History rolled from a railway station platform in 1893
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.”