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​It was in Johannesburg that world leader Mahatma Gandhi developed his satyagraha philosophy. This story is told at an exhibition at Museum Africa.
AN in-depth story of the life of a religious man, a philosopher and an activist for free society, Mahatma Gandhi, is told in a mind-blowing exhibition at Museum Africa.

A young Mahatma GandhiA young Mahatma GandhiThe exhibition, entitled Gandhi’s Johannesburg – Birthplace of Satyagraha, consists of pictures and snippets of history and tells of the years the world-renowned pacifist leader spent in Johannesburg, from 1903 to 1913. It reveals his founding of and growing adherence to his philosophy of satyagraha, as well as his devotion to equality for all and universal suffrage.

During Gandhi’s stay in South Africa, during which time it was a British colony, as was his homeland of India, the colonial government imposed discriminatory laws on various groups, including blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese. These groups were regarded as second class citizens and were not treated equally.

In demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination, Gandhi developed satyagraha, or soul force. He preached mass defiance and passive resistance to unjust laws, from the early 1900s. He advocated for the rights of people across the racial and religious spectrum, including blacks, coloureds, Asian, Indian, Chinese, Muslim, Hindu, Animist and Christian people.

So powerful was the philosophy that it inspired downtrodden people across South Africa, India and the world. The founders of the ANC adopted satyagraha in 1912, and the first mass anti-apartheid programme, the Defiance Campaign of 1952, followed the pattern of passive resistance set by Gandhi.

Civil rights
It was only in the 1960s, under increasing pressure from the National Party-ruled apartheid government and banning orders, that the ANC resorted to armed struggle. The exhibition reveals that satyagraha influenced other powerful political movements, such as the African-American civil rights groups, South Africa’s black liberation groups and India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

The Hindu Crematorium in Brixton, built in 1918, four years after Gandhi left South AfricaThe Hindu Crematorium in Brixton, built in 1918, four years after Gandhi left South AfricaGandhi founded the British Indian Association in 1903, in pursuit of the resistance struggle, and was its chief strategist. In his resistance campaigns, he worked closely with the Hamidia Islamic Society, although he was a Hindu.

It was outside the Hamidia Mosque on 16 August 1908 that Indians and Chinese set alight more than 1 200 registration certificates in an outpouring of mass resistance to the colonial government’s decree that all people of Asian descent carry identity certificates.

The Hamidia Mosque, at 2 Jenning Street in Newtown, is still used today.

On the 23rd of the same month, another 525 registration certificates went up in flames. These demonstrations followed the passing of the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act that year. It demanded that all people of Asian descent provide a thumb print in addition to their personal identification registration certificates.

If they failed to comply, they would be refused access to trade. In addition, those found without registration certificates could be deported or fined on the spot.

The exhibition records that at the time, a great number of Indians, Chinese blacks and coloureds lived in a settlement on the western side of Joburg that was called the Coolie Location. The area is today known as Newtown.

The area was neglected by the municipality and became a slum. There were no proper roads, lighting or sanitation. As a result of these unhygienic conditions, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1904.

Gandhi, who was very much part of the community, nursed the victims in a temporary plague hospital set up at what is today 76 Carr Street. To quell the contagious diseases, the authorities moved residents to an emergency camp in Klipspruit, 21 kilometres south of Joburg.

Chinese passive resisters, with their leader Leung QuinnChinese passive resisters, with their leader Leung QuinnThe Coolie Location was burnt to the ground, and the Klipspruit settlement grew into Soweto. Newtown was later redeveloped into a business precinct for white-owned businesses.

Outspoken as he was, Gandhi blamed the city council for using the disease caused by municipal neglect as an excuse to destroy the Coolie Location. He was a lawyer and took on the government for expropriation of land in the area, a battle he never won.

Like many other activists who challenged the system, he was arrested, along with many of his followers. He appeared in court both as a prisoner and as a lawyer defending other satyagrahas. In all, he was imprisoned four times during his years in South Africa, two of those times in Johannesburg, where he was held at the OId Fort Prison

A range of pictures showing Gandhi and other inmates at the prison in Braamfontein – at one time the most notorious jail in the country – are on display. During the struggle of later years, many anti-apartheid activists were also incarcerated in the prison.

While Gandhi opposed the system of discrimination, he also made compromises. His first prison sentence, for example, ended in early release after he agreed to support voluntary registration in return for General Jan Smuts abolishing compulsory registration of Asians. Smuts, at the time the colonial secretary of the Transvaal, was his main political opponent at the time.

Visitors are also able to learn about some of the significant landmarks in Johannesburg that were touched by Gandhi. They include the Hindu Crematorium at the Brixton Cemetery. Built in 1918, it was the first Hindu crematorium on the African continent.

Through his interventions, the Hindu community obtained a suitable piece of land for the crematorium. Money for its construction – it was only built after Gandhi left South Africa – was donated by the community. The crematorium was declared a national monument in 1995.

Struggle stalwart Walter Sisulu unveils a tombstone for Nagappen, 20 April 1997Struggle stalwart Walter Sisulu unveils a tombstone for Nagappen, 20 April 1997In honouring his legacy, landmarks have been named after him, such as Gandhi Hall. The hall is located on the corner of Ferreira and Marshall streets in down town Johannesburg. It was built by the Transvaal Hindu Seva Samaj in 1939, and was used as a meeting place by the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups.

Mentioned in the Gandhi exhibition are other followers of satyagraha, including those who died in the pursuit of freedom.
In one intriguing picture, taken on 20 April 1997, veteran anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu is seen unveiling a tombstone for Swami Nagappen Padayachee, an 18-year-old who died of pneumonia and resultant heart failure shortly after he was released from prison. Fellow prisoners reported that he had been physically abused by prison warders.

In spite of the injustices, discrimination and incarceration, Gandhi loved Johannesburg. In his farewell speech on the eve of his departure from South Africa he said Johannesburg was the place where he found his precious friends, and where the foundation was laid of the great struggle of passive resistance.

“Johannesburg therefore had the holiest of all holy associations”, he said.

Gandhi’s Johannesburg – Birthplace of Satyagraha is a permanent exhibition at Museum Africa in Newtown. The museum, at 121 Bree Street, is open from Tuesdays to Fridays, from 9am to 5pm. Entrance is free and there is parking in Mary Fitzgerald Square.

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