It’s 8am and Ela Gandhi, wearing a traditional khadi kameez, is seated on a sofa by the window of her modest 13th floor apartment in the hilly Glenwood area of Durban, South Africa.
The apartment, where she lives with her youngest daughter Ashish Ramgobin and her two children, overlooks the Durban harbor and offers sweeping vistas of the city. A stately piano is next to her, which she often plays, and above it, a painting of her grandfather Mahatma Gandhi gifted to her by the Rustomjee business family in Durban.
In the living room where she is, are glass showcases filled with sepia photographs, Gandhi memorabilia, pictures of Ela with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and several silver and crystal plaques, medallions and awards, among them, the prestigious Padma Bhushan (India’s third highest civilian award) she received from the Indian government in 2007.
In January this year, Ela received an award for her lifetime contribution to the freedom struggle in South Africa alongside other veterans of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) – the armed struggle wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Ela clarifies she had never been a member of the armed wing, but receiving the award was an honor.
On the other side of the room, pictures of her as a child with her grandmother Kasturba Gandhi, and in the lap of Abdul Gaffar Khan, a lifelong pacifist and friend of her grandfather’s. There is a black and white photo in the hallway that is a particular favorite: of a six-year-old Ela in a white dress standing next to Mahatma Gandhi at the height of the freedom struggle in India.
In her bedroom are bookshelves laden with tomes on her grandfather; she rates the one by author Sudheendra Kulkarni to be the best. She spends most mornings here, working on the computer, editing articles for the monthly non-profit newspaper Satyagraha published in Durban.
“I have been inspired by my grandfather’s teachings all my life. Be the change you wish to see, is my favorite quote of his,” says Ela.
Her daughter Ramgobin, who runs an NGO promoting sustainable livelihoods for the poor, says Gandhi is an important part of their legacy in South Africa. “In India, Mahatma Gandhi is a public holiday, but his messages are very relevant in our lives here,” she says.
Ela has upheld the family’s legacy, running several community projects, among them the Phoenix Settlement where Gandhi ran his anti-discrimination activities during his 21-year stint in South Africa. All through her illustrious political career, Ela has had the distinction of interacting with Nobel laureates – Tutu, Mandela, and Albert Luthuli who was also a close friend of the Gandhis.
The Drive To Phoenix
Ela revs up the engine of her turquoise Toyota sedan for the 20 kilometer drive to the Phoenix Settlement in Inanda district. As she hits the N2 North freeway – she is a careful driver – she speaks of the apartheid era, when she was banned in 1973 for her political activism, and placed under house arrest for eight-and-a-half years.
“I had to report to the police station every Saturday and couldn’t leave the house between 7PM and 7AM. I had to stay indoors on weekends and public holidays,” she says.
The years roll by as she recollects the day her son Khush was shot dead, a year before South Africa’s democratic elections. He was only 29. To date, she does not know who was behind it or if it was politically motivated.
“The scar of losing a child will never leave you. [We] will never know why it happened. It was covered up,” says Ela.
In 1990, she was among the United Democratic Front team that met with Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town prior to his release. When the ANC government came to power in 1994, she served as an MP for nine years. She has met with Madiba many times since.
“He used to call me by name,” she says.
As still part of the Phoenix constituency, Ela developed a program against domestic violence, and started her work with the Gandhi Development Trust.
When we finally reach the Phoenix Settlement, it is clear Ela feels at home here.
This is where she was born in 1940, living here for the first six years of her life. After the Mahatma’s return to India in 1914, it was Ela’s father Manilal Gandhi who came back to Phoenix in 1917 to run the Gujarati-English newspaper Indian Opinion and continue his father’s legacy. Ela’s father was also a strong influence in her life on the Phoenix farm.
“We had a small kitchen with a chimney and a central dining room. All the children slept on the wooden floor. The place was buzzing with life. Although we had no power or water, we had very good times here,” she recalls.
When her grandfather first set up the communal farm in 1904, the homestead was a humble wood and iron dwelling. He valued simplicity, manual work and self-sufficiency. “It was a snake-infested property and my grandfather was afraid of snakes,” she says.
What was a 100-acre farm is today “a fenced-in area of about 1.5 acres” including a school and a museum, which records Mahatma Gandhi’s influences – Tolstoy being one of them – and how he influenced the world.
“This is a site of extraordinary significance in the liberation movement. John Dube, the founding president of the ANC, was his neighbor. There was so much contact between them, but it’s not talked about,” says Ela.
Ela remembers one particular conversation she had with her grandfather, while at the Sevagram (land of service) ashram in India that advocated simple living and farming.
“I told him that if they want to cook and serve pumpkins in the communal kitchens everyday, why do they call it ‘land of service’? They should call it ‘land of pumpkins’. Later during a speech, he told the people that when he asked them to live in simplicity, he did not expect them to eat pumpkins every day. I remember so distinctly that conversation with him and the aftermath of it. Everybody was curious who had leaked it to him.”
Ela says even after he left South Africa, Gandhi stayed in touch with Indians here, telling them “your destiny is connected with Africans, so work closely with them”.
Ela visits India at least twice a year, visiting her mother’s relatives in the state of Maharashtra, and never missing an opportunity to visit the Gandhi memorial at Raj Ghat in New Delhi.
“I visit India, but I am a proud South African,” says Ela. She is Gandhi’s indelible link to South Africa.