Gandhi abode in S Africa now a unique museum

Johannesburg: A house in the leafy suburb of Orchards in Johannesburg, where Mahatma Gandhi once resided, is now a unique hotel that doubles up as a museum on the life of the leader who left a legacy in both South Africa and India.

`Satyagraha House` was officially opened on Tuesday night by Jean Francois Rial, Chief Executive of French travel company Voyageurs du Monde, which bought the house from its owners two years ago.

With assistance from local historians, the company has re-created the authentic Edwardian home and developed an on-site museum complete with Gandhi memorabilia and period pieces from India that reflect the development of the Mahatma`s anti-colonial and anti-racism philosophy and his commitment to non-violence.

"Gandhi`s concept of passive resistance became known as Satyagraha, hence the name chosen for this new tourism destination for those who wish to learn more about Gandhi`s South African experience," Rial said.

Eric Itzkin, Deputy Director of Immovable Heritage at the City of Johannesburg, said: "We believe the site will attract both South African and international visitors and will resonate particularly with those with an abiding interest in the struggle to combat racism and ultimately apartheid.

"The house tells its own compelling story, but can also be integrated into a wider visitor experience by combining a visit here with visits to Soweto, Constitution Hill and Johannesburg`s Old Fort Prison, a jail where Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were both held."

The Orchards house built in 1907 is revered as the place where the future Mahatma conceptualised and evolved his philosophy of passive resistance — the pacifist method of protest that he subsequently employed in India.

Exhibits throughout the complex celebrate Gandhi`s life while reflecting the minimalism and simplicity that characterised his life. The rooms have bare essentials while still maintaining comfort levels.

There is even a flat mattress on the floor next to the more conventional bed if guests wish to experience how Gandhi slept.

In the bathrooms, there are no fancy baths but two separate taps and a bucket in the way that Gandhi took his ablutions, although there is an overhead shower as well.

Spinning wheels, books, commemorative plaques and historical photographs carefully sourced by historians abound in the museum, with a special attraction being the loft where Gandhi spent his nights.

"It was a special ladder that folded up," said Chotu Makan, 88, believed to be the last surviving South African who had seen Gandhi during his Salt March in India.

Just six years old at the time, Makan has devoted his entire life to the teachings of Gandhi, proudly showing a carefully maintained collection of clippings on Gandhian activities in South Africa spanning several decades.

He was responsible for returning the original ladder to India after the owners found it while refurbishing the house in the 1960s.

In the gardens surrounding the rooms, herbs and flowers have been laid out in the same way that Gandhi espoused the practical use of land to be beneficial to man without causing environmental harm, long before the concern of today about he environment.

Built by renowned architect Herman Kallenbach, the house was originally known as The Kraal. Kallenbach shared the house with young lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from 1906 to 1908 while the leader developed his theory of Satyagraha that was to guide scores of leaders for generations to come in both South Africa and India.