The power of peaceful defiance
On August 16, 1908, 3 000 Indians lead by Mohandas Gandhi gathered outside the Hamidia Mosque and burned their registration certificates - essentially "passes" for the immigrant Indian population - in a huge bonfire made in a cauldron.
About 18 months earlier a law had been proposed which would force all Indian "men" - males older than eight - to be fingerprinted and carry registration certificates. Those who couldn't or wouldn't produce this pass on demand were to be fined or imprisoned.
The 1908 peaceful defiance against the race laws of South Africa - then still a British colony under the leadership of Jan Smuts - marks the first significant act of passive resistance (satyagraha), Gandhi's budding philosophy that, close to four decades later, brought down the British Empire in India.
Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now
Gandhi said, "Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now." On January 28, 1948, two days before he was assassinated, Gandhi told a prayer meeting in New Delhi: "I have myself lived in South Africa for 20 years and I can therefore say that it's my country."
Gandhi first arrived in South Africa in 1893. He was a small-time lawyer who had left two failed practices in India, along with his wife and children, to pursue a case for a wealthy local businessman. His family later joined him in South Africa.
A dapper and fastidious dresser, he wore a fashionable moustache and elegant suits befitting the British colonial gentleman he desperately wanted to be accepted as.
It was the increasingly systematic racism he encountered in South Africa, most significantly, being thrown off a train for daring to buy a first-class ticket, that planted in him a growing sense of colonial injustice that would eventually make him the Empire's most persuasive enemy.
Gandhi had a cordial relationship with then South African prime minister Jan Smuts, until Smuts betrayed their agreement to repeal what was popularly known as the Black Act. Still, before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he sent Smuts a gift of a pair of sandals (Gandhi had by then shunned ownership of material possessions and wore a dhoti).
On Gandhi's 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals to the Mahatma (Great Soul) with these words: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."
Researched by Gillian Anstey with acknowledgement and thanks to: