Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The ghost of Mahatma Ghandi haunts Francistown

A street in Francistown has been named after a man who said the following of Africans: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilisedÔÇöthe convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.” He made the statement after sharing a cell with black South African prisoners. A variation of the last part of that slur is that blacks are “only one degree removed from the animal.”

At a meeting in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in 1896, this man complained that Europeans sought to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

Some 108 years after that statement was made, a black man, former president Sir Ketumile Masire, received an award in honour of the same person who expressed those remarks about black people.

Exactly how long that street in Gerald Estate will retain that name is unclear but the mayor, Shadrack Nyeku, says that there may be need to look into the matter. If the evidence is compelling, the council may consider renaming the street. Nyeku adds that in the future it may also be necessary to run a thorough background check on people whose names are adopted for naming streets.

The process of naming streets begins at the kgotla where members of the communities are asked to suggest names.

“People suggest names of famous people and if the meeting agrees, then the name is adopted,” Nyeku says.

At one such meeting, someone suggested the name of Mahatma Gandhi, founder of India, and received support of those at the meeting. The result was that a Gerald Estate street currently bears his name. However, there is a problem with that name because its owner espoused the crudest type of anti-black racism that revealed itself when he lived in South Africa. Arriving in Johannesburg, Gandhi started a newspaper called Indian Opinion that he used to advocate for the rights of indentured Indian servants as well as to publish some of the most virulently anti-black sentiments.

Now widely regarded as a proponent of non-violent protest (Masire received the Mahatma Gandhi International Peace Award), there is ample evidence that shows that Gandhi embraced violence. He supported the British in their war against the Zulu and urged other Indians to follow suit. Upon joining the war effort, Gandhi was made Sergeant-Major and later won a medal for his war duties.

Lately, revisionists have begun to poke holes in Gandhi’s legacy. As late as 2005, a member of the United States Congress called Edolphus Towns condemned Gandhi for his views on black people during a congressional debate. Towns quoted extensively from a Gandhi biography published by Colonel G. B. Singh, a United States army colonel. The book is called ‘Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity.’ At the unveiling of Gandhi’s statue in central Johannesburg in October 2003, some black South Africans protested the honouring of a man who never hid his contempt for black people.


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