Cape Town celebrates Gandhi at interfaith commemoration

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

A hundred years ago iconic pacifist Mahatma Gandhi left South Africa and this month his surviving relatives plan to commemorate his departure in Cape Town, the city from where he set sail.

On July 18, 1914, Gandhi sailed from Cape Town to London and from there traveled to India. Interestingly, this is the same date that Nelson Mandela was born a few years earlier in the Eastern Cape.

His granddaughter Ela Gandhi, who lives in Durban, will be the guest speaker at the commemoration planned for St George’s Cathedral, in central Cape Town, next Sunday at 3pm (July 20).

Her niece Uma Mesthrie, who lives in the Cape Town suburb Rylands, is organising the event.

They are both descendants of Gandhi’s second of four sons, Manilal, who died in Durban in 1956. He was Gandhi’s only son who stayed in South Africa while the rest of the family returned to India.

Ela is the youngest of Manilal’s three children; his son Arun settled in the United States. Mesthrie is her deceased older sister Sita’s daughter.

Mesthrie said she planned an interfaith service because Gandhi lived peacefully alongside people from other religions, having “read the Qur’an and Bible”.

He talk at the event would “focus on Gandhi’s links to Cape Town”.

In an interview at her home she said Gandhi “spent roughly two decades in the country”.

When he returned to India he led a passive resistance movement against British colonial rule, for which he and his wife were jailed.

Mesthrie says Gandhi’s political career and ideology was formed in KwaZulu-Natal though and later exported worldwide.

She said: “He formed most of his ideas in South Africa. The idea of non-violent resistance emerged in this country.

“He then made his last speeches in Cape Town. From there, he went to India and led a massive struggle for India’s freedom.”

He had on various occasions “traveled from Durban to Cape Town to lobby parliamentarians who had a say in laws that would affect Indians”.

“In 1913 and 1914 during his visits to the city he stayed with Yusuf Gool at 7 Buitensingel Street in Cape Town. That house does not exist anymore. He also stayed with Morris Alexander, a famous lawyer,” said Mesthrie.

Gandhi was a lawyer who traveled from India to South Africa to assist a Muslim family, said Mesthrie. He could speak English and knew the law, thus was revered by Indians who had no rights when arriving in the country, she added.

Uma Mesthrie is Mahatma Gandhi's great granddaughter and lives in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Uma Mesthrie is Mahatma Gandhi’s great granddaughter and lives in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Left to right: Abha Gandhi with Mahatma Gandhi and his granddaughter Sita Gandhi in India. Pic courtesy of Uma Mesthrie

Left to right: Abha Gandhi with Mahatma Gandhi and his granddaughter Sita Gandhi in India. Pic courtesy of Uma Mesthrie

Mesthrie said existing records relate that Gandhi walked around in Cape Town during his 1914 visit in his famous white “dhoti”, or wrap, which was “clothes of the indentured workers that attracted a lot of attention in the city’s streets”.

Ela Gandhi said by the time her grandfather died in India in January 1948 she had spent some time with him in India.

Her father had traveled since 1916 between India and South Africa where he married and settled. His children accompanied him on these trips.

“As a little child, I remember him as a wonderful grandfather. He was a great person. He gave us time, undivided attention. He even wrote letters to us as little. He was down to earth and human,” said Ela.

She followed her grandfather and father’s footsteps, pursuing life of political activism against racial discrimination. For this, she faced house arrest under apartheid: “I was banned from 1973 to 1982”.

“I was prohibited from attending any social gatherings. I was restricted to Inanda (in Durban) and couldn’t leave that area. I could not leave my home after 7pm during the week,” she recalled.

“On weekends, from Saturday 5pm until Monday 7am I could not leave my home. It was difficult but when you are committed to a cause you can deal with anything. It was a commitment for liberation.”

She added: “My father used to participate in political activities. I was introduced to political life in South Africa. I was a member of the (now defunct) National Indian Congress and later became a member of the African National Congress.”

When apartheid fell, Ela was a parliamentarian for nine years, in the cabinets of former presidents Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

She said her grandfather’s legacy remained “important for South Africa and the world”.

“We see a lot of violence in South Africa. He taught us about non-violence. It wasn’t just about politics. It was also about changing our lives. That was important about his teachings,” she said.

“One of the important things was simplicity. Take what it is needed. Don’t waste the resources of the world. We lived a very simple life.

“These values, simplicity and respecting all people regardless of differences on the basis of gender, race, class… we learned to grow up and respect all people. That is an important lesson.”


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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