Democracy and Reconciliation in South Africa: An Interview With Ela Gandhi

Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of India's spiritual and political icon Mahatma Gandhi, holds some of the Gandhi's ashes in Dur
Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of India's spiritual and political icon Mahatma Gandhi, holds some of the Gandhi's ashes in Durban on January 24, 2010. Gandhi's ashes will be immersed in the Indian Ocean after a Durban family preserved the ashes for 62 years. The ashes will be reimmersed on January 30, 2010, the day Gandhi was shot 62 years ago. The ashes will be taken to the Phoenix Bhambayi Gandhi Settlement, where Gandhi spent 21 years of his life in South Africa. Hundreds of millions of people will pay respects and honor the role of Mahatma Gandhi as India celebrates its 62nd Republic Day Celebrations on January 26, 2010. AFP PHOTO RAJESH JANTILAL (Photo credit should read RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1893, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in South Africa as a young attorney looking to launch his legal career. However, after he experienced a traumatic incident of racial discrimination in Pietermaritzburg, he dedicated himself to the pursuit of social justice and equal rights. During the 21 years he lived in South Africa, he developed and implemented his seminal strategy of satyagraha, which is chronicled in his book "Satyagraha in South Africa." While in South Africa, he also founded Phoenix Settlement, a communal ashram that served as the location for much of his sociopolitical and spiritual work.

Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter, Ela Gandhi, has spent her life as the custodian of his legacy in South Africa as well as the caretaker of Phoenix Settlement. She is also a prominent peace activist and served as a Member of Parliament in South Africa from 1994-2004. In 2007, she was conferred the Padma Bhushan award from the Government of India, which is India's third highest civilian award. I recently had the opportunity to meet Ela Gandhi in Durban, South Africa and we discussed the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, the transition to democracy in South Africa, the evolution of the Indian community in South Africa and the politics of the African National Congress (ANC).

When Mahatma Gandhi left South Africa for India in 1914, your father went with him. Why did your father return from India to South Africa to live at the Phoenix settlement?

After my grandfather returned to India from South Africa, he was called back to South Africa for various reasons. So he asked my father and uncle to return to South Africa and carry on the work he left behind. They settled in Phoenix Settlement but it was difficult to live there because there were no services. So my uncle went back to India while my father continued on in South Africa. While in South Africa, my father ran the Indian Opinion, which is the newspaper that my grandfather started in 1903.

In 1949, the Durban Riots between Zulus and Indians left 142 people dead and created a deep rift between the two communities. What was the impact of the riots on Phoenix Settlement and what are your memories of that time?

My memory is that of a 9-year-old. We were in Durban when the riots began and panic spread quickly through the city. My dad was overseas at the time so my brother picked us up by car and rushed us home. On the way, children were throwing stones at our car. When we got back to Phoenix Settlement, people told us that this is God's place and no one will touch it. So both Zulus and Indians protected Phoenix Settlement and nothing happened to the settlement during the riots.

What is the status of Phoenix Settlement now? What role can it play in the future for South Africa?

Phoenix Settlement still has a significant role for the world, as it was my grandfather's first experiment in simplicity and agrarian living. In fact, that is where his most profound transformations occurred. My hope is that we will come to embrace the value of what he was doing there -- not just as a spiritual practice, but also as a practical solution for many of the problems of the world today.

The apartheid government placed you under house arrest for nine years. Why were you arrested and how did that impact your political work?

If the apartheid government knew you were doing political work, they could ban, arrest or detain you. So the government did not give me a reason for my arrest, but instead told me that I was a threat to state security. However, even during house arrest, I continued my work in protesting the apartheid government, although much of that work had to be done underground.

What was the role of the Indian community during the South African freedom movement, and what is the status of Indians in South Africa today?

Indians were in leadership positions in every arm of the liberation struggle, including amongst the exiled ANC leaders. Many Indians made the ultimate sacrifices for liberation, and ordinary people did extraordinary things in the name of freedom. However, many Indians feel as though their role in the liberation struggle has not been sufficiently recognized or appreciated.

After apartheid ended, South Africa instituted an affirmative action policy to level the playing field. Rationally, there is justification for racial quotas, because if you want to bring about equity, you have to bring people to the same level. However, some Indians today believe that their situation has not improved, for previously they were discriminated against because they were not white and now they feel that they are discriminated against because they are not black. But there are other Indians who have benefitted tremendously since apartheid in terms of access to jobs that they didn't have in the past, and today there are Indians in South Africa who are successful entrepreneurs, pilots, physicians and engineers.

In 1995, South Africa convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to investigate the brutalities of the apartheid era as a means of restorative justice. What would Mahatma Gandhi think about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and do you think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was successful?

My grandfather would have been happy to see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He would not have accepted the idea of prosecution as exemplified by the Nuremberg Trials. To a certain extent, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was successful. We learned from the mistakes of others, and now others can learn from our mistakes. However, it was not perfect and there are things we could have done better. Indeed, many people feel that the perpetrators benefitted more than the victims.

Last year, the ANC refused to issue a visa to South Africa for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, because of pressure from China. At that time, Desmond Tutu denounced the ANC and said that the ANC is worse than the apartheid government. What do you think about the ANC's decision to deny His Holiness, the Dalai Lama a visa, and do you agree with Tutu's subsequent comments?

Our government should have defied China and issued a visa to the Dalai Lama. But it was a difficult decision for them to make given how much money China has invested in South Africa. I believe that the real criticism should be directed toward the Chinese government and not the ANC. I cannot understand how such a powerful country like China can be so afraid of one person. I think China's obsession with the Dalai Lama needs to be challenged.

The ANC has very good policies but some people in the ANC are not doing the work they were elected to do. Instead, they are more interested in enriching themselves. Many people criticize the ANC for corruption, but corruption happens in every country in the world. Look at the political corruption in India, which has resulted in the popularity of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusade. Just because some people are corrupt, it does not mean that the whole organization is corrupt. I still believe that there is no other party in South Africa that is as committed to democracy as the ANC.

Last month, South Africans prayed for the health and longevity of Nelson Mandela, who was hospitalized and has since recovered. From a Gandhian perspective, how do you view Mandela's life and legacy?

Nelson Mandela's legacy is very important not only for South Africa, but for the world. He signifies the profound idea of reconciliation, and like my grandfather, he showed how we actually bring about change in a non-violent way. In fact, Mandela himself has acknowledged my grandfather's influence on his own work. Mandela also symbolizes how we can transform society by transforming ourselves. One example is when he invited Percy Yutar to his home for dinner, even after Yutar prosecuted him and advocated that he receive the death penalty. There are very few people who would be able to do that. Nelson Mandela's generosity of spirit is tremendous and that is something we all must remember.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that we ignore Mahatma Gandhi at our own peril. Why is Mahatma Gandhi still important for the world today, and how should we interpret his message now?

My grandfather's most important lesson is that each one of us has immense power within us. If we can mobilize the power that we have within us, and use that power to promote the welfare of everyone, then we can tackle the world's problems. That is why my grandfather embraced the idea of sarvodya, which affirms the welfare of everyone and society as a whole.