Pilgrimage to Gandhi’s South Africa

It was in South Africa that the seeds of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the potent weapon of non-violent resistance that helped to overthrow the British, were sown. After he was kicked out of a train compartment reserved for whites in Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi resolved to fight injustice.
A.J. Philip visits the Phoenix Settlement to see the milestones which marked the Mahatma’s journey

Pietermaritzburg station where Gandhi spent a night in the waiting room shivering in the cold
Pietermaritzburg station where Gandhi spent a night in the waiting room shivering in the cold

Residents of the Phoenix Settlement wait for the Indian PM.
Residents of the Phoenix Settlement wait for the Indian PM. — Photos by the writer

Ela Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grand-daughter
Ela Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grand-daughter

The home in the Phoenix Settlement where Gandhi stayed
The home in the Phoenix Settlement where Gandhi stayed

A FIFTEEN-MINUTE drive from the hotel at Durban took us to the Pentrich railway station. A small group of officials, people of Indian origin and security personnel were at the station decked up with buntings and driveways freshly marked with lime powder. An air of expectancy hung around as we journalists were asked to keep our camera bags, laptops and all other belongings on the ground.

A leashed dog sniffed each piece of luggage and cleared them till it reached the shoulder bag of an Editor-in-Chief. For a second, the dog stopped. Did it spot a bomb in the bag? The policeman dragged the dog a bit so that it could sniff the bulky bag thoroughly from all sides. Finally, the canine detective declared our entire luggage safe to be carried in the train.

We boarded the two-compartment train pulled by a steam engine. All the doors were closed except the one that led to the first-class compartment, commodious with cushioned seats. The glass panes were large. A black woman was serving canned drinks in the compartment where the blacks could not even enter earlier. We walked through a wooden vestibule to reach the "second class" compartment which had un-cushioned, wooden seats.

Once Prime Minister Manmohan Singh boarded the train, it started moving after an ear-pleasing whistle. We could see the engine billowing out large plumes of smoke as it turned a curve and picked up speed. The wind brought particles of carbon into the compartment —on our heads, clothes and seats. "You should not sit against the wind as the dust may get into your eyes", advised a veteran journalist who is more comfortable delineating on how French wine is different from the South African one.

The smell in the train was distinctly familiar, reminding me of the first train journey I ever made, nearly 45 years ago, from Punalur to Madurai via Sivakasi, famous for fireworks and multi-colour cinema posters. As the train chugged along, a huge double-engined goods train passed by at tremendous speed as if it was an advertisement for the South African prowess in goods haulage, which India is to acquire through an agreement signed between the two railways at Pretoria two days later.

The train moved at a slow pace between a wooded area on the left and a vast, flat area of rail tracks beyond which were crowded urban dwellings. A gun-wielding white policeman sat in front of our coach in what was earlier a toilet. He did not allow me to take his photograph till he adjusted his cap and was "more photographable".

"This is a disused section. The train is run only on weekends when the Railways get enough bookings from tourists, mostly Indians", the policeman told me. He had, of course, heard about Mahatma Gandhi being pushed out of the train because he dared to travel in a "whites only" compartment. In fact, this train from that period is preserved and run only because of its Gandhi connection.

The journey from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg took about 15 minutes. A small group of people and photographers was at the station to receive the Prime Minister. Among them were children who waved tiny Indian flags. The policemen had to do some pushing and jostling to pave the way for the PM and his entourage.

Pietermaritzburg is a station etched in the memory of generations of Indians. I first learnt about it in the school as a lesson in the Malayalam textbook. The infamous incident happened soon after Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work on a court case for Dada Abdullah and Co. It warranted a visit to Pretoria. Status-conscious Gandhi, who kicked up a storm when he did not get a first-class berth in the ship that brought him to Durban, bought a first-class ticket and travelled in style.

This is what Gandhi wrote about the incident in his autobiography: "The train reached (Pieter) maritzburg, the Capital of Natal, at about 9 pm Beddings used to be provided at this station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. ‘No’ said I, ‘I have one with me’. He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a ‘coloured’ man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, ‘Come along, you must go to the van compartment".

Gandhi’s entreaties fell on deaf ears. Soon a constable came. "He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat in the waiting room, keeping my handbag with me, and leaving the other luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.

"It was winter, and winter in the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold. Maritzburg being at a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat shivering. There was no light in the room". The incident steeled his resolve to fight injustice through passive resistance. Thus began his journey as a Mahatma.

We followed the Prime Minister into the same waiting room where on the wall was a colour portrait of the Mahatma with a tilak on his forehead and a beautiful smile on his face. He wrote in the visitor’s diary at the station, "I am awed and humbled to be at the very spot at which began the transformation of an ordinary young lawyer into an extraordinary legend who influenced the destiny of my country`85" He described Petermaritzburg as a place worthy of inscription as a World Heritage site.

An Indian family beamed with happiness when the PM gave one of its younger members an affectionate hug. "Please send me a photograph", his mother pleaded with me but before I could note down her address, the burly policemen had moved them away.

