Mahatma Gandhi, football legend

South Africa’s successful staging of this year’s FIFA World Cup™ was an impressive reminder to the watching world of just how far this once-divided country has come in throwing off the shackles of apartheid and reinventing itself as a multi-cultural 'Rainbow Nation'.

The presence of Nelson Mandela at the tournament’s final match was also a poignant reminder of the role sport can play in bringing about such transformations, possessing the power (in Mandela’s own words) to “change the world, to inspire, to unite people in a way that little else can”. While Mandela’s use of sport to inspire and unite his people has been well publicised, few people are aware of the strikingly similar use of sport – and football in particular – by another great leader, Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi, during his own struggles against South Africa’s racial divides at the start of the last century.

Though less well documented than Mandela’s own early life, stories of Gandhi’s years in South Africa have been passed on from generation to generation in the areas around Durban where he spent much of those early years. As FIFA World talked to community leaders and social historians there, a picture emerged of a young man who was both passionate about football himself and – more importantly – well aware of the passions it stirred in others.

Before finding fame as the driving force of India’s independence struggle, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi began his working life as a young lawyer in South Africa, the same initial career path which Mandela would also later embark upon. Just like Mandela, though some 60 years earlier, Gandhi was soon distracted from his profession by his growing disgust at the country’s laws of racial segregation. Motivated in particular by the daily discrimination suffered by South Africa’s large Indian population, the young Gandhi began formulating the philosophy of non-violent resistance which he would later perfect in India, while also striving to improve the social conditions of his fellow Indians.

Surprisingly perhaps, one of the main tools which he used to spread his ideas in those early days was football. “Gandhi already knew football well from the time he spent in England completing his law studies,” explains Bongani Sithole, official guide at the Phoenix settlement which Gandhi established in the town of Inanda near Durban at the dawn of the last century. "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.”

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


Gandhi had himself been rudely awakened to the injustices of South African society during a now infamous episode on a train journey from Durban to Pretoria shortly after his arrival in the country in 1893. He was travelling from Durban to Pretoria to defend an Indian citizen in a court case when the train’s conductor told him to leave the first-class carriage, which was exclusively for white men according to the laws of the Boer government of the Transvaal province. Being Hindu, Gandhi was supposed to travel in third class, together with the black people. When he refused to budge, insisting that his first-class ticket gave him the same right to be in the carriage as anyone else, he was forcefully removed from the train and had to spend the night in Pietermaritzburg station.

The incident reaffirmed Gandhi’s social conscience and triggered his peaceful struggle against the racism and social injustices of the authorities. Inspired by the works of the American thinker Henry David Thoreau and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi organised a campaign of civil disobedience among the Indian population to draw attention to the discriminatory laws that assigned them a lower status than whites. His famous philosophical movement satyagraha ('the force of truth' in Sanskrit), which advocated resistance to oppression through non-violent means, began to take shape and sowed the seeds of a change that would be completed a century later by Mandela.

Passive kickers
Football then played a major part in Gandhi’s next step of taking the principles of satyagraha to the masses. As a regular spectator at football matches, Gandhi had observed the popular appeal of the emerging sport among the less-privileged classes in South African society, and decided to use his own passion for the sport as a tool to raise people’s awareness of the need to take non-violent action to achieve equal rights and integration in a society that considered them second-class citizens.

As the undisputed leader of non-violent resistance to the apartheid regime of the time, Gandhi helped establish three football clubs at the beginning of the last century, in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg (where he moved at the end of 1904), all of which were given the same name: Passive Resisters Soccer Club. Sadly, there is no evidence proving that Gandhi ever turned out himself for any of the teams or took on any coaching roles, but photos unearthed at Durban’s Old Court House Museum do show him posing alongside team players and even delivering speeches to crowds at the pitchside.

Those images back up oral histories which tell of Gandhi talking to the teams at half-time about the principles of nonviolent resistance, and using the gatherings to distribute pamphlets to specators addressing the harmful effects of racial segregation on society. “The Resisters were not integrated into any kind of league structure,” says Rebecca Naidoo, a great granddaughter of Gandhi’s long-time collaborator G.R. Naidoo who has spent many years contributing to research on Gandhi’s South African years as a documentalist at the Court House Museum.

“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.” Match venues included the Phoenix settlement, which is now preserved as a heritage site where the flat playing field set up by Gandhi can still be seen to this day, and at the Tolstoy farm in Johannesburg, named after Gandhi’s Russian mentor who had by now begun a correspondence with Gandhi that would last up until the writer’s death in 1910.

Such games helped fund the families of “resisters” who had been imprisoned for their non-violent struggle against local racist laws. Records tell of one such match being played in Johannesburg in 1910 between the local Passive Resisters team and their Pretoria counterparts to protest against the unjust jailing of about one hundred “comrades” over their opposition to segregationist laws.

Fair-play pioneer
As well as being a pioneer in the use of sport to achieve political goals, Gandhi also appears to have been ahead of his time in using football to promote self-improvement and social cohesion. According to Poobalan Govindasamy, president of the South African Indoor Football Association, Gandhi was convinced that football had enormous potential to encourage team work, and therefore when he established the Passive Resisters he focused on promoting moral values such as team spirit and fair play.

“What fascinated Gandhi in particular was the notion he had of football’s nobility,” says Govindasamy. “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 team work. 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.”

While he could not himself have imagined it during those days of promoting informal matches on the dusty fields of South Africa’s townships, Gandhi also left a real sporting legacy in the country as well as the more obvious social one. “His organisational skills and drive helped to lay the foundations for the non-racial sporting structures of today’s South Africa,” says 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.”

This began with small provincial leagues and local federations such as the Transvaal Indian Football Association or the Klip River District Indian Football Association. Then, in 1903, and again with Gandhi’s support, came the founding of the South African Association of Hindu Football. “This was all still a long way off from the unified country ideal of today’s Rainbow Nation of course,” acknowledges 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.”

Football’s loss, India’s gain
By 1914, Gandhi’s reputation as a skilled orator, philosopher and activist had spread far beyond South Africa and he was persuaded to return home to India by a sector of the Hindu middle class who wanted him to apply his talents to the struggle for an independent homeland. As he refocused his attention on a new challenge, and as new leaders emerged to continue the fight against South Africa’s social inequalities, the Passive Resisters football teams disbanded, to be kept alive only in oral histories, faded photographs and a few tattered documents.

Gandhi’s work was taken up by others, however, both in the fight against apartheid and in the related drive for non-discriminatory sports teams and organisations. As Reb Naidoo points out, two of the most prominent football teams in South Africa’s more recent sporting history may never have existed were it not for Gandhi’s efforts, with the now-defunct Johannesburg club Moonlighters FC and former Durban side Manning Rangers both emerging from the fledgling Indian football community that had been nurtured by Gandhi and his colleagues.

Manning Rangers, founded by G.R. Naidoo in 1928, even went on to become the first champions of South Africa’s new Premier Soccer League in 1997. The club subsequently ran into financial diffi culties and has since been relocated to Cape Town, where it plays in the country’s National First Division under the new name of Ikapa Sporting FC, but it is nevertheless fitting that the first league champions of the new united South Africa came from a team who could trace their roots all the way back to the little-known strivings of the great Gandhi some one hundred years earlier.