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Mbeki: Mahatma Gandhi Satyagraha 100th Anniversary (01/10/2006)

1st October 2006


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Date: 01/10/2006
Source: The Presidency
Title: Mbeki: Mahatma Gandhi Satyagraha 100th Anniversary

Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha, Durban

Programme Director,
Your Excellency, the Prime Minister of India,
Manmohan Singh,
And esteemed members of the Indian delegation,
Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Premier of KwaZulu Natal, Sbu Ndebele,
Mayor of Ethekwini, Councillor Obed Mlaba,
Trustees of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation,
Your Excellencies, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished guests,
Fellow South Africans,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am truly honoured and delighted to have this opportunity to address you in the presence of the Prime Minister of India, His Excellency Dr Manmohan Singh, as we observe and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of a defining epoch in our history, the Satyagraha campaign, initiated right here in South Africa a century ago.

On behalf of the government and people of South Africa, we extend our warmest welcome to the Prime Minister and the rest of the visiting Indian delegation, and thank you most sincerely for gracing our shores to share in our salute to one of India's and South Africa's great creations, the Satyagraha, and pay undying tribute to a truly great human being.

Our emancipation is only 12 years old. It is not so long ago that the celebration we hold today would not have been possible. It is not so long ago that it would have been impossible for a Prime Minister of the great country of India to set foot on our shores. Not so long ago, the majority of us present here were prohibited by law and the force of arms to determine the future of our country.

It is in this context that, today, together with the masses of our people, I am proud to say that, among others, Mahatma Gandhi, the great native son of India and, at the same time a beloved son of South Africa as well, provided the unparalleled leadership and example that inspired the triumphant march to freedom and democracy both in India in 1947, and in South Africa in 1994.

Again, it was no accident that it was India, at the United Nations in 1946 that first put on the global agenda the issue of the imperative to mobilise the international community to join us in our struggle for our liberation from racism and white minority domination. In this regard, I would like to acknowledge the presence among us as a member of Prime Minister Singh's delegation, and welcome Anand Singh whom, like E.S. Reddy, many of us have known and worked with for many decades as a frontline fighter against apartheid, for the liberation of all our people.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi needs no introduction to anybody here and elsewhere in the world, for he is an international icon, martyr and the champion of freedom, peace and non-violence. He, more than anyone else, personifies the spirit, the essence and the meaning of Satyagraha. Accordingly, as we celebrate the centenary of the birth of this great philosophy and practice of struggle for human emancipation, we also celebrate the contribution to our liberation by all our historic leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Having arrived in South Africa in 1893, Mahatma Gandhi's life, like those of many other leaders who came from India, was to be transformed by a multitude of events, "racist laws, racist treatment of both Indians and Africans as well as enduring personal subjugation and humiliation."

However, two events stand out as some of the most defining moments in shaping the political direction of Mahatma Ghandi, and the launching of Satyagraha.

The first happened during the South African War, otherwise referred to as the Anglo-Boer War. During this War, Gandhi and other leaders of the South saw it opportune to prove their loyalty to the British Empire so as secure equal rights for their people. Thus, they encouraged participation of their people in the war on the side of the British troops.

But the blatant racist attitude of the British as well as their policy of allowing whites to subjugate the Indian-South Africans politically and economically, before and after the War, made Gandhi and his comrades to begin formulating strategies of mobilising people for freedom.

The second event was during the Bambatha Uprising in 1906, whose Centenary we have and are commemorating this year. Gandhi led an ambulance corps to help the wounded among the Zulu people. He later wrote in his autobiography that:

"The Zulu 'rebellion' was full of new experiences and gave me much food for thought. The Boer War had not brought home to me the horrors of war with anything like the vividness that the 'rebellion' did. This was no war but a man-hunt. To hear every morning reports of the soldiers' rifles exploding like crackers in innocent Hamlets, and to live in the midst of them was a trial. But I swallowed the bitter draught, especially as the work of my Corps consisted only in nursing the wounded Zulus. I could see that but for us the Zulus would have been uncared for. This work, therefore, eased my conscience. Enraged by such experiences, Gandhi decided to dedicate more of his life to the struggle for the liberation of all our people.

A protest meeting of the Indian-South African people was convened in Johannesburg in September 1906 as a response to the promulgation of the Asiatic Bill and the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, which made registration of all Indians compulsory and identified them as a separate racial group, adding to existing oppressive measures such as the ?3 tax on the indentured labourers.

The non-violent defiance campaign decided at this meeting gave birth to Satyagraha, as a result of which those who defied the law by striking, burning passes or simply refusing to register were flogged, jailed and even shot at. Thousands across the country put their very lives on line by participating in this non-violent civil disobedience campaign.

In an article in the Indian Opinion in 1907, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that non-violent acts of civil disobedience were acceptable against any immoral law that was repugnant or harmful to the people.

As E.S. Reddy has observed in his article, 'The First Martyrs of Satyagraha':

"Gandhiji often stressed that satyagraha is not mere jail-going. He warned, during the first Satyagraha in South Africa, as early as 1909: 'A satyagrahi must be afraid neither of imprisonment nor of deportation. He must neither mind being reduced to poverty, nor be frightened, if it comes to that, of being mashed into pulp with a mortar and pestle'."

Reddy says it was clear to the satyagrahi that although satyagraha is a totally non-violent and civilised form of resistance, the oppressors would try to break it by resorting to an escalation of brutality, together with 'dirty tricks' to confuse and divide the ranks of the resisters. (

When two infants died in Natal during the Great March of Indian-South African workers in 1913, they symbolised the supreme sacrifice of non-violent protest in the name of noble ideals, struggle and sacrifice for freedom.

