Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Football – Resistance vs Racism in South Africa

During his stint as a barrister in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi discovered the power of football in uniting the masses. He set up clubs in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg and helped bring people together in a country shrouded in deep racial oppression.
When you read of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, you read of train journeys and law firms and the fight against colonial oppression. There is a little known story of the Mahatma using football as a tool in his war against the people who invented the game. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)
When you read of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, you read of train journeys and law firms and the fight against colonial oppression. There is a little known story of the Mahatma using football as a tool in his war against the people who invented the game. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)

“If you try to cure evil with evil you will add more pain to your fate.”

This profound piece of wisdom comes from the ancient Greek philosopher and playwright Sophocles. And only few people over the course of history have epitomised this belief more than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi whose indomitable perseverance to free his country from its British masters played a critical role in India gaining a right to self governance.

Mahatma Gandhi’s stringent policy of non-violence inspired millions of people around the globe to choose passive resistance over assertive defiance in their fight against injustice.

But long before achieving his demigod status in world politics, Mahatma Gandhi spent many years in South Africa where he sowed the seeds of liberty and freedom which would later be championed by Nelson Mandela.

By the time he had completed his studies, the FA Cup final had been contested twenty times. The Football League had been established for three years. The Football Association had legalised the employment of footballers thus granting them a professional status. Football was now a legitimate sport that would soon eclipse cricket as the most watched activity in the country.

It was in South Africa where Gandhi had a tryst with the sport. This strange convergence managed to conduce a strange story.

Gandhi, aged just 23, arrived at Port Natal in Durban in the year 1893. The young barrister was in the then British colony to take up a case for a firm called Dada Abdulla & Company.

He was promised a first class return ticket to India and a fee of £105 upon the completion of the case. Not only was he eager to undertake the job he was also enraptured by the idea of making acquaintances in a foreign land. But the sight that greeted him at Port Natal upon his arrival, although did not dispirit his puerile exuberance it did provide him with a sense of foreboding that his life would be decidedly different than it was in India.

“As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect,” wrote Gandhi.

Segregation laws prohibited Indians, native Africans and other peoples of colour from exercising basic human rights that the colonial masters enjoyed. Perhaps it was this sight that stirred the deep rooted embers of justice, liberty and freedom in Mahatma Gandhi’s subconscious that would see him obligate 21 years of his life in South Africa.

The Satyagraha movement, the founding of the Natal Indian Congress, the formation of the Tolstoy Farm in Transvaal, Mahatma Gandhi’s life in the southernmost African country is well documented.

As students of history, we learned about his indefatigable devotion to pacifism and his critical role in India’s freedom struggle not his love for football or the fact that he was among a group of people who founded the Transvaal Indian Football Association in 1896. Peter Alegi, a professor of African History at Michigan State University, described it as the “first organized football group in Africa that was not run by whites.”

It is understood that Gandhi already had a rudimentary understanding of football from his time in England. He left his hometown of Porbandar for London to study law and jurisprudence at the age of 18. There, he enrolled at the Inner Circle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court in London with the aim of becoming a barrister.

Four years later, he was called to the bar and soon left for India to practice what he had learned.

Even if Mahatma Gandhi’s stay in the English capital did not involve him kicking and sliding in the mud, he was aware of the fact that the sport existed and with someone with such an acute sense of perception, it would be injudicious to suggest that Gandhi did not discern its ability to attract the masses.

He was a champion of the poor and a hero to the oppressed. His ideals coupled with his abstruse persona attracted the masses in the millions who were drawn to him in the same way a conscience-stricken sinner would to a wandering Messiah.

“Gandhi already knew football well from the time he spent in England completing his law studies,” said Bongani Sithole, an official guide at the Phoenix Settlement which was founded by Gandhi in the north-western edge of Durban.

“He was never a serious player himself, but seems to have taken the game to heart, above even his first loves of cricket and cycling – perhaps because at the time football was the favourite sport of the less-affluent classes. In South Africa, he must have quickly realised that the game’s popularity among the country’s disadvantaged communities made it a particularly effective means of reaching the people whose political sensibilities Gandhi most wanted to arouse.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s conscience reached out to the plight of the country’s disadvantaged communities from the moment he set foot on the land. His philosophy, although not dogmatic, did stand on the pillars of absolute truth and nonviolence. These two cardinal principles were the driving force behind his fight against injustice.

Once while travelling to Pretoria during his early days in Durban, Gandhi received a firsthand experience of racial segregation in colonial South Africa. The clock struck nine at the Maritzburg station and a railway worker came up to the young lawyer to check whether he needed beddings for the night. The railway employee was visibly disturbed by the fact that Gandhi was a “coloured” man. He left Gandhi and came back again a few minutes later with two officials.

“Come along, you must go to the van compartment,” said one of the officers. “But I have a first class ticket,” replied Gandhi.

“That doesn’t matter,” said the second officer offering his two cents on the issue. “I tell you, you must go the van compartment.”

In those days people of colour were not permitted to travel in first class. And if Durban was rife with racism, Pretoria, then the capital of the Transvaal Province, was understood to be worse.

“I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it,” argued Gandhi.

Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa.
Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa.

A police constable was called and Gandhi was dragged out of the compartment.

This incident played a critical role in Gandhi’s view of the world and his resolve to combat the grave injustices that was being done. Inspired by the works of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, with whom he would later share a wonderful correspondence, Gandhi began appealing to the large Indian mass of South Africa to organise campaigns against discriminatory laws.

