Gandhiji arrived in South Africa in 1893 at the relatively tender age of 24 as a newly qualified lawyer on a temporary assignment to act on behalf of a local Indian trader in a commercial dispute. What was meant to be a short stopgap for the struggling young lawyer turned into a 21-year stay, with spells in India and England. When Gandhi arrived in 1893, the issue of Indian immigration was a hot topic.
When Gandhi visited the Durban courthouse shortly after his arrival, as a way of acclimatising to the courts in South Africa, the local magistrate asked him to remove the turban he was wearing which Gandhiji refused to do. His struggle towards rights turned into Satyagraha movement in 1906. Government was in process of implementing Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, requiring all male Asians in the Transvaal to be fingerprinted and carry a form of pass. In a meeting of 3000 Indians, Gandhiji vowed that Indians would elect to go to prison rather than submit to the law in question. In 1908 he encouraged mass of 2000 population to bun the identity documents.
On 14 June 1913, the first Immigration Regulation Act, which limited the free movement of Asians, and restricted their entry into the country, was passed in South Africa. The Act was prejudiced on the basis of national origin, race, gender and class. Five months down the line, Mahatma Gandhi was confronted by Security police as he led striking Indian mineworkers, protesting the Immigration Act, from Newcastle to the Transvaal.
The 1913 protest actions were what led to General Jan Smuts setting up a commission to investigate Indian grievances that would ultimately end in the passing of the Indian Relief Act, which paved the way for Gandhi’s return to India, having achieved a major legal milestone for Indians in South Africa. So powerful was this form of non-violent resistance that, as Gandhi was leaving South Africa in 1914, he described it as ‘perhaps the mightiest instrument on earth’.