Further, Gandhiji was profoundly affected by these and other deaths and wrote tributes to four martyrs: Sammy Nagappan, a teenager who died of pneumonia after being forced to break stones in bitter cold; A Narayanswami, who was not allowed to land for two months when he returned from illegal deportation to India, though shivering on the open deck without adequate clothes; Valliamma Moonsamy, the 16 year-old girl who refused to seek parole despite her serious illness from incarceration in Pietermartizburg and died after completing her sentence; and the indomitable Harbn prison.

(Extracted from Reddy, E.S., 'The First Martyrs of Satyagraha', ibid)

From Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg; from the plantations of Tongaat and Verulam to the mines of Newcastle and the farms of Umzinto, countless Indian heroines and heroes became martyrs. While some were professionals and homemakers, the majority were indentured labourers, workers and peasants whom Gandhi described as the "salt of the earth".

In the Preface to his book 'Satyagraha in South Africa' published in 1928, Mahatma Gandhi wrote about what he called "the beauty of Satyagraha", and said:

"It comes up to oneself; one has not to go out in search for it. This is a virtue inherent in the principle itself. A dharma-yudda, in which there are no secrets to be guarded, no scope for cunning and no place for untruth, comes unsought; and a man of religion is ever ready for it. God helps when one feels oneself humbler than the very dust under one's feet. Only to the weak and helpless is divine succour vouchsafed... The reader will note South African parallels for all our experiences (in India) in the present struggle to date. He will also see from this history that there is so far no ground whatever for despair in the fight that is going on. The only condition for victory is a tenacious adherence to our programme."

He concluded the book with these words: "I will consider myself amply repaid if I have in these pages demonstrated with some success that Satyagraha is a priceless and matchless weapon, and that those who wield it are strangers to disappointment or defeat."

Over the years, the work of this great human being as expressed through Satyagraha, with its unshakable advocacy of respect for honesty, the truth, loyalty to principle, and perseverance in the struggle for justice, was to influence generations of brave men and women as they also fought for their freedom.

Indeed, the voice that symbolised the American Civil Rights Movement, which celebrates its golden Jubilee this year, echoed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi that inspired Martin Luther King Jr, as well as many others across the world, to follow in the humble footsteps of that extraordinary lawyer and human being.

For the timeless lessons of Gandhi are so evident in the words of Martin Luther King Jr when he said:

"If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk."

(The Words of Martin Luther King, ibid, p.57)

And surely today, as we confront the spectre of violent national conflicts, war and international terrorism, we can only ignore Mahatma Gandhi's vision and message at our own risk. For the human solidarity, human dignity, self-respect and equality among the peoples, for which Gandhiji fought and died, are the core values that we need to pass on to the generations that follow us so that they may live lives of peace, harmony and prosperity.

And those generations will salute us too if we tackle the challenges of the 21st century with the same vision for social justice, peace and harmony.

A century after Satyagraha began in the old colonial Transvaal, we will tomorrow, on Mahatma Gandhi's 135th birthday, have the privilege to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his delegation to discuss the further measures we must take to raise to higher levels our concerted effort to strengthen our bonds of friendship with India, which is, to us, not only a genuine strategic partner, but also a second home all our people.

In this regard, let us reflect on the prescient words of Mahatma Gandhi when he addressed a Satyagraha meeting in Johannesburg in 1908:

"If we look into the future of South Africa, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen?"

(Reddy, E.S. and Gandhi, G.)

During this time that we, South Africans have defined as the Age of Hope. The challenge for us is how to produce a heritage where all different races, creeds, faiths and religions commingle and produce a civilisation that indeed the world has not yet seen.

In 2001, the world family of nations gathered here in Durban at the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances.

Yet, instead of being sisters and brothers and friendly neighbours in this journey of life, we see the rainbow tapestry of the human family being unravelled because of racial hatred, religious intolerance, ethnicity, xenophobia, sexism and terrorism.

At the same time, because of the refusal of especially the most privileged in the world to open their ears, hearts and minds to the unconquerable voice of the Mahatma, billions of people continue to live in abject poverty and underdevelopment despite the fact that human society disposes of enough intellectual and material resources to address these challenges.

Today, as we reflect on the past struggles, may we also look ahead tomorrow to see how the strategic partnership between India and South Africa can be imbued with the Gandhian philosophy so that we may create a sustainable human family where satya, truth, will prevail, underpinned by the universal values of human solidarity, human dignity and self-respect, which must inspire the building of modern human society.

The peoples of India and South Africa have been engaged is united action for freedom, equality and human dignity for well over a century. We are immensely proud that we share with our sister country, India, a common hero, leader and noble giant, Mahatma Gandhi.

As we continue to act together, among other things to contribute to the emergence of a just global order, confronting the disequilibria and imbalance of power exacerbated by the process of globalisation, we must remain as Mahatma Gandhi said, "strangers to disappointment or defeat."

May Mahatma Gandhi's Phoenix Settlement of 1904 be a symbol to inspire a prosperous renaissance in our countries and across the developing world, so that the African phoenix and the Indian phoenix rise from the ashes of colonialism and apartheid and reach for a destination defined by democracy, peace, true friendship, prosperity and a better life for all our peoples.

Once more, a warm welcome to our dear friend and brother, Manmohan Singh, as well as his esteemed delegation!

Long live Satyagraha!
Long live the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi!
Long live the indestructible friendship between the peoples of India and South Africa!

Thank you.

Issued by: The Presidency
1 October 2006


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