The Mahatma’s granddaughter

2008-02-05 00:00

FROM her apartment, Ela Gandhi has a commanding view of Durban. Beyond lies the Indian Ocean over which her famous grandfather, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, sailed to South Africa in 1893 to take up a position with an Indian law firm and, ultimately, to change the course of history.

Inside, the Mahatma’s presence is felt in the portraits that adorn the living room walls and share space with photographs of ANC icons such as Chief Albert Luthuli. In a corner near the dining table, a framed photograph captures the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in conversation. But it is in the person of Ela Gandhi that one feels the strongest connection to the prophet of non-violent resistance.

Soft-spoken and serene, the retired social worker and former ANC MP embodies the qualities of quiet strength and reflection traditionally attributed to her grandfather. She is frequently invited to speak on the Mahatma’s legacy, and during our conversation, his teachings are frequently invoked.

Although she was only eight when he was assassinated, Ela Gandhi says she remembers her grandfather well, owing to regular visits by the family to India, where both her parents — Manilal (Mohandas Gandhi’s second son) and Sushilal — were born and later united in an arranged marriage.

But Gandhi’s earliest memories are of the Phoenix Settlement in Inanda where she was born in 1940 — the youngest of three siblings — and spent much of her childhood. Established in 1904 by her grandfather, the 100-acre settlement was based on the ideals of multi-racial communal living and everyone was expected to work for the common good.

It was a life of few creature comforts. “We had no piped water or electricity, so we learnt the value of such things as bright light,” she recalls. But it was also a privileged milieu: “I was raised among people of all races, an experience then denied to so many.”

A central focus of settlement activities was the Indian Opinion – the Gujarati-English weekly newspaper started by Mohandas Gandhi in 1903. Ela’s father — who had spent his teenage years at the farm, but was then living in India — was sent back to South Africa in 1917 by his father. His brief was to run the newspaper, manage the settlement and continue the work of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) which the Mahatma had founded in 1894.

Manilal was a dedicated son who took his responsibilities seriously and Ela remembers him being busy. Like his father before him, Manilal was imprisoned and detained several times for political activities, both in India and South Africa.

In this environment, the young Ela imbibed a commitment to political and social activism, but at all times, the family’s value system was underpinned by a deep commitment to non-violence. “I thank God for the opportunity I was given to understand this principle,” she says.

“Even as a social worker, your basic belief is that people can change. And if they can change, why kill them? Non-violence is based on change. This change can only be effected through love, not antagonism and hatred.”

Gandhi remembers coming to understand, from an early age, that “all life is sacred”.

“I hate snakes, but I was raised not to kill them. Nobody and nothing needs to be killed in this world. God has ways of dealing with things.”

Gandhi insists that her vegetarianism is not merely a product of being raised in a vegetarian home. “My parents gave me the power to make my own decisions,” she says. “We were taught to think independently and objectively, but not arrogantly. Nobody has the answer to every question.”

Recalling her grandfather’s teachings, she said: “Gandhiji said we can change our mind, that we might look at the world differently tomorrow. So I reserve the right to change my mind. I think a lot and learn from others. That’s what my grandfather did. He learnt from other religions and took the best from all of them.”

At the tender age of 21, Gandhi put her power to decide into practice and married fellow University of Natal (non-European section) student and activist Mewa Ramgobin.

She describes it as an “act of defiance”. “My mother didn’t approve. She thought I was too young and was worried about the seven-year age gap between us. But she didn’t refuse. She suggested I go to India for a year and think about it, which I did.”

The following year, the couple were married in a simple wedding in India. Then they returned to South Africa, where Gandhi completed her degree and went on to do honours through Unisa.

She worked in both the Durban Child Welfare and Verulam Child Welfare societies for a total of 20 years, taking time out to have her children: three girls and two boys, one of whom was killed in an assassination in 1993 when he was 24.

On the matter of religion, Gandhi describes herself as a “universalist”. “I was born a Hindu, yes, but I’ve no problem going to a church, synagogue or a mosque. I believe God is within us, and not necessarily a he or a she...”

Growing up, Gandhi’s spiritual education was balanced by practical skills, like how to produce a newspaper. All family members were expected to play a role in the Indian Opinion. “As children, we helped to fold and wrap the newspapers. When we could read and write, we’d write the recipients’ names on the wrapper. We also learnt to compose and typeset,” says Gandhi.

Much later, Gandhi would put this knowledge to good use. In 2000, she founded Satyagraha — the free monthly community newspaper with an emphasis on education and fostering inter-racial and inter-cultural understanding. The paper takes its name from the term (meaning “in pursuit of truth”) used by her grandfather to define his philosophy of non-violent resistance.

“I wasn’t enamoured with the mainstream newspapers and media,” says Gandhi of her reasons for starting the paper, which is based at the Durban University of Technology where, as of last year, she holds the position of chancellor.

“I felt there needed to be a greater emphasis on ethics,” says Gandhi. Satyagraha doesn’t engage in personal attacks, but confines criticism to deeds or policies. It also steers clear of sensationalism. “We don’t want to inflict harm. We try to influence people positively, rather than negatively.”

Like so much in her life, Gandhi is guided in this approach by her grandfather, a prolific writer. “He said everything that you write must be read with an eye on what influence it is likely to have on other people. He would submit a piece of work for publication only once he had gone through this process.”

The quiet mobiliser

Encouraged by anti-apartheid activists and communists Roly and Jackie Arenstein in 1971, Ela Gandhi and Mewa Ramgobin helped to revive the Natal Indian Congress, which had stalled because most of its leadership had been jailed or forced underground or into exile. While it was “quite easy” to revive the organisation, within a couple of months, every office bearer had received a visit from the security branch and many leaders received banning orders. Gandhi herself was banned for nine years, five years of which were under house arrest.

But that didn’t stop her from making a political impact. As a social worker, Gandhi found it difficult to draw the line between the personal and the political. “The focus of social work was traditionally on the individual, but it was clear that individual problems were often the product of bigger issues,” she says.

Under the aegis of the Child Welfare societies of Verulam and Durban, Gandhi conducted community work, which saw her “mobilising quietly, bringing people together”.

“We learnt from them and we also tried to help them understand certain developments, like why certain laws were being passed and their impact.”

One of her concerns was helping people understand the systemic ways in which the government fostered inter-racial tensions.

Gandhi also worked closely with women’s groups and was a founder member of the Natal Organisation of Women which was established in the late seventies. After her divorce, Gandhi left Child Welfare to join the Careers Information Centre. “Being a social worker is a big responsibility and I felt I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to help or influence others.”

But bigger responsibilities lay ahead. In 1994, she was elected to the national Parliament where she served for 10 years.

Although now retired, Gandhi continues to share her grandfather’s legacy. Recently, she’s been engaged in a process to set up a centre for non-violence at the DUT. She also sits on the Mahatma Gandhi Salt March Committee and is secretary of the Mahatma Gandhi Development Trust.

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