Gandhi, Johannesburg and the birth of Satyagraha

Following the prisoner with garlands of flowers

He must have cut a strange figure. A small man in prison clothing surrounded by prison warders (having arrived by train from a Volksrust prison) being walked from Park Station to the Old Fort in Braamfontein.  This vignette was made all the more unusual because of a following of supporters bearing garlands of colourful flowers.  

The year was 1908 and the man was an Indian lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi who had been called to testify in a case in Johannesburg.

Gandhi Heritage Sites in Joburg

Part of the Gandhi exhibition at Constitution Hill. Source:
Part of the Gandhi exhibition at Constitution Hill. Source:

Because of Apartheid censorship and isolationism, the general South African public knew little of how pivotal Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa were in the development of his philosophy of Satyagraha; nor how Johannesburg has so many heritage sites associated with this world icon of peaceful resistance. His activities in South Africa were certainly not part of any school history syllabus. He has only really entered popular imagination in terms of memorialization post 1994.

  • Gandhi is the subject of an exhibition at Constitution Hill
  • Gandhi Square (the transport square in Joburg Central) is named after him and a statue of him is there
  • There’s a sculpture commemorating the burning of the passes outside a mosque near the Oriental Plaza
  • The house in Orchards where he lived with the architect Kallenbach has been restored as Satyagraha House
  • and Tolstoy farm is 35 km south-west of Johannesburg.  
  • And these are but some of the few buildings and sites associated with his life in Johannesburg, which still exist.

Gandhi’s South Africa experience and the ‘birth’ of Satyagraha

After his arrival in South Africa to Natal in 1893, Gandhi was involved  in fighting restrictions against Indians; and many know of the incident when he was told to leave the train in Pietermarizburg, because he would not move from the first-class train carriage – reserved for whites.  

But it was in Johannesburg that he was to grow the profile and refine the philosophies which were to define his life and global influence and ultimately play a large role in India’s independence from British rule in 1948.

Gandhi and the prison at the Old Fort 

In September 1906 there was a mass gathering (outside Johannesburg’s old Empire Theatre) resisting the promulgation of the Asiatic Registration Act (sworn into law a year later in 1907) whereby all Indians had to carry passes at all times.

Release from the Fort; Gandhi on the left. Source: Transvaal Weekly Illustrated 8 Feb 1908
Release from the Fort; Gandhi on the left. Source: Transvaal Weekly Illustrated 8 Feb 1908

Because he refused to carry a pass and because he refused to leave the Transvaal, (there was a ban on Indian immigration to the Transvaal), in January 1908, Gandhi was arrested and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment in the ‘non-European’ section of the old Fort at what is now known as Constitution Hill.

Gandhi’s  memorial outside the Hamida Mosque, Newtown

Granted an early release by General Smuts he was back in jail in October 1908 after his role in the burning of the passes at the Hamida mosque in what is currently Newtown.

Memorial at Hamida Mosque by Usha Seejarim 2007. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Memorial at Hamida Mosque by Usha Seejarim 2007. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

Outside this mosque (in Jennings Street and still in use), a sculpture (2007) by Usha Seejarim of a potjie (three legged cast iron pot) with a wheel beneath, memorializes this event.  Seejarim notes: ‘The idea is when the wheel beneath the cauldron spins, the word truth appears and the viewer sees an image of a pass burning’. (Great Lives; Pivotal Moments page 15)

The text from the Sunday Times memorial plaque reads:

On August 16, 1908, 3000 Muslims, Hindus and Christians led by Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, gathered outside the Hamidia Mosque and burned passes, documents all people classified ‘non-white’ by the government were forced to carry or face imprisonment. The huge bonfire, lit in a cauldron, marked the first burning of passes in South Africa and the beginning of Gandhi’s Satyagraha, or passive resistance campaign.’

