Mohandas (Mohatma) Karamchand Gandhi

(October 2, 1869 - January 30, 1948)

Mohandas Gandhi was born to a Hindu family in 1869 in Porbandar in the Indian state of Gujarat. His parents belonged to a merchant caste and he was educated in India, from where he went to read law in London, England. He qualified as a lawyer in 1891 and instead of returning to India to fight the imperial rule he took no interest in politics and established himself in the legal profession in Bombay.

Initially Gandhi failed dismally, his practice collapsed and he returned home to Porbandar. It was while he was contemplating his seemingly bleak future that a representative of an Indian business firm situated in the Transvaal in South Africa offered him employment. He was to work in South Africa for a period of 12 months for the handsome fee of £105.00. In 1893 he arrived in Durban where he remained for a week before leaving for Pretoria by train. He purchased a first-class ticket, boarded the train and started work on his lawsuit. During the journey a white passenger complained about sharing a compartment with a 'coolie' and Gandhi was asked to move to a third-class carriage. On his refusal he was forcibly removed from the train at Pietermaritzburg Station. Here he spent the night and later he described the event as the most prominent influence on his political future.

At the period of Gandhi's arrival in South Africa the growing national anti-Indian attitude had spread to Natal. The right to self-government had been granted to Natal in 1893 and politicians were increasing pressure to pass legislation aimed at containing the 'merchant menace'. Two bills were passed in the following two years restricting the freedom of Indians severely. The Immigration Law Amendment Bill stated that any Indian had to return to India at the end of a five-year indenture period or had to be re-indentured for a further two years. If he refused an amount of £3 annual tax had to be paid. The bill came into law in 1895. A Franchise Amendment Bill also made an appearance in 1894. It was designed to limit the franchise to Indians who had the vote. Although there were only 300 of them, in comparison to 10 000 white voters, the Bill caused outrage among Indian leadership. They decided to contest the measure by any means available to them.

Mohandas Gandhi played a prominent role in their planned campaign, as he was a talented letter-writer and meticulous planner. He was assigned the task of compiling all petitions, arranging meetings with politicians and addressing letters to newspapers. He also campaigned in India and made an initially successful appeal to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Ripon. The formation of the Natal Indian Congress on 22 August 1894 marked the birth of the first permanent political organisation to strive to maintain and protect the rights of Indians in South Africa.

By 1896 Gandhi had established himself as a political leader and undertook a journey to India to launch a protest campaign on behalf of Indians in South Africa. It took the form of letters written to newspapers, interviews with leading nationalist leaders and a number of public meetings. His mission caused great uproar in India and consternation among British authorities in England and Natal. Gandhi embarrassed the British Government enough to cause it to block the Franchise Bill in an unprecedented move, which resulted in anti-Indian feelings in Natal reaching dangerous new levels.

On his return to South Africa Gandhi and 800 fellow passengers were kept from disembarking for nearly a month as a result of daily dockside demonstrations and government quarantine regulations. White hostility against Indians was verging on the violent outbreak and on leaving the ship Gandhi was assaulted by a group of protesters. The intervention of the Durban police commissioner's wife saved him from serious injury and he had to be smuggled from her home disguised as a policeman in order to prevent further incidents.

The British government, alarmed at the uproar, allowed the passing of the Franchise Bill on condition that Indians were not specifically mentioned in the provisions. The Bill was rushed through parliament in 1896 followed by two more bills aimed at 'Passenger' Indians. The Immigration Restriction Bill and the Dealers' Licences Bill stated that prospective immigrants had to possess £25, and had to speak and write English, and also empowered municipal authorities to refuse trading licences on the ground of 'insanitation'. Authorities began refusing any Indian applicants licenses and many merchants accused Gandhi of pushing authorities too far.

