In April 1893, a 23 year old Indian sailed to the shores of South Africa, for the sole purpose of making money as the legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based in the city of Pretoria for the period of a year. Little did he know that he would spend 21 years in this alien land, fighting for the rights of a whole community in another country and developing his own political views, ethics and political leadership skills. Indeed it can be argued, as done by the Gandhi biographer ES Reddy, that Gandhi’s philosophy and outlook is South Africa’s “Gift to India”. Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi’s first biography, by the Rev JJ Doke, was entitled An Indian Patriot in South Africa.
This can be attested by the fact that when in a 1939 interview a missionary named Dr. John R. Mott asked him about the most creative experience of his life, Gandhi spoke of his South African experience. He said, “I recall particularly one experience that changed the course of my life…On the train I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out. The train steamed away leaving me shivering in cold. Now the creative experience comes there. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty; I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that day.”
Gandhi thus extended his stay in South Africa to assist Indians in opposing a bill which had denied them the right to vote. As he writes in his autobiography, this exercise exposed personal handicaps to Gandhi that he had not known about. He realised he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa. In fact Gandhi adopted the methodology of Satyagraha for the first time at a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg, as pointed out by the author Eric Itzkin.
He also became the humanitarian and egalitarian leader in the course of this journey. In fact, many scholars claim that Gandhi too shared racial notions prevalent of the times, in his early days. It was his experience in the jails of South Africa which sensitized him to the plight of blacks. The Gandhi who returned from South Africa was an inspiring leader fearless, selfless and with a vision — who had led a small community in a long and difficult, yet victorious, struggle against a stubborn racist government.
One can indeed argue that Gandhi did not only become a better leader and a person because of his experience, but also a more successful one. He told the Kanpur Congress in 1925 “I never had a brilliant career. I was all my life a plodder. When I went to England… I couldn’t put together two sentences correctly. On the steamer I was a drone… I finished my three years in England as a drone.” It is also interesting to note that it wasn’t merely international exposure which transformed him thus, English education did not make him a global leader. It is only active contribution to a society in an alien environment which challenged him, which gave him enough for him to bring back to his nation.
“It is perfectly true that whatever service I have been able to render… to India, comes from South Africa”, he is known to have said. This illustrates the power in experiential learning which comes from international exchange. Indeed, sometimes one needs to become a go global, in order to serve one’s own nation. There is patriotism in being a global leader.