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Gandhi in South AfricaIntroduction
The year 2014 marks a hundred years since Mahatma Gandhi left South Africa for good after spending his formative years in this country, where he developed his philosophy of satyagraha, a form of active yet peaceful resistance to political injustices.
South Africa was the crucible that forged Gandhi’s identity as a political activist and was an important prelude to his return to India, where he played a pivotal role in securing its independence from British rule in August 1947.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (his birth name) arrived in South Africa in 1893 at the relatively tender age of 24 as a newly qualified lawyer on a temporary assignment to act on behalf of a local Indian trader in a commercial dispute. What was meant to be a short stopgap for the struggling young lawyer turned into a 21-year stay, with spells in India and England.
By the time Gandhi left South Africa for the last time in 1914, he had already earned the appellation Mahatma (or Great Soul) for his work in securing significant legal concessions for the local Indian population in South Africa.
During his time here, he developed the strategy known as satyagraha (truth-force), in which campaigners went on peaceful marches and presented themselves for arrest in protest against unjust laws.
This form of action was to become one of the great political tools of the 20th century, influencing the civil rights movement in the United States and the African National Congress in its early years of struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
For those interested in the Gandhi story, his years in South Africa were an important chapter in his path to becoming a leading political figure of the 20th century; there are many touch points and sites of interest on the road the young Gandhi followed in this country.
Video interview with Ela Gandhi
Ela Gandhi is the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi's second son, Manilal, who edited the Indian Opinion for many years. She was a member of the South African Parliament for 10 years after the first democratic elections in 1994, during which time she represented the Phoenix area of Inanda in KwaZulu-Natal. Here she talks about her famous grandfather.
Gandhi arrived in Durban on 24 May 1893 aboard the SS Safari. Dada Abdulla, whose firm had hired him to act on its behalf in a commercial dispute with a family member, awaited him on the wharf, and Gandhi moved in with his family in Grey Street.
Even though Gandhi had studied law London, he had been battling to land work in India, both in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his hometown of Porbandar in Gujarat. His break came when Dada Abdulla and Sons in South Africa needed a lawyer who could speak Gujarati to settle a dispute with a cousin who was failing to pay money owed to the firm.
When Gandhi arrived in 1893, the issue of Indian immigration was a hot topic, and from the outset he became aware of the racial discrimination directed at Indians living in Durban.
Indentured Indian labour had started arriving in the then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) from 1860 onwards to work on the sugar plantations, and many of these labourers stayed on for economic reasons. This increase in the Indian population gave rise to growing opposition on the part of the white colonists, particularly when Indian traders also started arriving in the province.
When Gandhi visited the Durban courthouse with Abdulla shortly after his arrival, as a way of acclimatising to the courts in South Africa, the local magistrate asked him to remove the turban he was wearing.
Gandhi refused on the grounds that removing headgear was a sign of disrespect in India, and left the court. This incident was reported in the local newspaper, the Natal Advertiser, immediately drawing attention to the new arrival and his strong sense of personal dignity.
But this was really just a curtain-raiser to the more famous train incident that ignited his political consciousness. Shortly after his arrival, Gandhi had to travel to Pretoria for the court case and, although he had a first-class ticket, the conductor ordered him to move to a third-class compartment based on his race.
Gandhi refused on the grounds that he had a valid ticket, and was ejected from the train in Pietermaritzburg. Here he spent a freezing night in the waiting room at the station, brooding on what had just happened and whether he should return to India.
Today, there is a plaque at the station in Pietermaritzburg that reads: 'In the vicinity of this plaque MK Gandhi was evicted from a first-class compartment on the night of 7 June 1893. This incident changed the course of his life. He took up the fight against racial oppression. His active non-violence started from that date.'
Old Court House Museum, Durban
It’s the oldest public building in Durban’s CBD and was often visited by Gandhi when he was practising as a lawyer; it is where he was asked to remove his turban. There is a historical archive of Gandhi images here too.
