Satyagraha in Durban

A Revolutionary Woman

by Sheila Fugard
Braziller, 144 pp., $14.95

On August 10 this year, during clashes between Africans and Indians around Durban, South Africa, a mob invaded Phoenix Estate, the communal settlement founded by Gandhi, burning and looting. Among the houses wrecked was the Gandhi family house, which had been maintained as a museum.

Thus perished some of the last physical evidences of the twenty-one years Gandhi spent in South Africa, years during which he led the campaign of the Indian South African community against serfdom and exploitation, in the process forging the doctrine of Satyagraha (“truth-force”) and the tactics of nonviolent resistance. Though the mob probably did not think of itself as performing a symbolic act, we may read the sacking of the Gandhi museum as its verdict on the relevance of nonviolence to the South Africa of the 1980s.

Nonetheless, Gandhi remains an important influence on such clerical opponents of the South African regime as Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak. Gandhian nonviolence was a tenet of the African National Congress, the largest resistance organization, until the 1960s, when it became all too clear that it would achieve nothing against an implacable Afrikaner Nationalist government. In the life of Christina Ransome, the heroine of Sheila Fugard’s third novel, A Revolutionary Woman, Gandhi and his wife are not only an inspiration but abiding spiritual presences, more real than the world in which she moves.

The action of the novel takes place in 1920, six years after Gandhi left South Africa for the last time. A lone English-woman in a Boer (Afrikaner) community, Christina Ransome teaches at a school for Coloured (mixed-race) children in a small country town. Her particular protégé is an eighteen-year-old youth named Ebrahim, whom, against the opposition of the white townsfolk, she is preparing for an examination that will enable him to escape a life that is stifling him.

Infected with the prejudices of his masters, Ebrahim fantasizes that he is a foundling, that he is “really” white. His dream is to flee South Africa and live the life of a dilettante artist in the Italy or Switzerland he has read about. Christina sometimes supports him in his fantasies, sometimes tries to confront him with reality. Her vacillation is one sign that within her the wise Gandhi (who sometimes fuses with the god Shiva) and Kali, goddess of dark sensualism and destruction, are at war: for Fugard’s psychology is based on the archaic principle of the psychomachia, the contest of gods (or archetypes) in the soul.

In the contest for control of Ebrahim, Kali gains the upper hand. Sex enters his life, and with shock Christina learns who the woman is: Ebrahim is arrested on a charge of raping a simple-minded white girl of fourteen. He does not deny the facts, but argues that it was love, not rape. Determined to conduct the trial on political lines, Christina engages a liberal lawyer.

But when it emerges that the girl is pregnant, a troop of vigilantes, twelve of the town’s leading men, ride out to lynch…

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