Manilal Gandhi was born in Rajkot, India on 28 October 1892, the second son of Kasturba and Mohandas Gandhi. He had three brothers, with whom he first came to South Africa in early 1897, when Gandhi's family joined him in Durban.
As his father did not believe in formal education, Manilal's schooling took place at home. For his entire youth he did not spend a single day at a formal school. Gandhi regarded places like Phoenix Settlement (founded in 1904) and Tolstoy Farm (founded in 1910) as important training centres and Manilal was regarded as one of the first experimental students. Here the focus was on manual labour, character building and some formal subjects. From an early age Manilal learnt to work in the printing press at Phoenix.
In 1910 Manilal, then just seventeen years old, joined the satyagraha struggle and between 1910 and 1913 he served four prison sentences, two of them for just ten days and the other two for three months each. While in prison in Pietermaritzburg and later Durban in 1913 he led a hunger strike for better prison conditions.
Between 1914 and 1917 Manilal spent time in India. He was a founder member of Gandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad and began learning khadi production.
In 1917 Gandhi sent Manilal back to South Africa to help in the production of Indian Opinion (founded in 1903) especially the Gujarati section. Within a year he took over the management of Phoenix and the newspaper, and in 1920 he replaced Albert West as editor. Manilal was editor of Indian Opinion for the next 36 years, making him the longest serving editor.
He did this for no salary as his father M.K. Gandhi insisted that everything was for public service, not personal enrichment. When he died in 1956 he had no money to his name.
In 1927 he married Sushila Mashruwala who became his partner in the printing press, learning composing and soon taking responsibility for finances and the Gujarati section of the paper. They had three children, Sita, Arun and Ela all of whom were to help in the press as soon as they were old enough.
Manilal was an activist editor and joined the revived Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in the early 1920s. Though declining official positions because of time, he served on the committee of the NIC and through Indian Opinion supported the campaigns of Congress. There were divisons in Indian politics in the 1930s and in 1934 he and Albert Christopher formed the more radical Colonial Born and Settlers Indian Association. Manilal's political position could be summed up as ‘no compromises on principle, no special protection of vested interests for the rich at the expense of the majority, and a readiness to offer satyagraha when laws were unjust’. He thus supported the campaigns led by Dr Yusuf Dadoo in the Transvaal and that of the young radicals who would ultimately be led by Dr. G.M. Naicker in Natal. In the early 1950s he regularly voiced concerns about communism and joined the Liberal Party in 1954.
In 1930 Manilal who was on a short trip to India joined the nationalist struggle. He was one of seventy-two individuals whom Gandhi led in a salt march to Dandi. He then participated in a march on the Dharasana salt works and spent nine months in prison India.
Back in South Africa in 1956, he joined the passive resistance struggle and went to jail for 23 days. Although he led passive resisters in marches across the Transvaal border in 1948, the police would not arrest the son of Gandhi.
In 1951 he began an individual campaign to protest against petty apartheid laws such as bench apartheid, separate libraries and post offices but again police would not arrest him. He also embarked on fasts at Phoenix to purify himself for greater service and to ensure that the struggle in South Africa was a non-violent one.
In 1952 he took part in the defiance campaign and together with Patrick Duncan and others marched into an African location in Benoni. For this he served 38 days (of a 50 day sentence) in prison at the age of 61.
Manilal and his wife's most important contribution was to maintain Phoenix Settlement which was of great significance since it was Gandhi's first ashram where he developed many of his ideas. In 1950 Gandhi's home was rebuilt and named Sarvodaya (The Welfare of Humanity). In 1954 a school was opened at Phoenix and named the Kasturba Gandhi Government Aided School. This school had become a necessity - for some years Sushila had been running an informal school for the surrounding residents in Sarvodaya.
Manilal Gandhi’s life was dedicated to public service. He maintained Indian Opinion and Phoenix when so many others were reluctant to live in the isolated countryside for no financial reward either. But for him, both would have suffered an early demise in the 1920s. He saw non-violence and satyagraha as the way to secure change. He was fearless and was prepared to die for a cause if need be. He belongs to both India's and South Africa's story of national liberation. As a journalist he highlighted the injustices that all blacks were subjected to and Indian Opinion carried many significant exposes. His mission as a journalist was not only to provide information but to secure change.