Most people know Nelson Mandela as Jozi’s most famous citizen. Yet, few realise that another as-famous 20th century liberation hero also once lived in Johannesburg: Mahatma Gandhi. It was in Johannesburg that both Mandela and Ghandi became social activists. Here they launched political careers that eventually brought massive change to the world.
Today both heroes are honoured in Johannesburg, but it is Gandhi’s statue that stands in the centre of Gandhi Square. When you arrive here the first and foremost thing to do is to view the incredible statue of the youthful Gandhi. But how did Gandhi come to Johannesburg? And how did the city’s main municipal bus terminus get named after him?
Gandhi first came to work in Johannesburg in the mid 1890s as a lawyer. He originally arrived in Durban where he represented Indian businessmen, but the lure of gold attracted the businessmen and their lawyers to the north. On the way to, and in, Johannesburg Gandhi experienced significant racial discrimination - both on a personal level and while representing clients arrested for not carrying passbooks. It was in Johannesburg that Gandhi led a protest campaign, inspiring Indian people to burn their passbooks in 1906. The city is therefore regarded as the birthplace of the Satyagraha movement which loosely means ‘soul force’ or ‘passive resistance’. Gandhi left South Africa in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and eventually made his way to India where he became known as the father of that nation.
A century later a unique sculpture of Gandhi by Tinka Christopher takes pride of place on the square. Unique as it depicts him as a young man in his twenties, but also because he is dressed in legal regalia as he appeared in court in Johannesburg. Remarkably Johannesburg’s first court building once stood where the square is today and it was here that Gandhi appeared as a lawyer, and from where he was also sentenced to imprisonment for his political activism.
Apart from its historic significance Gandhi Square is also a remarkable example of inner-city regeneration. This space was known as Van der Bijl Square until the 1990s and it was mostly covered by massive concrete roof structures under which the buses stopped. But as with so many other spaces in town, this area was also invaded by vagrants in the late 1990s. It was only when visionary property developer Gerald Olitzki proposed an upgrade for the area by the turn of the millennium, that the proposal was made to rename it Gandhi Square. Today it is a clean, safe and revived space with over 250 000 people moving through the square every weekday . This remarkable mix of people stands testimony to the diversity of the rainbow nation.
Everything at Gandhi Square is not about history though, In the immediate vicinity is a whole gamut of eateries and entertainment spots too. Look out for Lucky Moo - one of Jozi’s most popular Chinese takeaways where you can sit down at one of its tables on the square. Or if an authentic, youthful and vibey South African experience is what you are after, head to Ko’spotong. It is a great place to enjoy a burger, Bunny Chow or Fat Cake while relaxing in the South African sun on the balcony. A great vantage point for some serious people watching! At night-time you will most probably encounter a live music performance here.
Southwest of the square (down Anderson Street) is the Reef Hotel. This trendy abode boasts the Gold Mine Cafe on ground level, a restaurant on the third floor and a rooftop bar with a view to behold. What better place can there be for sundowners under Jozi’s deep blue sky?
Also accessible from Gandhi Square is Main Street Mall – a semi-pedestrianised street that leads all the way through town to the edge of Newton. Be sure to stop for coffee at Cramers – a Jozi institution that is bold enough to advertise the “world’s best coffee”!
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