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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART IV : IN SOUTH AFRICA > Getting acquainted with Indian problem

20. Getting acquainted with the Indian problem

My stay in Pretoria enabled me to make a deep study of the social, economic and political condition of the Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. I had no idea that this study was to be of invaluable service to me in the future.

It was provided under the amended law that all Indians should pay a poll tax of £ 3 as fee for entry into the Transvaal. They might not own land except in places set apart for them, and in practice even that was not to be ownership. They had no vote. All this was under the special law for Asiatics, to whom the laws for the coloured people were also applied.

Under these latter, Indians might not walk on public footpaths, and might not move out of doors after 9 p.m. without a permit. I often went out at night for a walk with a friend, Mr. Coates, and we rarely got back home much before ten o'clock. What if the police arrested me? Mr. Coates was more concerned about this than I. He had to issue passes to his Negro servants. But how could he give one to me? Only a master might issue a permit to a servant. If I had wanted one, and even if Mr. Coates had been ready to give it, he could not have done so, for it would have been fraud.

So Mr. Coates or some friend of his took me to the State Attorney, Dr. Krause. We turned out to be barristers of the same Inn. The fact that I needed a pass to enable me
to be out of doors after 9 p.m. was too much for him. He expressed sympathy for me. Instead of ordering for me a pass, he gave me a letter authorizing me to be out of doors at all hours without police interference. I always kept this letter on me whenever I went out. The fact that I never had to make use of it was a mere accident.

The consequences of the regulation regarding the use of footpaths were rather serious for me. I always went out for a walk through President Street to an open plain. President Kruger’s house was in this street – a very modest building without a garden and, not distinguishable from other houses in its neighbourhood.

Only the presence of a policeman before the house indicated that it belonged to some official. I nearly always went along the footpath past this patrol without the slightest hitch or hindrance.

Now the man on duty used to be changed from time to time. Once one of these men, without giving me the slightest warning, without even asking me to leave the footpath, pushed and kicked me into the street. I was dismayed. Before I could question him as to his behaviour, Mr. Coates, who happened to be passing the spot on horseback, hailed me and said :

“Gandhi, I have seen everything. I shall gladly be your witness in court if you proceed against the man. I am very sorry you have been so rudely assaulted.”

“You need not be sorry,” I said. “What does the poor man know? All coloured people are the same to him. He no doubt treats Negroes just as he has treated me. I have
made it a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance. So I do not intend to proceed against him.”

“That is just like you,” said Mr. Coates, “but do think it over again. We must teach such men a lesson.” He then spoke to the policeman and scolded him. I could not follow their talk as it was in Dutch, the policeman being a Boer. But he apologized to me, for which there was no need. I had already forgiven him.

But I never again went through this street. There would be other men coming in this man's place and ignorant of the incident, they would behave likewise. Why should I unnecessarily court another kick ? I therefore selected a different walk.

I saw that South Africa was no country for a self-respecting Indian, and my mind became more and more occupied with the question as to how this state of things might be improved. But my principal duty for the moment was to attend to the case of Dada Abdulla.