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The Gandhi Story :

Born : 2 Oct 1869 Porbandar India.

Died age 78 : 30 Jan 1948 New Delhi

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa

• The Young Lawyer • The Campaigner • The Publisher • The Stretcher Bearer  


The year 2014 marked a hundred years since Mahatma Gandhi left South Africa for good after spending his formative years in this country, where he developed his philosophy of satyagraha, a form of active yet peaceful resistance to political injustices.

South Africa was the crucible that forged Gandhi’s identity as a political activist and was an important prelude to his return to India, where he played a pivotal role in securing its independence from British rule in August 1947.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (his birth name) arrived in South Africa in 1893 at the relatively tender age of 24 as a newly qualified lawyer on a temporary assignment to act on behalf of a local Indian trader in a commercial dispute. What was meant to be a short stopgap for the struggling young lawyer turned into a 21-year stay, with spells in India and England. 


By the time Gandhi left South Africa for the last time in 1914, he had already earned the appellation Mahatma (or Great Soul) for his work in securing significant legal concessions for the local Indian population in South Africa.

During his time here, he developed the strategy known as satyagraha (truth-force), in which campaigners went on peaceful marches and presented themselves for arrest in protest against unjust laws.

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.

For those interested in the Gandhi story, his years in South Africa were an important chapter in his path to becoming a leading political figure of the 20th century; there are many touch points and sites of interest on the road the young Gandhi followed in this country. 

The Young Lawyer


Constitution Hill:
Monument to Mahatma Gandhi imprisoned here. Many famous political activists were imprisoned there, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela,
Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, Winnie Mandela 

Gandhi arrived in Durban on 24 May 1893 aboard the SS Safari. Dada Abdulla, whose firm had hired him to act on its behalf in a commercial dispute with a family member, awaited him on the wharf, and Gandhi moved in with his family in Grey Street.

Even though Gandhi had studied law London, he had been battling to land work in India, both in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his hometown of Porbandar in Gujarat.

His break came when Dada Abdulla and Sons in South Africa needed a lawyer who could speak Gujarati to settle a dispute with a cousin who was failing to pay money owed to the firm.

When Gandhi arrived in 1893, the issue of Indian immigration was a hot topic, and from the outset he became aware of the racial discrimination directed at Indians living in Durban.

Indentured Indian labour had started arriving in the then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) from 1860 onwards to work on the sugar plantations, and many of these labourers stayed on for economic reasons.



Gandhi exhibition at Museum Africa

This increase in Indian population gave rise to growing opposition on the part of the white colonists, particularly when Indian traders also started arriving in the province.

When Gandhi visited Durban courthouse with Abdulla shortly after his arrival, a local magistrate asked him to remove the turban he was wearing. Gandhi refused on grounds that removing headgear was a sign of disrespect in India, and left court. This incident was reported in the local newspaper, the Natal Advertiser, immediately drawing attention to his strong sense of personal dignity.

But this was really just a curtain-raiser to the more famous train incident that ignited his political consciousness. Shortly after his arrival, Gandhi had to travel to Pretoria for the court case and, although he had a first-class ticket, the conductor ordered him to move to a third-class compartment based on his race.

Fortunately the station is largely unaltered, such that where Gandhi fell on the platform, and the waiting room in which he spent the night, have both been identified. A plinth stands at the approximate spot and the waiting room is now a museum.

Given that Gandhi said "my active non-violence began from that date", it is a site of international significance 

The Campaigner


Plaque at Pietermaritzburg Station


A year after his arrival in South Africa, the court ruled in his client’s favour and Gandhi successfully negotiated an amicable settlement to the dispute by renegotiating terms between Dada Abdulla and his cousin.

Gandhi then prepared to return to India for good. On the eve of his departure, however, Abdulla hosted a farewell party for Gandhi at his home in Grey Street in Durban. Here talk turned to a Bill before the Natal Assembly that would remove Indians from the voters’ roll.

The guests, mostly Indian merchants, appealed to Gandhi to stay and fight the legislation on their behalf, offering to pay him an annual retainer to do so. Gandhi wrote later: 'The farewell party was turned into a working committee ... thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.'


Gandhi addressed a meeting in Pietermaritzburg City Hall November, 1912.


