/ 26 March 2023

Waning funds threaten Gandhi’s South African legacy

Mahatma Gandhi
In the long odyssey of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, his 21 years in South Africa stand out.

In the long odyssey of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, his 21 years in South Africa stand out.

Before becoming one of the 21st century’s towering figures as the icon of Indian independence, Gandhi lived in Britain’s southern African colony from 1893 to 1915.

As his thoughts towards colonialism evolved, he created the hallmark of his campaign of peaceful protest — the Transvaal March, contesting a ban on Indian immigration.

Today, though, the physical legacy of Gandhi’s historic stay in South Africa is decaying for want of funds, his granddaughter says.

Now turned into a museum, the house where he lived in Phoenix, Durban, which also housed his newspaper, is falling into disrepair. Its turquoise paint is dulling, some of the windows are broken and the roof is leaking.

“If we allow the settlement to be dilapidated completely, his memory will be lost,” said Ela Gandhi, 82, who lives in Durban.

She heads the Phoenix Settlement Trust, which manages the museum and provides food aid, temporary shelter and computer literacy classes to destitute people.

The trust was for years bankrolled by the municipality of Durban to keep his legacy alive. But it recently turned off the taps.

The granddaughter said the trust’s activities helped ease tense relations between Phoenix’s residents, who are largely of Indian origin, and the predominantly black community of Inanda.  

More than 30 people died in an outbreak of vigilante violence in Phoenix during the riots in 2021. Most of the victims were black South Africans.

“Until last year, we were receiving some funds from the municipality to enable us to continue and grow our programmes; now it has stopped,” Gandhi said. 

The town was providing R40 000 monthly before the funding ended.

The municipality did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians came to South Africa during British colonial rule in the 19th century to work on sugarcane plantations on the east coast. 

Gandhi landed in South Africa in his early 20s to represent an Indian businessman in a legal matter. 

Nearly a decade after his arrival, Gandhi purchased 100 acres of land in Phoenix. There, he invited some of his friends to join him to build a community of self-reliance, which became an incubator of the Satyagraha doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience. 

Not everyone in South Africa is a fan of Gandhi. Some argue he held racist views.  

In 2015, protesters defaced a statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg with white paint.

Gandhi used racial slurs in some of his writing, also claiming that Indians were “infinitely superior” to black Africans.

He was indeed a “product of colonialism” who arrived believing “white colonial society was the embodiment of civilisation”, said Vishwas Satgar, an international relations professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

But South Africa changed him. 

“He displayed something very important — human beings are capable of transformation,” said Satgar.

Ela Gandhi said the house-museum shows how her grandfather “changed his life” and discusses his “attitude toward race” and other issues. She is looking for alternative funding to keep the trust going but times are hard. 

“It’s been a tough market to fund­raise for historical sights post-pandemic,” Sello Hatang, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s chief executive, said.

In 2021, Liliesleaf, a Johannesburg farm that Mandela used as a safe house, was forced to close its doors indefinitely after years of underfunding. Preserving these sites “is no longer something donors feel is a priority”, said Hatang. — AFP