Related topics

Lawyers Group Apologizes to Gandhi

July 29, 1999

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ After several failed attempts, a South African law society has unconditionally apologized to Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian freedom fighter who in 1894 was rejected for membership because of his skin color.

``We hope to clear up any doubt,″ said David Randels, president of the Natal Law Society, the equivalent of the bar association. ``Our intention was to make it unequivocal, unambiguous and a sincere apology.″

The society rejected Gandhi’s application to practice law because only lawyers of European descent were admitted, Randels said.

The country’s chief justice overruled the rejection and allowed Gandhi to practice.

But the experience, along with racist rules that kept Gandhi from riding in first-class train compartments, helped politicize the young commercial lawyer.

After nearly two decades in South Africa, he went home to India in 1914 to develop the philosophy of passive resistance that brought down British colonial rule there. He later became known as Mahatma, or ``Great Soul.″ India’s example rippled through the colonial world with successive _ and successful _ independence campaigns.

Even before the fall of apartheid in 1994, the South African law society was increasingly multiracial. The governing council _ all white up to 10 years ago _ now has 12 nonwhites, said Randels, who is white.

But despite efforts to apologize to Gandhi, the group never got it right.

Former society president Frank Sithole, who is black, issued a muted press release in 1997 expressing ``disapproval of any actions carried out ... which where racially motivated,″ according to a statement released earlier this week.

Sithole ``had problems dealing with the irony of a black man apologizing for a white act from years ago,″ Randels said.

Other efforts _ including a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that worked to reconcile South Africans with the violent apartheid past _ were ``too conditional,″ said Ismail Meer, a member of the provincial legislature who studied law with former President Nelson Mandela.

Meer, chairman of the Liberation History Foundation and a member of the law society, said he accepts the apology as adequate.

``The importance is to distance ourselves from the past where mistakes have been made,″ Meer said in a telephone interview.

The group’s statement said it ``apologizes unconditionally, albeit posthumously, to the late Mahatma Gandhi ... as well as all other aspirant lawyers whose access to the profession was restricted in any way on the basis of racial grounds.″

Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic in New Delhi in 1948, soon after India’s independence.