Gandhi's relationship with Jan Smuts and the story of the sandals

Gandhi's relationship with Jan Smuts was a fraught one, but both men maintained a degree of respect for each other.

During the negotiations around the Asiatic Registration Act of 1908, he felt double-crossed and betrayed by Smuts' decision to forego the compromise they had reached while Gandhi was in prison. And, indeed, for much of the rest of the time Gandhi spent in South Africa, Smuts tended to prevaricate on the "Indian Question", continually disappointing Gandhi. It was only in 1914 that Gandhi was able to negotiate a lasting compromise, the Smuts-Gandhi agreement. While not resolving all the issues plaguing South African Indians, it lead to an amelioration of previous laws, passed under the name of The Indian Relief Bill of 1914.

Nevertheless, they never lost respect for one another. As can be seen in the passage below, Gandhi tried, at all times, to look for the positive in Smuts, even according him a "high place among the politicians of British Empire and even of the world". At other times, however, Gandhi could not shake his concerns about Smuts's duplicity.

By 1914, however, the relationship between Smuts and Gandhi came to something of an end. In an act of supreme generosity, Gandhi presented Smuts with a pair of sandals (which he had learnt to make at Tolstoy Farm), which Smuts was to use late into his life.


Mixed feelings

IN this remarkable, yet somewhat contradictory, extract from his book, Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi outlines how he had to deal with Jan Smuts in the first years of the struggle. It begins with a celebratory introduction in which Smuts is praised as taking "a high place among the politicians of the British Empire and even of the world". By the end, however, he is claiming that Smuts is not beyond cunning political action and immoral political views.

"The reader has seen something of the internal difficulties, in describing which I had to draw largely upon my own life story, but that could not be avoided, as my own difficulties regarding Satyagraha became equally the difficulties of the Satyagrahis.

We now return to the external situation.

"I am ashamed of writing the caption of this chapter as well as the chapter itself, for it deals with the obliquity of human nature. Already in 1908 General Smuts ranked as the ablest leader in South Africa, and today he takes a high place among the politicians of the British Empire, and even of the world. I have no doubt about his great abilities.

"General Smuts is as able a general and administrator as he is a lawyer. Many other politicians have come and gone in South Africa, but from 1907 up to date the reins of Government have practically been held throughout by this gentleman, and even today he holds a unique position in the country.

"It is now nine years since I South Africa. I do not know what epithet the people South Africa now bestow upon General Smuts. His Christian name is Jan, and South Africa used to call 'slim Jannie'.

Many English friends had asked me to beware of General Smuts, as he was a very clever man and a trimmer, whose words were intelligible only to self

"Many English friends had asked me to beware of General Smuts, as he was a very clever man and a trimmer, whose words were intelligible only to self and often of a kind that either party could interpret them in a sense favourable to himself. Indeed on a suitable occasion he would lay aside the interpretations of both the parties, put a fresh interpretation upon them, carry it out and support it by such clever arguments that parties for the time would be led to imagine that were wrong themselves and General Smuts was right in construing the words as he did.

"From our subsequent talks I often felt that the general belief in South Africa about General Smuts' cunning did him perhaps less than justice. I am however sure of two things. First, he has some principles in politic, which are not quite immoral. Secondly, there is room in his politics for cunning and on occasions for perversion of truth."

- Gandhi, M. Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedebad. Translated from the original Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai. pp119-123


Settling the matter

In this extract from his book, Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi explains how the "Indian Question" was finally resolved between him and Smuts in 1914.

"The atmosphere was thus becoming favourable for a settlement. Sir Benjamin Robertson, who had been sent by Lord Hardinge in a special steamer, was to arrive about the same time that Mr Andrews and I went to Pretoria. But we did not wait for him and set out as we had to reach Pretoria on the day fixed by General Smuts. There was no reason indeed to await his arrival, as the final result could only be commensurate with our strength.

"Mr Andrews and I reached Pretoria. But I alone was to interview General Smuts. The General was preoccupied with the railway strike, which was so serious in nature, that the Union Government had declared martial law.

"The European workmen not only demanded higher wages, but aimed at taking the reins of government into their hands. My first interview with the General was very short, but I saw that he today did not ride the same high horse as he did before, when the Great March began. At that time the General would not so much as talk with me. The threat of Satyagraha was the same then as it was now. Yet he had declined to enter into negotiations. But now he was ready to confer with me.

"The Indians had demanded that a member should be co-opted to the commission to represent Indian interests. But on this point General Smuts would not give in. 'That cannot be done,' said he, 'as it would be derogatory to the Government's prestige, and I would be unable to carry out the desired reforms. You must understand that Mr Esselen is our man, and would fall in with, not oppose, the Government's wishes as regards reform. Colonel Wylie is a man of position in Natal and might even be considered anti-Indian. If therefore even he agrees to a repeal of the c3 tax, the Government will have an easy task before them.

