Gandhi needs a revisit

Published: October 1, 2009 - 19:07 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 16:15

Stalked by crime, perhaps a beautiful South Africa needs a bit more of Gandhi to come to peace with itself

Sanjay Kapoor Durban

Dusk is slowly settling on Church Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Pietermartizburg, capital of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. A 'whites only' area during the days when this country practised apartheid, Church Street now displays different colours even though still disunited. Glistening cars owned by the new class of blacks slowly weave their way through crowds of busy shoppers and jaywalkers who hang around on a little square on one side of the street. Here stands a dark bronze statue of an emaciated and bony Mahatma Gandhi.

A little distance down the road is the Pietermaritzburg railway station. It was here in May 1893 a young barrister from Porbander, on his way to Pretoria, was thrown out of the first class compartment for his colour. This, however, was an epoch-making incident for the young barrister. It flagged off his long journey to become a Mahatma.

In 1997, more than a hundred years later, Nelson Mandela conferred the 'freedom of Pietermaritzburg' to Gandhi.

The statue and its location are open to different interpretations. The statue looks out at the majestic City Hall, one of the biggest red brick structures in the southern hemisphere where Gandhi addressed a large congregation many years ago. Routinely, it gets vandalised by drunken revellers. Members of the Gandhian society have woken up to find Gandhi's outstretched hand holding a beer can and a cigarette between his fingers. Many a time, his trademark round glasses have gone missing. Acts such as these have caused anxiety amongst the old generation of South African Indians. They perceive this as an attempt by radical blacks to minimise their role in the fight against apartheid. Is there merit in this grievance?

A few months ago, a Union minister from Delhi had visited Pietermaritzburg - a pilgrimage that most visiting Indians undertake. After leaving a bouquet, which still lies dry and dusty after all these weeks, he met the city officials. Rather undiplomatically, he broached the issue of maintenance of the platform and other places linked with Gandhi. The city officials, it is learnt, did not take this advice kindly. Rather, they questioned why Church Street should have Gandhi's statue and not that of other black freedom fighters.

The minister, who gets elected from one of the dirtiest cities of India, had no credentials to upbraid the South Africans on how they interpret their history and treat their icons. Quite clearly, the minister was not nuanced in South African history and the efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) government to ensure the success of a tricky rainbow coalition that is constantly threatened by memories of another day when whites had played Indians against blacks and vice versa. Sitting atop a tinder box of racial tension and an unstable economy, the South African government could find the gains of the last few years getting squandered if there is mindless intervention by graceless visitors, in this case the Indian minister.

South Africans place Mahatma Gandhi high in the pantheon of top leaders who fought against the apartheid regime. At the Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, Gandhi figures prominently in a stark and gloomy museum which has emerged out of the feared Prison No. 4. It is located near the old fort prison where thousands of anti-apartheid activists and petty offenders were incarcerated before it was shuttered down in 1986. Here, the white warders methodically worked towards taking away the dignity of political prisoners by making them strip and forcing them to engage in acts that would make them difficult to look at themselves in the mirror. Gandhi has a permanent exhibit in Prison No. 4.

There is also a women's cell at the Constitution Hill. It's a mute testimony to the cruelty and indignities that revolutionary leaders like Winnie Mandela and Fatima Meer had to endure in their fight against the hated regime.

The South African government has begun to realise the importance of Gandhi in this enormous task of nation building. Besides integrating and assimilating South African Indians - who have the biggest number outside India - Gandhi's rehabilitation sits well with the growing warmth in ties with New Delhi. Indian investment in South Africa is zooming and brands like Tata, Cipla, Ranbaxy, Apollo tyres have become household names in South Africa. The trilateral India-Brazil-South Africa initiative, which is bound by shared beliefs and concerns, is bringing in greater care for each other's sensitivities.

The Phoenix Settlement near Durban, which Mahatma Gandhi fashioned around the idealistic vision of John Ruskin, is seeing a quiet resurrection. This time, it has less to do with the revival of Gandhian ideology but more to do with tourism. The settlement was around 96.4 acres when Gandhi bought it for a meagre sum. Here, he implemented the goodness that flowed from manual work and the importance of craftsmanship to an individual's creative growth. These were Ruskin's teachings that inspired Gandhi to win India freedom by giving precedence to sarvodaya.

The settlement was burnt down in 1985 when the apartheid regime mischievously encouraged Chief Buthelezi to seek a Zulu homeland around Durban. Indians were chased out and a large area around it was encroached upon by black settlers. Only four acres of the settlement is now with Gandhi's trust. The shed from where Gandhi used to bring out a newspaper, The Opinion, has been spruced up. The printing press is an old replica. A little room has been cleared up for the stationing of a government official. The caretaker said it would now be part of the Inanda tourism trail.

The house where Manilal, Gandhi's second son, and subsequently Ela Gandhi stayed is now used for the Gandhian society's meetings. The house is in perfect condition and it has been maintained in the same state it was in when Gandhi left for India. The society runs a clinic and a school. Encroachments that surround the Phoenix settlement have compromised the ideals that led Gandhi to have a farm that was far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Gandhi had felt that the setting of the farm could allow its inhabitants to lead a natural life in a beautiful environment.

There is a bit of indifference among the local people towards the settlement. It is possible that once tourists start coming in large numbers to the settlement and people begin to make money out of them, there might be greater awareness towards a Gujarati lawyer who came to South Africa to practise law.

However, success of these plans to bring in tourists in the name of Gandhi would largely hinge around the ability of the South African administration to fight crime. Since South Africa shook off the apartheid yoke, there has been little let up in crime. Newspapers are full of reports of mugging, hijacking of cars and violent crimes. Indian community leaders claim that most victims are Indians who have prospered due to a sudden growth in opportunities in post-apartheid South Africa.

Most shops close around 5 pm and there is no safety for pedestrians or those who do not have the protection of security gizmos in their houses. Indians also worry over the angry noises emanating out of South African versions of Raj Thackerays who want to do a Uganda in this country. However, no one takes them seriously, since South Africa is too important a project to go wrong. Its instability could impact the growth of a large part of Africa. Maybe this beautiful country needs a bit more of Gandhi and his teachings to come to peace with itself.


Stalked by crime, perhaps a beautiful South Africa needs a bit more of Gandhi to come to peace with itself Sanjay Kapoor Durban

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