The City of Cape Town might erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi – despite a majority public objection. As world-renowned anti-colonial struggle icon and lawyer Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday was marked and celebrated on Tuesday, Capetonians are divided on whether or not Gandhi deserves recognition in South Africa. Recently, the Indian government offered to donate a life-size statue to the City of Cape Town for placement in Heerengracht Street but a public participation process found the majority of respondents rejecting the donation.
Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 and his advocacy of non-violent protest and resistance is remembered and admired internationally.
However, many argue that Gandhi was guilty of racism and made some questionable – race-related – remarks.
Despite these arguments and public opinion, the mayoral committee of the City has considered the donation and has recommended that the City Council “consider accepting” the erecting of the statue.
“South Africa is home to a growing Indian population and has strong Indian links. They [the Indian government] saw it fit to approach the City and offer a donation,” said community liaison officer for the City of Cape Town, Neo Mkwane.
Mkwane explained that Cape Town has a global footprint, suggesting that erecting the statue would be the correct course of action.
“We’re still in the early stages, Council has the final say and in the next sitting this month it will decide whether to go ahead and accept the statue,” he said.
“As a City, we maintain strong relations with the Indian government – as we do with many others across the world. We’re a global city that’s open to do business and that markets itself as a premier tourist destination on the African continent…we can only do that by displaying our diversity and embracing the differences and roles played by our leaders along the years in the past.”
The “evolution” of Gandhi
While public objection to the statue seems to stem from the argument that Gandhi was racist and accordingly did not hold values in line with the anti-Apartheid struggle, political scientist Dr Lubna Nadvi offered an alternative perspective.
According to Nadvi, Gandhi evolved during the last period of his life as he learned more about what racism truly was. She explained that he came from a different context prior to arriving in South Africa and experiencing the conditions in the country firsthand. This initial lack of contextual understanding, according to Nadvi, could account for certain questionable statements being made by Gandhi.
“…he would have made certain statements that, of course, some people would consider to be questionable. I think that in terms of all the recorded documents and history that exists around his time in South Africa, there are those instances where he would have said certain things that may or not be in line with the struggle against Apartheid or colonialism that people were undertaking.”
“He was someone who considered himself a member of the British Empire and he felt he had a certain status in that context. As a British citizen, or member of the British community, that came to South Africa, he assumed he had certain rights and responsibilities. It was only after he was subjected to real discrimination in South Africa that he understood what real racism was about. He came from a point where he had certain assumptions about his own position within the broader context of coming from London as an educated lawyer with a certain status…”
She says that after Gandhi’s experience in South Africa he realised how necessary the fight against racism was and that his mindset had evolved.
Dr Nadvi indicated that Gandhi’s statements during the early periods of his life need to be contextualised and said that he cannot legitimately be called a racist.
“I think after those experiences he began to understand racism and had to fight it. The objections raised are probably in the context of his racial position or assumptions about where he stood in the bigger picture, but I think he eventually learned what racism really was about. In the last period of his life, particularly when he went to India to fight the British, he was someone who had evolved and could not really be called a racist at that point.”