His­tory rolled from a rail­way sta­tion plat­form in 1893

Sunday Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - ROB HASWELL

THERE are few, if any, bet­ter places to walk in the foot­steps of Gandhi and Man­dela than in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg and, what’s more, it is pre­cisely be­cause this is a qui­eter, some say sleepier, city that Pi­eter­mar­itzburg’s fine col­lec­tion of his­toric build­ings, in which Gandhi and Man­dela spoke, have re­mained largely un­al­tered. It is pos­si­ble, there­fore, to quite lit­er­ally walk in the foot­steps of the two icons of the 20th cen­tury.

Hope­fully, you all know that on June 7, 1893, a young In­dian bar­ris­ter, de­spite hav­ing a first­class ticket, was thrown off a train at the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg Rail­way Sta­tion. But, do you know that the sta­tion build­ing is much the same, apart from some blue mod­ern signs, as it was 125 years ago? The orig­i­nal Mar­itzburg red bricks are now an or­angey-pink, but they still stand, as do the orig­i­nal iron poles. There­fore, with the help of rail­way his­to­ri­ans, who know how long the pas­sen­ger trains were in 1893, and that first class was at the back to avoid all the smoke and coal dust, it was pos­si­ble to pin­point quite ac­cu­rately where Gandhi fell.

Then, in his own words: “The train steamed away leav­ing me shiv­er­ing in the cold. 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 my­self ? 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 date.”

An old plan of the sta­tion shows us which was the wait­ing room that Gandhi en­tered, and in which he spent the night. Thus, when you walk from where he fell to the wait­ing room you are in­deed walk­ing in his foot­steps. As if that isn’t his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant and deeply mov­ing enough, the wait­ing room is now a small mu­seum, which out­lines Gandhi’s life, and the in­spi­ra­tion he was to Nel­son Man­dela and to Dr Martin Luther King jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Move­ment in the US.

It is there­fore no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Gandhi’s de­ci­sion, taken in that dark wait­ing room, was to change the course of his­tory, in South Africa, In­dia and the US.

With­out Gandhi would there have been a Man­dela, a Martin Luther King, a Barack Obama? It is a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion worth think­ing about.

One thing is cer­tain: the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg Rail­way Sta­tion is truly a build­ing of in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance, and if we man­age and mar­ket it bet­ter, vis­i­tors from many parts of the world would come to ex­pe­ri­ence its ambience. By the way, since we have OR Tambo and King Shaka Air­ports, why not the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg Gandhi Rail­way Sta­tion?

Gandhi lived in South Africa for 21 years, liv­ing mainly in Phoenix, near Dur­ban, and on Tol­stoy Farm, near Jo­han­nes­burg, but be­cause Pi­eter­mar­itzburg was the cap­i­tal of the Bri­tish Colony of Natal, and there­fore where the racially op­pres­sive laws were in­tro­duced and de­bated, his po­lit­i­cal fo­cus was on Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, par­tic­u­larly the Colo­nial Par­lia­ment Build­ing, which still stands, be­hind a statue of Queen Vic­to­ria, in Lan­gal­ibalele Street. Right along­side is the Tatham Art Gallery, which used to house the Supreme Court, which Gandhi ap­peared in on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. In 1897, Gandhi stayed in the orig­i­nal Im­pe­rial Ho­tel.

On Novem­ber 7, 1912, he ad­dressed a jam-packed meet­ing in the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg City Hall.

In 1913, his wife, Kas­turba, who was a for­mi­da­ble ac­tivist in her own right, was im­pris­oned in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg’s Burger Street Prison for protest­ing against a law that de­clared tra­di­tional In­dian mar­riages to be null and void. When the prison author­i­ties re­fused to sup­ply ghee she went on a hunger strike. She won and Gandhi came to meet her upon her re­lease on De­cem­ber 22, 1913.

On June 6, 1993, Arch­bishop Desmond Tutu un­veiled the Gandhi Statue in Church Street, and said: “What is ex­tra­or­di­nary is that the statue of a black man is in­stalled in the mid­dle of a white city.”

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