Our troubles are manyfold; we have not a moment to spare and therefore wish to set the Indian question at rest. We have decided to grant your demands, but for this we must have a recommendation from the commission. I understand your position too. You have solemnly declared that you will not lead evidence before it so long as there is no representative of the Indians sitting on the commission. I do not mind if you do not tender evidence, but you should not organize any active propaganda to prevent any one who wishes to give evidence from doing so, and should suspend Satyagraha in the interval. I believe that by so doing you will be serving your own interests as well as giving me a respite. As you will not tender evidence, you will not-be able to prove your allegations as regards ill-treatment accorded to the Indian strikers. But that is for you to think over.'

"Such were the suggestions of General Smuts, which on the whole I was inclined to receive favourably. We had made many complaints about ill-treatment of strikers by soldiers and warders, but the difficulty was that we were precluded by a boycott of the commission from proving our allegations.

"There was a difference of opinion among the Indians on this point. Some held that the charges levelled by the Indians against the soldiers must be proved, and therefore suggested that if the evidence could not be placed before the commission, we must challenge libel proceedings by publishing the authentic evidence in our possession. I disagreed with these friends.

"There was little likelihood of the commission giving a decision unfavourable to the Government. Challenging libel proceedings would land the community in endless trouble, and the net result would be the barren satisfaction of having proved the charges of ill-treatment. As a barrister, I was well aware of the difficulties of proving the truth of statements giving rise to libel proceedings.

"But my weightiest argument was that the Satyagrahi is out to suffer. Even before Satyagraha was started, the Satyagrahis knew that they would have to suffer even unto death, and they were ready to undergo such suffering. Such being the case, there was no sense in proving now that they did suffer. A spirit of revenge being alien to Satyagraha, it was best for a Satyagrahi to hold his peace when he encountered extraordinary difficulties in proving the fact of his suffering. A Satyagrahi fights only for essentials.

"The essential thing was that the obnoxious laws should be repealed or suitably amended, and when this was fairly within his grasp, he need not bother himself with other things. Again a Satyagrahi's silence would at the time of settlement stand him in good stead in his resistance to unjust laws. With such arguments I was able to win over most of these friends who differed from me, and we decided to drop the idea of proving our allegations of ill-treatment."

Letters exchanged

"Correspondence passed between General Smuts and myself, placing on record the agreement arrived at as the result of a number of interviews. My letter dated January 21, 1914 may be thus summarized:

"'We have conscientious scruples with regard to leading evidence before the commission as constituted at present. You appreciate these scruples and regard them as honourable, but are unable to alter your decision. As, however, you have accepted the principle of consultation with the Indians, I will advise my countrymen not to hamper the labours of the commission by any active propaganda, and not to render the position of the Government difficult by reviving passive resistance, pending the result of the commission and the introduction of legislation during the forthcoming session. It will further be possible for us to assist Sir Benjamin Robertson who has been deputed by the Viceroy.

"'As to our allegations of ill-treatment during the progress of the Indian strike in Natal, the avenue of proving them through the commission is closed to us by our solemn declaration to have nothing to do with it. As Satyagrahis we endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, any resentment of personal wrongs. But in order that our silence may not be mistaken, may I ask you to recognize our motive and reciprocate by not leading evidence of a negative character before the commission on the allegations in question?

"'Suspension of Satyagraha, moreover, carries with it a prayer for the release of Satyagrahi prisoners.

"'It might not be out of place here to recapitulate the points on which relief has been sought:

1. Repeal of the c3 tax;

2. Legalization of the marriages celebrated according to the rite of Hinduism, Islam, etc.;

3. The entry of educated Indians;

4. Alteration in the assurance as regards the Orange Free State;

5. An assurance that the existing laws especially affecting Indians will be administered justly, with due regard to vested rights.

"'If you view my submission with favour, I shall be prepared to advise my countrymen in accordance with the tenor of this letter.'

"'General Smuts' reply of the same date was to this effect: 'I regret but understand your inability to appear before the commission. I also recognize the motive, which makes you unwilling to revive old sores by courting libel proceedings before another tribunal. The Government repudiates the charges of harsh action against the Indian strikers. But as you will not lead evidence in support of those allegations, it would be futile for the Government to lead rebutting evidence in vindication of the conduct of its officers. As regards the release of Satyagrahi prisoners, the Government had already issued the necessary orders before your letter arrived. In regard to the grievances summarized at the end of your letter, the Government will await the recommendations of the commission before any action is taken.'

