In March last year, a group of students in South Africa took to the streets to protest against statues of Cecil Rhodes on their campuses. Rhodes was an imperialist who plundered Southern Africa, making his millions through oppressively extractive means. His white supremacy tendencies emboldened his belief in the need to subjugate the black race. The students protesting for the removal of Rhodes statues across South Africa asserted that the continued stay of his busts on their campuses furthered institutional racism and the entrenchment of a belief in black inferiority as this was a celebration of a racist individual. The University of Cape Town protest against the statue of Rhodes was successful and Rhodes fell.
Historical figures like Cecil Rhodes have ridden on the supposed good they did for society to immortalize themselves. Rhodes’s contribution to South Africa, albeit discriminatory and oppressive, has earned him celebrity status in the white annals of the country’s history. The Rhodes scholarship is one of the most generous educational funds, benefitting a number of persons, including the descendants of the very people he saw as barbaric and inferior to his Caucasian race.
What history does for such people is to whitewash everything they did and stood for. Whenever their names are mentioned, only the angelic stuff comes up. There is no space for the evil they perpetrated and the double standards of their lives. Another example of such persons is Mahatma Gandhi!
I bet I lost you at the mention of that name in that category. When the name Gandhi comes up in any conversation, an image of a self-sacrificing frail looking old man who selflessly fought against British imperialism on behalf of the helpless in a non-violent manner pops up. This image is that of a man who could do no wrong and had the plight of minorities at the core of his campaign. The most noble and benign quotes are attributed to this bespectacled man who sewed his own clothing and lived an austere life for the good of all.
But is this characterization entirely valid? Do we get the full picture from this oft repeated story? Was Gandhi really a man who stood up against injustice at all times and is he worthy of the praises heaped on him by resistance leaders like Martin Luther King Jnr? Does he deserve to be immortalized on the campus of Ghana’s premier University?
Gandhi is said to have first gotten his inspiration to fight British imperialism while in South Africa. The story has it that he was barred from siting in the first class of a train even though he had tickets which entitled him to do so. What this narrative does not reveal is how Gandhi rather fought for further segregation and not integration. He was pissed that Indians had to share the same segregated spaces as kaffirs, a derogatory term for black people.
The train incident was not the start of an era fighting racism and colonialism in a non-violent manner. It was the continuation of entrenching white superiority over natives. When Zulus rebelled against British imposition of stifling taxes some years before the train affair, Gandhi who was in South Africa at the time supported the Brits in their annihilation of the natives.
It was Gandhi who held the strong belief that Indians were superior to blacks so even in an apartheid system, blacks were to use separate facilities from Indians. Classing the two together was not a good thing in his view. Why else did he advocate for separate entrances for Natives, Indians and whites in Durban Post and Telegraph offices?
If asking the Johannesburg Medical Officer of Health in 1904 “Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all Kaffirs of the town, passes my comprehension…. Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population, and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.” [CWMG, Vol. 3, pp. 428-429]” is not symptomatic of a racist then I shudder to think what is.
So why then is Gandhi still a celebrated figure across the world, even in South African freedom fighting circles? Why did Obama have his picture in his office while he was a senator? Why is a statue in front of the MLK Jr. museum in Atlanta? Baffles anyone who does a modicum amount of reading on the man’s views on black people.
History has done a near perfect job in obliterating that part of Mahatma’s story. Even his Wikipedia page does not mention his obnoxious views on black people. Neither has his biography which glosses over that fact and offers a weak explaining for his racism. Regardless of the dynamics of the time, actively supporting apartheid bars you from any exoneration. It is ok to an extent to stay mute for political reasons but once you become directly complicit in the actions, you lose any claim to sainthood.
When the statue of Gandhi was unveiled on the campus of the University of Ghana by the President of India Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, it was under the false guise of building better relationships between the two countries. As a nation of black people, our collective conscience should be pricked knowing that the hallowed grounds of the nation’s premier university have been defiled by the statue of a man who would have actively advocated for our subjugation by the Brits. The best way to build the kind of relationships Mr. Mukherjee was talking about is by protecting African students who are repeatedly under attack in India.
#GandhiMustFall or we will be contributing to the perpetuation of a great lie as an academic community.