Behind the City Hall at 77 Samora Machel Street, Durban
The historic building still stands with a plaque commemorating the incident when Gandhi was thrown off the train.
Railway Street, off Moses Mabhida Road
A year after his arrival in South Africa, the court ruled in his client’s favour and Gandhi successfully negotiated an amicable settlement to the dispute by renegotiating terms between Dada Abdulla and his cousin.
Gandhi then prepared to return to India for good. On the eve of his departure, however, Abdulla hosted a farewell party for Gandhi at his home in Grey Street in Durban. Here talk turned to a Bill before the Natal Assembly that would remove Indians from the voters’ roll.
The guests, mostly Indian merchants, appealed to Gandhi to stay and fight the legislation on their behalf, offering to pay him an annual retainer to do so. Gandhi wrote later: 'The farewell party was turned into a working committee ... thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.'
Before the night was out, Gandhi had drawn up a petition and set up a temporary committee.
Within a month there were 10 000 signatures, which were presented to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Ripon, who had the Bill temporarily set aside. Nevertheless, a law was passed in 1896 disqualifying voters who were not of European origin.
The committee set up that night eventually evolved into the Natal Indian Congress, which became a driving force behind the satyagraha campaigns between 1906 and 1913.
Thus Gandhi’s political involvement, philosophy and influence grew. He had begun to attract the ire of the white population of Natal and in 1903 decided to move his legal business to Johannesburg, where he gained in stature as a campaigner for the rights of the Asian community.
Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street (formerly Grey Street)
This street in Durban’s CBD is where Gandhi first stayed when he arrived in South Africa as a guest of Abdulla. The street is named after anti-apartheid activist Dr Yusuf Dadoo, whose father was once defended by Gandhi in court when the Krugersdorp municipality was attempting to evict him from his shop on racial grounds. Dadoo was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns and led similar peaceful protests in South Africa in the 1940s. Also in Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street is the Juma Masjid Mosque, the oldest in the southern hemisphere.
Durban Tourism arranges walking tours of the CBD. Call +27 (0)31 322 4173 to arrange a guide.
TheSubject of Abuse
In 1896, Gandhi returned to India where he addressed several meetings on the plight of his compatriots in South Africa. He also decided to take his family back with him to South Africa and so set sail from Bombay aboard the SS Courtland with his wife, Kasturba, and sons, Harilal and Manilal, on board.
In his absence, anti-Indian sentiment had grown in Natal and there was intense lobbying of the government to prevent further Indian immigration.
Also, the local newspaper, The Natal Mercury, published an article on Gandhi’s ‘Green Pamphlet’ that he had published in India, in which he detailed some of the abuse Indians were experiencing in South Africa.
So, when the SS Courtland and another ship, the SS Naderi, approached Durban, the two ships were prevented from landing on the grounds that they were being put in quarantine due to contamination in Bombay.
The truth is that local feelings were running high and rumours were doing the rounds that the Indian passengers aboard the two vessels intended to 'invade' Natal.
After 20 days lying out at sea, the two ships were eventually allowed to dock on 13 January 1897 and a riot ensued at The Point.
Attorney General Harry Escombe had to intervene to calm the crowd. Gandhi waited on board while his wife and sons safely disembarked. But as he attempted to leave the area in the late afternoon, he was physically attacked by the mob.
The story goes that the wife of the superintendent of police, Superintendent Alexander, used her parasol to keep the attackers at bay until the police arrived to escort the ‘bloodied but not bowed’ Gandhi away from the scene.
Later, Superintendent Alexander had to devise a method of spiriting Gandhi out of the building in which had taken refuge, in disguise, to get him away from the persistent crowd that was still baying for his blood.
Mahatma Gandhi Road (previously Point Road)
Point Road in Durban was renamed Mahatma Gandhi Road in Gandhi’s honour. At the end of this road is uShaka Marine World, a major tourist attraction in the city.