Before the night was out, Gandhi had drawn up a petition and set up a temporary committee.

Within a month there were 10 000 signatures, which were presented to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Ripon, who had the Bill temporarily set aside. Nevertheless, a law was passed in 1896 disqualifying voters who were not of European origin.

The committee set up that night eventually evolved into the Natal Indian Congress, which became a driving force behind the satyagraha campaigns between 1906 and 1913.

Thus Gandhi’s political involvement, philosophy and influence grew. He had begun to attract the ire of the white population of Natal and in 1903 decided to move his legal business to Johannesburg, where he gained in stature as a campaigner for the rights of the Asian community. 


The Publisher


Gandhi understood the need to get his message across in writing and so established the weekly Indian Opinion, which first appeared on 6 June 1903.

It was initially published in four languages (Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and English) and was an important mouthpiece for the Indian community.

Gandhi wrote many of the articles himself and later declared that without this publication, satyagraha 'would have been impossible'.

In 1904, the publishing office was relocated to Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement, which was founded on a communal system, inspired by the book “Unto This Last”by John Ruskin that emphasised self-reliance and the value of labour on the land for the common good. Aside from the printing press, there was also a clinic, school and homes. 


The Indian Opinion was a newspaper established by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. The publication was an important
tool for the political movement led by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to fight racial discrimination and
win civil rights for the Indian immigrant community in South Africa. It existed between 1903 and 1915.

The newspaper also helped to coin the word satyagraha through a competition inviting readers to suggest a name for the passive resistance campaigns.

It was also at Phoenix that Gandhi published his first book, Indian Home Rule in English and Hind Swaraj in Gujarati. Penned on a sea voyage from London to Cape Town, it laid out his political vision for India and his moral philosophy, including the principle of inter-faith harmony.

Although banned in both India and the United Kingdom, the book circulated freely in South Africa. Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, was the Indian Opinion’s longest-serving editor, from 1920 to 1956. 

The Stretcher Bearer


On 17 October 1899 (a few days after outbreak of the South African War – or Anglo-Boer War – between Boers and British), Gandhi convened a meeting to persuade Indians to sign up for an ambulance corps.

He argued that Indians could not demand their rights as British citizens if they were not willing to show loyalty to the Empire.

By January 1900, 500 Indians had signed up for the Indian Ambulance Corps, and Gandhi was among them when they attended to the wounded at Spioenkop in Natal.

The bloody Battle of Spioenkop, fought 23 and 24 Jan 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War was an effort to end the 118-day siege of the town of Ladysmith by the Boers.

Other famous figures present at Spioenkop were Sir Winston Churchill (a war correspondent at the time) and the future prime minister of the Transvaal, General Louis Botha, under whose government anti-Indian legislation was to be enacted.

Gandhi and other members of the Indian Ambulance Corps received war medals for their 'chivalry' and loyalty to the queen on the day.

This was not the only time that Gandhi rolled up his sleeves to help the sick.

When Johannesburg had an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1904, Gandhi helped to set up an emergency hospital and nurse victims in the Newtown district, which was later razed to the ground 


Mahatma Gandhi's role in 1899 Anglo Boer War.... Natal Indian Ambulance Corps

During the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 M. K. Gandhi, a lawyer working for Muslim Indian Traders in Natal, formed a volunteer Ambulance Corps for the British Army.
The Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, led by M. K. Gandhi, was composed of 300 free and 800 indentured labourers sent by their employers. Its task was to take the wounded brought by the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps from the battlefield and carry them to the railhead. It left for the front on December 14, 1899. It reached the field hospital at Chieveley the next day and was immediately employed in carrying the wounded from the battle of Colenso. It was moved to Estcourt on December 17, and temporarily disbanded two days later.

Due to the rocky and broken terrain surrounding the Kop horse drawn ambulances were unusable. The task of getting the British wounded down from Spion Kop and back to the field hospital, a march estimated by Gandhi to be some 25 miles, fell instead to Gandhi and his stretcher bearers. Gandhi and his men worked tirelessly in oppressive heat with little water or cover from the sun or the enemy. It is likely many more men would have died if the Indian Ambulance Corps had not been there to evacuate them.

