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"The place where Gandhi's civil disobedience began" Top 5 Page for this destination Pietermaritzburg Things to Do Tip by CatherineReichardt

Pietermaritzburg Things to Do: 11 reviews and 21 photos


Unlikely though it might seem, Pietermaritzburg is the place where Mahatma Gandhi first flexed his political muscles and embarked on his lifelong struggle to stand up to social inequality and defend the rights of the oppressed using non violent methods.

Gandhi came from India to South Africa in 1893 and was employed by a local Indian businessman, Dada Abdulla, to act as his lawyer. One of his assignments required him to travel to Pretoria on business in June 1893, and he was issued with a first class rail ticket for the journey. He boarded the train in Durban, but a white passenger vehemently objected to the presence of a 'coolie' in the same carriage and demanded that Gandhi relocate to the van compartment on the train. Gandhi stood his ground and refused to give up the seat that had been bought for him - and was forceably removed by the police at the next stop in Pietermaritzburg, where he was forced to sleep overnight in the station waiting room.

In his memoirs, Gandhi recounts that, "It was winter ... and the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat 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 goes on to recount: “I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date".

Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for a total of 21 years, fighting for equal rights for the growing Indian community. From there, he moved his focus to reforming India's social inequities, and the rest is history ...

Unfortunately there is nothing but a plaque at the railway station to commemorate this momentous event. However, I was informed by an associate that at the time of writing (March 2012) the Natal Museum is developing a display based on this incident and Gandhi's legacy has been recognised by a bronze statue that has been erected in the Church Street pedestrian precinct.

The railway station itself is a very pleasing red brick Victorian building that wouldn't have looked out of place anywhere in rural England before the swinging of the Beeching Axe. The only clue that it is not in Britain is the 'broekie lace' iron filliagre work which decorates the station's eaves. This ornamentation is typical of colonial structures in Australia and South Africa - so named because it resembles the lace used to trim 'broekies' ('panties' in Afrikaans). This was a common form of architectural decoration in the Colonies as iron was often loaded onto the ships as ballast on the outward bound voyage.

Sadly this part of town has been sorely neglected and is somewhat rundown. However, it is safe enough if you take the usual sensible precautions, and well worth a visit to experience the place in which a unique form of protest to achieve social reform was first set in motion.

Review Helpfulness: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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  • Updated Mar 20, 2012
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