On 17 October 1899 (a few days after the outbreak of the South African War – or Anglo-Boer War – between the Boers and the British), Gandhi convened a meeting to persuade Indians to sign up for an ambulance corps.
He argued that Indians could not demand their rights as British citizens if they were not willing to show loyalty to the Empire.
By January 1900, 500 Indians had signed up for the Indian Ambulance Corps, and Gandhi was among them when they attended to the wounded at Spioenkop in Natal.
The bloody Battle of Spioenkop, fought on 23 and 24 January 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, sometimes also referred to as the South African War, was an effort to end the 118-day siege of the town of Ladysmith by the Boers.
Other famous figures present at Spioenkop were Sir Winston Churchill (a war correspondent at the time) and the future prime minister of the Transvaal, General Louis Botha, under whose government anti-Indian legislation was to be enacted.
Gandhi and other members of the Indian Ambulance Corps received war medals for their 'chivalry' and loyalty to the queen on the day.
This was not the only time that Gandhi rolled up his sleeves to help the sick. When Johannesburg had an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1904, Gandhi helped to set up an emergency hospital and nurse victims in the Newtown district, which was later razed to the ground.
Battlefield at Spioenkop
This well-preserved battlefield site has a self-guided trail that explains how the battle unfolded among the trenches, graves and monuments, with excellent interpretive signage. There is a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and the Drakensberg mountains in the distance. In the nearby town of Ladysmith, there’s also a statue of Gandhi at the Lord Vishnu Temple.
The battlefield is at the end of a short gravel road from the R616 to Bergville, off the N3 Bergville/Ladysmith off-ramps.more on
Gandhi understood the need to get his message across in writing and so established the weekly Indian Opinion, which first appeared on 6 June 1903.
It was initially published in four languages (Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and English) and was an important mouthpiece for the Indian community.
Gandhi wrote many of the articles himself and later declared that without this publication, satyagraha 'would have been impossible'.
The newspaper also helped to coin the word satyagraha through a competition inviting readers to suggest a name for the passive resistance campaigns.
In 1904, the publishing office was relocated to Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement, which was founded on a communal system, inspired by the book Unto This Last by John Ruskin that emphasised self-reliance and the value of labour on the land for the common good. Aside from the printing press, there was also a clinic, school and homes.
It was also at Phoenix that Gandhi published his first book, Indian Home Rule in English and Hind Swaraj in Gujarati. Penned on a sea voyage from London to Cape Town, it laid out his political vision for India and his moral philosophy, including the principle of inter-faith harmony.
Although banned in both India and the United Kingdom, the book circulated freely in South Africa. Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, was the Indian Opinion’s longest-serving editor, from 1920 to 1956.
Life in the Phoenix Settlement
Ela Gandhi talks about growing up at Phoenix Settlement in KwaZulu-Natal, family life and about the legacy of her grandfather. This clip was shot at the Phoenix Settlement, in Inanda - just outside Durban.
Gandhi’s cottage, where he lived with his family, was called Sarvodaya, meaning 'well-being for all'. Although it was burnt down in the political upheaval of the mid-1980s prior to the abolition of apartheid, it has been rebuilt as a museum. The display here also focuses on the International Printing Press, which published the Indian Opinion.
Of interest is that, while in Phoenix, Gandhi lived close to John Langalibalele Dube, the first president of the South African Native National Congress (the precursor to the African National Congress). The two men are said to have met often and held discussions. Dube’s Ohlange High School is part of the Inanda Heritage Route. Like Gandhi, Dube also established a newspaper, the Ilanga, here.
Next to the Phoenix Settlement is the Kasturba Primary School, named after Gandhi’s wife. Kasturba, who was never formally educated but longed for an education. In 1954, a school was built on this site in her honour but was subsequently destroyed in 1985. A new school nearby still bears her name but is in a modern building.
