9/11 and satyagraha

The fifth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre was also, ironically, the centenary of the birth of satyagraha, the mode of passive resistance created by Mohandas Gandhi. The date was marked with events in both New York and Johannesburg

September 11, 2006 was a date loaded with different memories and meaning. The co-incidence of two major anniversaries was striking - the fifth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers in New York, as well as the centenary of Gandhi's peaceful struggle, which began in Johannesburg in 1906.

In Johannesburg 100 years ago, Gandhi developed a new form of peaceful protest, which he applied to powerful effect against the white rulers in South Africa, and later the colonial masters in India. Known as satyagraha ("truth force" or "passive resistance"), this new style of politics empowered Gandhi followers to resist injustice in non-violent ways that demonstrated the superior morality of the protesters.

Satyagraha was launched on September 11, 1906 at an historic mass meeting chaired by Gandhi at Johannesburg's old Empire Theatre. Over 3 000 Indians protested furiously against the introduction of passes for "Asiatics", taking a solemn oath to resist by all peaceful means.

Gandhi rejected the politics of hatred and terrorism, forging a method of struggle that sought to build bridges

Gandhi rejected the politics of hatred and terrorism, forging a method of struggle that sought to build bridges with an opponent while at the same time refusing to accept injustice. These ideas raised Gandhi to the status of international moral icon and champion of human rights.

A century later, Gandhi's ideals of non-violence and mutual respect had lost none of their relevance in a world racked by division, war and terror.

A common feature of many modern political cultures has been to demonise people who are different in one way or. Dialogue and debate with the "other" are avoided, lest they compromise the resolve to destroy. Driven by the spirit of hatred and revenge, terrorist attacks have added to the spiral of violence, while discrediting the very causes in whose name they are carried out.

The importance of the 100th anniversary did not escape peace campaigners in the US and elsewhere in the world. To mark the other 9/11, New Yorkers for a Department of Peace, in partnership with the MK Gandhi Institute for Non-violence, organised nationwide screenings of the 1982 movie, Gandhi. Venues included one just outside the World Trade Center, where the film was screened throughout the day.

Closer to home, the City of Johannesburg put together an impressive cultural programme to mark the centenary of satyagraha. Two key events were lined up: a series of public lectures, and the launch of a Gandhi in Prison exhibition, which took place at the Old Fort. The exhibition told the story of the prison experiences of Gandhi and his fellow satyagrahis, and displays were mounted in Section 4, the notorious "Native Gaol", which was Gandhi's first prison.

- This is an edited version of an article by Eric Itzkin published in the run up to the anniversary events of September 11, 2006

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"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now"
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, 1908
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to extract information from a document, photographs and an extract from Gandhi's speech at the burning of registration certificates in 1908. They will be able to explore the motives of the Transvaal government in issuing passes to male Indians over the age of eight, and the bitter feelings it stirred up among the Indian community. Learners will be introduced to Gandhi's political philosophy - satyagraha - which can be translated as "the force which is born of truth and love, or non-violence".

Lesson plan
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