African connections

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Powerful voice: The name Gandhi still spells magic in South Africa.
Powerful voice: The name Gandhi still spells magic in South Africa.


Gandhi’s association with Johannesburg continues to be celebrated even today.

It was in Johannesburg that I found my most precious friends. It was In Johannesburg that the foundation for the great struggle of Passive Resistance was laid in the September of 1906

A recent visit to Johnnesburg, for a conference at Witwatersrand University (popularly known as ‘Wits University’), shed light on India’s links with the city. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Mahatma Gandhi is a great icon in South Africa even to this day.

What struck me as soon as I entered the university were large posters in prominent locations. The posters said, “Gandhi’s Johannesburg — the birthplace of Satyagraha”. I was at once amused and flattered by these posters. I didn’t get the full import of this slogan, until I stopped to read the small print below. I realised then that this was the title of Eric Itzkin’s book published by the University. Wits was an exclusive ‘white man’s bastion’ and Gandhi was certainly not their favourite.

Inspirational figure

This triggered a desire to find out more about Gandhi’s association with Johannesburg, and Durban since he spent around 21 years between these two cities. To quote Itzkin, “Several events in South Africa were decisive in Gandhi’s growth from a shy lawyer to a world-renowned advocate of passive resistance.” That the people of South Africa are proud of their association with Gandhi was indeed heartening. Both the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum depict Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement in South Africa. It would seem that Gandhi’s was the first powerful voice against racial discrimination in South Africa. Nelson Mandela drew inspiration from Gandhi. In one of his articles, Mandela called Gandhi the “The Sacred Warrior” and then wrote thus; “Gandhi dared to exhort non-violence in a time when the violence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had exploded on us; he exhorted morality when science, technology and the capitalist order had made it redundant; he replaced self-interest with group interest without minimizing the importance of self. India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen...”

Gandhi, although a Hindu, believed that everyone’s relationship with God was a personal affair. In this sense, he was a man of all religions. Gandhi fought against the segregation of the blacks, and the Indians in South Africa on numerous occasions. His suffering and the consequent spiritual catharsis, which gave birth to ‘satyagraha’, originated in Johannesburg. So Gandhi’s life is inextricably linked with Johnnesburg and Durban. One can even say that the freedom struggle in India was tested in the laboratory of South Africa.

Gandhi, in his autobiography, said that he would “always be a South African Indian”. He has been remembered in Johannesburg with the naming of Gandhi Square in 1999, originally the site of the first courthouse built in 1893. It was called Government Square, but was renamed Van der Byl Square (first chairman of Eskom, built on the square) when the old building was demolished in 1948. About 40 per cent is used as a bus terminus, with banners flying indicating: Gandhi Square.

To quote Gandhi, “I learnt during all those years to love Johannesburg even though it was a mining camp. It was in Johannesburg that I found my most precious friends. It was Johannesburg that the foundation for the great struggle of Passive Resistance was laid in the September of 1906… Johannesburg, therefore, had the holiest of all the holy associations that Mrs Gandhi and I will carry back to India.”

Parallel histories

I found an unmistakable parallel between our own freedom struggles with that of South Africa, apart from the common factor that is Gandhi. The common man continues to suffer in both countries. Soweto, the black township in Johannesburg, and many such settlements still are a far cry from modernity and decent living. Johannesburg gives one the impression of a world-class city, with its beautiful streets, and promenades. Hidden away are the squalor and poverty in the suburbs, much the same way as in our country. Officialdom still rules the roost in both the countries.

Have we reached a stage when we could call ourselves a true democracy, where the spirit of ‘swaraj’ is felt and lived? When will we be free, in a real sense? The history of South Africa and India is strikingly similar. What about their future? Does Gandhi’s vision of a free nation still sound a distant dream?



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