The march that made Gandhi the Mahatma

One hundred years ago, Gandhi launched the decisive 1913 campaign that was to transform him into a figure of international stature. Later this year, we commemorate it.

One hundred years ago, Gandhi launched the campaign that was to transform him into a figure of international stature. By 1913 he had spent the previous twenty years in South Africa – first as a lawyer, then as a community leader. But years of protest against racist laws had exhausted his support among the country’s 150,000 strong Indian community. Most had been brought from India as indentured labourers, but as the years went by, many had prospered. The tradesmen and shop-keepers had been the bedrock of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns, but they had finally run out of patience with him.

Gandhi had used every tactic he could think of, but support had ebbed away. Yet the need for reform was more urgent than ever. A court ruling had effectively removed state recognition of polygamous marriage, while the government refused to lift a crippling tax. As the historian, Maureen Swann observed, victory against the South African government was more important than ever for Gandhi for personal as well as political reasons: “The movement in the Transvaal was in a state of collapse, the deputation to London a failure…He wanted a successful end to satyagraha (passive resistance) in the Transvaal not only for its own sake, but also as the necessary prerequisite for returning to India, taking satyagraha with him, making it the basis for Indian nationalist politics.”

On 13 September 1913, despite waning support, Gandhi called on the community to rise to the challenge: “The fight this time must be for altering the spirit of the Government and of the European population of South Africa. And the result can only be obtained by prolonged and bitter suffering that must melt the heart of the Government and of the predominant partner. May the community have the strength and the faith to go through the fire!”

On 15 October 1913 Gandhi gathered his supporters at Phoenix, his farm near the port city of Durban, to begin the long march to the Natal border with the Transvaal. When they got there they would cross without permission – knowing that this was illegal.  Just 16 protesters, including his long-suffering wife, Kasturba, answered his call.

For a moment it appeared that Gandhi’s entire South African mission would end in failure; that he would have to leave for India with little to show for years of resistance. Staring defeat in the face, Gandhi reversed a long-held position and turned at last to the one group he had previously ignored: the poorest of the poor. He called on the indentured labourers on the sugar plantations and coal mines to support his cause.  

The result was extraordinary. Thousands downed tools and joined the protest. By 6 November the march had reached Volksrust, on the border with the Transvaal. Whites in the town threatened to ‘shoot the Indians like rabbits.’ Still they pressed on and the border was crossed without violence.

By the end of November the towns in Natal were at a standstill, troops had been rushed from the Eastern Cape and Pretoria and the mines had been turned into temporary prisons.  Strikers were bludgeoned, beaten and intimidated; some died. Gandhi and his closest supporters – including several whites – were imprisoned. Yet still the protests continued.

News of the action reached India via the Reuters newsagency, and carried in every newspaper. There were angry meetings across the sub-continent. Fearing that the situation might spiral out of control, the Viceroy came out in support of the protest. Speaking in Madra, Lord Hardinge said that the South African Indian community had violated the law “with full knowledge of the penalties involved, and ready with all courage and patience to endure those penalties.” But, he went on: “In all this they have the sympathy of India – deep and burning – and not only of India, but of all those who like myself, without being Indians themselves, have feelings of sympathy for the people of this country.”

For an Imperial ruler, like Lord Hardinge, to openly attack another government within the Empire was almost unprecedented. He came close to losing his job, receiving strong letters from the Colonial Secretary and the King. But so positive was the response in India itself that London backed down and he remained in post.

On 11 December, under acute pressure from both home and abroad, South Africa’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Smuts, finally took the step that broke the impasse. He announced a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the strike. Gandhi was freed from jail. On 16 January 1914 Gandhi and Smuts met and negotiated a deal, ending the tax and allowing polygamous marriages. By July Gandhi had left South Africa, in triumph. Little wonder that when he finally learned that Gandhi had left South Africa nearly 100 years ago, Smuts declared: “The saint has left our shore. I sincerely hope forever."

He travelled to England and then on to India, where he was greeted, for the first time, as Mahatma, or ‘great soul’; the title by which he was to be known for the rest of his life. Gandhi took with him the strategy of non-violent resistance he had perfected in South Africa. He was to use it with extraordinary effect against the British, until in 1947 London finally conceded defeat granted Indian independence.

Gandhi is still venerated in South Africa. His final, decisive 1913 campaign is due to be commemorated later this year. Events are being planned by his a group working with the Mahatma’s grand-daughter, Ela Gandhi, a peace activist and former Member of the South African Parliament.

Gandhi leading the Salt March in protest against the government monopoly on salt production. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation