Gandhi in South Africa - an interpretation
M. K. Gandhi’s years in South Africa—from 1893 to 1914—and his writings of that time provide an indispensable lens through which to view South African intellectual life during the twentieth century. South African intellectual life today is largely cut off from its past. It may be orientated to a greater or lesser extent toward the problems of South African society. But it looks elsewhere for its philosophical premises and theoretical perspectives—above all to the advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America, with their long-established traditions and well-resourced academic systems.
This is a familiar pattern in colonial and post-colonial societies; a pattern now being given a new twist in South Africa. As intellectual life becomes increasingly specialized and confined to the universities, so the universities are increasingly integrated into the global marketplace, with academics required to orientate their work toward publication in international journals, and the like. That which is distinctive about South African intellectual life over the past century is disappearing before it has been grasped and articulated.
What is distinctive about South African intellectual life is not so much the originality of its philosophical arguments or the influence of its doctrines, but rather the ways in which they have developed in relation to a conflict ridden history in which philosophical argument has been an embattled and often costly vocation. The ideal of unity of life and thought has been more pressing here than in more stable
societies and also harder to achieve.
In this context a distinctive form of philosophical project has provided a way of living out a philosophical vocation.2 This project has been shared by individuals of diverse philosophical and political persuasions. In this series I’ll try to show a similar form in the work of an activist for Indian rights and proponent of nonviolence (Gandhi), an Afrikaner nationalist opponent of imperialism drawing on the philosophy of pragmatism (Tobie Muller), a founder of the ANC Youth League and the leading theorist of Africanism in South Africa (Anton Lembede), a liberal opponent of apartheid working in the idiom of analytical philosophy (Daantjie Oosthuizen), and a Marxist academic much influenced by existentialism (Richard Turner).