20km north of Durban, on the Inanda Heritage Route.more on
A meeting in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906 marked the start of the resistance campaign, which ultimately became known as satyagraha (meaning ‘truth-force’), with its practitioners called satyagrahi.
This mass meeting of about 3 000 people took place in the Empire Theatre in Ferreira Street (between Fox and Commissioner streets) in downtown Johannesburg (sadly, the theatre is long gone).
The gathering was in protest against the impending Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906, requiring all male Asians in the Transvaal to be fingerprinted and carry a form of pass, including children over the age of eight.
One of the resolutions passed at the meeting was that, failing all other intercessions, including a trip to London led by Gandhi, Indians would elect to go to prison rather than submit to the law in question.
But the government passed the law a few weeks later, and in October that year, Gandhi travelled to England to petition the authorities.
Although the British government vetoed the law, the Transvaal was granted self-government just a few months later and General Louis Botha, the prime minister of the Transvaal, was allowed to re-enact the law in 1907 in the form of the Transvaal Registration Act.
During the following seven years, protesters were imprisoned, flogged and even shot for refusing to register, or for burning their passes and engaging in other forms of resistance against the law.
A pivotal moment for the satyagraha movement was on 16 August 1908 when, outside the Hamidia Mosque in Jennings Street, Fordsburg, Gandhi encouraged those present to burn their identity documents. More than 2 000 documents were burned in a large cauldron outside the mosque. This action is widely regarded as being a precursor to the anti-pass campaigns of the African National Congress in the 1950s.
A second major satyagraha campaign was initiated in 1913 in protest against a £3 tax that was being imposed on ex-indentured Indians and because the state refused to recognise Hindu and Muslim marriages.
During this campaign, Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, was arrested at the border at Volksrust while attempting to cross the border into Transvaal by train with a group of women in protest against their marriages being declared invalid.
Gandhi also led a large group of striking workers across the Transvaal border along the Durban-to-Johannesburg railway line. This great march (a forerunner to the famous Salt March in India in 1930) started on 6 November 1913 and had in its ranks 127 women, 57 children and some 2 000 men. Gandhi was arrested and let out on bail three times.
The 1913 protest actions were what led to General Jan Smuts setting up a commission to investigate Indian grievances that would ultimately end in the passing of the Indian Relief Act, which paved the way for Gandhi's return to India, having achieved a major legal milestone for Indians in South Africa.
So powerful was this form of non-violent resistance that, as Gandhi was leaving South Africa in 1914, he described it as 'perhaps the mightiest instrument on earth'. His prophetic words were borne out, not least in South Africa where there were many instances of peaceful marches against apartheid.
Hamidia Mosque, Fordsburg
The Gandhi Memorial, also known as the Burning Truth, depicts a symbolic cauldron (created by artist Usha Seejarim) that commemorates the first recorded burning of passes that took place in South Africa on 16 August 1908.
Jennings Street, Fordsburg, Johannesburgmore on
Between 1908 and 1913, Gandhi was sentenced to four terms of imprisonment in South Africa during the satyagraha campaigns; he served a total of seven months and 10 days of these sentences in prisons around the country.
In July 1907, the Boer Republic Transvaal started to register Indians, sparking off the first campaign during which Gandhi and others actively refused to register and have their fingerprints taken while resolutely remaining in the Transvaal.
Gandhi was first arrested on 27 December 1907 for failing to register and staying in the Transvaal. When he appeared before a judge in early January 1908, he asked to be given the heaviest sentence possible and was sent to prison in the Old Fort on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on a two-month sentence.
As the protest continued, the number of Indian prisoners swelled to some 155 and the authorities had to put tents up in the yard to accommodate them. Here, Gandhi elected to join his compatriots sleeping in the open.
Gandhi was released from the Old Fort after a meeting with General Jan Smuts (colonial secretary and education secretary in Prime Minister Louis Botha’s Transvaal government), during which he agreed to encourage voluntary registration in exchange for the legislation being dropped.
