Interview with Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of the apostle of non-violent change

Although the first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era as slaves in 1684, it is commonly accepted that the birth of the South African Indian community was in 1860, when, following an agreement between Natal-English colonial authorities and the British-ruled India, Indian workers were imported as indentured labourers to serve the economic needs of the colony. Between 1860 and 1911 approximately 140,000 Indians arrived in South Africa. Another major group of Indian immigrants consisted mainly of professionals, traders and artisans who paid their way into the country in search of a better life. The most famous of such immigrants was Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for 21 years before returning to India to join the struggle against British colonialism.

Today, the Indian community represents 2.5 per cent of South Africa’s population of 47 million people and is an integral part of the rainbow nation. Our Berlin-based Senior Contributing Editor Eric Singh, who himself is South African of Indian origin, was recently in Durban and spoke with Ela Gandhi, an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary pedigree. For she is the granddaughter of the great Indian freedom fighter and the apostle of non-violent political change Mahatma Gandhi. Ela Gandhi, a freedom fighter and an MP for the ANC in the first democratic National Parliament in 1994, is the publisher of Satyagraha, one of the oldest newspapers in the country. She talks about how her grandfather’s sojourn in South Africa shaped his political views and actions later in life. Ela Gandhi, an active participant in the liberation struggle, also narrates the history of Indians in South Africa and their participation in the fight against Apartheid.

TAC: South Africa is marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indian immigrants to the country in November. Could you please explain the importance of this historic event? Ela Gandhi: The people came with very high expectations because they were told that South Africa is a land of milk and honey, but when they arrived it was a completely different story. They realised that they were actually enslaved. The contracts they signed before their journey began actually robbed them of their rights. Many of them could not read and write, and their ‘signatures’ were represented by an X. In that respect, many of the indentured labourers who came to South Africa were greatly disappointed.

The people who came here originally worked under slave conditions, but they were free to go back after five years. Why did so many remain? They were not free. After five years they could not go back for the simple reason that they had no money. During their indenture they were not paid, but were given food rations (groceries). There was no possibility for accumulating funds in order to establish themselves, and it was only after a long timeconsuming struggle that they were guaranteed a small piece of land, which was offset by the colonialists who imposed a ten-pound tax, a fortune in those days. People would have had to do back-breaking work for many hours every day just to meet this sum. However, they simply refused to pay and eventually the tax was abolished. It was the same with the African people. Taxes were imposed so that they would be forced to leave their lands in order to earn money in the cities, especially in the mines with their awful working conditions, to pay their taxes. There were no benefits or services attached to this, which is why people like Bambatha (Chief Bambatha kaMancinza was head of the Zondi Clan in Zululand, Natal) objected to this practice, resulting in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 that broke out in the mid-Natal region of Graytown. This rebellion lasted for several months, but the superior colonialists finally crushed it and beheaded its leader, Bambatha.

In the 20th century, things took a dramatic turn and people became more aware of their own strength. Then there was the arrival of a certain gentleman by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi), who happens to be your grandfather, somebody who changed the whole political landscape in this country. Tell us something about him. When my grandfather came to this country he was just a young man. He came to South Africa in 1893 and lived here for about 21 years. He came to the country as a lawyer just as any other person to earn a living, make some money and go back to India where his family lived. During his stay here, he came face to face with the injustices that prevailed against the Indian people and the Black community as a whole. He felt obliged to do something about it and began mobilising, and in the process changed his own lifestyle. That was the miracle in his life. In those 21 years he transformed from an affluent professional class-conscious human being into an ordinary person who respected labour – by that I mean physical labour – and gave up all the trappings of his background. He gave South Africa the weapon of non-violence, the Satyagraha, and demonstrated through his involvement that it is possible to protest against injustices through non-violent means.

Please narrate some of the injustices Gandhi experienced in South Africa. There was racial injustice. Soon after his arrival, he was thrown out of court because he insisted on wearing a turban. When he tried to explain to the judge that a turban is the same as a wig, he was rudely asked to leave. That was his first confrontation with racism. A few days later, he boarded a train en route to Johannesburg in a first-class compartment. A White person objected to his presence and he was literally thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg, even though he had a valid ticket. The trains were segregated in South Africa and my grandfather had been unaware of this. On this trip he encountered many such incidents of racism, including assault, insults and all the other elements of colonial racism, simply because his skin was of a ‘false’ colour. The experiences he had within the first few months of his arrival were decisive in directing his future.

What did he do? It worried him a great deal that people were prepared to accept the status quo as everyday life and do nothing about it. He began to mobilise and speak to the people about the serious injustices that prevailed, and emphasise that something had to be done about it. In the process, thousands of people were mobilised, which resulted in the formation of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894, whose role was to mobilise and guide the people in their fight against injustice. One of the biggest campaigns in terms of mass was the fight against the permit laws in 1913, when thousands of people crossed the border between the two provinces of Natal and the Transvaal and faced imprisonment. Many thousands of Indian workers laid down their tools and went on strike, and withstood the harassment and assaults meted out by the colonial police very courageously without resorting to weapons or violence. This resulted in quite a number of the unjust laws being repealed in 1914 (people of Asiatic origin were not allowed to travel between the four provinces without a permit).

With his Satyagraha philosophy, Gandhi won the support of many disciples worldwide. Is this philosophy still valid today? Well, one of the most prominent disciples was Chief Albert Luthuli, President General of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Chief Luthuli continued the non-violence policy in South Africa, and in turn was joined by great leaders of the local Indian community such as Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker. Even ANC leaders Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela became strong Gandhian scholars. Satyagraha spread throughout the world, and even the great leader of the Black community in the USA Martin Luther King Jr. adopted this principle and put it to good use in the fight for justice and human rights for his people. It is still a strong weapon, and is being applied in various struggles for freedom and justice in many parts of the world today.

Let’s look at South Africa today. The Indian community has benefited greatly from society through the struggle for peace, freedom and human dignity. What would you say their role is within the new dispensation in a land once ruled by racism and colonialism? The Indian community has played and can continue to play a major role in working with other likeminded people in the various ethnic groups that exist in this country. At the moment, the challenge that faces South Africa is transformation; transformation of a society that is racially divided. Institutions like schools, colleges, tertiary institutions, hospitals, etc, were all segregated during Apartheid, and today we are seeking integration, but this is not easy and any kind of transformation brings with it a lot of pain. Therefore, one needs to find ways to fill the gap, including lots of patience, a plan of action and people who are dedicated to transforming ideas. Finally, it is not just about changing colour, but also ideology. This is precisely what we need to look into further in South Africa.