When Mahatma Gandhi was a child in the town of Porbandar, India, where he was born in 1869, he and a friend stole money from a servant to buy cigarettes. He felt so guilty about the incident that he told his father and never smoked again. You’ll hear about this anecdote and many others on the Gandhi’s Johannesburg tour given by the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust.
Gandhi, founder of non-violent resistance and father of India’s struggle for independence from Britain, arrived in South Africa in 1893 to handle a legal case in Pretoria. He moved to Johannesburg in 1903 and, in between return visits to India, stayed in the country for 21 years before going back to his homeland.
The early period of Gandhi’s stay in Johannesburg was taken up with establishing his legal firm, but from 1906 he became actively involved in politics and this helped formulate his ideas on passive resistance.
When Gandhi first came to Johannesburg he lived in rooms behind his law offices in Rissik Street. Henry Pollak was a partner in his law firm and Gandhi moved into Pollak’s house in Orange Grove, at 34 Grove Road. The house still stands – a jolly yellow house, with green roof, and a bignonia and plumbago hedge, with pointsettias in the front garden.
Another house he stayed in, this time with his family whom he had brought up from Durban, was a double-storey in 11 Albermarle Street. A house down the road, 19 Albermarle Street, was bought and lovingly restored by architect Michael Hart in 1991, in the mistaken belief that it was Gandhi’s house. After much pressure from Hart, no 19 was proclaimed a national monument in 1994 – it certainly is a beautiful house, in Art Nouveau style. The much plainer house at No 11 is still not a national monument.
When the Anglo Boer War broke out, Gandhi, a loyal British subject, became involved. A contingent of 7 000 non-combatant Indians came out to South Africa to help with the British war effort. Gandhi encouraged local Indians to help – he got together 1 000 stretcher bearers. Four of them are remembered in a memorial on the Observatory ridge and a grave in the Braamfontein Cemetery – they are described on the tombstone as “Indian details”.
Bubonic plague struck Johannesburg in 1904, at the Indian settlement behind what is now the Market Theatre in Carr Street, Newtown (now occupied by Premier Milling). Gandhi was not put off by the contagious disease, and together with an Indian doctor, set up an emergency hospital, recruited several volunteers, rolled up his sleeves and nursed the sick patients. Some 112 people contracted the plague, and 82 died. Shortly after this, the location was torched by the council to combat the disease, and in October 1904 the area was renamed Newtown.
Several events in South Africa were decisive in Gandhi’s growth from shy lawyer to world-renowned advocate of passive resistance. These events include being thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg on his way to Pretoria, and, after struggling to find a hotel in the city, being told that he could not eat in the dining room of the hotel; and being ordered off the pavement outside president Paul Kruger’s house and told to get a pass to walk Pretoria’s streets. But a more important event molded his thinking: the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906. This law proposed that Indians and Chinese were to register their presence in the Transvaal, giving their fingerprints and carrying passes. The protest to the act united the two communities and they decided to oppose the Ordinance by peaceful methods.
Protestors got together at the Empire Theatre in Ferreira Street (between Fox and Commissioner Streets), now a rather nondescript Ferreira House, where passive resistance was born. Gandhi spoke to the protestors, with the theme of “violence begets violence”. Protestors then marched through Johannesburg, were arrested and thrown into prison at The Fort, a place which Gandhi got to know well over the following years – he was sentenced to spend time there at least four times.
Transvaal Colonial Secretary Jan Smuts called Gandhi to his office and offered to repeal the law if Indians and Chinese registered voluntarily. Gandhi was censured by the community for agreeing to this – he was called a traitor and severely beaten. At this point Gandhi met one of the many good friends he made in Johannesburg: the Reverend Joseph Doke, who, together with his wife, took Gandhi home and nursed his injuries.
Meanwhile, the community registered under the law, but Smuts went back on his word – the new law was passed as the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act of 1907. In response Gandhi encouraged his colleagues to burn their passes, which happened outside the Hamidia Mosque in Newtown, at 2 Jennings Street. But Gandhi and his passive resisters did not win this battle. He made an appeal to the British, and they put pressure on the Transvaal government, which eventually repealed the Act. But the Transvaal got self-government in 1907 and promptly reintroduced the Pass Law Act in 1907. After further burning of registration certificates, the movement lost momentum and by the middle of 1909, most Indians had registered for fingerprinting.
A friend of Gandhi’s, Hermann Kallenbach, an architect, bought 1 100 acres of land 35 kilometers south-west of Johannesburg, and gave it to Gandhi and his passive resisters. It became known as Tolstoy Farm and followed the communal principles of a kibbutz. Men and women were housed separately, they grew their own vegetables and fruit trees. Eric Itzkin, in his Gandhi’s Johannesburg, describes the farm: “At its height Tolstoy Farm supported a community of about fifty adults and thirty children but by April 1912 most of the Satygrahis’ families had left, since passive resistance had been suspended after an interim agreement with Smuts. Gandhi left the farm on January 2, 1913, leaving behind only Kallenbach and the Africans who lived there.”
Gandhi played a role in the building of the first Hindu crematorium in Johannesburg, and the first in Africa. In 1908 Gandhi was approached to help find a suitable plot for a crematorium. He negotiated with the town council and land in the Brixton Cemetery was allocated for the crematorium. Finally, after Gandhi had left the country, the wood-burning crematorium was built in 1918, and it still stands, although a brick gas-fired crematorium was built in 1956, which is still used. And, before you ask, Hindus were buried before the crematorium was built, very much against their religious beliefs. Gandhi, although a Hindu, was familiar with the Bible, and believed that everyone’s relationship to God was a personal affair – in this sense he was a man of all religions. Gandhi felt his job in South Africa was complete, and he made plans to leave the country, which he did in 1914, to further develop his ideology in India.
As Nelson Mandela wrote of Gandhi, whom he called “The Sacred Warrior”, in 2000: “He is the archetypal anti-colonial revolutionary. His strategy of non-cooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anti-colonial and anti-racist movements internationally in our century.” Mandela pointed out in this article, written for Time magazine, that Gandhi’s experiences in the Bambatha Rebellion had awoken him to the realities of colonial oppression: “The sight of wounded and whipped Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic.”