A Life Committed to Satyagraha:
2002 International Peace Award Recipient Ela Gandhi
The church’s International Peace Award will be presented to Ela
Gandhi during the Community of Christ 2002 World Conference in
Independence, Missouri, on April 12. She is receiving the award for her
nonviolent resistance to apartheid in South Africa, her passion for working to
overcome poverty and assist the vulnerable, and her work to build
understanding between different world religions.
From her beginnings as the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, raised in an
ashram community, to more than eight years under house arrest and the
assassination of one of her children, Ms. Gandhi’s life is a reflection of
her deep commitment to satyagraha and openness to all religions. Her
grandfather described satyagraha as an evolving concept that realizes
passive resistance as an intensively active state motivated by truth and love.
He was called Mahatma, a title which means ‘great soul.’ His given name
was Mohandas K. Gandhi.
|Satygraha: Mohandas K. Gandhi felt that ‘passive
resistance’ was “too narrowly construed…[as] a weapon of the
weak” that “could be characterized by hatred, and…manifest
itself as violence.” Satyagraha was coined from the Indian
words sat: truth, and agraha: firmness. (M. K. Gandhi.
An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Navajivan Publishing House: 1927. p. 266.) “Satygraha is
peaceful….[It] assumes a constant beneficent interaction between
contestants with a view to their ultimate reconciliation.” (Louis
Fischer. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Granada: 1951. pp.
102-3.) Learn more about Mohandas K. Gandhi at: www.mkgandhi.org.
Ms. Gandhi shared parts of her intriguing life story with Andrew Bolton,
Peace and Justice Ministries coordinator, and Kendra Friend during a phone
conversation on September 25, 2001. Ms. Gandhi was reached at her home in Cape
Town, South Africa.
Andrew Bolton: Start by telling us something about your story, beginning
with your childhood.
Ela Gandhi: …I was born in South Africa. My parents, although they
were born in India, they came to South Africa and lived here. When my
grandfather [Mohandas K. Gandhi] went back to India, he left my father behind
and he asked him to continue with the work he had started in South Africa. So,
I was born in South Africa. My early childhood was in an ashram in the Phoenix
settlement. It was the very first ashram that Gandhiji [Mohandas K. Gandhi]
set up. It was [in 1904] after he read [John] Ruskin’s book Unto this
Last, [which] inspired [him] to set up these ashrams…. After that [in
1910] he did Tolstoy Farm [near] Johannesburg, [South Africa,] and then
various other ashrams in India. ...
A: The Phoenix ashram is near where?
E: Phoenix settlement is near Durban, [South Africa]…. At the time
when he was here he had quite a number of settlers on the Phoenix settlement.
He ran it according to his rules…, which are quite strict rules. It’s a
lot of discipline.
My father then relaxed some of those rules as we were growing up. But a lot
of the rules were still the very same. You have to know the routine, like we
get up at a certain time, we have prayers--all our prayers were interfaith
prayers. We used to sing a Muslim prayer; we used to sing a Christian prayer,
a Hindu prayer. And so, we respected every religion and what their beliefs
were. We were encouraged to read about every religion. My father had a copy of
the Bible, a copy of the Koran, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and other
religious scriptures as well.
We were brought up with that idea--that we should learn about all
religions. And we could decide for ourselves what we wanted to follow in the
end. Because we were brought up in that way, we-my brother, my sister,
myself--we were not fundamentalists. We don’t follow rigidly on one
particular set of beliefs. I think that has created a broad base for us which
is really good…especially in the present time, where there is so much
fundamentalism, so much violence based on religious beliefs and all that--our
background enriches us. And I would so much like to share that background with
other people, because I think it is something that is so important in
A: …Tell me about your father [Manilil]. Which child was he of Gandhiji?
E: He was the second child. The oldest [Harilal]…went back…before
Gandhiji went back to India. [Mohandas K. Gandhi lived in South Africa from
1893 to 1914.] And then he [Harilal] had a fall out with my grandfather….
A: So, [your father] caught the vision of your grandfather…and you say
that he stayed behind and worked…
E: He ran the Phoenix settlement and he ran the newspaper [Indian
Opinion] that my grandfather had started. And he participated in the
passive resistance, the nonviolent satyagraha movement in South Africa.
So we grew up with that background.
The newspaper was being printed every week, so our lives were run according
to the newspaper. … Although we didn’t have many families as I grew
up…there were a number of things/observances that we had which enriched our
lives as we grew up on Phoenix settlement.
“…I’ve seen two liberations
in my lifetime.”
I was also very fortunate that my mum and all of us went to India in 1947,
just before independence…. So I was there on August 15 when the Indian flag
went up. …I hoisted the flag in the little village where my maternal
grandmother lived. I was the nearest relative to Gandhiji, so they asked me as
a little child--I was only 7 years old then. But I vividly recall that because
it was such an experience to hoist the Indian flag and to feel that pride.
