It was a wet, windy day on Pietermaritzburg’s railway platform, located an hour from South Africa’s port city of Durban. The 19th-Century, Victorian-style red brick station, with a corrugated iron roof, lace filigree and wooden ticket windows, was quiet. I pulled my coat closer around me and imagined how it would have felt to have stood here on one fateful night more than a century ago.

On 7 June 1893, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a young barrister, was on his way from Durban to Pretoria on behalf of his client, a merchant named Dada Abdulla. When the train came to a stop in Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi was ordered by the conductor to move from the first-class carriage (reserved for white passengers) where he was sitting, to the van compartment for lower-class travellers. When Gandhi refused, showing the conductor his first-class ticket, he was evicted unceremoniously from the train.

This incident changed the course of his life

A plaque on the platform marks the approximate spot where he was pushed from the train carriage with his luggage. “This incident changed the course of his life,” it reads.

Gandhi spent that cold winter night in the station’s tiny, unheated waiting room. “My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered,” Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

You may also be interested in:
• South Africa’s unique way to protest
• The Indian dish you can’t find in India
• The country with 11 official languages

Gandhi had relocated to South Africa from Bombay in 1893 after accepting a year-long contract position with an Indian business firm based in Natal in the north-eastern Transvaal region, which had been settled by Boers (descendants of 17th-Century Dutch and Huguenots colonists) after Britain established the Cape Colony further south.

Transvaal’s Indian population had been growing for several decades before Gandhi had arrived. In an 1860 agreement with the government of India, the Transvaal government promised to help settle Indian immigrants in exchange for indentured labour in the region’s sugar fields. But even after serving their indenture, Indians were not fully integrated into society: regulations implemented by the white-minority government subjected new Indian citizens to extra taxation.

After arriving in South Africa, Gandhi was quickly exposed to racial discrimination: just days before boarding the train to Pretoria, he had excused himself from a Durban courtroom after the judge demanded that Gandhi remove his turban.

But that moment on the Pietermaritzburg train platform marked the turning point, the catalyst, when Gandhi made the momentous decision to fight the racial discrimination he experienced. “It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation,” he wrote in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial – only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.”


“This was his epiphany, when iron entered his soul – until then he was mild-mannered and meek,” said Shiney Bright, a local tour guide.

This was his epiphany, when iron entered his soul

After the Pietermaritzburg incident, Gandhi refused to submit to bigotry, choosing instead to peacefully oppose discriminatory policies, organising strikes and marches to counter biased voting regulations and intolerable working conditions. He believed that by staying in South Africa, he could observe the real nature of racial oppression and effectively combat it. Out of this emerged the concept of satyagraha. Meaning ‘holding on to truth’, satyagraha employs non-violent tactics to win over an opponent’s mind and create a new harmony between both sides of a conflict.

In 1907, when the Transvaal government passed the Asiatic Law Amendment Act, an ordinance requiring the registration of its Indian population, Gandhi organised his countrymen in non-violent protests. Although his resistance led him to be imprisoned on four separate occasions, Gandhi was ultimately successful in negotiating with the white-minority government. As a result, the Indian Relief Act was passed in 1914, eliminating an extra tax on Indian citizens who had not renewed their indentures and recognising the validity of Indian marriages.

After his return to India in 1914, Gandhi employed satyagraha to protest Britain’s mandatory military draft of Indians during World War One; and again after World War Two to negotiate India’s independence from Britain, which was officiated in 1947.

Gandhi’s displays of passive resistance significantly influenced the path Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. “The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity for which he stood and acted had a profound influence on our liberation movement, and on my own thinking,” Mandela said as he accepted the honour of the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg, which was also posthumously bestowed on Gandhi. “They inspire us today in our efforts of reconciliation and nation-building.”

Recently, however, a different picture of Gandhi has emerged in Africa, where he is sometimes remembered not for his fight against racial discrimination, but for his persistent racist opinions towards black Africans. According to Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, authors of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, Gandhi propagated the belief that black South Africans should not be afforded the same rights as white South Africans and Indians. As award-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy told The Washington Post in 2015, the book “is a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi”.  

Despite this, Pietermaritzburg station remains a pilgrimage site for Indians who view Gandhi’s time in South Africa as a turning point for Indians, both at home and abroad. During his 2016 visit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in the museum’s guestbook, “An event at Pietermaritzburg altered the course of India's history”.

The small waiting room now houses a museum dedicated to telling the story of that night in 1893 and the two decades Gandhi spent in South Africa. Informative panels and interactive displays line the walls, and black-and-white photographs of Gandhi in his barrister’s robe adorn the window. I sat on a wooden bench in the centre of the room and contemplated that formative night.

“The Indians I take to visit the train station often leave in tears,” Bright said.

With its grand Victorian-era buildings like the iconic red-brick city hall, KwaZulu-Natal province’s capital city looks much like it would have when Gandhi’s train rumbled into the station. As I watched the silhouettes of passers-by outside the window, my own eyes teared as I imagined Gandhi on a hard bench much like the one on which I was sitting, steeling himself for the struggle that would define his life and the lives of millions of others. Surrounded by his image, I was overwhelmed by thankfulness for what he had done for my country and my people.

In June 2018, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of this incident, India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pietermaritzburg, retracing Gandhi’s journey from Pentrich in an old-fashioned carriage like the one Gandhi would have travelled in. Upon her arrival at Pietermaritzburg station, Swaraj inaugurated a statue of Gandhi that stands at the entrance to the platform.

Titled ‘Birth of Satyagraha’, the double-sided statue crafted at the Mahatma Gandhi Digital Museum in Hyderabad, India, features Gandhi as a young lawyer wearing a suit and tie on one side, and an older, bespectacled Gandhi dressed in a traditional Indian dhoti, on the other. The two-day event included a re-enactment of Gandhi being thrown off the train, as well as a banquet at the local city hall, which was lit up in the colours of the Indian flag.

South Africa is now home to the largest Indian population on the African continent, and their influence on the country is palpable. Today, second- and third-generation Indian South Africans operate businesses, serve in government and play for South Africa’s professional sports teams – and it all began one fateful night at Pietermaritzburg Station.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended to acknowledge the discriminatory views of black Africans that Gandhi openly expressed during his time in South Africa, and the conflicting opinions of him held by many Africans as a result.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.