germany with 6 million reportedly killed. A similarity between Churchill’s England and Hitler’s Germany; see the first editorial of this series [16 March 2015].

In 1910 two English colonies and two Dutch-Boer republics made the Union of South Africa on top of the overwhelming Black majority, the Indian minority, and others – with the remarkable twice president Jan Smuts, a philosopher of ranks; and from 1948 the Apartheid system started by Daniel Malan ended gradually by Pieter Botha and de Klerk.

Movements for equality of all humans could play on conflicts between the two oppressors. The situation bears some similarity to Malaysia, dominated by Malays and Chinese on top of Tamils and Indigenous, even if the relative population numbers are very different.

South Africa offered a stage for the two lawyers to turn law into an instrument for freedom by breaking it – also implicit in the Law concept – working against the punishment aspect that gave both the aura of icons suffering for their cause – for Gandhi as he was thrown off the segregated train in South Africa where he worked 1893 to 1915.

That offers a happy ending to the comparisons of two at a time, for similarities and differences. May it one day reach the hard West.

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