When he reached Bombay he learnt to his profound sorrow that his mother had died. The news had been deliberately kept back from him to spare him the shock in a distant land.
After spending some time in Rajkot where with his usual earnestness he immediately took in hand the education of his little son and of his brother's children, he decided to set up in legal practice in Bombay. He stayed in Bombay for a few months but had only one small brief. When he rose to argue it in the court, his nerve failed him and he could not utter a word.
Having failed to establish himself in Bombay, Gandhi returned to Rajkot where he started again. But he did not make much headway and was unhappy and out of tune with the atmosphere of petty intrigue that was rampant in the small states of Kathiawar. In this predicament came an offer from Dada Abdulla & Co. to proceed to South Africa on their behalf to instruct their counsel in a lawsuit. It was a godsend. Gandhi jumped at it and sailed for South Africa in April 1893.
He little realized what he was letting himself in for and fondly imagined that he was escaping from an unpleasant situation in Rajkot and was going to make a little money after all. But fate had something different in store for him. It was in South Africa that this shy, timid youth of twenty-four, inexperienced, unaided, alone, came into clash with forces that obliged him to tap his hidden moral resources and turn misfortunes into creative spiritual experiences.
Dressed in a frock-coat and turban Gandhi landed in Durban where his client Abdulla Sheth received him. Almost the first thing he sensed on arrival was the oppressive atmosphere of racial snobbishness. Indians of whom large numbers were settled in South Africa, some as merchants, some in the professions, the large majority as indentured labourers or their descendants, were all looked down upon as pariahs by the white settlers and called coolies or samis. Thus a Hindu doctor was a coolie doctor and Gandhi himself a coolie barrister.
After about a week's stay in Durban Gandhi left for Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, where his presence was needed in connection with a lawsuit. A first class ticket was purchased for him by his client. When the train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. a white passenger who boarded the train objected to the presence of a "coloured" man in the compartment and Gandhi was ordered by a railway official to shift to a third class. When he refused to do so, a constable pushed him out and his luggage was taken away by the railway authorities. It was winter and bitterly cold. Gandhi sat and shivered the whole night in the waiting-room, thinking : 'Should I fight for my rights or go back to India?' He decided that it was cowardice to run away without fulfilling his obligations.
The next evening he continued the train journey-this time without a mishap. But a bigger mishap awaited him on the journey from Charlestown to Johannesburg which had to be covered by stagecoach. He was made to sit with the coachman on the box outside, while the white conductor sat inside with the white passengers.
Gandhi pocketed the insult for fear of missing the coach altogether. On the way the conductor who wanted a smoke spread a piece of dirty sack-cloth on the footboard and ordered Gandhi to sit there so that the conductor could have Gandhi's seat and smoke. Gandhi refused. The conductor swore and rained blows on him, trying to throw him down. Gandhi clung to the brass rails of the coach box, refusing to yield and unwilling to retaliate. Some of the white passengers protested at this cowardly assault and the conductor was obliged to stop beating Gandhi who kept his seat.
Though his main concern in Pretoria was with the lawsuit, Gandhi's sense of social justice had been aroused by his personal experience of the indignities to which his countrymen were subject. He therefore lost no time, after making the necessary preliminary contacts, in calling a meeting of the Indian community in Pretoria which consisted largely of Muslim merchants. This was his first public speech successfully delivered. He exhorted his countrymen to observe truthfulness even in business and reminded them that their responsibility was all the greater since their country would be judged by their conduct in a foreign land. He asked them to forget all distinctions of religion and caste and to give up some of their insanitary habits. He suggested the formation of an association to look after the Indian settlers and offered his free time and services.
The position of Indians in the Transvaal was worse than in Natal. They were compelled to pay a poll tax of £3; they were not allowed to own land except in a specially allotted location, a kind of ghetto; they had no franchise, and were not allowed to walk on the pavement or move out of doors after 9 p.m. without special permit. One day Gandhi, who had received from the State Attorney a letter authorizing him to be out of doors all hours, was having his usual walk. As he passed near President Kruger's house, the policeman on duty, suddenly and without any warning , pushed him off the pavement and kicked him into the street. Mr. coates, an English Quaker who knew Gandhi, happened to pass by and saw the incident. He advised Gandhi to proceed against the man and offered himself as witness. But Gandhi declined the offer saying that he had made it a rule not to go to court in respect of a personal grievance.
In the meanwhile he had been working hard at the lawsuit and had gained a sound knowledge of legal practice. He made two discoveries: one was that facts are three fourth of the law; the other, that litigation was ruinous to both parties in a suit and therefore the duty of a lawyer was to bring them together in a settlement out of court. In this particular case he succeeded in persuading both Abdulla Sheth and the opposing party, Tyeb Sheth, to accept arbitration.
Having completed his work in Pretoria, Gandhi returned to Durban and prepared to sail home. But at a farewell dinner given in his honour some one showed him a news item in Natal Mercury that the Natal Government proposed to introduce a bill to disfranchise Indians. Gandhi immediately understood the ominous implications of this bill which, as he said, "is the first nail into our coffin" and advised his compatriots to resist it by concerned action. But they pleaded their helplessness without him and begged him to stay on for another month. He agreed, little realizing that this one month would grow into twenty years.
With his usual earnestness Gandhi then and there turned the farewell dinner into an action committee and drafted a petition to the Natal Legislative Assembly. Volunteers came forward to make copies of the petition and to collect signatures - all during the night. The petition received good publicity in the press the following morning. The bill was however passed. Undeterred, Gandhi set to work on another petition to Lord Ripon, the Secretary of State for Colonies. Within a month the mammoth petition with ten thousand signatures was sent to Lord Ripon and a thousand copies printed for distribution. Even The Times admitted the justice of the Indian claim, and for the first time the people in India came to know of the hard lot of their compatriots in South Africa.
Gandhi insisted that if he had to extend his stay in South Africa he would accept no remuneration for his public services and since he still thought it necessary to live as befitted a barrister he needed about £300 to meet his expenses. He therefore enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme Court of Natal.