Cover of The South African Gandhi by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed
The South African Gandhi
Stretcher-Bearer of Empire
Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed


October 2015
344 pages.
from $24.95

Cloth ISBN: 9780804796088
Paper ISBN: 9780804797177
Digital ISBN: 9780804797221
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Excerpts and More

In the pantheon of freedom fighters, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has pride of place. His fame and influence extend far beyond India and are nowhere more significant than in South Africa. "India gave us a Mohandas, we gave them a Mahatma," goes a popular South African refrain. Contemporary South African leaders, including Mandela, have consistently lauded him as being part of the epic battle to defeat the racist white regime.

The South African Gandhi focuses on Gandhi's first leadership experiences and the complicated man they reveal—a man who actually supported the British Empire. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed unveil a man who, throughout his stay on African soil, stayed true to Empire while showing a disdain for Africans. For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bonded by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African. Gandhi's racism was matched by his class prejudice towards the Indian indentured. He persistently claimed that they were ignorant and needed his leadership, and he wrote their resistances and compromises in surviving a brutal labor regime out of history. The South African Gandhi writes the indentured and working class back into history.

The authors show that Gandhi never missed an opportunity to show his loyalty to Empire, with a particular penchant for war as a means to do so. He served as an Empire stretcher-bearer in the Boer War while the British occupied South Africa, he demanded guns in the aftermath of the Bhambatha Rebellion, and he toured the villages of India during the First World War as recruiter for the Imperial army. This meticulously researched book punctures the dominant narrative of Gandhi and uncovers an ambiguous figure whose time on African soil was marked by a desire to seek the integration of Indians, minus many basic rights, into the white body politic while simultaneously excluding Africans from his moral compass and political ideals.

About the author

Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.

Goolam Vahed is Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

"In this impressively researched study, two South African scholars of Indian background bravely challenge political myth-making on both sides of the Indian Ocean that has sought to canonize Gandhi as a founding father of the struggle for equality there. They show that the Mahatma-to-be carefully refrained from calling on his followers to throw in their lot with the black majority. The mass struggle he finally led remained an Indian struggle."

—Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

"This is a wonderful demonstration of meticulously researched, evocative, clear-eyed and fearless history writing. It uncovers a story, some might even call it a scandal, that has remained hidden in plain sight for far too long. The South African Gandhi is a big book. It is a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi."

—Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things

"The South African Gandhi's detailed treatment of how Gandhi operated in the South African political context is a significant contribution to the growing revisionist literature. Most arresting perhaps to readers familiar only with the hagiography will be Gandhi's persistent attempts to improve the position of South African Indians by emphasising their superiority to Africans and reliability as subjects of Empire."

—Kathryn Tidrick, author of Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life

"The South African Gandhi finally offers a real and convincing account of Indian life and politics in South Africa, and Gandhi's changing place within it. Its critique of the sanctimonious and nationalistic historiography around Gandhi allows the authors to recover a Gandhi beyond moralism."

—Faisal Devji, University of Oxford