His most celebrated philosophical movement of satyagraha, a form of resistance through nonviolent means, began to take shape and laid the foundations for organised struggle against the colonisers which would later be championed by Nelson Mandela.

In order to appeal to the less fortunate, Gandhi needed to acculturate to less fortunate surroundings. Football being the sport for the working-class appealed to the lower classes of the South African society.

Gandhi, already a fan of the sport, helped establish three clubs in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg, all of which were named the Passive Resisters Soccer Club. There is no evidence of Gandhi himself turning up for any of the aforementioned teams but there is conclusive proof of him being associated with the running of the clubs as several photographs show him posing alongside the players and delivering speeches on civil disobedience during matches.

“The Resisters were not integrated into any kind of league structure,” says Rebecca Naidoo, a great granddaughter of G.R.Naidoo, someone who offered invaluable information on Gandhi’s life in South Africa as a documentalist.

“Back then, football was still in its infancy of course and in many parts of the world, including South Africa, there was still no big interest in fixed leagues or competitions. Instead, they would just play friendly games in different fields. At first, Gandhi appears to have been simply seduced by the essence of the sport itself. It was only later that he realised that it could also be useful for his political ends.”

The football pitch set up by Gandhi and his colleagues can still be seen at the Phoenix Settlement which is now a heritage site.

The matches among the Passive Resisters helped fund the families of imprisoned social activists. On one occasion, about a hundred people were wrongfully jailed for campaigning against segregationist laws. The Passive Resisters organised local matches to protest against the unjust jailing of their fellow activists. There are records of such a match being played in Johannesburg in 1910.

Football has always offered a medium for establishing dialogue when society has been threatened by wanton insularity. And Gandhi might just be the earliest political figure to recognise that. Over the decades, the sport has played a pivotal role in the moral edification of the masses. Gandhi, by establishing the Passive Resisters football clubs, focused on promoting team spirit and fair play.

“What fascinated Gandhi in particular was the notion he had of football’s nobility,” said Poobalan Govindasamy, president of the South African Indoor Football Association.

“At that time, the idea of team play was much stronger than the idea of individual ‘star’ players, and this is something that greatly appealed to him. He believed the game had an enormous potential to promote teamwork. Certainly he appreciated the game’s usefulness in attracting large crowds, but it would be a mistake to think that football was only a communications platform for Gandhi. It was, I believe, much more. It was one of his great personal passions and one of the ways in which he was able to find spiritual peace.

“His organisational skills and drive helped to lay the foundations for the non-racial sporting structures of today’s South Africa,” added Govindasamy, “because it was Gandhi and his contemporaries who did more than anyone else at the time to involve non-whites, and particularly the country’s Indian population, in structured sporting activities.”

The “structured sporting activities” refers to the creation of provincial leagues and football federations. The Transvaal Indian Football Association and the Klip River District Indian Football Association were established thanks to Gandhi and his associates. In 1903, the South African Association of Hindu Football was founded. Gandhi’s social legacy in South Africa has always been on the forefront of his oeuvre but his sporting legacy should not be overlooked as it paved the way for racial segregation victims to enjoy sports the way their colonial masters did.

“This was all still a long way off from the unified country ideal of today’s Rainbow Nation of course,” admits Govindasamy, “but it at least paved the way for the later creation of a national federation and leagues in which games could be played regardless of the players’ skin colours.”

South Africa gained its independence from Britain in 1910. By this time, Gandhi’s reputation as an orator and freedom fighter had made him famous both in South Africa and in India. He returned to his home country in 1914 at the request of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a senior member of the Indian National Congress but the former barrister had already sowed the seeds of sporting change in the country, the benefits of which will soon be apparent.

Despite achieving the right to self rule, South Africa was still rife with segregation and apartheid laws. Gandhi’s fight against this draconian system was taken up by others. Although the Passive Resisters were forced to disband, other football clubs emerged from fledgling Indian football communities that followed on the path set by Gandhi.

For example, the now defunct Moonlighters Football Club was established in Johannesburg by indentured Indian labourers who were nurtured by Gandhi. Although most of the history of these clubs has not been written down but rather passed down orally through generations, legend has it that on one clear summer’s night, three Indian waiters employed by the Moon Hotel were having dinner in the courtyard and discussing sports. The conversation soon turned to football and it was decided there and then that the football enthusiasts in the Indian community in Johannesburg should have its own club.

When the group raked its brain for a name, one of the waiters looked up to the sky and saw the moon shining bright and bathing the courtyard with its clear white light. And thus the Moonlighters FC was established.

The Manning Rangers FC was founded by G.R. Naidoo in 1928. The club turned professional in 1960s but is perhaps best known for winning the inaugural season of the Premier Soccer League in 1997 finishing ahead of heavyweights like Orlando Pirates and Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.

Gandhi’s view towards sports in general changed drastically as India’s struggle for freedom continued.

“To me,” remarked Gandhi, “a sound body means one which bends itself to the spirit and is always a ready instrument in its service. Such bodies are not made, in my opinion, on the football field. They are made on cornfields and farms.”

Regardless of this change, Gandhi’s legacy in South African football during colonial times should not be overlooked. This brief tryst with the sport we love just further accentuates football’s role in the political affairs of the world.

Gandhi, in many ways, was part of a select group of people who laid the groundwork for a structured footballing institution in South Africa that would engender pioneers of modern football in the country.

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Samiran Mishra

Writer, blogger, procrastinator. Fan of football, history and art. Spends most of his time buried inside a book or listening to music.