Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in many ways mirrored Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns against discrimination in British-ruled India. Despite being separated by some 50 years, both Gandhi and Mandela both began their crusades against injustice in Johannesburg, a city where historic sites today map their journeys towards liberation.
The Mandela exhibition on Constitution HillMandela looks through photos taken of him as a prisoner, in a photograph that forms part of the permanent Mandela exhibition on Constitution Hill.Every year, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and the City of Joburg’s Directorate for Arts, Culture and Heritage host educational tours through the inner city.
The certificated tours aim to educate and inform tourist guides and heritage practitioners to enable them to give visitors to Johannesburg a quality tourism experience.
The focus of this year’s tour, dubbed “Parallel Pathways to Freedom”, was on the journeys of Mandela and Gandhi in downtown Johannesburg, where much of their energies were focused, and where their experiences of Johannesburg as a cosmopolitan urban centre were at their most intense.
The tour followed the paths of the two great men, visiting their legal chambers, prison cells, protest venues, and other seminal sites in and around central Joburg.
On Friday, 20 March, Eric Itzkin of the Directorate for Arts, and Culture and Heritage, along with 18 tourist guides and heritage practitioners, departed from the JDA’s offices at the Bus Factory in Newtown. The first stop on their tour: the Bantu Mens’ Social Centre.
In 1944 the Bantu Mens’ Social Centre was the meeting place of political leaders such as lawyer Anton Lembede, aspirant lawyer Nelson Mandela, teachers Oliver Tambo and A.P. Mda, and Walter Sisulu, then an estate agent. This young elite went on to found the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), with the aim of injecting militancy and radicalism into the then three-decades old ANC.
FROM GANDHI SQUARE TO THE NELSON MANDELA BUILDING
The tour group at the statue in Gandhi Square.The tour group at the statue in Gandhi Square.The tour group then embarked on a city centre walkabout, visiting Gandhi Square, Victory House, the Nelson Mandela Building and the City Hall Steps.
Gandhi Square – known at the time as Government Square – came to prominence from the 1890s onwards as Johannesburg’s original legal precinct, the site of the old law courts where many were convicted under discriminatory laws. The Witwatersrand High Court and Magistrates’ Court were both located in the Square.
Attracted by the convenience of being close to the courts, lawyers’ offices soon sprung up around the Square. Joining them in 1903 was Gandhi, who had been admitted at the Transvaal Supreme Court as the first Indian attorney in South Africa. He set up chambers in Rissik Street.
As an attorney, Gandhi appeared professionally at the High Court in defence of Indians accused of failing to register for passes and other political offences. The Square was officially re-named Gandhi Square in 1999, and in 2003 a bronze statue of Gandhi was unveiled there.
Among other things, the group of tourism practitioners learned about the lift at Victory House (then known as Permanent Buildings). The lift dates back to 1898, making it the first to have been installed in the city, and earned notoriety when Gandhi was refused entry to it by the building’s caretaker-cum-lift operator, an ex-policeman.
The next stop was the Nelson Mandela Building on 37 Harrison Street, where Mandela first worked in the legal profession in the early 1940s and where he was employed as a clerk while completing his BA degree at University of South Africa.
The city centre walkabout ended at the City Hall Steps, which by the 1940s had become the scene of regular Sunday demonstrations, meetings and recruitment drives by the Communist Party and other opposition groups. The well-organised protest campaigns that took place in the city influenced the outlook of Mandela and the Youth League.
THE PRISON THAT HOUSED BOTH MANDELA AND GANDHI
The Mandela statue outside Chancellor HouseShadow Boxing, the Mandela statue outside Chancellor House in Ferreirasdorp.Itzkin then guided the group to Constitution Hill’s Old Fort Prison complex – the only prison in the world to have housed both Mandela and Gandhi, each of whom spent long periods behind bars, both being ranked among the best-known political prisoners of their times.
Mandela received a life sentence, of which he served 27 years. Gandhi served shorter, repeated sentences, and spending a combined total of 2 338 days inside jail cells in South Africa and India.
The group also visited the prison’s Section 4, or the Native Gaol, where Gandhi was imprisoned, as well as the Awaiting Trial Block where Mandela was detained following nationwide arrests of 156 Congress leaders ahead of the 1956-61 Treason Trial, one of the biggest and longest-running trials in history.
Next up for the tour group was the Hamidia Mosque, where Gandhi led the first pass-burning demonstrations in 1908, followed by Red Square, a political meeting place especially popular with the Communist Party, and the site of the launch of the Defiance Campaign in April 1952.
The Defiance Campaign aimed to disrupt the apartheid pas system by clogging up the country’s prisons with people arrested for defying the law. Mandela was elected as the ANC’s Volunteer-in-Chief for the Defiance Campaign in the Transvaal Region. Today, Red Square is occupied by a parking lot of the Oriental Plaza. It is located on the corner of Dolly Rathebe Street and Lillian Road in Fordsburg.
The Parallel Pathways tour ended with a visit to Chancellor House, the building at 25 Fox Street, Ferreirasdorp that once housed the law firm of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.