By: Mick Yates

A list of references are included in the Links and Book Lists, but I especially want to recognize Ved  Mehta's book "Mahatma Gandhi & His Disciples", and Dennis Dalton's "Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action". Gandhi's own "Hind Swaraj" is also essential reading.

The Leadership analysis and commentary is my own, faults and all.

One of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, and perhaps of the millennium, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Gujarat on October 2nd, 1869, and was assassinated January 30th, 1948.

Gandhi sketchHe was both one of the most successful Leaders of the century, and, by his own standards, one of the least successful. He was charismatic, but he was also deliberate and analytical. Gandhi was very much a product of his times, yet one of his greatest sources of inspiration was the Bhagavad-Gita, written thousands of years ago. He was a politician, a writer, an intellectual and an orator. Without doubt he was a very complex man, but a man who believed in simple things.
So where do we start with an analysis of his Leadership style, ability and results?

Gandhi declared that "Action is my domain", so it is necessary to study the details of his life to begin to form a clear picture of his Leadership. The start point is also the end – he was called both "Mahatma", meaning great soul, and "Bapu", meaning Father. He was both of those things, not only to his native India, but also to millions of people around the world.

Family history

Gandhi was born into a minor Hindu political family, whose beliefs were influenced by Jainism (a non-violent religious group), and who were vegetarian. Both his father and grandfather were at one time Prime Minister of nearby, small princely States. Of note, "Gandhi" means "grocer" in Gujarati.

Married at 13, his father died when he was 16. This greatly hurt him, not least as he was with his wife at the time rather than at his father’s side when he died. Some commentators argue that this event was a root cause of Gandhi’s later celibacy vows. I find this difficult to accept, as those vows were only made 16 years later, as part of a broader determination to focus his values. In fact, Gandhi had four sons.

Gandhi was a lack-lustre scholar, later deciding to be trained as a lawyer in London, where he resided from 1888 to 1891. In so doing, he both broke convention and left behind his young, illiterate wife, Kasturbai. His London period was one of "avoiding temptation", and of learning new ideas. For example, he apparently liked the New Testament, but disliked the Old.

After a brief stint unsuccessfully in an Indian law practice back home, he moved to South Africa in 1893, working as advisor to a well-to-do member of the Muslim Indian community. He went back to India to be with his wife in 1901, but returned in 1902 at the request of the South African Indian community.


Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa. A critical event in his life was one week into his stay there, where he was asked to leave the First Class compartment of a train by a European. Despite having the right ticket, he was forcibly removed from the train. He suffered other racial indignities in those early months.

His two central ideas were born in South Africa. These were

  • "Swaraj" (Independence for India, and personal spiritual renewal of all Indians),

  • "Satyagraha" (truth, love and non-violence). Importantly, "Satyagraha" is more than just civil disobedience, as in Gandhi’s view passive resistance could easily change into active resistance, and thus violence. Rather, in his conceptualization, respect for the other party was central, and all kinds of violence were forbidden absolutely.

Related to these two ideas was the "Constructive Programme" - Gandhi’s Social Reform platform, consisting of three points:

  1. Hindu/Muslim unity,

  2. The abolition of Untouchability

  3. "Swadeshi", the manufacture and use of indigenous products.

Gandhi’s goal was none other than the complete transformation of India and its people. Whilst many of his later political colleagues shared some of these ideals, few shared all. We will return to these thoughts as we analyze Gandhi’s Leadership.

Whilst in South Africa he learnt from Jewish and Christian friends, and developed respect for the ideas of Leo Tolstoy amongst others. Tolstoy’s work "The Kingdom of God is within You" stated that all Government is based on war, and that one can only counter these evils through passive resistance. Gandhi also got involved in humanitarian activities. For example, he led a Red Cross unit in the Boer War, in 1899, and was decorated by the British authorities as a result.

When he was about to leave Durban in 1894 to return home to India, he was galvanized by newly written comments in the papers about the proposed Natal Franchise Amendment Bill. His friends and business acquaintances, hearing what he had to say about this, and how he said it, urged him to stay.

Thus, he drafted the first Indian Petition to the Government in 1894, against the Bill, which took away voting rights from Indians. In 1894 he also founded the Natal Indian Congress to build support for the Indian cause. He actually succeeded in reducing some of the harshness of the bill. However, his other campaigns against unjust laws and discrimination were not successful. Of note, British law overrode Natal law, and prohibited racial discrimination. But Natal had freedom on administrative matters, and loosely worded laws allowed much abuse. His activities and his support for the causes of the poor were rapidly building his reputation, in South Africa and in England.

South Africa

Another critical event was in 1906, when Gandhi organized an ambulance corps to go to Zululand. The Natal Government mounted a campaign to suppress the Zulu Rebellion, started when a chief killed a tax collector. The intense suffering of the Zulu’s, and the lack of caring exhibited by the authorities for the wounded left him deeply moved. In his Autobiography, Gandhi had noted that nursing was one of his principal joys. In any event, in Zululand Gandhi made his famous vows:

  • "Brahmacharya" - celibacy, an ancient Hindu vow

  • "Satyagraha" - truth, love and non violence, Gandhi’s own invention

  • "Ahisma" - non violence to all creatures, and vegetarianism, a Jain vow

Gandhi later in his life slept naked with some of his women associates. These experiments in sexual self-control were often seen as controversial, but Gandhi’s intent was to probe the limits of sexuality, and to show that it was possible to attain "absolute" and child-like innocence.

