The South African Gandhi


Stretcher-Bearer of Empire

Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

  • Weight: 540 g
  • Number of Pages: 344
  • Binding: Hardback
  • Size: 6.25 x 9.25"
  • ISBN: 9788189059736

In the pantheon of global liberation heroes, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has pride of place. Leaders like Mandela have lauded him as being part of the epic battle to defeat the white regime and prepare the way for a non-racial country. A popular sentiment in South Africa goes: ‘India gave us Mohandas, and we returned him to you as Mahatma’.

Against this background, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire unravels the complex story of a man who, throughout his stay on African soil (1893–1914), remained true to Empire while expressing disdain for Africans. For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bound by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African. His racism was matched by his class (and caste) prejudice towards the Indian indentured. He persistently claimed that they were ignorant and needed his leadership, and wrote their struggles out of history—struggles this book documents.

The authors show that Gandhi never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Empire, with a particular penchant for war. He served as stretcher-bearer in the war between Brit and Boer, demanded that Indians be allowed to carry fire-arms, and recruited volunteers for the imperial army in both England and India during the First World War.

Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. His previous books include South Africa: Still Revolting, ‘We are the Poors’: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa and Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island among others.

Goolam Vahed is Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal. He writes on histories of migration, ethnicity, religion, and identity formation among Indian South Africans.

In the media

Ashwin Desai talks of meeting Gandhi through research and argues: ‘To see Gandhi clearly, strangely, allows the pursuit of all that is precious to Gandhism to resume with vigour: a just world changed through brave and persistent but non-violent, action.’— Huffington Post.

‘To the extent that he accepted white minority power but was keen to be a junior partner, he was a racist. Thank God he did not succeed in this as we (Indians) would have been culpable in the horrors of apartheid’—Ashwin Desai to BBC news.

Watch this video that records what the South African readers of the book have to say.

‘New Gandhi book aims to tell a balanced story’—The Daily Vox.

‘It is especially the case in post-liberation societies where one is keen to have heroes who are all-knowing and infallible’—IOL South Africa

‘Gandhi may have been racist in South Africa, but some Indians there still are’— piece, inspired by the debate South African Gandhi started, indicts the Indian diaspora.

‘Although Desai and Vahed’s theoretical argument is controversial, it is backed by evidence and careful res­earch. It will no longer be possible to look at the Mahatma’s South African years without considering his role as a stretcher-bearer of Empire’—Patrick French, Outlook

Read Ashwin Desai’s response to Rajmohan Gandhi’s “Why Attacks on Gandhi are Good” in the Indian Express.

The South African Gandhi offers evidence of how white supremacy has functioned, even thrived, through the active participation of oppressed dark-skinned people’—Atlanta Blackstar

Read The Washington Post on what Mahatma Gandhi thought of black people.

Read an excerpt

Read an excerpt from the book in focusing on Gandhi’s indifference to Indian indentured labourers.

The excerpt in Hindustan Times places Gandhi at the intersection of white supremacism and Indian mercantile interests

‘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’Arundhati Roy, author of “The Doctor and the Saint”

‘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 canonise Gandhi as a founding father of the struggle for equality in South Africa’ — Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi
 and His Struggle with India

‘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