"Mr Andrews and I had had frequent interviews with General Smuts before these letters were exchanged. But meanwhile Sir Benjamin Robertson too arrived at Pretoria. Sir Benjamin was looked upon as a popular official, and he brought a letter of recommendation from Gokhale, but I observed that he was not entirely free from the usual weakness of the English official. He had no sooner come than he began to create factions among the Indians and to bully the Satyagrahis. My first meeting with him in Pretoria did not prepossess me in his favour. I told him about the telegrams I had received informing me of his bullying procedure. I dealt with him, as indeed with every one else, in a frank and straightforward manner, and we therefore became friends. But I have often seen that officials are apt to bully those who will tamely submit to them, and will be correct with those who are correct themselves and will not be cowed down. We thus reached a provisional agreement, and Satyagraha was suspended for the last time.

General Smuts once played us false, often charged you with forcing fresh issues, and subjected the community to endless suffering. And yet what a pity that you have not learnt the necessary lesson of declining to trust him!

"Many English friends were glad of this, and promised their assistance in the final settlement. It was rather difficult to get the Indians to endorse this agreement. No one would wish that enthusiasm, which had arisen should be allowed to subside. Again whoever would trust General Smuts? Some reminded me of the fiasco in 1908, and said, 'General Smuts once played us false, often charged you with forcing fresh issues, and subjected the community to endless suffering. And yet what a pity that you have not learnt the necessary lesson of declining to trust him! This man will betray you once again, and you will again propose to revive Satyagraha. But who will then listen to you? Is it possible that men should every now and then go to jail, and be ready to be faced with failure each time? With a man like General Smuts settlement is possible only if he actually delivers the goods. It is no use having his assurances. How can we any further trust a man who pledges his word and then breaks it?'

"I knew that such arguments would be brought forward, and was not therefore surprised when they were. No matter how often a Satyagrahi is betrayed, he will repose his trust in the adversary so long as there are not cogent grounds for distrust. Pain to a Satyagrahi is the same as pleasure. He will not therefore be misled by the mere fear of suffering into groundless distrust. On the other hand, relying as he does upon his own strength, he will not mind being betrayed by the adversary, will continue to trust in spite of frequent betrayals, and will believe that he thereby strengthens the forces of truth and brings victory nearer. Meetings were therefore held in various places, and I was able at last to persuade the Indians to approve of the terms of the agreement. The Indians now came to a better understanding of the spirit of Satyagraha.

"Mr Andrews was the mediator and the witness in the present agreement, and then there was Sir Benjamin Robertson as representing the Government of India. There was therefore the least possible likelihood of the agreement being subsequently repudiated. If I had obstinately refused to accept the agreement, it would have become a count of indictment against the Indians, and the victory which was achieved in the next six months would have been beset with various obstacles. The author of the Sanskrit saying, 'Forgiveness is an ornament to the brave', drew upon his rich experience of Satyagrahis never giving any one the least opportunity of finding fault with them. Distrust is a sign of weakness and Satyagraha implies the banishment of all weakness and therefore of distrust, which is clearly out of place when the adversary is not to be destroyed but to be won over.

"When the agreement was thus endorsed by the Indians, we had only to wait for the next session of the Union Parliament. Meanwhile the commission set to work. Only a very few witnesses appeared before it on behalf of the Indians, furnishing striking evidence of the great hold which the Satyagrahis had acquired over the community. Sir Benjamin Robertson tried to induce many to tender evidence but failed except in the case of a few who were strongly opposed to Satyagraha.

"The boycott of the commission did not produce any bad effect. Its work was shortened and its report was published at once. The commission strongly criticized the Indians for withholding their assistance and dismissed the charges of misbehaviour against the soldiers, but recommended compliance without delay with all the demands of the Indian community, such as for instance the repeal of the c3 tax and the validation of Indian marriages, and the grant of some trifling concessions in addition.

"Thus the report of the commission was favourable to the Indians as predicted by General Smuts. Mr Andrews left for England and Sir Benjamin Robertson for India. We had received an assurance that the requisite legislation would be undertaken with a view to implement the recommendations of the commission. What this legislation was and how it was brought forward will be considered in the next chapter.

"Within a short time of the issue of the report, the Government published in the official Gazette of the Union the Indians Relief Bill which was to effect a settlement of their longstanding dispute with the Indians; and I went at once to Cape Town where the Union Parliament sits. The Bill contained 9 sections and would take up only two columns of a paper like Young India. One part of it dealt with the question of Indian marriages and validated in South Africa the marriages, which were held legal in India, except that if a man had more wives than one, only one of them would at any time be recognized as his legal wife in South Africa.

