Gandhi driven by SA’S inequity
Being humiliated in Maritzburg was a major turning point, writes Richard Rhys Jones
ASTONE’S throw from the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, champion of the underdog, who campaigned so successfully for equal rights for Indians in South Africa that he became one of the great men of the 20th century.
But had it not been for a twist of fate at the Pietermaritzburg railway station on the evening of June 7, 1893, Indians might not have become full citizens of their adopted country – and India could still be ruled by Britain.
Nobody could have foreseen that the forcible ejection from a train of a young lawyer 125 years ago would have such far-reaching consequences. Today, the Gandhi statue and the station foyer are places of pilgrimage for Indian tourists and other admirers of the man called Mahatma (Great Soul).
Gandhi landed in Durban 33 years after the first immigrants from India had arrived to develop the British colony’s coastal sugar belt. Natal’s white sugar farmers were desperately short of cane cutters because the Zulus preferred their tribal economy to working in the cane fields.
India offered a solution to their dilemma when peasants and craftsmen were persuaded by unscrupulous recruiting agents to fill vacancies created by emancipated slaves on the world’s tropical plantations. It was a new form of slavery as Indians were loaded into ships and dispatched to British, Dutch and French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Ceylon, Fiji, South America, Kenya, Mauritius and Natal. The system was only abolished in 1920 following agitation led by Gandhi.
The first ship to arrive in Durban from Madras on November 16, 1860, was the paddle-steamer SS Truro, and the next day the immigrants disembarked. There were 342 of them, mainly South Indian Hindus with a sprinkling of Christians and Muslims. Ten days later, on November 26, the SS Belvedere docked in Durban from Calcutta with 351 Indians, most of them from the south and east of India. Shiploads of immigrants continued to arrive at regular intervals, sometimes sailing for 30 days and often for as long as two months.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in Durban in May 1893. After completing his legal training in England he had been engaged to defend a Durban Indian in a court case in Pretoria.
Gandhi wrote in his memoirs: “I was going by train as far as Charlestown and then had to take a coach to Pretoria. On the train I had a first-class ticket but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard asked me to go to the van compartment. I would not go.”
The Natal Government Railways guard called a police constable who pushed the young lawyer and his luggage out of the compartment on to the station platform.
“The train steamed away, leaving me shivering in the cold,” Gandhi recalled. “This was the experience that changed my life. I entered the station’s dark waiting room and asked myself whether I should go back to India or 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 date.”
The telegram of protest he sent next morning to the general manager of the Natal Government Railways launched his public career.
Back in Durban, he discovered that the indignities he experienced were a daily occurrence for Indians who merely wanted to be left in peace to pursue their business. Concerned that they seemed immune to racial humiliations, Gandhi soon sharpened their sensitivities and encouraged them to react to bad treatment by the colonial authorities. He told them that human dignity was fundamental and viewed their disenfranchisement in 1896 as permanently relegating them to an inferior position in South African life.
His investigations into anti-indian discrimination revealed a shocking state of affairs on the sugar farms. There were no written contracts and verbal promises rarely coincided with actual practice. Payment was paltry and the men and women worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week and sometimes on Sundays.
Soon after his humiliating experience at the station, he galvanised them into peaceful protest – “satyagraha” – and launched an intensive propaganda campaign. Gandhi coined the word from truth (satya), implying love, while firmness (agraha) was a synonym for force.
He became secretary of the Natal Indian Congress and, in 1902, founded the Indian newspaper, The Indian Opinion, which played a significant political role until its closure in 1960. From 1894, the Natal Indian Congress and its associate body, the Transvaal British Indian Association, protected Indian rights and promoted Indian interests in South Africa.
Gandhi influenced the political and ideological orientation of both organisations, insisting that equality was a fundamental human right. He emphasised that the government was bound by treaty obligations to extend equal citizen rights to Indians – and every discriminatory measure was opposed on these grounds.
Gandhi led many peaceful protest marches between 1906 and 1913, against the imposition of passes on Indians by the British Transvaal government, as well as with 6 000 striking coal miners in Natal. Returning to India in July 1914 after almost 21 years of active campaigning, Gandhi was destined to do the same in the country of his birth, building on the foundation of his South African experience to begin a new struggle for human freedom.
The Great Soul returned to his Source on January 30, 1948 when Gandhi was shot in the chest three times by an assassin.
The Gandhi statue in the Church Street Mall is close to the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.