And then again in South Africa we had the [successful] South African
freedom [movement]. So, I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve seen two
liberations in my lifetime. I think that experience was tremendous because
since 15 of August 1947, I used to run around tying a piece of handkerchief on
a little stick and singing the freedom song. It was a cause for pride although
we regarded South Africa as our country, we also felt pride that India was
free at that time.
The thing is, I spent about three months with my grandfather during that
time and lived in his ashram under his supervision at Sevagram. [Mohandas K.
Gandhi established the Sevagram ashram near the town of Wardha, Central India,
in 1936.] That was a wonderful experience for me. I was able to live at
Phoenix and then able to live with him at his ashram in Sevagram.
A: …When did you become aware of injustice and when did you decide to do
something about it?
E: In 1947 we saw the liberation of India. That immediately made me
feel that in South Africa we need this kind of liberation.
We lived in Ananda, which was a rural sort of settlement where, fortunately
for us, we lived among all the races. We weren’t living in an area which was
set aside for Indians only, which is what the Group Areas Act did in South
Africa. We were able to live with all the races. Although we weren’t able to
go to the same schools and so on, we had interaction. My friends were African
We weren’t brought up in a way that we were conscious of race. Except
that we were very conscious of apartheid--of all the laws that prohibited us
from sitting on benches that were marked “for whites only,” and entering
buses that were marked “for whites only,” or going to other places that
were marked “for whites only.” We grew up knowing this harsh reality in
which we lived--and hating it. Hating it in the sense that we were brought up
to feel that these people aren’t thinking correctly, and they are so
prejudiced, and we need to change their attitude.
So, I joined the liberation movement…. At that time the Congresses were
split into Indian Congress, African Congress, Colored Peoples Congress, and
then the Congress of Democrats, which had white people. The Congress movement
was split into those racial groups. I joined the Natal Indian Congress
[founded by Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1894]…when I was 20. After that…all the
Congresses got banned…. Around 1964 the Natal Indian Congress was revived,
and I was one of the first vice presidents of that Congress. I remained a
member until ANC [African National Congress] was unbanned, and I joined the
ANC at that stage.
A: When was the ANC unbanned? Was that 1990?
E: Yes, that’s right. And I was also a member of the Natal
Organization of Women, which was a non-racial organization. All the races
belong to that. Women, they formed organizations on a non-racial basis. I was
treasurer of that organization for a number of years….
A: What kind of things did you do to resist apartheid?
E: Well, there were a number of things. We had many demonstrations and
so on, which were active and overt sort of demonstrations against apartheid.
Through the women’s organization, through the Natal Indian Congress, we
opposed the tri-cameral parliament for instance.
We had placard demonstrations on various occasions. We opposed the Group
Areas Act at that time with demonstrations…. Later in life with both the
Natal Organization of Women as well as Natal Indian Congress, there was a lot
of people who were banned, and I was arrested for eight-and-a-half years.
But during that time and even after that, we did a lot of community work,
organizing communities to protest against simple things like rent hikes and
water surcharges and housing problems and so on--forced removals, and things
like that. We formed support organizations, like detainee support committees
to support families of people who were detained. We helped those families. We
protested against detentions. We had placard demonstrations and things like
There were a whole range of things that I participated in with other
people…. In 1989 we organized one of the biggest marches that took place in
Natal. It was a huge, huge march. …I chaired the group that organized that
march. That was just before the unbanning of the Congress [ANC].
A: …Your commitment to nonviolence has always been there, right from the
beginning…. That was the whole ethos in which you were brought up and
that’s continued to be very important for you…
E: Absolutely. I mean, when I look at the devastation caused in so many
lives lost in the New York tragedy and the WTO [World Trade Organization], I
just feel that that kind of violence is not what Gandhi would have been happy
with. Nor would the ANC, the organization that I belong to now. We’ve
condemned that violence. And all along, the African National Congress, even
when it took to underground work, it had a clear policy that targets would be
not be where there are human beings. We must limit the loss of human beings.
A: So it was sabotage rather than terrorism.
E: Yes, exactly. And I’ll tell you a story of one of the first
[incidents] that a lot of people don’t know about. [Harris] was a young man
who had placed a bomb at the Johannesburg station. When he went there the
station was totally deserted. …He timed it so that there wouldn’t be lots
of commuters around or any trains or anything.
But, there was an old lady sitting there and he was worried about her, so
he telephoned the police. He warned them to evacuate the place. And that cost
him his liberty, because the telephone call was being traced. Harris was
arrested and he was hung afterwards. And he was a young man. He didn’t worry
about his own security, as he did about this person who might have lost her
So what I’m saying is that although later on…there was loss of life,
generally the ANC did not believe in killing people. The sabotage movement was
discussed by all of us. We all agreed that maybe key installations should be
targeted and so on, not loss of life.
So what I’m saying is that now more than ever before, I feel that
Gandhi’s ideals need to be propagated. People need to know about it, need to
think about it. …Like the South African Martin Luther King movement and
other movements that were inspired by nonviolence.
