Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Gandhi in South Africa, 1906

In 1893, a 24-year-old Indian lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in Durban South Africa to take part in a lawsuit in Transvaal. In South Africa,Gandhi's work dramatically changed him, as he faced the discrimination commonly directed at blacks and Indians. One day in court at Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban. Gandhi refused and stormed out of the courtroom. Just before Gandhi was to return to India, he booked a first-class train ticket to Johannesburg – and was ordered out of the train because of his colour. He spent a cold night in the non–European waiting - room at Pietermaritzburg railway station. His experience made him decide to remain in Natal and help the growing community of Indians imported to work on the sugar plantations.

Young Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser in its office in Durban, where he later became the first so-called "coloured" lawyer admitted to the Supreme Court.

In 1894, at the age of 25, Mohandas Gandhi found his calling. Working as a lawyer for an Indian firm in Durban, South Africa, Gandhi was booted out of a first-class train compartment and denied hotel accommodation because of his race. Gandhi was embittered by the experience, and despite his ignorance of current events and terror of public speaking, he launched an all-out assault on South African prejudices, persuading the Natal Indian Congress to run a campaign of education and peaceful noncooperation with authorities.

In 1894, Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress to agitate for Indian rights. In 1896, Gandhi began to teach a policy of passive resistance to, and non-cooperation with, the South African authorities. Gandhi considered the terms passive resistance and civil disobedience inadequate for his purposes, however, and coined another term, Satyagraha ("truth and firmness").

Gandhi with his friends in South Africa

In 1903 Gandhi began publishing the weekly Indian Opinion, which, from 1904, was printed at Phoenix, 20 km north of Durban, where he had started a communal farming project for Indians. In 1906 he gave aid against the Zulu revolt. Later in 1906, however, Gandhi began his peaceful revolution. He declared he would go to jail or even die before obeying an anti-Asian law. Thousands of Indians joined him in this civil disobedience campaign. Gandhi organised strikes on the coalfields and sugar plantations and led a march of Indians from Natal to the Transvaal to protest the measures put in place by the Immigration Act. He was arrested several times.

In 1914 the government of the Union of South Africa made important concessions to Gandhi's demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them. His work in South Africa complete, he returned to India.

Several years later, just before his seventieth birthday in 1939, Gandhi was interviewed by a missionary, Dr. John R. Mott. Mott asked Gandhi to single out the most creative experience of his life. This was Gandhi’s reply:

"I recall particularly one experience that change the course of my life. Seven days after I had arrived in South Africa the client who had taken me there asked me to go to Pretoria from Durban. It was not an easy journey. On the train I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out. The train steamed away leaving me shivering in cold. Now the creative experience comes there. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty; I asked my self. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that day."


This decision changed the lives of thousands of South Africans and still inspires them to this date.

When Gandhi's bronze statue was unveiled in Johannesburg late last year, newspapers published letters from some Africans who questioned the move. They complained that Gandhi fought only for the Indians and not for the majority blacks. Ela Gandhi vehemently denies that his grandfather was not interested in the affairs of black people. "Gandhi did not want to impose his leadership on them. He felt that Africans should carry out their own struggle. In fact, many African National Congress leaders have given credit for Mahatma for being their source of inspiration."

GANDHI'S TWENTY-ONE YEARS of experience in South Africa transformed his views on life and human existence. He started to look at the world from a poverty-trapped peasant's perspective, rather than from a middle-class bourgeois perspective. Stories of atrocities committed against exploited workers by their masters shaped his thinking and humbled him. He said, in interpreting Ruskin's book Unto This Last:

  1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
  2. A lawyer's work has the same value as the barber's, as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
  3. A life of labour, i.e. the life of the tiller of the soil and the crafts person, is a life worth living.

The profoundness of these three simple statements provided the essential philosophic underpinning of his movement in South Africa, and led to the creation of three principles, Sarvodaya, Swadeshi and Satyagraha.

Traveling on a Train in India

Gandhi's belongings-He clearly did not need a suitcase nor a wardrobe

Sarvodaya (upliftment of all) was a philosophical position that Gandhi maintained. He believed that morality must underpin all human actions. Society must strive for the economic, social, spiritual and physical well-being of all, not just the majority.

He advocated that the locus of power must be situated in the village or neighbourhood unit. He believed that there should be equitable distribution of resources and that communities must become self-sustaining through reliance on local products instead of large-scale imports from outside. In this way each individual would be able to utilize his or her skills and be able to market his or her goods in the neighbourhood. People would then make goods for local consumption and become interdependent within each locality.

Gandhi was opposed to large-scale industrialisation, and favoured small local industries instead. In this way there would be a certainty that each individual would be gainfully employed and able to live a self-sufficient fulfilled life. This local self-sufficiency he called Swadeshi. It means buy local, be proud of local, support local, uphold and live local. It was based on the theory of decentralized local interdependence and universal employment. When we buy or sell something outside our area then we are depriving a local person of his or her livelihood.

Finally, Gandhi's best-known theory of Satyagraha or non-violent direct action is in fact a way of life, not just an absence of violence. He believed that to carry out non-violent action one needed to be disciplined. His discipline entailed the important element of self-restraint in respect of all the sensory urges and consumptions. It also entailed respect for all beings regardless of religious beliefs, caste, race or creed, and a devotion to the values of truth, love and responsibility.

Gandhi left South Africa in 1914 for India and become a major spiritual and political leader in India and the India Independence movement.

Pictured here with his wife, Kasturba, Gandhi took on India's British colonial rulers upon his return, organizing passive resistance campaigns and shaping the Indian National Congress into an effective grassroots party, based around the philosophy of satyagraha, or unconditional nonviolence. His actions earned him the title of "Mahatma," or "Great Soul."


Gandhi's Johannesburg Book by Eric Itzkin
From a young mining town in South Africa came ideas of peaceful struggle which spread across the world. Formulated by Mohandas Gandhi in the early 1900’s the philosophy of Satyagraha (soul force or passive resistance) became an inspiration to millions all over the world.

Mohandas Gandhi His Years In South Africa by Chris Von Wyk
A brief biography of Mohandas Gandhi, describing his childhood and education and his years in South Africa, where he worked as a lawyer and led the fight for the rights of Indian people in South Africa until he returned to India.

Photos of Gandhi click here
Gandhi in South Africa BBC Article
Gandhi The Sacred Warrior on Time Magazine


Anonymous said...

nice post. gandhi was inspired greatly by the gita. you can read about it at

Anonymous said...

the satyagraha or non-violent direct action is one of the most potent tools of chaning unjust circumstances. it is unfortunate that we seem not to have learned much from M Gandhi in this regard

Anonymous said...

despite the test of racism, but to date Indians of black origin are still in trouble