Gandhi arrived in Durban, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) in 1893 to serve as legal counsel to a merchant Dada Abdulla. In June, Dada Abdulla asked him to undertake a rail trip to Pretoria, Transvaal, a journey which first took Gandhi to Pietermaritzburg, Natal.
There, Gandhi was seated in the first-class compartment, as he had purchased a first-class ticket. A White person who entered the compartment hastened to summon the White railway officials, who ordered Gandhi to remove himself to the van compartment, since ‘coolies’ (a racist term for Indians) and non-whites were not permitted in first-class compartments. Gandhi protested and issued his ticket, but he was warned that he would be forcibly removed if he did not make a gracious exit. As Gandhi refused to comply with the order, a White police officer pushed him out of the train, and his luggage was tossed out on to the platform. The train steamed away, and Gandhi retreated to the waiting room.
Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, “It was winter, the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered”. He says he began to think of his ‘duty’: ought he to stay back and fight for his ‘rights’, or should he return to India? His own “hardship was superficial”, “only a symptom of the deep disease of color prejudice.”
The next evening he continued the train journey – this time without any accident. But a bigger accident awaited him on the journey from Charlestown to Johannesburg which had to be covered by stagecoach. He was made to sit with the coachman on the box outside, while the white conductor sat inside with the white passengers.
Gandhi hid the insult for fear of missing the coach altogether. Along the way, a conductor who wanted smoke put a piece of dirty bag on the footstool and ordered Gandhi to sit down and let the conductor sit on his place. Gandhi refused. The conductor swore and started hitting him, trying to throw him down. Gandhi clung to the brass tracks of the coach box, refusing to surrender and unwillingness to retaliate. Some of the White passengers protested at this cowardly assault and the conductor was obliged to stop beating Gandhi who kept his seat.
The position of Indians in the Transvaal was worse than in Natal. They were compelled to pay a poll tax of £3; they were not allowed to own land except in specially allotted locations, a kind of ghetto; they had no franchise, and were not allowed to walk on the pavement or move out of doors after 9 p.m. without a special permit. One day Gandhi, who had received from the State Attorney a letter authorizing him to be out of doors all hours, was having his usual walk. As he passed near President Kruger’s house, the policeman on duty, suddenly and without any warning, pushed him off the pavement and kicked him into the street. A Mr. Coates, an English Quaker, who knew Gandhi, happened to pass by and saw the incident. He advised Gandhi to proceed against the man and offered himself as witness. But Gandhi declined the offer saying that he had made it a rule not to go to court in respect of a personal grievance.
During his stay in Pretoria, Gandhi read about 80 books on religion. He came under the influence of Christianity but refused to embrace it. During this period, Gandhi attended Bible classes.
Within a week of his arrival there, Gandhi made his first public speech making truthfulness in business his theme. The meeting was called to awaken the Indian residents to a sense of the oppression they were suffering under. He took up the issue of Indians in regard to first class travel in railways. As a result, an assurance was given that first and second-class tickets would be issued to Indians “who were properly dressed”. This was a partial victory.
These incidents lead Gandhi to develop the concept of Satyagraha. He united the Indians from different communities, languages and religions, who had settled in South Africa.
By the time Gandhi arrived in South Africa the growing national- perpetuated by the White ruling authorities and the majority of the White citizenry – anti-Indian attitude had spread to Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal). The first discriminatory legislation directed at Indians, Law 3 of 1885, was passed in the South African Republic, or the Transvaal. 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 [Indian] 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 was introduced 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.
Having completed his work in Pretoria, Gandhi returned to Durban and prepared to sail home. At a farewell dinner, in April 1894, given in his honour someone showed him a news item in the Natal Mercury that the Natal Government proposed to introduce a bill to disfranchise Indians. Gandhi immediately understood the ominous implications of this bill which, as he said, “is the first nail into our coffin” and advised his compatriots to resist it by concerned action. But they pleaded their helplessness without him and begged him to stay on for another month. He agreed little realizing that this one month would grow into twenty years.
Gandhi immediately turned the farewell dinner into a meeting and an action committee was formed. This committee then drafted a petition to the Natal Legislative Assembly. Volunteers came forward to make copies of the petition and to collect signatures – all during the night. The petition received much favourable publicity in the press the following morning. The bill was however passed. Undeterred, Gandhi set to work on another petition to Lord Ripon, the Secretary of State for Colonies. Within a month the mammoth petition with ten thousand signatures was sent to Lord Ripon and a thousand copies printed for distribution. Even The Times admitted the justice of the Indian claim and for the first time the people in India came to know of the oppressive lot of their compatriots in South Africa.