…The more we propagate nonviolence, the more people we can draw into
nonviolent action. I mean, there is a lot of injustice in the world. … But
we can protest against world injustice through nonviolent action.
A: Yes. That was the contribution of your grandfather. Tell us about your
house arrest. Why were you under house arrest and a banning order?
E: They don’t give you reasons. When you’re under house arrest,
you’re under suspicion of communism. …
A: What year to what year was that?
E: I think it was around 1975 up to 1983.
A: I found out this morning about the tragedy of your son--that he was
assassinated in 1993. This may be very painful for you, but can you share a
little about what happened there and how that affected your family?
E: Okay. We don’t know really what happened, because he was shot. He
was alone at home. People came into the house. They did steal some of the
things, like we had a TV there, and they took the TV away. They took his car
We had a double story house. My son was sleeping upstairs. They could have
taken the TV from downstairs, they could have taken the car and gone. But
instead they…went upstairs and then shot him. That is what amazes us. What
was the reason to do that?
Recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) wrote a letter to me
to say that all the killings at that time were politically motivated. And the
TRC has found that this killing too was politically motivated. I have asked
them if there was anyone who accepted responsibility for it, and I would like
to know what was the reason. Unfortunately there hasn’t been any response
yet, so I don’t know.
You see…because of the problems between IFC [International Finance
Corporation] and ANC, and the present peace process, a lot of information was
repressed. People didn’t fill people into a number of things. This is one of
those killings that we will never know, unless there is further investigation.
And I’m not sure whether they are going to do any further investigation
because now they have [determined that] it was politically motivated. That’s
end of story. So, that is painful, because I would have liked to known,
although I wouldn’t want to take revenge or anything like that. I would like
to know what was the motivation.
A: How many children did you have?
E: Two sons and three daughters. …The last ones were twins.
A: …You’re a member now of the South African Parliament. What are your
commitments in this role? What are your frustrations in this role?
E: Well, I’m working in the Social Development Committee…. And then
there’s a committee on youth, children, and disabled persons. And then
education and arts, culture, science, and technology. My commitments are in
I feel that we need to do a lot. I’m really committed. I think that if we
can’t change the position of the poorest poor, then we haven’t achieved
anything. The frustration is that there has been so much backlog, so much
aggravation from the past that we inherited, that the change isn’t happening
fast enough for me, and for a lot of other people.
“I think that if we can’t change
the position of the poorest poor,
then we haven’t achieved anything.”
Although we’ve tried, you know, we’re looking at housing; we’re
looking at electricity, water…. But unemployment rate is going up; the cost
of living has gone up. And so, while on the one hand we are trying to provide
basic amenities to as many people as possible, we’re also faced with
So, life is difficult and that is frustrating for me sometimes…. How do
we change the lives of the poorest of the poor? Where to start? How do we get
rid of poverty? When it’s so big--the whole problem is so big. And on top of
that we are constantly seeing that to change life in South Africa alone is not
going to help us.
…The problem is so huge that sometimes it does become frustrating and
sometimes it’s a challenge. And we think that maybe we can’t do a lot of
good for the whole continent, but we are hoping that that is what we’re
going to be able to do--to change this whole continent into something better-a
continent which can have better development, a better life for all the people
in Africa. …
A: As a Hindu, you’ve been involved in interfaith initiatives. I first
met you at the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in
December 1999. I guess your commitment to that is because of the way you were
brought up--open to other people’s scripture, other people’s truth.
E: Yes. And then, I’ve been involved in the UN [United Nations] World
Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) for many years. In fact, we started
the whole interfaith movement in South Africa. [Ms. Gandhi is a founding
member of the South African chapter of the WCRP.] And I’ve been working on
that and working with an interfaith group in ANC…the commission on religious
A: … Our denomination is seeking to be a peace and justice church.
We’re really struggling to do that well. What advice do you have for our
members in seeking to be a peace and justice church?
E: Well, I think it’s very important that all religious organizations
have peace and justice as part of their religious work, because I think then
only can religions play an important role in people’s lives.
…I want to acknowledge that it’s very important work that you’re
doing. And secondly, I feel that peace and justice have to become actual
concepts. We don’t just think about peace and justice, but we see that it is
done--that justice happens.
So I would say that it should be an actual sort of involvement. In the
community life where you see injustice is happening, I think the church/the
people need to be involved in eradicating that injustice. Some injustices are
difficult to eradicate, but we’ve seen [progress] even at the World Trade
Organization (WTO) and other places--debt relief and so on. People have been
demonstrating. I’m a little aggrieved that some of the demonstrations turned
out to be violent.
… I think churches should be involved in those [nonviolent] kinds of
things. Not just churches, I think all religious sectors should be involved in
those kinds of demonstrations, because that alludes to our beliefs. If we
really practice our religion then peace and justice are part of our religion.
And that should form part of our daily lives, so that we change the lives of
people. We’re changing people themselves. This is what I feel.