Pietermaritzburg had atoned for its lapse when Nelson Mandela as President conferred posthumously on Gandhi the Pietermaritzburg Freedom award on the very platform he fell over a century ago. The award was received by then Indian High Commissioner in South Africa Gopal Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and Governor of West Bengal.

Our vehicles had reached the station from Pentrich. As the Prime Minister boarded his limousine, I could see from our bus a beggar sitting in front of the station unmindful of the hullabaloo around. He had a dirty bag in which he had collected some left over food packets. He took them one by one and began eating when two cats, one a physically challenged, began pestering him for food. He gave them a kick but they would not easily go away. Finally, he had to throw some food at them.

In the distance my eyes fell on a huge hoarding which proclaimed, "If it’s not just me, you are not for me", with a photograph of a beautiful black girl underneath the writing. It was part of the anti-AIDS campaign, which was so strong that every time I listened to FM radio, I heard a discussion on safe sex, explainable in a country where AIDS poses a major health hazard.

While the Prime Minister headed to the Church Street, a 10-minute drive from the Pietermaritzburg station, to garland the statue of Mahatma Gandhi there, we rushed to the hotel to file our stories. Here there is need to disabuse readers of their belief that journalists accompanying the Prime Minister are present at all his functions. Reasons of logistics and security often force them to skip many such functions.

One such programme we of the print media had to skip the next day was his visit to the Resistance Monument at Umbilo Road where in 1946 a group of men and women took their stand on a`A0piece of land that had been set aside expressly for whites and thus defied the Ghetto Act. They were inspired in doing so by none other than Gandhiji. From there he went to the Rev John Langalibalele Dube memorial and the Ohlange High School he set up as we took position at the Phoenix Settlement.

Rev Dube, who was the first President of the African National Congress, was close to Gandhi. The school he set up was the first institution of its kind for the black South Africans. The school was in the news when Nelson Mandela chose to cast his vote in the first free elections from a booth in this very school.

The school is at a stone’s throw from the Phoenix Settlement which Gandhi set up in 1904 by purchasing 100 acres of land, "14 miles from Durban and two and a half miles from Phoenix station", which had "nice little spring and a few orange and mango trees". It was John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which expounds the concept of the dignity of labour, that motivated Gandhi to go in for the Settlement.

He set up an "international printing press" the remnants of which still remain in what is known as the apex area in Phoenix from where the Indian Opinion was brought out in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. If during Gandhi’s time only employees of the press stayed there, today about 20,000 people live in the area known as Bhambayi.

A small group of black children had assembled in front of the "press". They were waiting to have a "dekko" at the Indian PM. "Have you heard about Gandhiji?", I asked a boy. He and his sister giggled which could mean either they knew or they did not understand my question.

After elaborate security checks, we were ushered into the Settlement. A narrow path led to a bust of Gandhiji and to the single-storeyed house where he once lived. From there, one gets a panoramic view of the Inanda hills dotted with small single-storeyed houses. During Gandhi’s time and until the early 1950s, it was a sparsely-populated area with sugarcane cultivation occupying most of the land.

During the "Inanda riots" in 1985, the Settlement was badly hit with the rioters destroying Gandhi’s house and other properties.

Like the mythical Phoenix bird, the Settlement rose again from the ashes, of course, with liberal assistance from India. Today the Settlement, under a Trust headed by Member of Parliament Mewa Ramgobin, celebrates diversity and affirms inter-racial unity.

Gandhi’s three-room house with a portico has been rebuilt and it now houses a museum. At the function to reopen the Settlement in 2000, Bambayi community leader Victor Gambushe made an apology. He said: "I apologise for what we did and for taking over land that did not belong to us. I hope the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi will now rest in peace."

Gandhi did not stay for long at Phoenix, which he left to found the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg as a tribute to the Russian writer whose The Kingdom of God is Within You influenced him so much that it can be said that it crystallised his thoughts on non-violence. It was Gandhi’s second son Manilal who stayed back at Phoenix and edited the Indian Opinion for as long as 36 years, i.e., till his death.

Manilal was arrested several times, took a leading part in the South African struggle for independence but he did not get the recognition he deserved. The Mahatma’s great grand-daughter Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie in her recent book Gandhi’s Prisoner?: The Life of Gandhi’s Son Manilal gives instance after instance when Gandhi treated him like a virtual prisoner. When Gandhi saw him kissing a teenage girl at Phoenix, he went into a fast for five days to punish his son. He prevented him from marrying his sweetheart Fatima Gool because she was a "Muslim".

Manilal’s younger daughter Ela Gandhi was at Phoenix as a guest of honour. An activist and former Member of Parliament who won the Community of Christ International Peace Award, she told us how privileged she was to witness the liberation of two countries – India in 1947 and South Africa in 1994 – in which her family played a key role.

Ela Gandhi suffered a personal tragedy when a criminal gang killed one of her sons while he was sleeping on the first floor of their house at Phoenix. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the murder was politically motivated but the killers were not brought to book.

Divorced from Mewa Ramgobin, Ela Gandhi remains, at 66, active as president of the Gandhi Development Trust. She has on her hands the onerous task of converting Tolstoy Farm, now in the hands of a private company, into a Gandhi memorial. We could only wish her all the best.