Ela Gandhi was born in 1940 in Phoenix Settlement in the Inanda district, KwaZulu Natal. Indians, Coloured, Whites and Africans lived here in harmony although they had no tarred roads, public water supply and no electricity. The Gandhi home was a basic family homestead, a wood and iron house where she lived in for the first six years of her life. Her father later built a dwelling out of bricks.
Initially her parents educated her at home. “I saw my neighbour's children were all going to school. I was a little child and I said, No, I have to go to school now. I was eight or nine years old”. Her parents agreed to send her to a school about two kilometres away from home. “This was my first rebellion”.
Ela was admitted into a standard four class. The school was also a wood and iron building with wooden partitions and had no water and electricity. The children and teachers had to use pit latrines. She spent three years here, passed her standard six and went to Durban Indian Girls High in Carlisle Street.
She had to take a bus from home to the railway station in Duffs Road to catch a train to Greyville Station. From where she would walk to her high school in Dartnell Crescent. This continued for four years.
At that time the only university in KwaZulu Natal, only catered for White students. They held after hours‘s sessions for Black students at Sastri College, which began at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The White lecturers would come after they had finished lecturing to White students. She enrolled for a B.A. degree with law subjects. Ela gave up studying law as she did not want to study Afrikaans. She then switched to a Social Sciences degree through UNISA.
In 1965 she began work at Child Welfare. She was banned and then took up a position at the Verulam Child Welfare, where she remained for about 10 years.
Ela first became aware of racial oppression, “…from the time I went to school. My mother started a non-racial school at Gandhi's House for about 200 children. An inspector said; you can't teach… there is a law against private schools, and in particular you being an Indian cannot teach African children”.
In 1952, when Ela was 12 years old, her father started going to Defiance Campaign meetings at Red Square. They used to march to the Brook Street library, which was an all White library, and enter the building. Ela walked with her brother, sisters and friends in and went to African townships where Indians were forbidden to go by law. Her father was arrested several times for disobeying the law before she was born. He also took part in the 1952 Defiance Campaign.
When she reached standard 9 Ela participated in a three day stay-away. At university she took part in placard demonstrations against graduation at the university. In the 1970's the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) was revived and Ela was elected as the Vice President. It was the first time that that she took on such a position. She also participated in a number of support groups assisting people who had gone to prison, as well as those who had been arrested. She was a member of the Detainees Support Committee in Durban.
Ela's first banning order lasted was from 1975 until 1980. It was banning and house arrest order. There were three parts to this restriction. Firstly she was prevented from going to meetings. She was banned and contained to a particular area. She was also under arrest one for a certain number of hours. This meant that she could not leave her home over weekends and holidays and was confined to her house from 7pm to 7am.
He ex-husband, Mewa Ramgobin, was also banned. At the time he was working for Old Mutual, an insurance company. During his first banning order the organisation was very supportive and gave him many concessions. When he received his second banning order Old Mutual, felt that he was “not obeying” them. They demoted him and he resigned from his post and set up his own business in Durban.
At the time the couple was living in the Phoenix Settlement, Inanda. Since the business was in Durban, Mewa had to leave the magisterial district of Inanda to go to Durban. Since the house arrest prevented him from entering Durban, Mewa was forced to close his office.
“I wasn't actually involved in the business, I am not a business person and I know very little about insurance, so I wasn't actually involved in the business. I used the office to interact with different people on a political level”.
At this time labour unions for African people were banned. They got around this by organising African people into a society that would enable them to contribute to a burial or pension scheme. Thus they were able to organise and bargain for wages.
For the eight and a half years that Ela was banned, she worked underground. She was subjected to harassment from the state and her house was constantly watched. She still broke her banning order and house arrest many times, being careful to “cover our backs” so that they would not be caught.
“I think activism is working at grassroots. It also trains you in democracy to consult, to value opinions of people, not to have a judgement, not to make up your mind in a drawing room or something. To go out in the community and experience what the community is experiencing and work with them and listen to what they are saying, rather than saying that they are having a bad time, so we need to do something about it”.
Her goal as an activist was to “bring about awareness among people”. As a social worker Ela worked with Indian children as well as African children in Amouti. When Indians were moved from Springfield Flats to Phoenix, she was the first social worker to work in the area.
“Well, no, I wasn't involved directly in the underground, in the sense that I didn't actually distribute anything, get anything or contact people outside or anything like that. But I worked closely with people who were in the underground”.
“We used to run camps, discuss various issues, the Black Consciousness movement, the Freedom Charter, education system etc.; we helped people in the neighbouring community to re-build their homes after a flood”.
How did she reconcile the armed struggle with Gandhi's passive resistance?
