Mahatma Gandhi South Africa
Sushma Swaraj unveiled a unique bust of the Mahatma Gandhi at the Pietermaritzburg train station in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Gandhi: When South Africa Gave India a Mahatma

This piece by Maya Jagjivan Kalicharan is being republished on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti that is celebrated on 2 October.

As what certainly felt like the onset of the winter chill in Durban that crept into the room, my thoughts rewind to that wintery night in Pietermaritzburg. As a young girl in primary school, I had a poster from a newspaper supplement that detailed the remarkable journey of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in South Africa. I had it stuck behind my door. I would read it every day. The first paragraph of the poster, naturally, was this night, where it all started.

It is now being called, “One night that changed the world.” Indeed, how much has changed in 127 years, more so for the two democratic nations of India and South Africa.

How cold did Gandhi feel that night? Let alone the dropping temperatures, what about the coldness of that onslaught and his first brush with the harsh reality of life for non-Whites in South Africa?

It had always intrigued and inspired me.

Maya Jagjivan, South Africa

These questions raced through my mind at a press briefing at the offices of the Indian Consulate in Durban last week to mark the launch of the commemoration of Gandhi’s eviction from a first-class train compartment in Pietermaritzburg. The press briefing by the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa Ruchira Kamboj was partly diplomatic, but more drenched in symbolism; beautiful symbolism that goes to the heart of Gandhianism.

What really happened on that night for Mahatma Gandhi?

Can the youth today relate to something that happened 127 years ago? If I could as a young girl, they can too. In a world where we are confronted by violence on a basis, it would be foolish of us not to support and spread messages of non-violence, passive resistance and peace as espoused by Gandhi. The events of the 7th of June 1893 have been well-documented by history books and online portals. This excerpt from SA History offers insight into that night.

“Gandhi arrived in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) in 1893 to serve as legal counsel to a merchant Dada Abdulla. In June, Dada Abdulla asked him to undertake a rail trip to Pretoria, Transvaal, a journey which first took Gandhi to Pietermaritzburg, Natal.

There, Gandhi was seated in the first-class compartment, as he had purchased a first-class ticket. A White person who entered the compartment hastened to summon the White railway officials, who ordered Gandhi to remove himself to the van compartment, since ‘coolies’ (a racist term for Indians) and non-whites were not permitted in first-class compartments.

Gandhi protested and produced his ticket, but was warned that he would be forcibly removed if he did not make a gracious exit. As Gandhi refused to comply with the order, a White police officer pushed him out of the train, and his luggage was tossed out on to the platform. The train steamed away, and Gandhi withdrew to the waiting room. “It was winter,” Gandhi was to write in his autobiography, and “the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered”. He says he began to think of his “duty”: ought he to stay back and fight for his “rights”, or should he return to India? His own “hardship was superficial”, “only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice.”

Mahatma Gandhi being thrown off a train at the Pietermaritzburg train station.

And so Gandhi stayed. He stayed for 21 years. Not only did he change history, but he also changed himself and became “Mahatma” – which in Sanskrit means great soul. He fought peacefully against colonialism, he formed the Natal Indian Congress and led civil disobedience campaigns against discriminatory laws. Gandhi made Phoenix in Durban his home, where he developed his philosophies of passive resistance and Satyagraha – which loosely translated means holding onto the truth. The truth is South Africa was an extremely volatile place for non-Whites at that time. More than anything else, because Gandhi was treated in such an undignified manner on that night in June of 1893, he was determined to give dignity to oppressed South Africans.

With all this, it is only befitting that the governments of India and South African in close collaboration with the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Memorial Committee, headed by David Gengan, have chosen to commemorate where his journey in South Africa began.

I recall undertaking that journey from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg station in 2006 when the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited South Africa.

I had just started working as a reporter for the SABC KZN newsroom and was assigned to focus on the symbolism of the event and how South Africans felt. I, of course, felt immensely proud to be walking in the footsteps of this great soul. I was not very tech-savvy back then so I don’t have any pictures to show. But it is one of those journeys where the experience and emotions remain tangible.

For the upcoming commemoration, that journey will be re-created with a deeper symbolism. The compartment wheels and engine will be draped in khadi – which is the fabric that Gandhi had spun by hand. He went on to create a spinning wheel revolution in India where the hand-spun Khadi was popularised as a means for locals to earn an income, and reject foreign cloth. Today, Khadi has become fashionable in India, with celebrities and locals wearing it proudly as a symbol of liberation.

And there is more symbolism. The Pietermaritzburg City Hall where Gandhi addressed a gathering in 1912 is where many dignitaries will converge. The hall will be lit up in the colours of the Indian and South African flags. The clocks at the City Hall and at the train station will be turned to 9pm, because it was around 9pm that Gandhi was evicted from the first-class train compartment. How poignant.

This commemoration will also give new meaning to history in motion. That night will be re-enacted by well-know Indian artist and curator Birad Yajnik – with a live performance and recordings. An interactive, multi-media exhibition fusing elements of new technology will also be launched.

And while there are several busts and statues of Gandhi across South Africa, the bust that will be unveiled at Pietermaritzburg station next month will be the first of its kind. It is a two-sided bust. One side of the bust features Gandhi dressed in his suit as a lawyer as he arrived in South Africa and the other side will depict him in his dhoti and spectacles as he left South Africa.

Sushma Swaraj unveiled a unique bust of the #Mahatma.  Here’s some photos from the historic moment. click here
It was at the Pietermaritzburg train station where Gandhi experienced racism that late Indian Minister. Sushma Swaraj unveiled a unique bust of the Mahatma. Here are some photos of the historic moment, click here

The vision behind the bust truly encapsulates the phrase that is used ever so oft India gave South Africa a lawyer, and South Africa gave not just India, but the world, the Mahatma.

These are deeply-moving activities that have the capacity to create relevant conversations and change lives, like Gandhi did. But, not everyone can or will be able to attend the commemorations. Does that mean the message should not reach you or mean something to you? Absolutely not. At the press briefing, Birad Yajnik said it simply and powerfully, “Gandhi said an eye for an eye will make the world go blind. And look at the world today – what is happening? ”

It was a timely reminder, given the violence at home and abroad. I want you to look deep within yourself and determine if you are adopting this tit-for-tat approach in your life and your relationships in particular. If you only focus on the negative, you will blind yourself and you won’t be able to see or recognise the positive. And believe me, there is immense power in positivity. Gandhi’s train journey was stopped, but he went on to traverse continents with a journey that has inspired global icons like Martin Luther King and our very own, Nelson Mandela.

There is no time like the present, to set the wheels of your personal trains in motion, and forge ahead with your journey. It is ultimately what you make of it. If you haven’t visited the Phoenix settlement, now would be an ideal time to live through that time in history. You can find out more here

Maya Jagjivan

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