When Smuts failed to keep his word, the satyagraha campaign gained in intensity and continued in different forms in the years that followed.
Gandhi also spent time in prison in Volksrust and Pretoria, and his wife, Kasturba, was held in Pietermaritzburg.
Video: Gandhi the prisoner
In 1908, Gandhi was imprisoned in the Old Fort on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on a two-month sentence. Today it houses a permanent exhibition on Gandhi's South African sojourn.
Old Fort, Constitution Hill
In the Old Fort Prison Complex there is an exhibition titled Prisoner of Conscience focusing on Gandhi’s imprisonment and the satyagraha campaigns. There is a replica of the pair of sandals Gandhi once gave to General Jan Smuts. There are several other fascinating exhibitions here relating to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and the Women’s Gaol.
Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, Johannesburgmore on
Gandhi’s choice of friends in South Africa cut across religious and racial lines.
Numbered among his closest friends were his legal partner, Henry Polak, and Polak’s wife, Millie, whose marriage he witnessed in Johannesburg. For a time, the couple lived in the same house as Gandhi, his wife, Kasturba, and their four sons.
Gandhi was also close to his first biographer, the Reverend Joseph Doke, a Baptist who nursed him back to health after an attack during which he was accused of selling out the Indian cause when he brokered an agreement with General Jan Smuts (the so-called Smuts compromise).
Another important person in his life was his secretary, Sonja Schlesin, a devotee of the satyagraha cause who mobilised support by keeping tabs on the Passive Resistance Fund, and even ferried food and messages to prisoners by bicycle.
But of all these friendships, Gandhi’s association with German-Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach was the closest. For a year, the two men shared a house (designed by Kallenbach for Gandhi) in Orchards, Johannesburg, and were in regular correspondence even after Gandhi returned to India.
It was Kallenbach who in 1910 donated to Gandhi a 4 000m2 piece of land on the outskirts of Johannesburg to run as Tolstoy Farm for the satyagrahis.
Gandhi and his great friend, Hermann Kallenbach, shared this house in 1908/09. There is a small museum that reflects the time Gandhi spent here, including old photographs of Gandhi and Kallenbach, journals and correspondence. Satyagraha House is also a private guest house and visits to the museum are by arrangement.
15 Pine Road, Orchards, Johannesburgmore on
Gandhi and Kallenbach shared a mutual interest in the works of Leo Tolstoy, who foreswore alcohol, tobacco and meat later in life, and returned to a simple life working in the fields and splitting wood. Like Gandhi, Tolstoy also took a vow of celibacy.
On 30 May 1910, Kallenbach donated Tolstoy Farm to Gandhi as a home for indigent satyagrahis to live rent-free and off the land. The first residents included Gandhi, his second son, Manilal, and Kallenbach, who oversaw the building works, which included a school.
The farm was home to 50 adults and 30 children from across the religious and racial divide, including Tamils, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Parsis and Africans.
In a letter written two months before his death, Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi: 'Your work in Transvaal, which seems to be far away from the centre of our world, is yet the most fundamental and the most important to us ...'
For a period on the farm, Gandhi started his day with physical labour and taught at the school.
The Brickworks (previously Tolstoy Farm)
The remains of the foundations of an old house can still be seen here on land owned by a local brick company, Corobrik. There are many who would like to see it transformed into a place of historical interest. It is not open to the public as a matter of course.
South-west of Johannesburg close to Lenasia, but not on any main tourist route.
During his time in South Africa, Gandhi was to petition General Jan Smuts (then colonial secretary in the government of General Louis Botha) many times and, while political adversaries, they developed a level of respect for each other.
For Smuts, Gandhi was something of a thorn in his flesh and he was not unhappy to see his Indian adversary depart South Africa’s shores in 1914.
The two men first met in April 1907 when Gandhi led a delegation to raise concerns over the impending legislation requiring the registration of Indians.
While this meeting failed to achieve any results, Smuts was to summon Gandhi again in February the following year during Gandhi’s first period of imprisonment.
