An unconfident Mahatma Gandhi landed in Durban in 1893. Ten years later a much changed man stepped off a train at Park Station in Joburg, well on his way to developing a philosophy that would touch the world.
By the time he left South Africa for his native India in 1914, at the age of 46, Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha was fully realised.
Satyagraha is the philosophy of non-violent (or “passive”) resistance famously employed by Gandhi in forcing the end of the British Raj – but first wielded against racial injustice in South Africa.
This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the Satyagraha movement, based on a philosophy which originated in September 1906, born out of Gandhi’s experiences while living in Johannesburg with his family from 1903 to 1914.
Gandhi left his gentle footprint around Johannesburg: from the house in Albermarle Street in Troyeville, where he and his family stayed in the early 1900s, to Victory House in the CBD, where he was refused entry to the city’s first lift, to the Old Fort prison where he served two terms of several months each in 1908.
But perhaps the most significant site was the Empire Theatre – long demolished but originally on the corner of Commissioner and Ferreira streets – where the Satyagraha movement was born.
Birth of Satyagraha
On 11 September 1906, Gandhi chaired a meeting of more than 3 000 people there. The town’s Indians were protesting against the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, Eric Itzkin writes in Gandhi’s Johannesburg, birthplace of Satyagraha.
The ordinance required all Asians to obey three rules: those of eight years or older had to carry passes for which they had to give their fingerprints; they would be segregated as to where they could live and work; new Asian immigration into the Transvaal would be disallowed, even for those who had left the town when the South African War broke out in 1899 and were returning.
The meeting produced the Fourth Resolution, in which all Indians resolved to go to prison rather than submit to the ordinance.
Itzkin, Johannesburg’s deputy director of immovable heritage, quotes Gandhi as saying: “Up to the year 1906 I simply relied on appeal to reason. I was a very industrious reformer … But I found that reason failed to produce an impression when the critical moment arrived in South Africa.
“My people were excited – even a worm can and does turn – and there was talk of wreaking vengeance. I had then to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked. Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war.”
Despite Satyagraha, the ordinance became law in 1907, and non-violent resistance was used by the Transvaal’s Indians to oppose discrimination.
In 1913 it spread to Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), where Indian coal miners downed tools.
The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, was also influenced and used the philosophy up until the 1960s, when they switched to a policy of armed struggle to overthrow apartheid.
Satyagraha was also used by Martin Luther King in the US who, according to Itzkin, “accepted Satyagraha as the only morally sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”.
Source: City of Johannesburg