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Gandhi in Johannesburg

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Although Mohandas Gandhi has many strong links with Durban, the South African city he arrived at in 1893, it was the ten years he spent in Johannesburg between 1903 and 1913 that first tested the philosophies for which he is famous. As an advocate, he frequently appeared in the Transvaal Law Courts (now demolished), which stood in what has since been renamed Gandhi Square in downtown Jo’burg. Defending mainly South African Indians accused of breaking the restrictive and racist registration laws, Gandhi began to see practical applications for his concept of Satyagraha, soul force, or passive resistance, as a means of defying immoral state oppression.

Gandhi himself was twice imprisoned, along with other passive resisters, in the fort in Braamfontein, on what is now Constitution Hill. On one of these occasions he was taken from his cell to the office of General Jan Smuts to negotiate the prisoners’ release, but finding himself at liberty had to borrow the railway fare home from the general’s secretary.

Gandhi’s ideas found resonance in the non-violent ideals of those who established the African National Congress in 1912. Forty years later, only a few years after Gandhi’s successful use of Satyagraha to end the British Raj in India, the start of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign against the pass laws in 1952 owed much to his principles. MuseuMAfricA contains displays on Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg, and he is commemorated with a statue on Gandhi Square.

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