Sonja Schlesin was born in Moscow on 6 June 1888 to Isidor Schlesin and his wife Helena Dorothy (nee Schloss). The Schlesin family later immigrated to South Africa, and arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in June 1892.
In 1903, M.K Gandhi, who had decided to settle in South Africa after his involvement in Indian Resistance campaigns, enrolled as an attorney in the Supreme Court of the Transvaal. He opened an office in central Johannesburg, and therefore required the services of a clerical assistant.
His architect friend, Herman Kallenbach, referred him to a young Jewish woman, Sonja Schlesin. Schlesin had matriculated at the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1903 at the age of 15. He was to discover that she had exceptional speed and accuracy at shorthand.
Gandhi was prepared to pay her up to £20 for her clerical work, but Schlesin was perfectly satisfied with the amount of £6, which Kallenbach had suggested to Gandhi. Her response to her employer’s offer of more than £6 was, “I am not here to draw a salary from you. I am here because I like to work with you and I like your ideals.”
Gandhi was instrumental in voicing opposition to several proceeding discriminatory laws, including the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance and Immigration Restriction Act or “Black Act”. When the Restriction Act came into force in 1908, a mass rally was held in a mosque attended by some 2 500 people. Schlesin wanted to address the rally and had sought her parents’ permission to do so. In the event Gandhi actually read her speech out to the meeting, in which she said:
“--- But I implore you not to flinch from the hardships which now confront you, not to falter at the shoals ahead but to continue steadfast on your heroic resolve to give up all, aye very life itself, for the noble cause of country and religion. ---- Success is then assured, victory is yours, is ours.”
Shortly thereafter, the Indian community expressed their appreciation for those who had worked for their cause, including Henry Polak, who was given a gift of £50 and Schlesin, who was given £10. Gandhi wrote of Schlesin, “Miss Schlesin --- taxed herself to her utmost by labouring day and night.” At a dinner to celebrate her contribution to the cause, Schlesin was presented with a gold watch by the President of the Chinese Association, Leung Quinn.
Gandhi later became more immersed the political struggles of the community and was arrested and detained several times. Schlesin was the stalwart of the office in his absence. Determined to study law, Schlesin was indentured as a clerk on 24 February 1909, with the support of her father as her legal guardian. Gandhi, Polak and McIntyre as well as Schlesin and her father witnessed the Articles of Clerkship. The training was to last three years.
On 26 April 1909, The Transvaal Leader reported: “An application was made by Mr Liechtenstein before Mr Justice Bristowe in the High Court, Pretoria on Friday afternoon, on behalf of a young lady named Sonja Schlesin… Mr Justice Bristowe refused the application, with costs and declined to depart from the universal practice, which precluded the admission of ladies as attorneys…”
The refusal was based on the premise that “…the articling of women is entirely without precedent in South Africa and never was contemplated by the law…” Women would only be legally permitted to practise law in 1923.
In an effort to further assist the Indian population Millie Polak, (Henry Polak’s wife), decided to start an organisation for Indian women called the Transvaal Indian Women’s Association (TIWA). In March 1909 Schlesin was appointed secretary.
Gandhi observed in the Indian Opinion: Miss Schlesin, while in love with her work, is not interested with the official position she occupies. She considers that the office should rightly belong to an Indian ---.” Indian women were unable to be appointed due to a lack of education.
Schlesin was invaluable to the law practice, the organisation, and the Satyagraha campaign. She was responsible for the large sums of money required; she edited articles for the Indian Opinion; she communicated with all the leaders of the movement and visited Satyagrahis in prison. Schlesin was efficient, reliable and spoke her mind freely. In 1909, Gandhi left for London in an attempt influence British politicians. Hajee Habib accompanied him. While Gandhi was in London, Schlesin was in charge of his affairs and she was kept informed of developments. The Phoenix Settlement in Inanda was struggling with financial difficulties and Schlesin was therefore appointed as one of its trustees.
In January 1911, Schlesin passed an Intermediate Arts Examination at the University of the Cape of Good Hope and by August intended to take up a teaching appointment. During September she began teaching at a government school in Mayfair.
During her period as Secretary of the TIWA, Schlesin had a minor clash with authority. While travelling Third Class on the railways on two occasions she was asked to move to carriages assigned to whites. She refused and followed this up by challenging the railway administration to charge her.
On 22 October Gopal Krishna Gokhale, distinguished leader of the Indian National Congress, arrived in Cape Town and travelled by train to Johannesburg. Gandhi accompanied him throughout his five-week tour in Johannesburg and Durban.
During his stay he was able to observe Schlesin at work and paid this tribute to her: “I have rarely come across such purity, single-minded devotion to work and great determination as I have seen in Miss Schlesin. I was simply astonished how she had sacrificed her all for the Indian cause without expecting any reward whatsoever….”