“I read Gandhi's work on passive resistance, the history of the Congress Movement in India. Gandhi never threw out those who were involved in the arm struggle, like Subash Chandra Bose and Jayaprakash Narayan. He maintained that they had a different perspective. …. We are on the same side, so there is no contradiction. Our enemy was Pretoria, and that perspective had to be maintained all along”.
The most important defining moment in Ela's life was the formation of the NIC. “Think Black, not Indian”, inspired me a lot. It made me think what was practical. Whilst in principle we agreed to organise on a non-racial basis, practically it was very difficult to organise on a non-racial basis. The discussions that I had with Rick Turner, Barney Pityana, Steve Biko, Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper and others actually helped me to define my own life. That was why, when I was in Child Welfare, I wasn't satisfied just working within the Indian community”. For Ela the defining moment for South Africa was the United Democratic Front (UDF), which brought all the communities together.
“The Freedom Charter and Kliptown experiences were an important milestone in the history of the Congress movement. I was 15 years old then, and not really very conscious. I don't recall the Kliptown incident. My father was there, he wrote in the press and it was reported at the United Nations. He wrote in the Indian Opinion and that report was taken to the United Nations. For me the defining moment was the UDF – when all the religions came together. I came from a home where we respected ourselves as Hindus but we didn't observe Hinduism as going to the temple. We prayed at home, we did the Hindu prayer and the Christian prayer and the Parsee prayer and the Muslim prayer. The UDF brought all the religions civics, all the races together in one united front”.
Ela Gandhi, along with Mama Sisulu, was one of the people who met with Nelson Mandela with the United Democratic Front (UDF) leadership the day before he was released from Pollsmoor Prison.
She was a member of the Transitional Executive Committee (TEC) before the 1994 elections. Ela was still a member of the TEC when the IFP march took place on Luthuli House. “People don't know the fact that from that morning there were raids on homes. People were killed in the townships. The police just refused to help although the ANC tried their level best to get the police to come and help”.
“The Nationalists agreed to a negotiated settlement because things were building up against them. There were major boycotts and they were negotiating with Nelson Mandela at the same time. The economy was going down, we took over a state that was about to collapse and they saw that the writing was on the wall. The difference between other colonial powers and South Africa was the fact that South Africa was the home of the Afrikaner. If this was destroyed they had nowhere to go and so they had to find a way to negotiate and stay in the country. I don't think that the apartheid government realised the massive support that was there for the ANC”.
“I have always believed in an egalitarian way of life and society. For me, when I worked with workers and saw the huge gap between those that earned the least and those that earned the highest wages, it really made me feel absolutely miserable that this sort of thing could happen in the country. There is such a huge gap between the poor and the rich, and for as long that continues you cannot have a people who are happy, people who are proud of their country, people who are happy about democracy because you don't speak about democracy to a person who is hungry and dying of AIDS”.
“The one way that we can really make a difference is to empower communities, and I am certainly going to put my energies there, to go into the community, empower them, and educate them. The community is suffering, but they are suffering in silence, so now we need to give them a voice, we need to make them powerful so that they can come out and say that the Freedom Charter said, ‘The people shall govern'. We have to make it possible for the people to govern and until that happens the people are not going to govern, somebody else is going to govern them”.
“We have started a domestic helpline in my constituency (when Ela was still an ANC MP in the Phoenix constituency) to deal with the escalating violence against women. I would rather look to a small organisation that can make a difference to a life at grassroots level and that is what we are doing. We work on empowerment programmes, provide skills training, provide employment opportunities for women, and train them to open their own little businesses”.
“For me, I think the basic income grant makes a person reliant on the government you don't have that pride to say I have earned my ten rand today. Anything that you get for free like that, it is not your hard earned thing and it does not create that pride in you. It creates a dependency, loss of self-image and self confidence.”
“I decided I would like to run a newspaper, after broad consultation with various stakeholders, which would be largely aimed at transforming the community. “We said, ‘Lets target the Indian community and see how we can transform it'. With this idea in mind we started a newspaper called Satyagraha, in pursuit of truth. The paper looks at basic issues that concern communities, issues that they would not read in normal papers. These issues are interpreted for them so that they can relate to things. It goes to both the Indian and African communities, but has a much wider readership than this”.
“If I could change one thing it would be the economy. I think we opened up our economy too quickly and brought in money too quickly to invest here without real thinking behind it”.
“Not enough recognition has been given to the support groups that were formed by the different religious communities, people who did a lot of work quietly, not politically, but as individuals. There were also a lot of young White people who went to prison and they have not been recorded in history. They have virtually been forgotten. Some of these people served terms in prison because they refused to be conscripted into the apartheid army. Nowhere in our history do we hear about the support groups, the detainee support groups, the networks, conscriptions and the huge End Conscription Campaigns, something has to be done about that”.