Her story stands on its own

2013-11-28 00:00

BEHIND every great man, is a great woman — that’s certainly the case with Kasturba Gandhi, wife of Mahatma Gandhi.

Her contribution to his legacy and her own fascinating story are currently on show at the Old Prison at Project Gateway in Burger Street, Pietermaritzburg.

It is the first exhibition at the newly refurbished museum and was put together by staff at Project Gateway, with the help of Kasturba’s granddaughter, Ela Gandhi, a peace activist and member of Parliament in South Africa from 1994 to 2004.

This year marks the centenary of her imprisonment in the cells of what was then called the Pietermaritzburg Prison. Now known as the Old Prison, you have to climb a worn staircase to the upper level and go behind bars to view the exhibit.

Using information panels and photographs, the staff have created a fascinating historical record of Kasturba’s life, both in India and in South Africa.

Affectionately known as “Ba”, Kasturba Kapadia was born on April 11, 1869, in Porpandar (present-day Gujarat) in India. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and friend of Karamchand Gandhi, Gandhi’s father.

Aged just seven, she and Mohandas were betrothed and in 1882, aged just 13, they were married.

Gandhi taught his wife to read and write, a radical move, given the position of women in India at that time.

When Gandhi left to study law in London in 1888, Kasturba remained in India to raise their son, Harilal. The couple would later have three more children, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas.

In 1891, Gandhi returned to India to a legal career, but just two years later accepted a one-year contract to go to Natal to work as a legal counsel. On completion of his contract, he decided to stay in South Africa and in 1896, brought his family to the country

In a foretaste of what the Gandhis would later experience, their arrival in South Africa was traumatic. They were held for 30 days in quarantine and Gandhi was assaulted on disembarkation.

While living in Johannesburg, the couple also found themselves helping members of the Indian community affected by an outbreak of bubonic plague in March 1904.

Gandhi organised medical assistance for the sick and his wife broke a 1 000-year-old rule about women not being allowed to approach strangers. She visited women to talk about basic health and hygiene measures.

In 1904, Gandhi founded a small ashram at Phoenix in Durban, and set up a printing press where the Indian Opinion newspaper was printed. The retreat devoted to Satyagraha (passive resistance) played an important spiritual and political role throughout its long history.

When Gandhi became involved in trying to improve working conditions for Indians in South Africa, his wife joined the struggle.

Working closely with her husband, she became a political activist, fighting for civil rights and Indian independence from the British.

In 1913, the Satyagraha campaign was revived, helped by three specific issues:

• a Supreme Court judgment that marriages that allowed polygamy would not be recognised in South Africa;

• the passing of the Immigrant Regulation Act; and

• the failure of the South African Parliament to repeal the £3 tax on all indenture-expired Indians over the age of 16.

The judgment by Judge Cameron Searle in March 1913, annulling marriages conducted according to Indian rites, also helped bring Indian women into the struggle.

On September 15, 1913, with three other women and 12 men from Phoenix, Kasturba crossed the border from Natal into the Transvaal without a permit. As they recrossed the border, the group was arrested and sentenced to three months hard labour.

They were jailed initially at the Volksrust Prison and then moved to Pietermaritzburg Prison on September 27, where they were joined by other women from the Transvaal.

They were eventually released on December 22, 1913, after Jan Smuts agreed to the demands made by Gandhi and the satyagrahis.

Kasturba, who suffered from chronic bronchitis for most of her life, died on February 22 1944, from a heart attack. She was 74.

• The Kasturba Gandhi exhibition will run at the Old Prison at Project Gateway until December 6. It is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm. Admission is R20 (R10 concessions).

• Inquiries: 033 845 0400.

• Among the many new attractions at the museum are interactive screens and an interactive table which provide information on some of the famous inmates of the Old Prison.

• arts@witness.co.za

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