2 years since Satyagraha House has been opened, 2 years which were very rich in how a magical and innovative idea became true… how South African people met the house and how foreigners discovered it. 2 years with nearly no staff turnover (a great result for South Africa), 2 years and 2000 clients stayed there. But everything started actually 4 years ago, in the very early august month 2009.
It was a very hot summer in Paris and I was nearly ready to leave for summer holiday. Easy and cool at home, I received an email from my boss Jean Francois Rial. His brother in law showed him a short press article in Le Figaro, a famous french newspaper saying: « Gandhi’s house for sale for 2 years in Johannesburg ». He always has been fascinated by Gandhi, his message, his life and it sounds to him like obvious he had to buy it. Then he called me asking me to investigate on how, who, what, where and at last how much.
I had nothing to do that day; my kids were out, my wife too, then instead of lazying, that was quite a good thing to keep me busy and not lazy. I first searched on the Internet and found a house for sale by a famous Joburg real estate and managed to get some pictures of that. It was an old thatched roof house, next to a synagogue, in a « normal » middle class area in Joburg and in a small land. Nothing to be very enthousiastic about.
But my boss became obsessed by this house. We are still in august and I send some people I know like Henri Ménard, who went to visit the house, make pictures and send it to us. There was nothing we could do with this house: too small, too old and one of the main argument for us was: no one, no tourist will accept to come and stay in Johannesburg.
I knew Johannesburg as I have been living there for 3 years and I love this city; but in 2009, it was not the sexiest city of SA. In the past, when we sold trips to SA we were reassuring people by telling them: « don’t worry, You’ll land and straight away you’ll jump out from Joburg ». Now because of the obsession of my boss, determined to buy this house, I had to find a way to buy this house, think about how to make it live and how to build a new destination for our clients: Johannesburg.
From that point, there was no way back. We started to work on the history and discovered how important this House named the Kraal and its architect, Hermann Kallenbach have been important in Gandhi’s life and Gandhi’s philosophy.
3 weeks after the first call, the house has been bought, without seeing or visiting it, nor me neither my boss. Early september, I had to organize a trip for my boss, his partners and me to go and see the house, sign papers and at last… make him visit Johannesburg for the first time.
To make the trip easy I booked an helicopter to make a first flight over Gauteng and then avoid traffic jams. My purpose (I gave to myself) was to make Jean Francois love Johannesburg… Quite a challenge! Then, helicopter was an obligation. Flight over Soweto, Soccer City still building, The City, the urban forest, Sandton, Midrand and then Pretoria, Union buildings and Voortrekker and back to joburg to land in Sandown to check in and shower at Fairlawns a very nice boutique hotel settled in an old Oppenheimer family house. Clean and fresh, time has come to go and visit the house for the first time.
The house was very nice with a charming english style garden, old but warm and welcoming. And as soon as Jean Francois and I came in the house, we felt that it was THE house. Nothing to be impressed about, but there was something. As if time has stopped, as if Gandhi would be there, still. The house was modern but we could imagine how it was. We came in the dining room and then I assisted to a very emotional moment, when Jean Francois Rial explained what he wanted to do with this house. In the silence of this family house in the middle of this middle class house with a thatched roof, Jean Francois said what he wanted to make: a museum dedicated to Gandhi, his life, his message, his life in South Africa and also to South Africa; and to make it live by itself create a small guest house to give the house an economic model which would protect this unknown (at that time) heritage.
The rest of the stay (2 days) where dedicated to visits: Constitution Hill, Apartheid Museum, Soweto. Jean Francois never came back until the project has been completed. The video you can watch below has been shot in june 2011 when he came back and saw what his vision gave! A great moment and you can see how deep are his feeling about it.
Then in september 2009, a new adventure started and still last, but this is another story I will only tell in english (even if I make mistakes and even if it’s not in a nice style) because this story belongs to South Africa.