When Nelson Mandela died earlier this month, Indian obituaries were cast in a distinctly patriotic mould. We were told that his moral courage, capacity for friendship, and spirit of reconciliation resembled that of Mahatma Gandhi’s (and so they did). Others pointed out that in fact it was not Gandhi but Jawaharlal Nehru who was Mandela’s hero (and so he was).
These eulogies, however, missed a more important connection in Mandela’s life and legacy: his comradeship with South Africans of Indian descent. Living in Johannesburg in the 1940s, Mandela befriended the young radicals, Ismail Meer and J.N. Singh. Through them he got to know more about the Indian independence movement and the impact of Gandhi. Then he watched Gandhian techniques at firsthand, during the passive resistance campaign of 1946, in which Indians in Natal and the Transvaal courted arrest in protest against discriminatory land laws.
The passive resistance campaign was led by Yusuf Dadoo and G. M. (Monty) Naicker, both doctors, one Gujarati, the other Tamil. Naicker was a Gandhian, Dadoo a communist who admired Gandhi. The struggle they organized was the first major mass movement against white rule, its significance captured in a chapter title of Mary Benson’s history of the African National Congress, which reads: “1946: THE INDIANS LEAD THE STRUGGLE.”
Mandela was greatly impressed by the campaign. The Indians, he recalled later, had registered “an extraordinary protest against colour oppression in a way that Africans and the ANC had not”. Their movement “became a model for the type of protest we in the Youth League were calling for”. Indian leaders like Dadoo and Naicker, wrote Mandela, had “instilled a spirit of defiance and radicalism among the people, [and] broke]n] the fear of prison. … They reminded us that the freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action and, above all, the willingness to sacrifice”.
In the early 1900s, when Mohandas K. Gandhi worked in South Africa, Indians and Africans tended to stay apart. Indians often saw Africans as less civilized than themselves. Africans sometimes saw Indians as economic and political rivals. In Natal especially, they competed for jobs in mines, plantations, and factories. Africans worried about the expansion of Indian landholding as ex-indentures turned to farming.
By the late 1940s, this had changed. Now, the leaders of the two communities were deeply invested in an inter-racial alliance. During the passive resistance campaign, a pact was signed between the presidents of the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress on the side (Naicker and Dadoo respectively) and the president of the African National Congress (A.B. Xuma) on the other. The signatories were all medical practitioners, so their agreement became known as the “Doctor’s Pact”.
Africans were in an overwhelming majority in white-ruled South Africa. They still needed the support of other communities. The Indians, writes the historian, Gail M. Gerhart, “had two valuable resources to offer Africans: organizational experience, including expertise gained over several decades in the management of Gandhian passive resistance, and money”. The Indian middle class was more numerous and more prosperous than the African middle class. The alliance was therefore in the (moral and material) interests of both communities. The Indians needed the legitimacy that came from larger numbers; the Africans the funds for procuring bail and paying for lawyers.
In 1952, the African and Indian Congresses together organized a countrywide Defiance Campaign in protest against the apartheid regime. The methods used bore Gandhi’s mark. They included: (i) entering a location without a permit; (ii) going out at night without a curfew pass; (iii) occupying seats in trains meant for Europeans; (iv) entering European waiting rooms; (v) entering the European section of the Post Office.
Nelson Mandela was a key leader of the Defiance Campaign in the Transvaal. He worked closely with Molvi Cachalia, whose father, A.M. Cachalia, had been an associate of Gandhi’s. In jail, Mandela shared a cell with Yusuf Cachalia, brother of Molvi. On their first morning in prison, the warder brought in eggs, toast and tea for the Indian, and putu (maize porridge) for the African. When Mandela protested, the warder said he was following prison regulations, which prescribed different diets for different races. After the warder left, remembered Yusuf Cachalia, “we laughed and shared the food”.
In fact, even before they went to prison, Mandela had often broken bread with Yusuf and his wife Amina. Many years later, after apartheid had ended, Amina Cachalia recalled the days of the struggle and a life lived across racial boundaries. “In 1951 I turned 21, and Nelson suggested we have a party. Yusuf suggested we cook pigeon, and Nelson decided to get hold of 21 pigeons. Yusuf and Nelson cooked. It was at Aggie Patel’s flat. Arthur Goldreich, Robbie Resha, Duma Nokwe, and Essop Nugdee were there. I remember Nelson cleaning rice. Goodness, they had enough to drink.”
When apartheid ended, Mandela began once more to spend time with the Cachalias. After Yusuf died, Mandela, estranged from his own wife, Winnie, proposed marriage to Amina. She turned him down, but kept the proposal a secret till shortly before her own death, earlier this year. Her daughter Coco, learning of the revelations, was not entirely surprised, telling a journalist that “Nelson was a constant feature in our home because of Amina, because he had a very strong affection and bond with her. He had a strong political connection to my father but he had a much stronger personal connection to my mother”.
The Indian Nelson Mandela most admired was Yusuf Dadoo, who had died in exile in London. (Mandela once told the Gandhi scholar and anti-apartheid campaigner, E.S. Reddy, that “before Dr Dadoo we were like children”.) His closest Indian friend was probably Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada (picture), also of communist rather than Gandhian leanings. The two were among the accused in the famous ‘Rivonia’ Trial of 1963, following which they spent more than two decades in prison, mostly on Robben Island. Later, when they were free, ‘Kathy’ recorded a series of interviews with his old comrade, which found their way into a book issued under Mandela’s name with the title Conversations with Myself.
Also a prisoner on Robben Island was Indres Naidoo, whose grandfather, Thambi Naidoo, had played a major part in the satyagrahas led by Gandhi in 1907-9 and 1913-14. Before they were arrested and sent to the Island, Mandela had enjoyed his visits to the Naidoo home, relishing the crab curries cooked by Indres’s mother Mononmony, known more familiarly as ‘Ama Naidoo‘, since she was mother not just to her sons but to many others in the freedom struggle.
In 1997 I made my first trip to the land of Nelson Mandela. I stayed with the Indian high commissioner, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a scholar, translator, and civil servant whose father was born in South Africa. At a dinner at his home I was introduced to Indres Naidoo. Later, I asked my host about a strange memento on his mantelpiece — a circular metal object with a block of black stone embossed on it, resembling a map of Africa. It was, he answered, a gift from Indres, one of a ‘limited edition’ of aluminium plates made after liberation for the prisoners of Robben Island, these replicating the plates they ate off in their cells, with the map carved out of the same granite they had mined as part of their prison labour. Thambi Naidoo’s grandson was given the keepsake for himself, but, in a gesture characteristic of the man and his family, had chosen to present it to a grandson of Gandhi instead.
Also on that trip, I heard, at a public function, a superb short speech by an elegant, white-haired lady in a sari. Her name was Frene Ginwala. A long-time activist in the anti-apartheid struggle, she had spent many years in exile, partly spent writing a doctoral thesis at Oxford on the history of Indians in South Africa. Herself of Parsi descent, she was now, in 1997, the Speaker of the first multi-racial South African parliament.
Indians constitute less than 3 per cent of the population of South Africa. Yet there were more than 40 Indian members of parliament in that first democratic parliament. When someone complained about this to Mandela, he is said to have answered: “Yes, that is greater than their share in the population, but less than proportionate to their contribution to the struggle.” It was a magnificent rebuttal, that could have come from no other politician of our time — or perhaps any other.