"The second part abolished the annual licence of c3 to be taken out by every indentured Indian labourer who failed to return to India and settled in the country as a free man on the completion of his indenture. The third part provided that the domicile certificates issued by the government to Indians in Natal and bearing the thumb-impression of the holder of the permit should be recognized as conclusive evidence of the right of the holder to enter the Union as soon as his identity was established.

"There was a long and pleasant debate over the bill in the Union Parliament. Administrative matters which did not come under the Indians Relief Bill were settled by correspondence between General Smuts and me, as for example, safeguarding the educated Indians' right of entry into the Cape Colony, allowing "specially exempted" educated Indians to enter South Africa, the status of educated Indians who had entered South Africa within the last three years, and permitting existing plural wives to join their husbands in South Africa.

"After dealing with all these points, General Smuts, in his letter of June 30, 1914, added:

"'With regard to the administration of existing laws, it has always been and will continue to be the desire of the Government to see that they are administered ina just manner and with due regard to vested rights.'

"I replied to the above letter to this effect:

"'I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter of even date. I feel deeply grateful for the patience and courtesy which you showed during our discussions.

"'The passing of the Indians Relief Bill and this correspondence finally closed the Satyagraha struggle which commenced in the Septemper of 1906 and which to the Indian community cost much physical suffering and pecuniary loss and to the Government much anxious thought and consideration.

"'As you are aware, some of my countrymen have wished me to go further. They are dissatisfied that the Trade Licence laws of the different provinces, the Transvaal Gold Law, the Transvaal Townships Act, the Transvaal Law 3 of 1885 have not been altered so as to give them full rights of residence, trade and ownership of land. Some of them are dissatisfied that full inter-provincial migration is not permitted, and some are dissatisfied that on the marriage question the Relief Bill goes no further than it does. They have asked me that all the above matters might be included in the Satyagraha struggle. I have been unable to comply with their wishes. Whilst, therefore, they have not been included in the programme of Satyagraha, it will not be denied that some day or other these matters will require further and sympathetic consideration by the Government. Complete satisfaction cannot be expected until full civic rights have been conceded to the resident Indian population.

"'I have told my countrymen that they will have to exercise patience, and by all honourable means at their disposal educate public opinion so as to enable the Government of the day to go further than the present correspondence does. I shall hope when the Europeans of South Africa fully appreciate the fact that now the importation of indentured labour from India is prohibited, and the Immigrants Regulation Act of last year has in practice all but stopped further free Indian immigration, and that my countrymen do not entertain any political ambition, they, the Europeans, will see the justice and indeed the necessity of my countrymen being granted the rights I have just referred to.'

"Meanwhile, if the generous spirit that the Government have applied to the treatment of the problem during the past few months continues to be applied, as promised in your letter, in the administration of the existing laws, I am quite certain that the Indian community throughout the Union will be able to enjoy some measure of peace and never be a source of trouble to the Government."

- Gandhi, M. Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedebad. Translated from the original Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai. pp201-207


Letter from Gandhi to Smuts

In this letter Gandhi urges Smuts to take the "Indian Question" more seriously. But, perhaps more important than the content, is the tone. Of all the letters between Smuts and Gandhi, this is perhaps the most forthright, and gives a good sense of how Gandhi approached Smuts.

"See an image of Gandhi's letter to Jan Smuts, dated May 21, 1906: Page 1 | Page 2 | (Wits Historical Papers)


The sandals that made history

This extract from The Essential Gandhi records what Smuts said to the Mahatma when he returned the sandals he had given him decades earlier.

"His work in South Africa finished, Gandhi left South Africa with his wife in July 1914. Before he departed, he sent General Smuts a pair of sandals as a gift.

"Smuts wore the sandals every summer at his farm and then returned the sandals to Gandhi on Gandhi's seventieth birthday. Smuts remarked, 'I have worn these sandals for many a summer ... even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect. ... He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate, and preserved his gentle humor even in the most trying situations. His manner and spirit even then, as well as later, contrasted markedly with the ruthless and brutal forcefulness which is the vogue in our day...'"

- Gandhi, M. The Essential Gandhi, Louis Fischer (ed.). Random House, New York, 2002, p98

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"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now"
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, 1908
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to extract information from a document, photographs and an extract from Gandhi's speech at the burning of registration certificates in 1908. They will be able to explore the motives of the Transvaal government in issuing passes to male Indians over the age of eight, and the bitter feelings it stirred up among the Indian community. Learners will be introduced to Gandhi's political philosophy - satyagraha - which can be translated as "the force which is born of truth and love, or non-violence".

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Gandhi’s transformation from dapper young lawyer to sage in sandals.
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