It was in 1904 that he first started a weekly journal (the "Indian Opinion") and began living in communes, on the "Phoenix" Farm in Natal. In 1910 he started the Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg. This later was an 1,100 acre farm given to him by a close Jewish friend, saying a great deal about Gandhi’s uncommonly wide and somewhat eclectic following, even in those early years.


In 1906 in the Transvaal, the Government wanted Indians to register and be fingerprinted "like criminals". The law also meant that only existing Indian residents could be registered, Indians could not freely travel between Provinces, and future immigration was to be controlled. At that time there were about 13,000 Indians in Transvaal, and about 100,000 in all of South Africa, so it was a large group affected. Gandhi even went to England to gain support for his view. But, despite reassurances he won there, and some concessions he received from the Transvaal Government, the law was passed in 1907 as the "Asiatic Registration Bill". Gandhi and his followers called it "The Black Act".

Gandhi at that moment galvanized his ideas into "Satyagraha", and founded the Passive Resistance Association. Importantly, "Satyagraha" combined both Political and religious goals in Gandhi’s mind, for the first time, with a very clear focus an action.

Gandhi and others refused to register.  He was involved in a mass burning of registration documents, he was tried and he went to jail. This was in Pretoria, in 1908, and it was his first time in jail. He served two weeks of his sentence.

After many Indians were jailed, Gandhi reached a compromise with General Jan Christian Smuts, the South African Leader. If Indians voluntarily registered, all Indian protesters in jail would be released. Gandhi agreed, although it led to his being attacked by extremist Indians and rescued by a white police officer. Smuts later reneged on the deal. Nevertheless, this left Gandhi relatively undeterred, and he believed totally in his non-violent approach.

His second imprisonment was also in 1909 (his third was in 1910). On his way back from England later in 1909, where he was again soliciting support for the Indian cause, he wrote "Hind Swaraj", his seminal work which set out his philosophy and action plan. It was published in December 1909, in Gujarati.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created from the provinces, giving yet more legal autonomy to the Government.

In 1913, Judge Searle ruled that only marriages performed under Christian Rites were legal, instantly making Indian, Muslim and other marriages "irrelevant". Gandhi wanted to fill the jails with Indians. October of that year he led a march supporting mineworkers across the Transvaal border, and was arrested several times, including twice in one day. Pressure was mounting on the Government to open an independent inquiry. However, at that time European railway workers went on strike, and the Government was in real jeopardy. So Gandhi called off the Indian actions, as he did not want to take advantage of his Government opponents weaknesses.

In any event, in this case Gandhi won. He reached agreement with Smuts in 1914, and the introduction of the Indian Relief Act of 1914 made Indian and other marriages fully legal.  The head ("poll") tax was also abolished, which had been a long-standing source of discontent. He did not, however, succeed in reversing the Immigration restrictions.


It was in South Africa that Gandhi first used fasting as a tool in "Satyagraha".  Gandhi recognized that fasting could be misconstrued by others (he was, for example, accused of selfish egoism exhibited in his fasts!), so he developed very clear rules. In essence, fasts were an expression of "suffering love", in a deeply Christian sense.

According to Bhikhu Parekh, in his book in the Past Masters series, Gandhi’s reasons for fasting were essentially fourfold:

  • it was his way of expressing his own deep sense of sorrow at the way those he loved had disappointed him

  • it was his way, as their Leader, for atoning for their misdeeds

  • it was his last attempt to stir deep spiritual feelings in others and to appeal to their moral sense

  • it was his way of bringing the quarreling parties together.

Gandhi also placed limits on when fasting was appropriate;

  • Fasts could only be undertaken against those people he loved

  • Fasts must have a concrete and specific goal, not abstract aims

  • The fast must be morally defensible in the eyes of the target

  • The fast must in no way serve his own interests

  • The fast must not ask people to do something they were incapable of, or to cause great hardship.

Gandhi followed these principles on every fast. During his lifetime, he fasted 17 times.

To India

As a result of his activities, Gandhi became quite well known in India, and this gave a virtually instant platform for his activities when he returned.

Throughout the South African period he was never "anti-British", and was quite civil even towards General Smuts. He believed in his duties to the Empire, especially in time of war, as demonstrated by his organizing another (perhaps less successful) ambulance group for the British in World War 1, and recruiting troops for the British Army when back in India in 1918.

Rather, Gandhi was pro- Indian, pro- truth and pro- non-violence. In essence, he was pro- human rights (to steal a phrase he never actually used in its current Western meaning), but with a profound personal intensity and commitment.  He carried this attitude with him as he returned to India.

He thus left South Africa with the basis of his life philosophy, a proven method of organizing people to get political results, a growing reputation, and massive personal self-confidence.

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