Mohandas Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbander, India.
Gandhi comes to South Africa
In 1886 he went to England to study law. Having trained as a lawyer in London, he returned to India but found that it was impossible to practice in Bombay as it was extremely difficult to earn a living. He accepted a position in South Africa and arrived in Natal in 1893 with the intention of only remaining for a year to act in a matter concerning two Indian merchants.
At the end of his law case he was preparing to leave for India when he learned of a bill being introduced into the Natal Legislature to disenfranchise Indian settlers. After pleas from the Indian merchants he agreed to stay on for a month to fight on their behalf. His farewell party was converted into a committee meeting.
His stay continued and eventually he was enrolled as an advocate to the Supreme Court.
Unlike many British educated Indians, Gandhi was not interested in politics, but his stay in South Africa was to change him profoundly.
Mahatma (a title meaning (“Great Soul”) Gandhi, who led India’s struggle for independence, spent many of his formative years as a young lawyer in South Africa.
He was soon subjected to racial discrimination, when he had to leave a first class compartment on a train in Pietermaritzburg, as he did not have a ticket for the sleeper carriage to sleep on the train that night – an experience which helped him to formulate his philosophies on Satyagraha or peaceful but firm resistance. This strategy was used extensively in South Africa and later during India’s struggle for liberation from Britain.
Satyagraha means, literally, to keep to the truth. Gandhi considered truth a dominating principle of life, not to be enforced by violence but by spiritual convictions and the power of love. He did not consider it to be a sign of weakness but rather of incredible strength.
He believed that petitions against the disenfranchising bill were not sufficient and that continual agitation was essential to make an impression.
Thus in 1894 he formed the Natal Indian Congress. He was a close friend of John Dube, the first president of the African National Congress. Often controversial and unpopular amongst his rival in the Natal Indian Congress, he was always seen as a champion of the working class Indians.
The struggle for civil rights for Indian immigrants was long and hard. In 1896 he paid a brief visit to India to canvas support for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He returned to Natal with his wife and children in January 1897.
Indian Ambulance Corps – Anglo Boer War
At the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War in 1899 he organised an Indian Ambulance Corps of 100 men. They tirelessly and under great personal danger carried wounded soldiers off the battlefields to the field hospitals. In 1906 they also served during the Bambatha rebellion.
Gandhi in the Transvaal
By now Gandhi had moved to the Transvaal and was enrolled as an attorney of the Transvaal Supreme Court. He founded the Transvaal British Association to assist and look after the welfare of the Indians living there. As he believed it was essential to have a newspaper he founded and edited the first Indian newspaper, “Indian Opinion” in 1904.
Phoenix and Tolstoy settlements
In this same year he purchased land near Durban, known as the “Phoenix settlement”
In January 1908 he was arrested and tried in the Dundee court house for breach of the registration law and sent to prison. He was released the following month.
He also set up the “Tolstoy settlement” 21 miles from Johannesburg for his colleagues and their families, as the Phoenix settlement was too far from Johannesburg.
Gandhi applied passive resistance principles during protests by indentured labourers in the province. Indian indentured labourers came to Natal in 1860 to work the sugar cane fields, coal mines, on the railways and as servants in hotels and homes. On completion of their indentureship most Indians wanted freedom to settle on land in Natal. However, the government imposed all sorts of barriers intended to force the Indian workers back into indetureship. Gandhi protested and led several marches and demonstration.
Possibly the most well known march was the one in 1913.
The 1913 March
In 1913 Gandhi held 2 protest meetings in the Dundee Temple grounds, as part of the campaign against the hated poll tax. Thousands of people attended these meetings.
A group of eleven Indian women, including Gandhi’s wife, courted imprisonment by crossing from Natal into the Transvaal without permits.
The Indian labourers on the coal mines around Durnacol and Newcastle went on a sympathy strike. The coal mine owners retaliated and Gandhi decided that he was responsible for these miners and their families. He decided to walk the 2037 men, 127 women and 57 children from the mines to the Tolstoy settlement, but was arrested along the way.
Gandhi was tried in the court room again on 11 November 1913 and sentenced to a fine of 60 pounds or a prison sentence of 9 months, with hard labour. He chose the prison sentence.
Read the speech he gave in the Dundee Court House. Click here.
Pressure from the people and governments of India and London forced negotiations to start between Gandhi and the South African government. Eventually an agreement was reached and some of the major points on which Satyagraha had been waged were conceded; the £3 tax on ex indentured labourers was abolished and marriages performed according to Indian rites were accepted as legal.
Shortly after this, having spent twenty one years in South Africa, he decided to return to India. On his return in 1914 he was already being hailed as a Mahatma (a great soul).
During his twenty-one years in South Africa, Gandhi was sentenced to four terms of imprisonment. The first, on 10 January 1908 to two months, the second, on 7 October 1908 to three months, the third, on 25 February, also to three months, and the fourth, on 11 November 1913 to nine months hard labour. In total he served seven months and ten days of those sentences.
On two occasions, the first and the last, he was released within weeks because the Government of the day, represented by General Smuts, rather than face Satyagraha and the international pressure it was bringing the government, offered to settle the problems through negotiation
There are a number of statues in his memory in KwaZulu-Natal; Durban, Ladysmith and at Talana Museum, Dundee.
The statue in the grounds of Talana Museum was commissioned by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi, through the Consulate General of India in Durban.
In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, in London he raised an Indian Ambulance Corps to assist during the war.
For the next 33 years he continued his campaign of passive resistance to gain independence for India from Britain. Fasts, marches and continual talks with the British authorities eventually gained independence for India in August 1947.
At the beginning of 1948 he started a fast to try and bring about Muslim-Hindu unity. He ended his fast when he was assured that racial conflict would be avoided and any conflict would be negotiated.
On 30 January he was assassinated by Nathuram Vinayak Godse.
His was a life that worked for the preservation of human dignity, human rights and a sense of self worth for all peoples, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
What some people said about him
General Smuts “It was my fate to be the Antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect. His activities at that time were very trying. Gandhi himself received – what he no doubt desired – a short period of rest and quiet in goal. For him everything went according to plan. For me – the defender of law and order – there was the usual trying situation, the odium of carrying out a law which had no strong public support, and finally the discomfiture when the law had to be repealed. For him it was a successful coup.
Nor was the personal touch wanting. In goal he had prepared for me a very useful pair of sandals which he presented to me when he was set free. I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”
Louis Fischer – American writer.
“ His legacy is courage,
His lesson truth,
His weapon love.
His life is his monument.
He now belongs to mankind.”