Gandhi insisted that if he had to extend his stay in South Africa he would accept no remuneration for his public services and since he still thought it necessary to live as befitted a barrister he needed about £300 to meet his expenses. He therefore enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme Court of Natal.
On 25 June 1894, at the residence of Sheth Abdulla, with Sheth Haji Muhammad, the foremost Indian leader of Natal in the chair, a meeting of Indians was held and it was resolved to offer opposition to the Franchise Bill. Here Gandhi outlined his plan of action to oppose this bill.
Gandhi played a prominent role in the planned campaign. As 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. He was instrumental in the formation of theNatal Indian Congress (NIC) on 22 August 1894, which 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 in South Africa. In this year, he 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.
While in India, an urgent telegram from the Indian community in Natal obliged him to cut short his stay. He set sail for Durban with his wife and children on 30 November 1896. Gandhi did not realize that while he had been away from South Africa, his pamphlet of Indian grievances, known as the Green Pamphlet, had been exaggerated and distorted. When the ship reached Durban harbour, it was for held for 23 days in quarantine. The European community, misled by garbled versions of Gandhi’s activities in India and by a rumour that he was bringing shiploads of Indians to settle in Natal, were wild with anger and threatened to drown all the passengers.
News of this cowardly assault received wide publicity and Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of States for the Colonies, cabled an order to Natal to prosecute all those who were responsible for the attempted lynching. However, Gandhi refused to identify and prosecute his assailants, saying that they were misled and that he was sure that when they came to know the truth they would be sorry for what they had done.
It was during this second period in South Africa that Gandhi’s underwent a gradual change. Previously he was anxious to maintain the standard of an English barrister. Now he began, to methodically reduce his wants and his expenses. He began to do his own laundry and clean out his own chamber-pots but often his guests as well.
Not satisfied with self-help, he volunteered, despite his busy practice as a lawyer and demand of public work, his free service for two hours a day at a charitable hospital. He also undertook the education at home of his two sons and a nephew. He read books on nursing and midwifery and in fact served as midwife when his fourth and last son was born in Natal.
In 1899 the Second Anglo-Boer (South African War) war broke out. Though Gandhi’s sympathies were with the Boers who were fighting for their independence, he advised the Indian community to support the British cause, on the ground that since they claimed their rights as British subjects, it was their duty to defend the Empire when it was threatened. He organized and, with the help of a Dr. Booth, trained an Indian Ambulance Corps of 1,100 volunteers and offered its services to the Government. The corps under Gandhi’s leadership rendered valuable service and was mentioned in dispatches.
In 1901, at the end of the war, Gandhi wanted to return to India. His professional success in South Africa might, he feared turn him into a “money-maker”. With great difficulty he persuaded his friends to let him go and promised to return should the community need him within a year.
He reached India in time to attend the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress and had the satisfaction of seeing his resolution on South Africa pass with acclamation. He was however disappointed with the congress. He felt that Indian politicians talked too much but did little.
Hardly had he set up in practice in Bombay when a cablegram from the Indian community in Natal recalled him. He had given them his word that he would return if needed. Leaving his family in India he sailed again.
He had been called to put the Indian case before Joseph Chamberlain who was visiting South Africa. But the Colonial Secretary who had come to receive a gift of thirty-five million pounds from South Africa had no intention to alienate the European community. Gandhi failed in his mission to win Chamberlain’s sympathy and discovered in the process that the situation in the Transvaal had become ominous for the Indians. He therefore decided to stay on in Johannesburg and enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme Court.
Though he stayed on specifically to challenge White arrogance and to resist injustice, he harboured no hatred in his heart and was in fact always ready to help when they were in distress. It was this rare combination of readiness to resist wrong and capacity to love his opponent which baffled his enemies and compelled their admiration.
When the Zulu rebellion broke out, he again offered his help to the Government and raised an Indian Ambulance Corps. He was happy that he and his men had to nurse the sick and dying Zulus whom the White doctors and nurses were unwilling to touch.
Gandhi was involved in the formation British Indian Association (BIA) in 1903. The movement was to prevent proposed evictions of Indians in the Transvaal under British leadership. According to Arthur Lawley, the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor Lord Alfred Milner said that 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’.