Besmirching history—South African Gandhi in Durban

While reviews of Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire in India have been a desultory trickle, the book has sparked many debates in South Africa. Ashwin Desai offers a clue as to why—

At a time of rising India, it is understandable that some scholars are keen to emphasise the seminal role of Gandhi and the vanguard role of Indians in the South African liberation struggle. But they end up in a racist narrative if not by intent then by methodological default which lies in their writing African oppression and subjugation and agency out of history or, to borrow from Eric Wolf, “Indians and the ‘people without History’”.

So it was with some respite that we received this video of a book-signing event organized in an “unassuming corner bookshop” in Durban, South Africa, where the two authors were present and interacted with the audience. In the wake of defences by the legatees of Gandhi that seek to preserve a sanitized, universalist image of him as a representative vanguard of “alternative” and inclusive politics, the relevance and relatability of this book argues just how dangerous these post-facto appraisals are when we think about history. For “nobody likes their heroes to have clay feet…and as tends to happen historically, racial or national humiliation is a potent rallying cry in achieving very material ends”.

Here’s what some readers of the book had to say at the event:

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“In tearing down our myths and legends, and the beliefs we have had for so long, we can actually start to engage in a dialogue of growth and actual reconciliation between race groups that is not happening right now.”

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“It’s necessary to humanize every sainted figure”

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“I think it is important for us to know our history. We have some good aspects, and we have some bad aspects. And that’s what makes us South African. And that’s what makes South African culture so rich and diverse”

And as Desai reminds us, by locating Gandhi within the “broader, larger, canvas of the making of modern South Africa…the real test will be to see how thoroughgoing the critique is. Because if the post-colonial unhappiness has shown anything, it is the ability of a kleptocracy, in league with major white and international business concerns, to distract calls for transformation by encouraging symbolic relief”.

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