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"I have come here today to join you in commemorating the centenary of Satyagraha, the mass movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg on September 11, 1906. In remembering Satyagraha, we pay homage to the Mahatma. And in honouring the Mahatma, we honour South Africa. It is here that he found the strength, developed the ideas and forged the tools used to resist racial discrimination here, and win independence at home in India.
Yesterday, I went to the railway station where it all began, when the young barrister was thrown out of a first-class carriage because of the colour of his skin. My pilgrimage continued this morning with a visit to Phoenix Settlement, which Mahatma Gandhi founded in 1904. There he practiced the values he preached - self-help, dignity of labour, community living.
Last, but far from the least, I paid homage today at Umbilo Road. There, twenty-three years after Gandhiji left this country, brave South Africans demonstrated the timeless relevance of the message of the Mahatma - that non-violent resistance can challenge the most brutal injustice.
Here, I must express my gratitude - indeed the gratitude of all the Indian people - to the government of free South Africa for what they have done to preserve the legacy of Gandhiji in this country. The freedom of the city where he was evicted from a train was conferred on him posthumously in 1997 by former President Nelson Mandela. The Pietermaritzburg station today carries a memorial to one of the most significant moments in his life. I know that the city hopes to be inscribed on the World Heritage list due to its unique links with the Mahatma and the birth of a new philosophy of struggle against injustice. We wish it success.
South Africa has shown that it is possible to resolve even the bitterest of differences with a spirit of reconciliation. You live the life Mahatma died for. The victims are working together with those who injured them. The edifices from which unjust power was wielded are now the seats of democracy. And here we are in this cricket stadium, where for so many years, to play a day/night match, it was not just the ball that had to be white.
Recently, in India, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Salt March. It was a turning point in our history. So was the meeting held here at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on September 11, 1906. Over 3000 South Africans of Asian origin gathered to oppose the infamous Black Act. They were to witness the birth of one of the most significant movements of our times, which became known as "Satyagraha". That moment is best described in Gandhiji's own words:
"The old Empire Theatre was packed from floor to ceiling. I could read in every face the expectation of something strange to be done or happen...... The resolution [opposing the ordinance] was duly proposed and seconded and supported by several speakers one of whom was Sheth Haji Habib. ...He was deeply moved and went so far as to say that we must pass this resolution with God as witness and must never yield a cowardly submission to such degrading legislation. He then went on solemnly to declare in the name of God that he would never submit to that law, and advised all present to do likewise... all present standing with upraised hands, took an oath with God as witness not to submit to the Ordinance... I can never forget the scene."
Today's commemoration, ladies and gentlemen, reminds us that no one must forget that scene and what it represented; particularly now when 9/11 has become imbued with a horrific significance, so different from all that Satyagraha implied.
Gandhiji himself explained the term Satyagraha in these words:
"Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force....the Force which is born of Truth and love or non-violence."
This was the beginning of a new way of battling violence and injustice - with non-violent and just means. Ordinary people did ordinary things to achieve extraordinary results. Today, let us pay homage to those men, women and children, the many unsung heroines and heroes, who sacrificed themselves in the name of Satyagraha. Their sacrifice has given us our freedom.
In keeping with the values that he expounded in South Africa, Gandhiji encouraged a sense of kinship between the Indian and African communities, both victims of racism. The Bhambatha rebellion in 1906, the centenary of which also falls this year, in which he led an ambulance corps, deepened his sense of fellowship with Africans.
His links with two great personalities living in this region, John Dube and the prophet Isaiah Shembe of the Nazareth Church, are further testimony of the affinity he felt for the African community.
What of the relevance of his message today? Genocide, ethnic cleansing, religious and territorial wars, and the ever-growing menace of international terrorism are afflicting many parts of the world. In this background, the Mahatma's philosophy of peace, tolerance and the interdependence of humankind is surely even more relevant than a hundred years ago.
Every generation has re-discovered the relevance of Gandhiji's message. I was heartened to see recently that back home in India the most popular movie this festival season is a film about a young man's discovery of the universal and timeless relevance of the Mahatma's message.
In an age when people worry about the so-called "clash of civilizations", Gandhiji's message would have been that it is indeed possible for us to work for the "confluence of civilizations". Through the institutions of a pluralist democracy and the processes of inclusive development we can make our world safer for peace, equality and freedom.
This, however, can not come about if people are still hungry, if people are still victims of cruel diseases, if children are still not guaranteed education, if women still can not hold their head high, if people are still denied freedom to practice their faith in safety and dignity.
It is only by following Gandhiji's life and deeds, by recapturing the essence of his trinity of values, that we can hope to build the world of Gandhiji's dream. An inclusive and prosperous world. A world of open societies and open economies. A world of equity and equal opportunity. A world we can be proud of leaving to our children. On this centenary of the launch of satyagraha, let each of us pledge, as those in the Empire Theatre did a hundred years ago, to do everything in our power to bring this about."