Dada Abdulla's job offer changed Gandhi's life

This picture taken on September 29, 2019, shows the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the central city of Pietermaritzburg, some 90 kilometres from Durban. (AFP)

Mahatma Gandhi's sojourn in South Africa and his development of Satyagraha there might never have happened if he was not brought to the country by a local Indian-origin businessman.

London-trained young barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was struggling to establish a practice in his home town of Porbandar when he was offered a contract to work in the then Transvaal province of South Africa for a year.

AB Moosa, a fourth-generation descendant of the family, recalls how his forebears had inadvertently been responsible for starting Gandhi off on the path of leading peaceful resistance against discriminatory laws in South Africa and guiding India to independence form colonial British rule upon his return two decades later.

"If he did not have to take that train to submit legal papers for our forebears to Pretoria, the fateful incident where he was thrown off the train might never have happened and the world might never have benefited from Gandhiji's guidance and leadership," Moosa said.

Arriving by ship in Durban in 1893, Gandhi was asked by businessman Dada Abdullah to go by train to Pretoria to fight a case there.

The trip was to change Gandhi's life forever after he was unceremoniously booted off the train on a cold night at Pietermaritzburg station, some 80 kilometres from the start of the 600-km trip, because he was seated in a compartment reserved for whites only.

Gandhi discovered how Indians - who had started arriving in South Africa largely as indentured labourers for the sugar cane plantations, mine workers and even those who paid their own way to start businesses in the country - suffered great discrimination and indignities from the white governments of the provinces.

Indians had to pay a poll tax which made huge demands on their meagre salaries; could not own land, and were confined to areas known as 'locations', effectively overcrowded ghettos with poor facilities.

The required permits to travel between provinces; were subjected to curfews at night; and could not walk on pavements if there were white people on them.

Gandhi united the diverse Indian communities to resist the draconian laws, succeeding in getting some of them amended.

Coming back to India in 1901, Gandhi was soon asked to return to South Africa.

This second tenure in South Africa saw the start of the Satyagraha theories that Gandhi developed as he entered a period of strict brahmacharya, vegetarianism and established the self-sufficient Phoenix Settlement, where he also started the Indian Opinion newspaper in 1903.

A period of relentless oppression of the Indian community continued and there were over 2,000 people in jail by 1907.

Gandhi too was arrested several times, and his Satyagraha plans took flight then as hundreds of followers joined him in peaceful protests and marches.

Gandhi also founded the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) together with some local leaders.

In his struggle for political survival, Gandhi left Phoenix to start a similar commune at Tolstoy Farm, some 30 kilometres south of Johannesburg, where he started a law practice in the city centre.

After successfully getting a number of legislative steps against Indians withdrawn through negotiations with then Prime Minister General Louis Botha, Gandhi left South Africa in July 1914.

For generations afterwards, Gandhi's legacy in South Africa was ignored by the apartheid-era white government, especially after 1948, when India withdrew its diplomatic representation and started the international fight against the apartheid at the UN.

Celebrations such as the centenary of Gandhi's arrival in South Africa were organised mainly by the local Indian community.

But as the advent of democracy dawned in 1990, a new wave of public acknowledgement of the great leader's role started in South Africa, sparked particularly by comments made by the late President Nelson Mandela.

At the unveiling of a Gandhi Memorial on June 6, 1993 in Pietermaritzburg, where Gandhi was thrown off a train compartment reserved for whites, Mandela said: "This event is also very significant because we are unveiling here the very first statue of an anti-colonial figure and a hero of millions of people worldwide".

"Gandhiji influenced the activities of liberation movements, civil rights movements and religious organisations in all five continents of the world," he said.

More famously, former president Abdul Kalam recalled in his tribute to Mandela after the latter passed on in December 2013 how Mandela had reminded him of his often-paraphrased comment: "India gave us MK Gandhi, we gave you back Mahatma Gandhi after two decades."

In 2002, Mahatma Gandhi became one of the recipients of a range of new national awards geven for the first time by the democratic government in South Africa.

Previously, under the minority white apartheid regime, national awards were given only to white South Africans.

Gandhi was posthumously awarded the Order of the Companion of O R Tambo (Gold Class) at a prestigious function at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of the country's government.

The award citation read: "Order of the Supreme Companions of O R Tambo in Gold (Posthumous) awarded to Mahatma Gandhi for lifetime achievement in the struggle to create a just world order, exceptional contribution in combating racism and colonialism and for advancing the idea of the unity of humankind and the solidarity of peoples."

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