Ela Gandhi on Gandhi, the Mideast, and South Africa

ela gandhi remembers apartheid My sister Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, was born in 1940 in the Phoenix Settlement in the Inanda district of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. An anti-apartheid activist from an early age, Ela was banned from political activism in 1973 and placed under house arrest for a total of nine years. After her imposed sanction, Ela became a member of the Transitional Executive Council and gained a seat as a member of the ANC in Parliament from 1994 to 2003, representing Phoenix which is in the Inanda district.

Since leaving parliament, Ela Gandhi has worked tirelessly to fight all forms of violence. She founded the Gandhi Development Trust which promotes non-violence, and was a founder member and chair of the Mahatma Gandhi Salt March Committee. In 2002, she received the Community of Christ International Peace Award and in 2007, in recognition of her work to promote Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa, she was awarded the prestigious Padma Bushan Award by the Indian Government.


Ela Gandhi Interviewed by Nicolas Rossier at HuffPost

I met Ela Gandhi recently at her home situated in the middle-class suburb of Glenwood in Durban. We talked about her time as an activist during apartheid, the Middle East conflict and politics in South Africa today.

Ela Gandhi, what was life like under apartheid?

There were many, many difficulties that we faced. In the area where I was born […] we had no electricity, no running water. The roads were never fixed. Public transport was not available except for trains. So in terms of government services, we had nothing in that area. When I started school, I found […] that there were no schools that accepted different race groups together. There was this strict policy that you can only run a school for one race. Growing up as a person who wasn’t white, I saw that there were lots and lots of problems that we had to overcome. For instance, in Durban itself we couldn’t go to the amusement park. The libraries were not accessible to us. The university was not accessible to us. We had to go to the non-European section of the University of Natal in order to get our education.

Do you remember when Bishop Tutu came to the beach in Durban to make a statement against segregation at the beach?

Yes, I do remember when he marched on the beach in Cape Town. We had our own march in Durban led by Archbishop Hurley and others from the inter faith community. I do not remember Archbishop Tutu joining us in Durban. That was in 1990. He said, ‘all beaches for all God’s people’. We too echoed these words out here. During apartheid we had a beach for white people, one for Indians, one for coloreds, and then one for Africans right at the back . When you joined the ANC, how did you reconcile the armed struggle with your grandfather’s passive resistance?

We always advocated non-violence right from the beginning. But when a group of people after seeing the intransigence of the government felt that the best way was to use violent means, they weren’t saying that they wanted to kill people. They weren’t out there to say, “Now, it’s either my life or it’s your life.” […] It was about sabotage, it was about attacking installations, not people. My father participated in the non-violent struggle during 1952. He served many sentences in prison. Similarly, I also participated in non-violent struggles in Durban in particular. I was banned and house arrested for about nine years.

Was there any point when you felt that sabotage had failed strategically and that you would have to start targeting people?

No, at no stage did I feel that we could win our liberation by killing people. Yes, in my philosophy there was place for self defense, there was place for other methods of demonstrating against a wicked policy. Within our circles, there were discussions about whether people should engage in violent activities or not. We, many of my colleagues and I chose non-violent ways of confronting the state. So, yes, it was a conscious decision that we made to remain non-violent but this did not mean that we condemn those who choose other ways of confronting the evil system of apartheid which by its own nature was extremely violent. Gandhiji also did not condemn people like Shobas Chandra Bose and Jayprakash Narayan and others who were engaged in sabotage. My grandfather didn’t criticize anyone. When General Jan Smuts – the person who put him in prison – didn’t want to grant him the rights he was asking for, my grandfather still respected him, and General Smuts had the greatest admiration for him. That can only happen when you respect each other even if you do not agree with each other.

>> Continue reading at Huffington Post 


  1. Lelia Downs says

    Gandhi became famous by fighting for the civil rights of Muslim and Hindu Indians in South Africa, using new techniques of non-violent civil disobedience that he developed.