About Us Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in South Africa 24 May 1893 to attend to a legal matter of Dada Abdullah Jhaveri. Dada Abdullah, whohailed from Porbandar, knew of M.K. Gandhi and hiredhim, as he apart from being a London trained lawyer also spoke Gujarati. This was a perfect fit for the Durban based merchantkeen to resolve a family commercial dispute.

Within weeks of Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival in Durban, he was asked to travel to Pretoria to settle the dispute. On 7th June 1893, he was thrown off the First Class compartment of a Pretoria bound train in Pietermaritzburg. The young lawyer spent the night in the Waiting Hall on the deserted railway station. The humiliation that he went through convinced him to take on a greater call to fight for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He soon mobilised Indians in Durban and in 1894 the Natal Indian Congress was born to look into the question voting rights for Indians. After three years of stay and struggle in the country, Mahatma Gandhi return to India in 1896. But the same year, on the request of the Natal Indian Congress, he returned to Durban. This time he came with his family.On the arrival of his ship in Durban Harbour, there was a massive protest by the white communitywho would not allow him to disembark.His ship was kept in quarantine for about three weeks and when he was finally allowed to come ashore he was attached by a mob and brutally beaten. His trusted friend and supporter ParsiRustomji came to his safety.

Mahatma Gandhi founded an Ambulance Corps of around 1100 volunteers in support of the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. He thought that support for the British would translate into better conditions for Indians in Transvaal and South Africa in general. His hopes, however, were belied. He returned to India in 1902 briefly and met with Indian leaders and mobilised support for the welfare of Indians in South Africa. He returned to South Africa in 1902 and the following year founded the Transvaal British Indian Association in Johannesburg. The British-Boer understanding after the War led to further restrictions on Indians in Transvaal. In 1903, he started his law practice and established his legal office on Rissik Street close to the Government Courts in Johannesburg. He was the first Indian to do so.He handled cases of discrimination and racism against Indians but most of the time was consumed in political work. He had a constant stream ofclients at his home in Troyvilleand sometimes, they would sleep in the veranda and leave next morning as briefings would go on till late in the night.

By 1903, Gandhiji’s theatre of action had firmly shifted to Johannesburg. His family joined him in 1904 and their rented place in Troyvillewas shared with the Polaks: Henry Polak and Millie Graham. The Polaks along with Herman Kallenbach; Sonja Schlesin, his secretary; and lawyer L.W Ritch were his close associates in the mining town. His trusted followers in the Indian community were Ahmed Mohamed Cachalia and Thambi Naidoo, the latter helped him connect with the indentured lot.

In1904, Mahatma Gandhi foundedthe Phoenix Settlement in Durban for community living. In 1906, the Bambatha [Zulu] rebellion broke out in Natal and he again established a Stretcher Bearer Corps to treat the wounded. When this happened, his gave up hisTroyvillehouse and sent his family to Phoenix.

After the rebellion, he moved to stay with his trusted friend Herman Kallenbach in his “Kraal”, an African homestead sort of a house in Johannesburg. It was while residing here that he launched Satyagraha for the first time. There was a mass meeting of over 3000 people chaired by him on 11 September 1906 at the Empire Theatre in down town Johannesburg. This was in protest against an Ordinance which made it compulsory for Asiaticsto carry passes and register for them by giving finger prints. The agitation continued.

In January 1908, Mahatma Gandhi was ordered to leave Transvaal. He refused and was arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment for disobeying the pass laws. He was kept at the Old Fort Prison Complex. This was his first of the four prison terms in South Africa; the other three being in Volkrust [1908], Pretoria [1909] and Volkrust [1913]. He was released on 30 January after he reached an agreement with General Jan Smuts. Some members of the Indian community did not agree with the compromise on voluntary registration that he reached with Jan Smuts and one Mir Alam Khan brutally attacked him. It was a near death incident for the Mahatma. He was taken to the home of Reverend Doke who looked after and nursed him.

Smuts did not keep to his promise. In August 1908, Mahatma Gandhi carried out a massive pass burning campaign outside the Hamidia mosque.

In 1910, Mahatma Gandhi founded the Tolstoy Farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg to prepare satyagrahis. The Farm which occupied 1100 acres of land belonged to Herman Kallenbach. It had 85 residents and all that was consumed was mostly produced locally. Life was austere and frugal with salt being served only on Sundays. Children and others were impart lessons and training in carpentry and other manual work. The Satyagrahiswereallowed to take the train to town only if they went on official work or else had to trek to Johannesburg, a distance of 35 kilometres. The Farm was disbanded in 1913.

In 1912, the South African Native National Congress [pre-cursor to ANC] was formed with John Dube, the Mahatma’s neighbour in Ilanga next to Phoenix, as its first President.Gandhiji’spolitical ideas, mobilisation and Satyagraha would have impacted itsformation.

In 1913, Mahatma Gandhi launched the famous Volkrust Satyagraha against the pass laws, Registration of marriages Act, 3 Pound tax and restriction on movement of Indians. Women played a leading role in this protest and Kasturba Gandhi along with others were sent to prison. Mahatma Gandhi was himself put behind bars. Ultimately, General Smuts gave up and in 1914 passed the Indian Relief Act which did away with the discriminatory laws. Having achieved his mission, Gandhiji set sail for his motherland from Cape Town on 19 July 1914 and reached Mumbai on 9 January 1915 amid jostling and cheers by a huge crowd at Apollo Bunder.

Mahatma Gandhi came to South Africa for a short professional stint but ultimately went on to spend 21long years in the country withbrief spells in India and England.