The spirit of happy rebellion

2013-12-02 00:00

MAHATMA Gandhi’s granddaughter was “overwhelmed” with the efforts almost 2 000 people made to commemorate the centenary of the icon’s “great march” on the weekend.

Some 1 900 people, including dozens of children, joined Ela Gandhi and two provincial MECs in remote Charlestown in northern KwaZulu-Natal to re-enact the peaceful 1913 march for justice, in which Gandhi led some 2 000 people to a prison in Volksrust. He was arrested twice on that day.

An exhibit — featuring audio and multi-media materials — was opened at the prison where Gandhi and other marchers were held.

There was the sound of singing, the smell of biryani, and the spirit of happy rebellion as hundreds took a train leaving Durban at 1.30 am on Saturday; others who had missed the coaches had to race the train in their cars to rejoin the group in Pietermaritzburg.

Many clad in orange T-shirts emblazoned with Gandhi’s face braved the darkness and the morning chill to ensure they were part of the historic event.

They looked back 100 years to November 6, 1913, when men, women and children followed Gandhi in protest against the tax imposed on all former indentured labourers, known as the Indian Relief Bill.

In the same year in September, a group of Indian women, led by Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, decided to break the interprovincial travel laws by crossing the border between Natal and the Transvaal at Volksrust, also calling for the legal recognition of Hindu and Muslim marriages.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, a train provided by Shosholoza Meyl collected people en route, stopping at Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith, where 16 buses transported the throng to Charlestown near Newcastle, where the six-kilometre trek began.

From there, people hiked the route from Charlestown and crossed what was — in 1913 — the border of the Transvaal, now Mpumalanga, to Volksrust prison.

For many, it was a time to ponder and reflect on a hefty price for liberation paid by civic leaders of the period.

The march was joined by the KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga MECs for Arts, Culture, Sport and Recreation — Ntombikayise Sibhidla-Saphetha and Sbongile Manana — and Ela Gandhi.

The High Commissioner of India in South Africa, Virendra Gupta, also participated in the march. Ela Gandhi said she was “overwhelmed” by the turnout.

“To organise the event of this nature and magnitude is overwhelming and is quite a daunting task, but on the whole everything went smooth,” said Gandhi.

She became emotional as she reached the border, and told The Witness the tears stemmed from the fact that it had once been illegal to cross it.

“It’s God’s land and everyone should be free to walk wherever they want,” she said.

“We started with women MECs leading the march and today after 100 years women can hold these positions. It reinforces the idea that we are not walking alone but we’re walking on other people’s backs as well.”

She said that — like her grandfather — she believed that violence always triggered “destruction and antagonism”, and the final resolution “is always bitterness”.

Gandhi said that had her grandfather still been living, he would still be preaching non-violence.

She said carrying on the legacy of the great man was “daunting”.

A 66-year-old from Phoenix, Rambersad Ramcharan, said he could remember a time when his race would have prevented him from even making the journey — much less protesting injustice.

“I haven’t slept. We never had this during apartheid,” said Ramcharan. He said he was honoured to walk Gandhi’s footsteps.

Hajee Bhai Moola said the commemoration brochure brought tears to his eyes — as well as powerful memories.

He said he grew up in Volksrust during apartheid, where no house was available “and the Indian area was full”. Moola recalled an immigration officer who used to hound his family “every Monday” — and that his late father, Ebrahim Moola, had been subjected to “very harsh treatment”.

A 22-year-old UKZN student, Muhammed Randeree, said he enjoyed the walk, but that the hot weather was “unbearable”.

“It’s important for youngsters to be part of these rallies because it gives context which we don’t actually have, and shows how others sacrificed for us,” he said.

Maria Vawda, a five-year-old who marched with her mom Yasmin Vawda, said: “It was very nice. But I’m a little bit tired.”

Eighteen family members of Vawda’s family participated in the march.

Gandhi lookalike Krishna Govender (53) said he felt “awesome” as one of the leaders of the march and said he was “grateful” for what Gandhi stood for.

David Gengan of the PMB Gandhi Memorial Committee said the event was a reminder that, a hundred years ago, people marched in even more difficult conditions and “never gave up”.

On the train, friends and families came together and shared laughter and food they had prepared at home to keep them going for the morning.

The smell of chicken, samoosas, biryani and coffee lingered in the coaches.

A young boy made rounds handing sweets to everyone in the train.

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