When a decision of the Supreme Court (the Searle judgement) effectively made non-Christian marriages and the immigration of Indian wives and children illegal, women began to involve themselves in Satyagraha. On 4 May, Schlesin, the Secretary of TIWA, cabled the Minister of the Interior expressing the women’s intention of resistance.
On 17 October, Gandhi led the Great March, which was a strike staged in opposition to a £3 poll tax for indentured labourers. The march began in Charleston and lead to the incarceration of 300 satyagrahis. While the march took place, Schlesin remained in Charlestown to take care of the remaining women, children and the elderly.
Prabhudas Gandhi, son of Chaganlal Gandhi, who was one of Gandhi’s cousins, remembered her at Phoenix in 1913, when he was 12 years old, as: “--- She wrote for long hours and yet she was never tired. --- Bapuji (Gandhi) has spoken volumes about Miss Schlesin in his History of Satyagraha in South Africa… She could not stay long at Phoenix, as she had to provide help to the strikers. For this reason she had to move between Natal and Transvaal running here and there in between the campaign. ---“
Schlesin was also involved in the social aspects of Satyagraha life. It is not generally noted that Gandhi promoted football matches between groups of satyagrahis, however Itzkin’s, Gandhi’s Johannesburg, has a photograph of Pretoria Passive Resisters and Johannesburg Passive Resisters at the Rangers Football Club ground with both Gandhi and Schlesin, the only woman present.
In 1914, Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, left with Kallenbach for Britain hoping to meet with Gokhale. Before departure they attended farewell dinners in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town where Schlesin was presented with books. Gandhi paid a glowing tribute to Schlesin for her work in the Indian cause. He entrusted her with a pair of sandals, made in prison, to be given to Smuts.
During 1918, Schlesin registered at the University College of Johannesburg. She was in obvious need of a loan, as she wrote to Gandhi on this topic. Gandhi replied to her on 23 February 1919 stating that he had spoken to a Mr Parsee Rustomji to provide the amount of £150.
In 1920, she became a teacher at the High School in Krugersdorp, a small mining town to the west of Johannesburg where she remained for the next 23 years, teaching primarily Latin.
Between 1921 and 1924, Schlesin graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with First Class pass in a BA and a MA. Her subjects were French, Latin, English, Logic and Philosophy.
In 1924, having completed her studies, Schlesin wrote to Gandhi at Sabarmati, India to ask for an employment reference. On 15 August 1924, Gandhi wrote in her reference: “…I never once had reason to doubt her integrity or her ability. Indeed she did not work for the sake of pay but for the sake of the work itself which she loved… I could not wish for a better secretary. I should like to hear that she was entrusted with a post requiring close attention, strictest honesty and ability.”
V.S. Srinivastri Sastri, India’s first Agent-General to South Africa was interviewed by Schlesin at Gandhi’s request and she sent him what Gandhi described as a “fascinating description of her interviews with you”.
Between 1929 and 1931, Schlesin took on a Diploma in Afrikaans from the University of the Witwatersrand. She continued to correspond with Gandhi.
While she continued to follow Gandhi’s career and the developments in India throughout her life, teaching became her main focus. Her favourite subject was Latin and in her 22 years as a teacher, she had only two failures in her matriculation class.
To her pupils she was an outstanding teacher, but decidedly eccentric. She lived alone in a house called ‘The Hermitage’ in Sievewright Street from which she could walk to school. It was a custom for pupils to give presents to teachers at Christmas, but Schlesin always promptly returned them.
In 1937, she acquired a donation of more than a thousand books for the school library, which she classified with the help of her pupils. Schlesin was never promoted, and traces of a clash can be seen in the Principal’s logbook in 1940.
Schlesin put great emphasis on education and hard work, but eventually retired from teaching in June 1943, at the age of 55. It appears that she may have joined the war effort in an administrative capacity, probably in the Defence Headquarters in Pretoria. Many of Gandhi’s former colleagues of Jewish origin departed from his pacifist position during the Nazi period, so it is likely the case.
Although it seems improbable, it is reported that that she supported the United Party Government, led by previous antagonist Jan Smuts, during the war. This seems possible when one remembers that the Government was anti-Nazi and moreover Smuts was pro-Jewish and advocated free entry of Jews into South Africa. He was not, however, sympathetic to black aspirations.
Schlesin was 59 when Gandhi was shot on 30 January 1948. In 1953, at the age of 65 she enrolled at the University of Natal to study law. However, she was unable to complete her law degree and withdrew on 14 March 1955, presumably due to ill health.
Sonja Schlesin died on 6 January 1956 in Johannesburg General Hospital, after having been looked after sister Rose for several months. Her body was cremated, and her ashes placed in the Wall of Remembrance of Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg.