BLANTYRE, Malawi—Malawi is now the second nation in Africa to bear witness to a sustained effort by the local population to block a statue of Mohandas Gandhi.
The Indian government is paying to install a statue of Gandhi in Blantyre, the second-largest city in Malawi, a country of 20 million people in southern central Africa. India requires the statue as a condition for funding construction of the Mahatma Gandhi International Conference Centre, a multi-million dollar infrastructure project which India is replicating in nine African countries. However, residents in Blantyre are outraged by the proposed statue, calling Gandhi “an ardent racist” who had “nothing but contempt for the black African race.”
On October 5, Malawian citizens Mpambira Kambewa, Mkotama Willie Katenga-Kaunda, and Wonderful Mkutche launched a change.org petition to garner support for their resistance to the statue. The petition, titled “Stop Erecting Racist Mahatma Gandhi’s Statue at Ginnery Corner, Blantyre, Malawi,” has gathered over 1,600 signatures and counting [click here to sign the petition]. It appears poised to surpass the 2,000 signatures gathered in a similar effort by faculty members at the University of Ghana who demanded that “Gandhi’s Statue at the University Of Ghana Must Come Down.”
Protests are centered on claims that Gandhi, who spent 21 years as a lawyer in colonial South Africa, used his time there to promote racial segregation. According to the Malawi petition, Gandhi called Africans “Kaffirs.” As the petition explains, “Kaffir is a racial slur which was used to denigrate Africans during the colonial times. The word Kaffir is now a banned word in South Africa because of its racial connotations.” A new video produced by Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), which documents the Indian icon’s relationship with black people, notes that he stated, “Indians are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs.”
One of the earliest protests against a Gandhi statue was in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2003. Since then, a wave of protests has erupted on at least three continents. Some of the protests include: 2010 in Flint, Michigan and in San Francisco, California; 2011 in Ottawa; 2013 in Cerritos, California and in Fresno, California; 2014 in London; 2015 in Johannesburg; 2016 in Davis, California; and in 2017 in Ghana.
In October 2016, the government of Ghana agreed to remove the Gandhi statue from the University of Ghana. In April 2018, African students at Carleton University in Ottawa launched protests against the statue on their campus. “Gandhi was a racist,” said Kenneth Aliu, President of the African Studies Student Association. Alleging that Gandhi “utilised anti-Black racism” and “espoused anti-Black rhetoric,” Aliu argued that Gandhi “advocated for further segregation between people of colour” and “portrayed Africans as savages.”
“Almost all of these statues are lobbied for and paid for by the Indian government,” comments Pieter Friedrich. An analyst of South Asian affairs, he explains, “These statues are a central part of a propaganda campaign designed to airbrush India’s human rights record by masking it with Gandhi. People look at Gandhi and think ‘peace’ and ‘nonviolence,’ turning their minds away from issues of lynching, torture, or pogroms. I can’t think of an example of any local population requesting India to give them a statue, but I can think of multiple examples of locals protesting statues being imposed on them.”
Friedrich adds, “The issue in Malawi represents India’s ongoing campaign to buy influence over Africa by issuing loans and investing in infrastructure. But the development assistance comes at the price of African dignity if it is conditional upon installation of a Gandhi statue. Simply in exchange for foreign assistance, how can any African be asked to honor a man who spent his time in their continent spreading hatred of blacks?”
“We are horrified by the arrogance of the Statues for Development agenda forced on Africans,” notes Arvin Valmuci, a spokesperson for OFMI. “Just like Gandhi treated Africans as inferior and worked to build a three-tiered system of segregation in South Africa a few decades before apartheid, so also India is bullying Africans into accepting inferior status for aid. We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Malawi as they resist this insult to their dignity and affront to their sovereignty. Proposed statues at the capitols in Sacramento and Ottawa were successfully blocked, and we are convinced that Gandhi can also fall in Malawi.”