Last S African witness to Gandhi’s Salt March dies

Last South African witness to Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March passes away

Mahatma Gandhi. File photo

Chotubhai Makan, a Gandhian enthusiast and the last surviving person in South Africa to have witnessed Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March in 1930, has died at the age of 96.

Makan, who died on Thursday, was also a well-known Gujarati leader in South Africa and spent his entire life in the service of the community in various capacities, including serving as chairman of the Hindu Seva Samaj of the old Transvaal province and on a number of religious, cultural and educational bodies of the community.

He also played an instrumental role in attempts to revive the Tolstoy Farm, once a thriving commune near Johannesburg, started by Gandhi during his stay in the city.

He was the last surviving person in South Africa to have witnessed Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March in 1930, protesting against the steep tax imposed by the British on salt.

Makan frequently recalled at public celebrations of Gandhi’s life in South Africa how he was just six years old when he accompanied his mother as thousands lined the streets of India to watch Gandhi and his associates undertake the march in protest against British colonial rule in the country.

"That incident and an explanation by his mother about Gandhi’s role in India’s independence set Makan on a lifelong path of becoming a Gandhian enthusiast,” said a long-time friend and neighbour, Jivan Ramjee.

"At public gatherings, Makan would always bring along some of his archives of articles and photographs amassed over decades about Gandhian activities in South Africa, which were keenly browsed by the younger generation," Ramjee added.

Makan also related a story about how he had been tasked with the responsibility of returning to India the original ladder used by Gandhi to reach his bed in a loft at one of the places where he stayed in Johannesburg. It was found during the 1960’s by the new owners of a house.

The ladder had been kept at the old Gandhi Hall in central Johannesburg that was built by the Samaj at the turn of the last century before it was expropriated by the apartheid-era white minority government five decades ago when the thriving Indian community around the area were forcibly resettled in the township of Lenasia, some 30 km away.

Makan was cremated in Johannesburg on Thursday afternoon in a ceremony attended only by some of his many relatives, as the current lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic allows a maximum of 50 people to attend a funeral.

He leaves his wife Hema, four children, and numerous grand- and great grandchildren.

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