Mohan Hira at Tolstoy Farm

#Gauteng52, Week 3: Communing with Gandhi at Tolstoy Farm

Welcome to Week 3 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi lived in the early 20th century, near the far-flung township of Lenasia.

Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa for more than 20 years, from 1893 to 1914, and he founded the Satyagraha (passive resistance) movement here. Gandhi spent much of those two decades in Johannesburg and there are monuments all over the place — in Gandhi Square, at Constitution Hill, and at the Gandhi museum in Satyagraha House. I’ve visited most of them but I’d never visited Tolstoy Farm. I couldn’t figure out where it was.

The entrance to Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi lived from 1910 to 1913.The entrance to Tolstoy Farm as it appears today. The land is owned by a brick company, Corobrik, which explains the nice brick wall.

Gandhi lived at Tolstoy Farm (named for Russian author Leo Tolstoy) from 1910 to 1913. The land was purchased by Hermann Kallenbach, a close friend and follower of Gandhi’s, and they ran a commune of sorts on the farm.

The farm is located near modern-day Lenasia, the township 30 minutes south of Joburg where the apartheid government forcibly removed the city’s Indian South Africans in the mid-20th century. But this proximity is a coincidence; Lenasia wasn’t established until several decades after Gandhi departed the country. His history in the area has nothing to do with the government’s decision to dump thousands of ethnically Indian families, many of whom had thriving businesses in the city centre, into this backwater during the 1950s and 60s.

Tolstoy Farm Today

My friend Marie-Lais and I were going to Lenasia for something else and I threw out the idea of finding Tolstoy Farm. My feeble google searches yielded nothing. But Marie-Lais’ sleuthing led to Mohan Hira, a community leader in Lenasia who has been working for years to revive Gandhi’s legacy at Tolstoy farm.

Mr. Hira kindly offered to take us to the farm as we would never have found it otherwise. We met Mr. Hira outside Lenasia’s Trade Route Mall. The farm is 10-15 minutes from there by car.

Historical plaque at Tolstoy FarmA historical plaque at Tolstoy Farm.

Mohan Hira at Tolstoy FarmMr. Hira, who moved from India to South Africa in the 1940s, stands on the restored foundations of the old house at Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi himself never lived in this house; it was standing when he came but he and Kallenbach built their own accommodation nearby. 

There have been several plans announced over the years to build a Gandhi memorial and museum on the grounds of Tolstoy Farm: Read this article from 2003. But nothing much has happened for some reason, and Mr. Hira is now raising his own funds to lease the land from Corobrik and establish an on-site tribute to the Mahatma.

Gardening at Tolstoy FarmThe view toward Soweto from Tolstoy Farm — if you look carefully you can just make out a gold mine dump on the horizon. The man in the picture is one of the workers Mr. Hira hired to fix up the property. 

There’s not much to see at Tolstoy Farm other than grass, bricks, and a roaming herd of cows. (Oh, and a waist-high bush of dagga — marijuana — growing happily next to the farmhouse foundation.) But it was peaceful, and strangely comforting to look north toward the distant Jozi skyline peaking through the mid-morning haze.

Not much has changed at Tolstoy Farm over the last 100 years, and sometimes lack of change is good. I think Gandhi would approve.

Scarecrow at Tolstoy FarmA scarecrow guards the modest mielie (corn) field.

Meeting Gandhi in the Mall

Mr. Hira accompanied us back to Lenasia’s Trade Route Mall, which — like all the malls I’ve been to in South African townships — is new, shiny, and full of enthusiastic shoppers. Hira wanted to show us the statue of Gandhi that he commissioned, which he originally intended to erect at Tolstoy Farm but later decided to put up in the mall. “It would get vandalized on the farm,” Mr. Hira explained.

We entered the mall through the main doors and turned down a corridor, just past the food court. There, we met Gandhi.

Gandhi statue in Tradewinds MallGandhi in Trade Route Mall.

The statue is spectacular, adorned with scarves and plastic floral garlands that Mr. Hiro changes regularly. Somehow the bronze Gandhi fit right into this random mall corridor, amid post-New-Year holiday decorations and passing shopping carts.

Then Mr. Hiro took us for coffee at Wimpy.

Gandhi in the mallThis is South Africa, after all.

If you’d like to visit Tolstoy Farm, there will be an open day on 28 January with a rededication to the memory of Gandhi. For more information and directions, call Mohan Hira at 083-501-1275.

Read all of my #Gauteng52 posts and check out the interactive #Gauteng52 map.

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  • Reply violetonlineisonline January 16, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    who knew!

    • Reply 2summers January 16, 2017 at 6:03 pm

      This city is full of weird surprises.

  • Reply Di Brown January 16, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    this is why I love SA. So many ordinary people quietly doing lovely things like your MR. Hira. Great post Heather, … as always

    • Reply 2summers January 16, 2017 at 9:34 pm

      Thanks Di. He is a very passionate person.

  • Reply autumnashbough January 17, 2017 at 6:04 am

    Quirky indeed. Gandhi at Tolstoy Farm. It does seem sad there is not a structure there.

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