On Nelson Mandela’s Birth Anniversary, a Look at His Gandhi Link
Mandela was deeply inspired by Gandhi’s principles and said he owed his political success to the latter.
Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, the South African revolutionary who championed the fight against apartheid in his country, also shared a close bond with India. This link was established primarily due to Gandhi becoming a source of political inspiration for a young Mandela.
A parallel has often been drawn between the two leaders, not least among them being that both, at different points in time, were housed in the same prison in Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill. Moreover, Mandela’s advocacy of Gandhi’s teachings, especially that of ahimsa and satya won him the moniker “Gandhi of South Africa”.
In 1993, when Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Frederik Willem de Klerk, for their peaceful efforts in abolishing apartheid in South Africa, the former attributed his success to Mahatma Gandhi. Although the two great political figures never met, as Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, four years before Mandela’s birth, the latter was greatly influenced by the teachings of the former, and held him in the highest regard. In fact, Mandela famously said about Gandhi in a speech:
“I could never reach the standard of morality, simplicity and love for the poor set by the Mahatma. While Gandhi was a human without weaknesses, I am a man of many weaknesses.”
Gandhi, who set foot in South Africa in 1893, developed the blueprint for satyagraha (truth-force), in which agitators rallied peacefully and gave themselves up to the law, protesting against discriminatory practices.
This means of protest greatly influenced not only Mandela but also the African National Congress in its fight against apartheid in South Africa. At the inaugural ceremony of a Gandhi Memorial in South Africa in 1993, Mandela said: "Gandhi is most revered for his commitment to non-violence and the Congress movement was strongly influenced by this Gandhian philosophy.”
In the same speech, Mandela also noted Gandhi’s inextricable link with South Africa:
“The Mahatma is an integral part of our history because it is here that he first experimented with truth; here that he demonstrated his characteristic firmness in pursuit of justice; here that he developed Satyagraha as a philosophy and a method of struggle.”
Gandhi Paved the Way for Mandela's Bond With India
Mandela was inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent means of protest and once noted:
“I called for non-violent protest for as long as it was effective.”
Both Gandhi and Mandela shared the common belief that all those who are oppressed, no matter how different they were in religion, ethnicity or caste, must be united in their goal to overthrow their oppressors, and, in Gandhi’s words, “cease to play the part of the ruled”.
They reached this common ground through their own lived experiences of humiliation and imprisonment.
Both Gandhi and Mandela had served long sentences in prison because of their political ideologies and anti-government stance.
Due to Mandela’s regard for Gandhi, it is said that he treated each visit to India, Gandhi’s country of birth, as a “pilgrimage to the land of his political guru,” as claimed in a report. Also, Mandela allegedly visited a rural area near Ahmedabad in 1995, where Gandhi had worked on many of his ideas on self-reliance and non-violence following his two-decade-long stint in South Africa, as claimed the same report.
The Indian government conferred Mandela with the International Gandhi Peace Prize in 2001 for his efforts to establish peace in his country through Gandhian principles.
Before that, in 1990, soon after Mandela’s release from a 27-year prison term, the government of India had honoured Mandela with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
While Gandhi’s teachings may have paved the path for Mandela’s close ties with India, it can hardly be said that the latter’s connection with India ended with Gandhi. This is evident through Mandela’s autobiography Long walk to freedom, in which he discusses the lessons he learnt from his Indian friends in South Africa as a young student.
Moreover, it is a well-known fact that the other Indian leader Mandela looked up to was Jawaharlal Nehru, whose autobiography and The Unity of India left an indelible mark on him. Nehru, too, was one of Mandela’s heroes.
(On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s birth anniversary, The Quint is republishing this story from its archives, originally published on 18 July 2017.)
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