The birth of Satyagraha

The plaque refers to ‘Gandhi’s Satyagraha, or passive resistance campaign’.  In fact Satyagraha, combining the two Sanskrit words – satya (truth) and graha (seizing, holding), is loosely translated as ‘truth force’ or ‘loyalty to truth’ so the word ‘passive’ is slightly misleading as it is more accurate to understand the process as pursuing truth in an engaged way.  This form of action was to become one of the great political tools of the 20th century, influencing the civil rights movement in the United States and the African National Congress in its early years of struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Memorial to Gandhi the Lawyer

Gandhi in a rare representation as a lawyer, Gandhi Square, Johannesburg. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Gandhi in a rare representation as a lawyer, Gandhi Square, Johannesburg. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

In the late 1990s property developer Gerald Olitzki was granted permission to revamp the bus terminus as part of Johannesburg’s inner city renewal project and in 2002 reconstruction of the square was finished and a statue of a young Mahatma Gandhi was placed at its centre.  The site of the present square (bounded by Rissik, Eloff, Fox and Marshall) originally called Government Square was the location for Johannesburg’s first court buildings and Gandhi had his offices nearby (15 Rissik Street). Accordingly the statue of Gandhi shows him dressed in his legal attire. I read somewhere that this is the only statue representing him as a lawyer but not sure that this can be true? Whenever I have visited Gandhi square and have either taken photos myself or seen others trying to capture the Gandhi statue, I can see bemused expressions wondering what the attraction is. Sometimes those relaxing on the benches at the base of the plinth will look up and see, it seems for the first time, that there is a sculpted figure of ‘a man’ there. Perhaps his connection to Johannesburg and South Africa is still not widely understood!

Where Gandhi lived in Johannesburg

Eric Itzkin in his seminal book: Gandhi’s Johannesburg published in 2000, discusses some of the places where Gandhi lived (at various times with his family – his wife Kasturba and their 3 sons, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas).

  • He stayed in Troyeville, Bellevue East
  • and then, the most well-known of all: at the Kraal in Orchards, built in 1907 by the architect and Gandhi’s lifelong friend: Hermann Kallenbach.
  • After leaving the Kraal, Kallenbach, Gandhi and various family members lived under canvas at ‘The Tents’ near MountainView
  • and then from 1910, until it wound down in 1913, at Tolstoy Farm.  Gandhi left South Africa in 1914.

Satyagraha House. Source:
Satyagraha House. Source:
Gandhi's bed . Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Gandhi’s bed . Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

The Kraal was bought in 2009 by the French travel company Voyageurs du Monde and was very sensitively restored and in 2011 opened to the public as Satyagraha House: a museum (by prior arrangement) and guest house.  It is a little jewel of a museum intelligently curated with wonderful artefacts and a real sense of Gandhi’s austerity and simple lifestyle. And the guesthouse is apparently wonderfully comfortable – I’d love to skive off from Liz at Lancaster and spend a night at Satyagraha Guesthouse. It’s on my bucket list! 

Tolstoy Farm 

Tolstoy's reply 1910, to a letter from Gandhi
Tolstoy’s reply 1910, to a letter from Gandhi

And I have yet to visit Tolstoy Farm which became the site of the Satyagraha movment during its final phases in South Africa.  Bought and funded by Kallenbach, it was here that Gandhi established a base for Satyagrahis to live in a sustainable way.  Gandhi’s ideals of material austerity, manual labour, vegetarianism, and self-discipline paralleled those of the farm’s  namesake.

Walking Johannesburg 

Walking from Park Station to the prison in Braamfontein was nothing compared to the distances in and around Johannesburg that Gandhi covered on foot. He walked everywhere in Johannesburg:

  • 6km from Troyeville to his office
  • 10km from Orchards to work
  • and he even travelled the 35km from Tolstoy Farm to Johannesburg on foot.

Itzkin quotes Gandhi:

Anyone who wished to got to Johannesburg [from Tolstoy Farm] went there on foot once or twice a week and returned the same day … The general practice was that the sojourner would rise at two o’clock and start at half past two. He would reach Johannesburg in six or seven hours. The record for the minimum take on the journey was four hours and eighteen minutes.

He was indeed an extraordinary man and it is also truly remarkable the role that South Africa and its racist policies played in the formation of Gandhi’s ideas, principles and practices.

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