Gandhi’s neighbors are very loud.
It is a sunny Sunday morning and sane people are in bed with the paper and a cup of tea—or else in church or on their way to the beach. But way out here in Inanda township, the house next door is blasting earth-shaking drums and wild marimba noise that stopped being fun after the first ten minutes. Now it’s just annoying—a too-long song that is much too loud.
“He would have tried to change them,” says Ashish Ramgobin, laughing. She refers to her great-grandfather merely as “he”, but the rest of the world knows him as Mahatma—Great Soul.
The two of us are standing on the roof of the newer house at Phoenix Settlement, founded by Mohandas Gandhi in 1904 right here in Durban, South Africa. It was here that he once trained leaders and activists in the cause of social justice and building a peaceful society. In that vein, he named his green tin-sided house Sarvodaya: “Well-being for all.”
But there is no peace this morning. Only the noisy neighbors and the daily scramble of life among a heap of ramshackle huts below: chickens squawk and barefoot children run screaming in the dirt. Even today, this hilly township is one of the poorest parts of the city.
“He was always trying to get people to live their lives differently,” explains Ashish, nodding towards the Africans next door. “. . . but come on, they’re just having a good time over there. Let ‘em be.” And so no call is made to the neighbors, and nobody asks them to shut up. Rather, we tolerate the boom-boom-boom just as we tolerate the heat from the sun over our heads. It’s barely ten, but Durban’s tropical warmth is not shy—and neither is Ashish.
The Indian woman continues to remember the man she never met, “You know, I’m not sure he had any fun in his lifetime. He was such a serious man.” She goes on to explain her “good times” philosophy: “Everyone just wants to have a good time, so if they’re not hurting anyone, why should we stop them from having a good time?” Ashish wears a black T-shirt branded with a caricature of Gandhi and one of his more quoted quotes: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
What would Gandhi say to her today? She laughs at my question.
“Oh, Gandhi would have hated me! My mother tells me that all the time. I mean: I drink, I smoke, I eat meat!”
Her mother is Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mohandas Gandhi, and a former member of the South African parliament who represented this very area of Durban at the national level. Like most mothers and daughters, Ela and Ashish look and act nothing alike. Ela wears the traditional Indian sari, she is calm and soft-spoken and she venerates her grandfather with the kind of deep respect observed by both Indians and Africans towards their ancestors. She has spent her life continuing her grandfather’s vision as an activist for peace and justice in South Africa.
“Most people don’t know that Mahatma Gandhi spent his most important years in South Africa, right here in Durban,” she tells me with a quivering voice. The two of us are walking me through the backyard of Sarvodaya, behind the very house where Ela was born.
“This is where Gandhi became Gandhi,” she says. She shows me the house that they built with their own hands—part of Gandhi’s experiments towards self-sufficiency. She points to the fruit trees in the garden—mango, lemon—all of them planted by Gandhi himself.
“He wanted us to learn to be self-sufficient, and so we learned to make bricks and built our own house. It took us more than a year, but we did it.” Gandhi left Durban for India in 1914, leaving his son (Ela’s father) in charge of the Phoenix Settlement. For many years, Gandhi’s work and legacy continued, but in Ela’s lifetime, the angry politics of apartheid played out in her own backyard. In 1985, as the government pitted Africans against Indians, Ela watched as her neighbors and friends were forced to move out of their homes, one by one, then watched as their houses were burned to the ground. Her own home—the one that Gandhi built himself, the same home she was born in, was burned on the last day of the Inanda Riots.
As a family that has inspired the world with a message of non-violence, Ela’s family has known great violence. Her own father spent time in prison as he protested British laws in South Africa—so many of Ela’s family and friends were arrested, and her own grandfather was famously assassinated in India. And yet, today, among the green mango trees and a garden of memories, Ela focuses on her message of peace and tolerance.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant.” It is a simple truth, and it is the essence of South Africa’s success today. No matter where I travel in this country, I find a story of forgiveness and the tolerance that comes out of it. Sarvodaya was rebuilt in 2000 and dedicated by Thabo Mbeki as a peace memorial (and historic site). Ela shows me around the home and its exhibit detailing the global effects of Gandhi’s teachings: Indian independence, the American Civil Rights movement, Prague Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid. Indeed, in the last century, so much of human political progress finds its inspiration in Mahatma Gandhi, who found his inspiration right here in Durban.
Ela did not meet her grandfather until she was seven years old, but she remembers him clearly. “He was always very warm and he was always on time. If he said one o’clock, he meant one o’clock. He liked people who were punctual.”
She smiles at the statue in the garden—Gandhi’s bust under a columned rotunda, wearing glasses. “I am so glad they show him with spectacles,” she remarks. “You know, so often they take the spectacles away on the various statues, but he did wear spectacles. This is what he looked like.”
Now the neighbor’s noise has faded away, or else I have become used to it, and the garden seems like a wonderfully peaceful place to be. Around us is the squatter’s camp of shacks and shanties, named Bhambayi—an Africanized reference to Bombay and perhaps less chaotic than the real Mumbai. Indeed, the city of Durban is a kind of collision between India and Africa and my mind is still navigating the magical blend of two cultures around me. They are so different but they have lived together for more than a century—at times side by side, and now, quite literally—together.
I ask Ashish about this—as a Durban girl, what was her experience in this neighborhood?
“Oh it was different, that’s for sure. Things are much, much better now,” Ashish says, turning pensive. “I mean, my own daughter is growing up without any idea of what apartheid was like. She is growing up with freedom, and she will have a very different life.”
Gandhi’s great-great granddaughter is only six years old but she is South African. Like her mother says, she will grow up with freedom, because not so long ago, her great-great grandfather tolerated his neighbors. The family tolerated them to the point of their own house burning down, but in the end, they got them to change.