Mohandas K. Gandhi in South Africa

FEAR is pervasive in South Africa,'' I read in a recent eyewitness account in The New Yorker. ``Signs of anxiety, helplessness, vulnerability, and rage were never very far from the surface.'' The image of this combustible country, taut with fear, made me remember the imperial India I grew up in -- and Mohandas Gandhi. What could Gandhi do, I wondered, if he were in South Africa today?

The question is not academic. Gandhi lived in South Africa for 20 years at the turn of the century. It was there, not India, that he developed Satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, during an eight-year struggle to win political rights for 100,000 indentured Indian laborers.

Fear, Gandhi believed, is the salient feature of imperialism. The exploited fear intimidation; the exploiters fear being engulfed by the native peoples they dominate. South Africa's black ``homelands'' and ``townships'' today are little more than internal colonies. Its white population of 5 million presses down upon the 23 million blacks with a grip that, as it tightens, reveals a deepening desperation. The cycle of fear distorts perceptions, provokes suspicion and mistrust, and generally makes a peaceful settlement impossible.

Gandhi began by giving Indians a motto, ``Be not afraid'' -- not of intimidation, not of jail, not of death. Lest anyone miss his point, he built his Satyagraha community on a site midway between a prison and a cremation ground.

And he taught self-reliance, the primary antidote to fear. In India, for example, exploitation could not exist without the support of subject Indians, who snapped up British goods and jockeyed for British favor. Gandhi called for total noncooperation, even at great cost to Indians themselves. Lawyers boycotted British courts; students left British-run schools. British cloth, a staple of the colonial economy, was boycotted or burned.

But Gandhi sought to discharge the fears of the ruling class as well. While prodding Indians toward fearlessness and self-reliance, he insisted on courtesy, even sympathy, toward their oppressors. Gandhian resistance was always a high-wire act that coupled the will not to fear the oppressor with the courage and open-heartedness not to hate him -- more, to seek common ground with him. It was a difficult, excruciating method. But it worked. It freed India without a bloodletting, and sparked the only revolution of this century that has given birth to a free, multiparty democracy.

There is no reason to believe that Gandhi would approach the South Africa of today differently. Fear remains a constant, and suffering, undertaken without anger in a righteous cause, still moves the heart.

Gandhi would try to change perceptions: whites' perceptions of blacks, blacks' perceptions of themselves. Through determined nonviolent resistance, he would demonstrate not only an unmistakable will to fight to the death, but also a genuine sympathy for the white population that stands to lose the most in a political settlement.

Such seminal moments occurred repeatedly in Gandhi's South Africa campaign. In Natal, he asked Indian farm laborers not to strike until harvests were in; the strikers then made their power felt without destroying the planters' livelihood. He postponed a protest march until white railway workers had concluded their own strike against the government. When whites beat him up and almost lynched him, he refused to prosecute, although the white government itself was eager to press charges.

No single action was decisive. But the unexpected magnanimity, matched with the resolve to fight and endure, did far more than apply pressure for reforms. It discharged suspicion, encouraged liberal support, bolstered Indians' self-respect, and turned the conflict upside down.

Attitudes as well as laws must change in South Africa if a permanent political solution is to be reached. Gandhi aimed at changing the way men and women think and feel -- and thus act and vote. His Satyagraha is based on the faith that the adversary is not a monster but a human being, looking for an acceptable solution to an intolerable situation.

Many South African whites would welcome a way out of the current impasse if they could retain their security and self-respect. Gandhi would seize these openings and ferret out new ones.

Only a solution that addresses the needs and insecurities of both sides, he would argue, has any chance of working.

He would not pretend that suffering will be avoided.

But Gandhi would maintain that if undertaken consciously, without anger, the suffering that will come can open rather than close the hearts and minds of South Africa's ruling class. The alternative is a blood bath that will leave its legacy for generations.

Eknath Easwaran is the author of ``Gandhi the Man'' and ``A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.''

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