© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Gandhi inspired Mandela on South Africa's 'Long Road to Freedom'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2013 - One man was felled by an assassin’s bullet after a lifetime of nonviolent struggle to gain independence for his county. The other man survived until age 95 after emerging from prison to lead his nation’s mostly peaceful revolution to end apartheid and become its first black president.

Despite the stark differences in their fates, Nelson Mandela — who died Thursday in South Africa — and Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated in India in 1948, emerged as two towering moral leaders of the 20th century by mobilizing their people to battle oppression but also preaching against violence.

It was no coincidence that Gandhi and Mandela, whose paths never crossed directly, both embarked on their campaigns against discrimination in South Africa — the land of Alan Paton’s "Cry, the Beloved Country," where apartheid domination had oppressed the black majority as well as the South Asian minority for so many years.

In a fitting coincidence of history, the two leaders were both lawyers who spent time in stinking jail cells in Johannesburg’s Old Fort prison — Gandhi in 1906, Mandela in 1962. It later became a museum to reveal the brutality of apartheid abuses. On the same hilltop where the prison’s notorious wards still stand, South Africa has built a gleaming new high court, the Constitutional Court.

Gandhi was “the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary,” Mandela once wrote, describing the Indian leader as a role model. “Both Gandhi and I suffered colonial oppression, and both of us mobilized our respective peoples against governments that violated our freedoms.”

Even though Gandhi was born in India and studied law in London, he made his name as a young man fighting discrimination against Indians in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. He was thrown off trains, he organized protests and was jailed several times during his two decades of South African activism.

While Gandhi at first supported the British colonial regime and urged Indians to fight on their side during the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War) in 1899-1902, he became disillusioned with British rule after he organized fellow Indians into a stretcher-bearer corps to carry wounded soldiers during a Zulu revolt in 1906.

“British brutality against the Zulus roused his soul against violence as nothing had done before,” Mandela wrote later. “The sight of wounded and whipped Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic.”

After his experience as a stretcher-bearer, Gandhi became an outspoken but nonviolent advocate of the rights of South African Indians, championing the satyagraha campaign of nonviolent refusal to cooperate with the government; arranging marches against the discriminatory poll tax and marriage laws; and enduring months in jails for defying the authorities.

Gandhi received a hero’s welcome when he returned to India in 1915 and started a decades-long campaign of nonviolent resistance against British colonialism that led to the nation’s independence in 1947. After the chaos and violence that followed the partition of India and Pakistan, Gandhi was killed by a Hindu assassin a year later.

Mandela, who was born to a Xhosa family in the village of Mvezo three years after Gandhi left South Africa, seemed to be an unlikely candidate to inherit the moral legacy of the great Indian leader – and it took many years for Mandela to adopt the nonviolent resistance strategy and to lead what he later called the "long walk to freedom."

He and his ally Oliver Tambo were expelled from South Africa’s Fort Hare college – the first South African university for blacks – in 1940 for their political activism. He worked as a night watchman in a gold mine in Johannesburg, then clerked in a law firm, studied law and began his political career by joining the African National Congress. Accusing the ANC’s leadership of “appeasement and compromise,” the fiery Mandela started up an ANC youth league, rising to become its president in 1951.

He and Tambo founded South African first black law practice, but the apartheid government – fearful of a revolution – late in 1956 arrested him and 155 other black leaders who had called for an end to apartheid. He was acquitted of treason in 1961, then went underground and formed an ANC military wing (“Spear of the Nation”) and commanded its guerrilla army.

After 17 month underground, Mandela was arrested again and sent to prison for another five years. And in 1964, he and seven other ANC activists were convicted again and sentence to life in prison. He would spend the next 18 years in Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town.

After pressure mounted on the apartheid government, South African President P.W. Botha offered to free Mandela if he renounced violence; but Mandela refused unless the government ended apartheid. It took many more years, and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the nation’s leaders, before the 71-year-old Mandela was released, without conditions, in 1990. The ANC suspended its guerilla campaign but street violence continued.

After years of negotiations – during which Mandela and President de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – a new constitution banning apartheid was finally agreed to in 1993 and Mandela won election as South Africa’s first black president a year later. That is when the influence of Gandhi became apparent, as Mandela – instead of punishing those who had imprisoned him and his compatriots – moved to try to reconcile South Africa’s black majority and white minority.

In paying tribute to Mandela late Thursday, President Barack Obama – America’s first black president – said the South African’s long journey to freedom, and his transformation of the nation’s political system without a civil war, should be an example for everyone.

“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa -- and moved all of us,” Obama said.

“His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings -- and countries -- can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives.

“And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable.”

Robert Koenig, a former Washington correspondent for the Beacon, worked as a journalist in South Africa from 2005-2008. He now works in the press office at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.