How South Africa Shaped Gandhi | Exploring his Legacy with his Activist Granddaughter
The revolutionary spark was first ignited far from India
In the Boer War Gandhi (middle row, 5th from left) organised a corps of stretcher bearers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Did you know it was in South Africa, rather than India, that racism first ignited the flame of activism in a young Mohandas K. Gandhi? As a lawyer on a business trip in 1893, Gandhi was thrown off a train for refusing to move from the first class - which was by default, the white - section of the train. In the blistering cold of the South African winter, Gandhi was left stranded and shivering overnight on a deserted platform because of the colour of his skin.
"This act of violence and intolerance was immortalised by the man it helped to shape"
The violence was a flippant moment of everyday racism, the sort of thing that occurred as a matter of course in a country that was, at the time, a British colony. Had it happened to anybody else, the act would have been forgotten - like the many other bullying expressions of violence inflicted upon black African and Indian communities by whites living in South Africa at that time. Only it wasn’t forgotten: this act of violence and intolerance was immortalised by the man it helped to shape.
Gandhi’s night in the train station is believed to have been his lightbulb moment. Rather than travelling back to India, the young man set up a life in Durban, dedicated not primarily to his career as a lawyer, but to the fight against racial hatred.
It was a fight that would eventually take him back to India and lead to him facing down - and defeating - the largest empire the world has ever seen. 2018 marks the 125th anniversary of the railway station incident - without which, you could argue, the history of the 20th Century (and indeed the 21st) might have been very different.
Today, there are various ways tourists and admirers can trace Gandhi’s legacy in the region. An assertive bronze statue of Gandhi stands proud in Durban city centre, and throngs of Indians on a yearly basis flock to the Pietermaritzburg train station where he was kicked off the train.
The station, which still works to this day, hasn’t been altered or renovated since his fateful trip - except for a plaque which quietly marks the exact location he was forcibly removed. “The Indians I take to visit the train station often leave with tears,” Thoko Jilli, a local historian, tells me.
An excellent new Gandhi museum, located at the Phoenix Settlement, where the great man lived for nearly two decades and began formulating his ideology, opened just last year. It features an interactive display of his most famous quotes (“an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”, and so on), and allows intimate access to the buildings Gandhi himself built and lived in. I’m lucky enough to be guided around by Ela Gandhi, the great man’s granddaughter, who was born here and is herself a political activist.
"2018 marks the 125th anniversary of the incident, without which history would be very different"
“Living here, we didn’t ever look at people according to status,” Ela tells me. “And we never asked whether you had income.” In her Seventies, Ela still travels widely to spread Gandhi’s message, but when in Durban, she spends as much time at the Settlement as she can.
“Living here according to Gandhi taught me a lot of things about life,” Ela explains as we walk through the museum. “Particularly about living a simple life, being conscious of the environment, being conscious of conservation. Status just didn’t matter to us. I feel so blessed that I don’t have those hang ups and stereotypes that other people seem to grow up with because of their early childhood.”
We pass a statue of Gandhi at the settlement, protected by a modest wicker awning. Ela, being contrarian, mutters that “Gandhi wasn’t one for statues”.
After the tour, we sit on a rose-coloured concrete step just metres from her birthplace. All around us birds are singing in the low-hanging trees (planted by Gandhi himself) which are in spectacular bloom. “He was a very loving grandfather, contrary to what some people think,” Ela carries on, speaking in slow, thoughtful bursts.
“Every day I had some time to spend with him, which I cherished,” she said. “He even wrote two letters to me in the 1947-1948 period. There was so much rioting, partition was taking place, a new government was being put in: it couldn’t have been so simple for him to sit and think about his grandchild, and write her a letter.”
“When I think about ourselves, we often write to the adults and we say, ‘please convey my love to the little ones’. But he wasn’t satisfied with that,” she says. “He wanted to write to me personally, which he did and I really appreciated that. It indicates his love for us and the respect he showed us.”
Gandhi eventually spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed and first implemented his philosophy of satyagraha, an active but peaceful form of nonviolent protest. It was a reaction to growing discrimination against the Indians by the white British ruling class. Indians had been working peacefully as labourers in South Africa from as early as 1860, but were later deemed a threat by the whites, who slapped higher taxes on them, stripped them of their right to vote, and required them to carry a pass on them at all times.
In response, he and thousands of civilians would protest the draconian, degrading laws by marching peacefully, and offering themselves up for arrest. By the time he left South Africa in 1914, Gandhi had a global reputation as a civil rights advocate and community organiser, and was given the title, ‘Mahatma’, or ‘Great Soul’. He never returned to the country, but his legacy lived on here.
“We believe Nelson Mandela was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s beliefs,” says Thoko Jili. “When Mahatma Gandhi started fighting against racism, he didn’t raise any group against the whites. He used the mind, the hand and the heart to fight against everything.”
We’re exploring an impressive Mandela sculpture located near Howick Halls, where he was captured by the hated apartheid-era South African Police. A large Mandela museum is set to open at the capture site relatively soon.
Gandhi is “like Mandela” to modern South Africans, according to Jili. Asking around, its obvious his legacy is revered.
“Ela Gandhi came here a month ago - we heard Gandhi’s granddaughter was coming so we all peaked - we had to peak,” says Amina, my young waitress at Durban’s Oyster Box Hotel. Apparently popular with the Kardashians and British Royals, the Oyster Box is famous for its Indian Curry Buffet - another legacy of the longstanding links between this particular city and the Subcontinent. “Every South African knows about Gandhi,” she continues. “People know Nelson Mandela, what a legend he is. Well, Mahatma Gandhi is also a legend in South Africa.”
“In recognition of the work Gandhi did in bringing equality and freedom to SA, many buildings, streets, community centres, hospitals and parks are named after him,” adds Hendry Pakiri. A waiter of Indian descent, he’s worked at The Oyster Box for 54 years - long enough to remember when racial segregation meant blacks would never have visited the hotel. “By naming things, places after him, we are asserting our freedom in a physical, visible way,” he said.
“In the 50s, when I was a 13-year-old working in the hotel restaurant, no Hindus visited at the Hotel, as we didn’t have the means,” Hendry adds. “My children have been able to grown up in a free and democratic South Africa.”
Despite this widespread reverence however, when I ask Ela how Gandhi’s legacy has influenced modern Durban she says: “That’s a difficult question. Right now you see lots of violence, you see racism and so on.” Certainly to outsiders, these perceptions persist. And there’s no doubt that, for all that it’s an incredible holiday destination, South Africa still has more than its fair share of problems - many of them, tragically, unresolved hangovers from her grandfather’s time.
Overall, however, Ela is hopeful. “In the midst of all that,” she says, “there are those who are not written about, the good people.” The hope is that more people will come to Durban to learn about his legacy here. Because if Mahatma Gandhi’s time in South Africa proved anything, it’s that “the good people” can make all the difference.
Do it Yourself:
Getting there: British Airways have just launched new regular flights to Durban, five times a week, from £461 return.
Guides & attractions: The Phoenix Park Settlement & Mahatma Gandhi House Museum is open daily, until 4.30PM weekdays and 2PM weekends. Walking tours with a qualified history guide are a great way to see Durban City Centre. Visit Durban can provide details and help arrange them.
Pietermaritzburg Train Station and the Nelson Mandela capture site are within a few hours drive of Durban. Several major car rental companies have offices at Durban Airport.
Adam Bloodworth is freelance journalist based in London. His trip was supported by British Airways and the Oyster Box Hotel.