African Gandhi the South African War and limits of Imperial Identity
Mahatma Gandhi achieved greatness for the struggles that he fought on the political, economic, cultural and moral fronts. His ideas about love, truth, soul force (‘brahmacharya’) and Satyagraha have universal appeal beyond the Indian setting and mark him as one of the outstanding individuals of the twentieth century. Yet the twenty-one years that Gandhi spent in South Africa were critical in the ‘Making of the Mahatma’. The African experience impacted on Gandhi’s conception of Indian identity and nationhood, Hinduism,1 and understanding of colonialism. These years also allowed him to develop his special technique of transforming society. The South African War marked an important crossroads in Gandhi’s South African experience. Prior to the war he had relied heavily on the politics of petitioning and placed great emphasis on being part of a British Empire. The war experiences forced Gandhi to reassess this strategy. Feeling betrayed by the British, Gandhi began to seriously question his beliefs and methods, and look for alternative means of redress for Indians. While this transition was not sudden, the war years marked the beginning of Gandhi’s transformation. This study of Gandhi’s response to the war has relevance beyond his personal transformation. It broaches the wider issues of the position of Western educated elites in the colonial structure and their impact in ‘imagining’, following Benedict Anderson2, nationhood and transforming colonial states into nation-states.