This time the two men reached what was called the ‘Smuts compromise’ whereby Gandhi agreed to encourage voluntary registration in exchange for the repealing of the legislation.
As it turned out, the agreement (as Gandhi understood it) did not hold. When the two men met again in June of that year it became clear that the law would not be repealed and the battle lines were redrawn.
After the incident of the burning of the passes at Hamidia Mosque in Fordsburg on 16 August 1908, Gandhi was summonsed to Pretoria for a high-level meeting with Smuts, Botha and others. This time around, some further concessions were granted but not sufficient to stop the satyagraha campaign.
Eventually, Smuts oversaw the passage of the Indian Relief Act that was passed in 1914. This act withdrew the £3 tax that was imposed on ex-indentured Indians, customary marriages were recognised (a right for which Gandhi’s wife Kasturba had protested and been arrested), and Indians were allowed to move freely into the Transvaal.
On 30 June 1914, the two men signed a pact bringing to an end the satyagraha campaign in South Africa.
Having achieved a major victory, Gandhi decided to return to India (by way of the United Kingdom). There he was to ultimately lead his home country to independence from British rule using the political experience he had gained in South Africa.
One mark of the respect between Smuts and Gandhi remains in the form of a pair of stout sandals that Gandhi had made for Smuts by his Phoenix community while in prison.
When Gandhi turned 70 many years later, Smuts returned these sandals to him with a note that read: '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.'
The house that Jan Smuts lived and died in (in 1950) is close to Pretoria in the Centurion area. The General Smuts Foundation looks after the display that was recreated to reflect the era when Smuts lived here with his wife, who was known as Ouma. There is also a tea garden and pavilion.
Jan Smuts Ave, Irene, Centurion
Novelist Olive Schreiner, who wrote The Story of an African Farm, and her brother, liberal politician WP Schreiner, admired Gandhi greatly.
Olive once insisted on meeting Gandhi on board a ship in Cape Town when he was setting off for London and publicly shook hands with him, a daring act at the time that was remarked on in newspaper reports.
Through their mutual friend, Hermann Kallenbach, they were to become friends, and after Gandhi left South Africa the two met occasionally in London, where they both lived in 1914.
Schreiner was to take the ideal of non-racialism even one step further, suggesting that 'all persons born in the country or permanently resident here should be one in the eye of the State', regardless of race.
Her ideals were only to become reality almost a hundred years later in 1994 when the first democratic elections were held in South Africa.
Olive Schreiner House
Olive Schreiner lived in this house in the Karoo as a young girl between 1868 and 1870. Schreiner was a radical thinker and intellectual, advocating a non-racial South Africa that was only to become a reality more than a hundred years later.
9 Cross Street, Cradock, Eastern Capemore on
Gandhi born October 2, in Porbandar, India
Gandhi arrives in South Africa to provide legal support for Abdulla and Sons in Durban
The Natal Indian Congress is founded
Gandhi is attacked by a mob after his ship, the SS Courtland, docks in Durban when he returns to South Africa with his family after a home visit
Gandhi organises the Indian Ambulance Corps to serve the British in the South African War
The Indian Ambulance Corps assists at the Battle of Spioenkop
The Phoenix Settlement is established
A meeting at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg sows the seeds for the satyagraha movement
Gandhi is imprisoned at the Old Fort in Johannesburg for the first time
A crowd, led by Gandhi, burn their passes in a cauldron outside the Hamidia Mosque in Fordsburg
Gandhi publishes the book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule)
Tolstoy Farm is established outside Johannesburg
Gandhi leads a march of 2 000 Indian coal miners and sugar-plantation workers across the border to the Transvaal
Gandhi and Jan Smuts reach an agreement to relax certain restrictions on Indians in return for ending the satyagraha campaign. Gandhi and Kasturba leave South Africa for good
Gandhi assassinated on 30 January in New Delhi