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Following the footsteps of a great man

UNWORTHY:  Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Jan Smuts with a pair of sandals (a replica can be seen in the picture) made by himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned them with the following message: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man"  PICTURE: ZWELETHU GAMEDE © CONSTITUTION HILL 

As part of the Sunday Times Heritage Project, Usha Seejarim has designed an artwork that pays tribute to Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, writes SASHNI PATHER

A PAIR of brown leather sandals made by Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi for his political adversary Jan Smuts has come to symbolise the mutual respect the two great leaders had for each other.

The 28cm-long sandals, now at the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria, were given to Smuts before Gandhi returned to India in 1914 after 20 years in South Africa.

The years Gandhi spent in South Africa left their mark on him and the country. It was here that he shunned materialism and began his satyagraha campaign of nonviolent resistance that was to have such an influence on the world.

It is for this that the Sunday Times is honouring Gandhi as part of its Heritage Project with an artwork by up-and-coming artist Usha Seejarim. The artwork was installed last week outside the Hamidia Mosque in Newtown, Johannesburg — the site where Gandhi led the first burning of passes on August 16, 1908.

Seejarim has created a moving-picture device showing passes going up in flames inside a potjie, just like the cauldron used on that day. The artwork echoes the humility of the man Smuts once referred to as being "more trouble than anyone else".

Over the years the two adversaries developed a relationship that led Gandhi to give the sandals to Smuts as a token of his appreciation for their friendship.

Later, in 1939, Smuts, then prime minister, wrote an essay for a commemorative work compiled for Gandhi’s 70th birthday. He said: "He had prepared for me a very useful pair of sandals, which he presented to me when he was set free.

I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man

"I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."

Ela Gandhi said her grandfather had made the sandals using the skills he had acquired while staying at Tolstoy Farm, 35km southwest of Johannesburg.

The farm became a central point for Gandhi’s followers. They were often imprisoned and the farm ensured that their families were taken care of.

Gandhi’s relationship with Smuts was less amicable early on when the latter betrayed their agreement to repeal what was known as the Black Act.

"The two held private talks and Gandhi appealed to Smuts to repeal the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act," said Erik Itzkin, author of Gandhi’s Johannesburg.

The act forced Indian males older than eight to be fingerprinted and to carry registration certificates.

"Gandhi said he would encourage Indians to voluntarily take out passes and in return Smuts said he would take away the issue of compulsion," said Itzkin. But Smuts reneged on his part and this fuelled Indian opposition to the pass laws.

"They were adversaries that had a grudging respect for one another."

Gandhi made a critical contribution in uniting Hindu and Muslim communities

On August 16, 1908, 3 000 Muslims, Hindus and Christians led by Gandhi, a Hindu, gathered in the courtyard of the Hamidia Mosque and burned their passes.

Itzkin said: "Through his actions Gandhi made a critical contribution in uniting the Hindu and Muslim communities who were fragmented in terms of caste, language, class and religion."

Professor Jon Hyslop, deputy director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said it was easier for Gandhi to overcome religious and caste boundaries here than it was in India.

"These boundaries were weaker in South Africa. People were thrown together for a common cause. The social conditions at the time made things more workable. When he went back to India, he took that model with him."

Gandhi’s transformation from dapper young lawyer to sage in sandals
See the memorial outside the historic mosque where 3 000 Indian passes went up in flames
» Audio Slide Show 
Usha Seejarim was reading Gandhi’s autobiography when she was asked to make his memorial 
» Map 
How to get to the memorial
» Panorama 
Beneath palm trees and a minaret… Take a 360° tour of the Fordsburg site