The night of June 7, 1893 was a momentous one.
A young London-trained Indian lawyer, who had recently arrived in Durban and was on his way to Pretoria, boarded a first-lass compartment of a train, not realising those were the dark days where the value of a person was determined by the colour of his skin and the language he spoke.
He was asked to join his brethren in a third-class coach and when he refused, was promptly thrown off onto the platform at Pietermaritzburg railway station.
That night, and the subsequent events, changed the man – Gandhi – and eventually the course of world history, for the ruminations over the cold night and experiences of compatriots in South Africa sowed the seeds of Satyagraha – literally meaning “quest for truth”, a unique form of passive resistance against the discriminatory and exploitative colonial regimes, in not just India and South Africa, but scores of countries in the world.
In time, that night turned the suited-booted lawyer into the dhoti (loin cloth) clad Mahatma (saint) the world came to adore, respect and follow.
Gandhi had come to South Africa at the request of a client for one case in 1893, but stayed on in the country spearheading the quest for political rights and social equality until 1914.
It is often said, and rightfully so, that South Africa was the karmbhoomi (land of action) of Gandhi.
Mandela himself said, speaking of Gandhi: “India’s soul truly does lie in South Africa.”
It was here that he started a newspaper that served as a model for others he later published in India.
It was also here that Gandhi started unique experiments at Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm.
Phoenix Settlement, near Durban evolved as a unique model of a simple and austere living community where inhabitants built their own houses and farmed and cooked their own food, even then harvesting rainwater for day-to-day use.
Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg, which was donated to the Indians by Gandhi’s close friend, associate and follower Hermann Kallenbach, sought to become the home of “passive resisters”, and was modelled on similar lines to the Phoenix Settlement.
These two experiments in a way were precursors to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and Sevagram in Wardha, Maharashtra, in India.
Not many are aware that Mahatma Gandhi was assaulted twice while in South Africa – once in January 1897 by the white protesters who resented “Asiatic invasion” and did not want Indians (other than the indentured labourers) on the two ships in Durban to disembark. He was rescued from the mob by a white woman who happened to be the wife of the long-serving local superintendent of police.
The second assault, in January 1908 in Johannesburg, was more vicious. Gandhi was attacked by a section of disgruntled compatriots who were not satisfied with the agreement arrived at with the then colonial secretary Jan Smuts on the issue of repeal of the Asiatic Act. It was the heroics of Thambi Naidoo, a close associate of Gandhi, that saved his life in this almost fatal attack.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi, on many occasions, was sent to prison and did hard labour for demanding equal and nondiscriminatory treatment and access to opportunities.
Truly, South Africa was not just a karm-bhoomi for Gandhi, but a training ground as well, to later lead India in its struggle for freedom.
And it all started on that fateful night on Pietermaritzburg railway station in June, 1893.
As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Satyagraha, it’s a timely reminder of the colossus that was Mahatma Gandhi and the permanence of the ideals he espoused, which remain ever relevant.
Satyagraha, the quest for truth, continues across the world, in finding honourable and equitable solutions to problems of both the present and the future.
Just so you know, when in Johannesburg, we visit Satygraha house/museum/hotel, so do speak to us about seeing this informative and significant spot. We’d love to show it to you.
Courtesy Abhishek Shukla: The Gandhi effect: Why Madiba said ‘India’s soul truly does lie in SA’
Shukla is Consul-General of India in Cape Town and he would like to give credit to the book: Gandhi Before India by Ramchandra Guha