In 1901 Gandhi returned to India after serving as the leader of an Indian corps of stretcher-bearers on the side of the British forces in the South African War. He believed that the merchants in Natal had lost the battle to conduct their business unhindered. He returned to South Africa in 1902 after an unsuccessful attempt at winning a leadership position in the Indian nationalist movement and in 1903 founded the 'Indian Opinion' newspaper. The publication played a prominent role in the spreading of the philosophy that resulted in the passive resistance campaign. Gandhi was also responsible for the opening of the Phoenix self-help settlement scheme near Durban.

The political campaign Gandhi embarked on was the British Indian Association (BIA). The movement was to prevent proposed evictions of Indians in the Transvaal under British leadership. According to Arthur Lawley, the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor under Lord Alfred Milner, whites were to be protected against Indians in what he called a 'struggle between East and West for the inheritance of the semi-vacant territories of South Africa'.

In 1906 the Transvaal Government passed a law making it compulsory for Indians over eight years of age to carry a Pass bearing their thumbprint. This caused outrage among the Indian population and it was decided at a mass meeting attended by more than 3000 people that no Indian would apply for registration and that attempts to enforce the law would be met with passive resistance. Gandhi travelled to London to further his protest and Lord Elgin, the Colonial Secretary, agreed to withdraw the Act. Unfortunately the Transvaal was granted self-government in 1907 and the Pass Law (Act 2 of 1907) was reintroduced.

On 28 December 1907 the first arrests of Asians refusing to register was made, and by the end of January 1908 2000 Asians had been jailed. Gandhi had also been jailed several times, but many key figures in the movement fled the colony rather than be arrested. Eventually Gandhi and the leader of the Chinese population in South Africa, Leung Quin, reached agreement with Jan Smuts, Transvaal Colonial Secretary, whereby the Act would be repealed if everyone registered voluntarily. He was severely criticised for the compromise and even offered to be the first to register. Smuts denied any promises made to Gandhi and on his way to the registration office he was assaulted. In June 1909 left for London after having defended his position as leader of the Transvaal merchant community.

Gandhi returned to South Africa in December 1909 to find that his fellow members of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) were openly plotting against him. He was fighting for his political survival and withdrew to Tolstoy, a farm he had purchased in 1910 to support the families of jailed resisters. Gandhi only came under the public eye again in 1912 as a result of a visit to South Africa by Indian statesman Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Here he was accused of preventing opponents of his policies to speak with the visitor and finally, on 26 April 1913 Gandhi and his rivals in the NIC went their separate ways.

On 13 October 1913 a new campaign was initiated in Newcastle, Natal, in protest to the £3 tax imposed on ex-indentured Indians. The aim was to gain the support of the working classes and the mobilisation of Newcastle merchants by Thambi Naidoo, a chief lieutenant and leader of the Johannesburg based Tamil Benefit Society. The support of railway workers and miners was gained next and on 16 October 1913 the strike began. Two weeks later between 4000 and 5000 miners had downed their tools. In order to spread the action Gandhi began leading strikers over the Transvaal border on 29 October 1913. This attempt to court arrests failed as Smuts opted to wait, a successful strategy, as most strikers were ready to return to work by November.

A spontaneous strike in Natal altered the situation radically. Here violent confrontation ruled and several strikers were killed and injured in clashes with the police and more protesters joined. By the end of November 1913 produce markets in Durban and Pietermaritzburg had come to a standstill, sugar mills were closed and hotels, restaurants and homes were left without domestic workers. Reports in India relating the arrest of Gandhi and police brutality caused an uproar and the British government was forced to form an agreement with the strikers.

Gandhi was released in order to negotiate with Smuts and the Indian Relief Bill, a law that scrapped the £3 tax on ex-indentured workers, came into being. On his return to India on 18 July 1914 Gandhi was already hailed as Mahatma, literally meaning 'a great soul'. Here he led his country to full independence after 30 years of opposition to British rule. In 1948 a Hindu fanatic who thought him too tolerant towards Muslims assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. Millions of people around the world mourned with India and contributed to creating the legend of the Mahatma.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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