The Corps was reformed on January 7, 1900, and was again stationed at Estcourt. It was summoned on the eve of the battle of Spion Kop. During the big battle there on January 24, when British suffered heavy casualties, members of the Corps agreed to receive the wounded under fire and carry them from Spion Kop to the base hospital at Frere, more than twenty miles away. Gandhi lived in South Africa for over 20 years, arriving in 1893; he became a prominent member of the Indian community in South Africa campaigning for the rights of other Indian émigrés.

The British commander General Buller mentioned the Corp in despatches and Gandhi and 34 of his men were awarded the Queen’s South Africa campaign medal. 

Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street (formerly Grey Street)

This street in Durban’s CBD is where Gandhi first stayed when he arrived in South Africa as a guest of Abdulla.

The street is named after anti-apartheid activist Dr Yusuf Dadoo, whose father was once defended by Gandhi in court when the Krugersdorp municipality was attempting to evict him from his shop on racial grounds. Dadoo was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns and led similar peaceful protests in South Africa in the 1940s.

Also in Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street is the Juma Masjid Mosque, the oldest in the southern hemisphere.
Grey Street Writers Trails
Some writers and activists who also lived in Grey Street are well known in South Africa and in some cases worldwide, Mahatma Gandhi and Archbishop Desmond Hurley are just two of many that come to 


Sage – Leader - Legend

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won.”
“I realised the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties driven asunder.”
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
“A man of truth must also be a man of care.”
“One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.”
“My life is my message.”
“To deprive a man of his natural liberty and to deny to him the ordinary amenities of life is worse than starving the body; it is starvation of the soul, the dweller in the body.”
“You change your life by changing your heart.”
“Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.”
“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.”
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Gandhi SOUTH AFRICA Time Line
Gandhi South Africa TIMELINE – 1893 - 1914

1869 : Gandhi born October 2, in Porbandar, India

1893 : Gandhi arrives in South Africa to provide legal support for Abdulla and Sons in              Durban. Is

1893 : Kicked off train in Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move out of the first-class              carriage because he is a "non-white" passenger.

1894 : Natal Indian Congress is founded.

1894 : Becomes first honorary secretary of the newly formed Natal Indian Congress.

1896 : Gandhi attacked by a mob after his ship, SS Courtland, docks in Durban when he              returns to South Africa with his family after a home visit

1899 : Gandhi organises Indian Ambulance Corps to serve British in South African War.

1900 : The Indian Ambulance Corps assists at the Battle of Spioenkop

1903 : Starts law practice in Johannesburg and enrolled as an attorney of supreme court              of Transvaal.

1903 : Gandhi founds the weekly Indian Opinion.

1904 : The Phoenix Settlement is established 

1904 : Assists with the nursing of patients during the outbreak of bubonic plague in the                  "Coolie Location".

1906 : A meeting at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg sows the seeds for the                              satyagraha movement.

1906 : Takes a vow of brahmacharya (celibacy and poverty) for life.

1906 : Starts Satyagraha at a mass meeting on 11 September.

1908 : Gandhi is imprisoned at the Old Fort in Johannesburg for the first time

1908 : A crowd, led by Gandhi, burns registration certificates outside the Hamidia                
             mosque together with 3,000 other Satyagrahis on 16 August and again on 23                        August.

1909 : Gandhi publishes the book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule)

1910 : Tolstoy Farm is established outside Johannesburg

1912 : Gives up European dress and restricts himself to a diet of fresh and dried fruit.

1912 : Gandhi accompanies Gopal Gokhale in Natal, and they address a meeting in the                     Pietermaritzburg City Hall

1913 : Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, and several other women defiantly enter the Transvaal,                  refuse to register, and are arrested and imprisoned in Volksrust.

1913 : In response Gandhi leads a march of more than 2000 striking workers into                      Transvaal at Volksrust, and they walk twenty miles per day. Gandhi and Smuts              reach an agreement, the march ends but Gandhi is tried in Dundee, sentenced to              nine months with hard labour, but released early.

1914 : Gandhi and Jan Smuts reach an agreement to relax certain restrictions on Indians              in return for ending the satyagraha campaign. Gandhi and Kasturba leave South              Africa for good

1948 : Gandhi assassinated on 30 January in New Delhi

Source: Constitution Hill Museum, Johannesburg