Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Gandhi’s South African Experience

GS Paper 1

 Syllabus: India’s Struggle for Independence


Source: DTE

Context: The article discusses the historical significance of Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, where Mahatma Gandhi first experimented with ideas that later became central to his philosophy.


About Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm:

  • Foundation of Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi established Tolstoy Farm in 1910 while supervising the satyagraha by South African Indians. The farm aimed to be a self-supporting agricultural commune that provided for basic needs and emphasized personal growth and spiritual understanding through hard labour.
  • Tolstoy Farm as Gandhi’s Laboratory: Tolstoy Farm served as a laboratory for Gandhi to experiment with various principles and ideals, including diet, nature cure, harmonious living with nature, brahmacharya, and more.
    • This reflected a shared philosophy with Count Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau
  • Revival Efforts: Tolstoy Farm fell into disrepair during the Apartheid era. Post-1994, part of the farm has been developed into a ‘Peace Garden,’ and there are plans to involve the local community and teach Gandhian ideals.


Events that shaped Gandhi in South Africa:

Moderate Phase of StruggleGandhi relied on sending petitions and memorials to authorities in South Africa and Britain
Hoped that authorities would address Indian grievances as they were British subjects
Satyagraha against Registration CertificatesNew legislation required Indians to carry registration certificates with fingerprints. Gandhi formed the Passive Resistance Association to protest. Gandhi and others who refused registration were jailed.
Campaign against Restrictions on Indian MigrationThe protest expanded to include new laws restricting Indian migration. Indians defied the law by crossing provinces and refusing licenses. Many Indians were jailed.
Setting up of Tolstoy FarmGandhi established Tolstoy Farm to house Satyagrahis’ families and support their sustenance. Allowed him to focus on the struggle more effectively.
Campaign against Poll Tax and Invalidation of Indian MarriagesA three-pound poll tax was imposed on Ex-indentured Indians, burdening the poor. In 1913, Gandhi fought against the invalidation of non-Christian marriages.


Learning from South Africa:

Immense Capacity of MassesRealized that the masses could participate and sacrifice for a cause they believed in.
Utilized this capacity in major movements like Non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience in India
UnitySuccessfully united Indians from different religions, classes, and genders under his leadership.
Unpopular DecisionsRecognized that leaders sometimes need to make unpopular decisions, as seen in the Chaur-Chauri incident in 1922
Non-Violent MovementDeveloped his unique style of leadership and non-violent protest techniques, which he applied in India.
Distinctive Gandhian MethodsIntroduced Gandhian methods such as truth, non-violence, civil disobedience, and non-cooperation during his time in South Africa.
Participation of WomenAdvocated for the participation of women in the Indian National Movement, believing in their inner strength.



In South Africa, Gandhiji witnessed the ugly face of white racism and the humiliation and contempt to which Asians who had gone to South Africa as labourers were subjected. He decided to stay in South Africa to organise the Indian workers to enable them to fight for their rights. He stayed there till 1914 after which he returned to India.


Significance of October 2:

The United Nations declared October 2 as the ‘International Day of Non-Violence’ in honour of Gandhi’s principles. October 2 also marks the birth anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s former Prime Minister, who played a crucial role during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. He was born on October 2, 1904.


Insta Links:

Mahatma Gandhi, the peacemaker


Mains Links:

 The South African experience provided Gandhi with valuable lessons on mass leadership which were then applied in the Indian context. Discuss. (10M)