This Independence Day, take virtual tours of iconic places in South Africa visited by Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela
From Pietermaritzburg Railway Station to the Capture Site, these places are riddled with historical stories of yore
India celebrates its 74 Independence Day this week, and what better way to explore the places once visited by the man known as the Father of the Nation. Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship with South Africa is well-documented, especially its influence on his personality and courage that ultimately paved the way for the emergence of the peace-loving freedom fighter that we all know about.
Under normal circumstances, Independence Day would have featured community celebrations including flag hoisting, patriotic songs and traditional sweets. As the pandemic brings with it restrictions on movement and gatherings, celebrations this year will go virtual. One way to commemorate the day is by taking a virtual walkthrough iconic places that shaped the course of history and re-visiting the lives of those who played a key role in bringing about the freedom that most of the world enjoys today.
South Africa, the land that immediately brings alive the imagery of Big 7 safaris, glamping, bungee jumping, shark cage diving, exquisite wines, diverse food and warm people, has another aspect to it that is equally appealing – it’s rich and diverse cultural history. The nation witnessed the rise of two of the world greatest advocates of freedom – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a young lawyer, arrived in Durban in 1893 and moved in with his family. After the infamous train incident at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station where young Gandhi was off-boarded for sitting in a ‘whites-only’ section, Gandhi stayed on in Inanda in the outskirts of Durban, where he developed his philosophy of Satyagraha. Gandhi left the Rainbow Nation, but his doctrine on Satyagraha found its way back into the thoughts of Nelson Mandela who echoed the passive resistance concept as he led his country into freedom.
Mandela, born into a South African royal family, went on to become an influential political leader who was at the forefront of the South African freedom struggle, the president of the nation and a global icon. From serving 27 years in prison to working as a philanthropist, his life was legendary, to say the least. The ‘Gandhi of the African continent’ has received, and rightfully so, more than 250 honours including The Nobel Peace Prize and the Bharat Ratna.
From the rolling hills and scattered villages of Qunu in the Eastern Cape to reverent reflections in the prison cells of Robben Island to the Phoenix Settlement in Inanda – South Africa offers a chance to follow in the footsteps of these two iconic heroes.
Pietermaritzburg Railway Station
June 7, 1893, went down in history due to Mahatma Gandhi’s refusal to budge from a ‘whites-only’ coach on a train to Pretoria. Gandhi was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station for this act of defiance that set the stage for Civil Disobedience. The historic building stills stands, with a plaque commemorating the incident that proved to be a turning point in Gandhi's fight against racial discrimination. Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister for India, recently commemorated 125 years since the passage of this incident by embarking on a train journey from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg.
WATCH: Google Street View users can view the ‘birthplace of Satyagraha’ here.
Phoenix Settlement, Inanda
Situated 20 kilometres north of Durban, the Phoenix Settlement is a part of Kwa Zulu Natal’s Inanda Heritage Route. Gandhi resided here along with his family in a house named Sarvodaya, meaning ‘well-being for all’. It is at Phoenix that Gandhi produced his weekly Indian Opinion newspaper from the International Printing Press – the building of which remains till date. The former home of Gandhi, burnt down in the political upheaval of the mid-1980s, has been reconstructed as a free-for-all museum that pays tribute to his achievements and to the principles of Satyagraha.
READ: History buffs can find additional material here.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 immensely challenging years in prison on this little island situated off the coast of Cape Town and yet emerged from it filled with forgiveness instead of hatred. Robben Island is now a World Heritage site and museum. Although from the 17th to the 20th century the island was a place of imprisonment – today it is a beacon of hope and a place where visitors can gain some insight into the life and times of Nelson Mandela and fellow freedom fighters. Trips to Robben Island begin from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront, where ferries transfer you to the former prison.
WATCH: Google offers a narrated tour – complete with a visit to Mandela’s 6.5 x 6.5-foot cell – led by Vusumsi Mcongo, an anti-Apartheid activist who was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1978-1990.
Through the years, the Constitution Hill functioned mainly as a prison. It was here that many passive resistors and freedom fighters including the Father of our Nation – Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were held; the site has two permanent exhibitions that revolve around the lives of both these revolutionaries. A walk through Number Four section of the prison, reading up on the horrific conditions of the time and the difference in how prisoners of different races were treated, quickly hammers home the need for radical reform and equality for which Mandela was fighting – and ultimately achieved. The Constitution Hill in Johannesburg is now a fascinating museum and the home to South Africa’s constitutional court.
WATCH: The website offers a virtual representation of what visitors can experience at the site.
This site has enormous significance in the history of the freedom struggle because it was here that, after 17 months of evading the apartheid authorities, Nelson Mandela was arrested. On August 5, 1962, the police flagged down a car driven by Nelson Mandela in a chauffer’s uniform while he was returning from a secret meeting with the African National Congress president. This incident would go on to shape the future of an entire country. To mark the historic spot is a sculpture comprising of 50 steel rods, which align to create a magnificent portrait of Mandela.
WATCH: Street View users can now view Marco Cianfanelli’s extraordinary sculpture of Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site.