by John Dear
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
On Jan. 22, we drove eight hours south from Johannesburg and Soweto, close to Lesotho, then into KwaZulu-Natal to Pietermaritzburg. Along the way, we passed a side road near Howick where Nelson Mandela was arrested long ago, the arrest that led to his 27 years in prison. A tall, powerful memorial that outlines his face marks the spot. Our drive was magical, through lush, rolling hills, magnificent distant mountains on all sides, and occasional wild animals.
Pietermaritzburg felt like a stepping back into old Victorian South Africa. In the city center, we marveled at the tall orange-brick City Hall with its magnificent clock tower. But we had a specific goal — a little pilgrimage to the train station where Gandhi was once thrown off a train, an act that led to his lifelong determined fight against injustice and violence. I had come to see the place for myself, and my friends — Fr. Ray East, his sisters and cousin — were happy to join me.
Gandhi told the story in his autobiography and in many subsequent interviews. It was June 7, 1893. He had just arrived from India as a young barrister and was on his way to Pretoria for his first case. He had ordered a first-class train ticket by mail and did not know that nonwhites were not allowed to ride in the first-class section.
At 9 p.m., the train pulled into Pietermaritzburg. Train officials received complaints about him sitting in first class. They ordered him to leave, and he refused. So they threw his luggage, which kept his overcoat, off the train. When that didn’t deter him, they threw Gandhi himself off the train. He landed on the platform, and the train sped off. It was a bitter cold night. He was freezing. Train officials took his luggage, and he did not dare ask for it back to get his overcoat for fear of further mistreatment.…