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2013 Spring Issue 6 (May 17, 2013)

Ela Gandhi Speaks of Peace in Carleton Visit

May 17, 2013
By Ben Hubbert

“If you use violence, you make enemies.  With love in yourself, you make friends,” said Ela Gandhi, a renowned peace activist and granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi.

Sponsored by the French and Francophone Studies Department, and invited by Carleton’s French Professor Cherif Keita, Ela Gandhi gave a talk at Carleton on “The Challenges Facing Post-Apartheid South Africa” last Wednesday. She painted a picture of life in segregated South Africa and discussed ways to bridge miscommunication.

Born in Durban, South Africa in 1940, Ela Gandhi is the youngest daughter of Manilala and Sushila Gandhi. During her long career as a non-violent activist, Gandhi had been banned from South Africa for opposing apartheid, spent time in India as a social worker, and subsequently returned to post-Apartheid South Africa to become a member of its now integrated Parliament. She became an activist at the age of 12, when she joined the liberation movement in South Africa.

“Apartheid separated all races into racial settlements,” Gandhi explained.  “White, African, Indian people all lived separately.”  The 1913 Land Act set aside three-quarters of South African land for white residents, who made up only twenty percent of the population.  Gandhi stressed that Apartheid mandated segregation by gender as well as race.  

“The Apartheid government was white male dominated,” she explained. “Women were not allowed to take men’s jobs.”  
Gandhi briefly told the story of her famous grandfather, who came to South Africa in 1893 as a lawyer.  “A few days after he arrived, he experienced discrimination,” Gandhi said.  “He thought about going back, but he felt that if he returned to India he would be running away. So he decided to fight the unjust laws.”

Mahatma Ghandi moved to Inanda, an impoverished South African village, in order to understand the hardships the poor faced.  Along with African activist John Dube, who went on to found the African National Congress, Gandhi founded the first of many social movements to originate in Inanda.  Ela herself was born in Inanda, and lived with her grandfather for a few years before his assassination in 1948.  

Cherif Keita, who invited Gandhi to speak at the college, explained the link between Inanda and Northfield.  “Inanda was a focus of my work,” as both a historian and a filmmaker, Keita explained.  He was interested in the town not only for its long association with activism but also because of its diversity, and the ways in which activists from different races had collaborated.  Before Apartheid forced people of different races to separate, “Inanda foreshadowed the [integrated] ‘rainbow community’ that South Africa is trying to become,” Keita explained.  But even after the end of Apartheid, racial tensions remain in South Africa.

“There is a developing rift between the Indian and black communities in South Africa.  Because Indians hold more economic power, there is fear among black communities that Indians are trying to re-introduce Apartheid,” Keita explained. Keita’s films about South African activism, which describe the accomplishments of both black activists such as John Dube and Indian activists such as Gandhi, were seen as a means of “celebrating Inanda as a coalition community” by the Gandhi Development Trust, which led Ela Gandhi to contact him personally.

Over the next three years, Gandhi and Keita communicated frequently by phone, but never met in person.  Gandhi’s trip to Carleton began with an article about Keita published in the Carleton Voice; Keita sent the article to Gandhi, who asked the writer and photographer for permission to reprint it in the Gandhi Trust’s newsletter.  The photographer, John Noltner, was working on a book called “a peace of my mind,” which contained a series of photo essays about peace, and asked Gandhi to write an introduction to this book.  A few weeks ago, “John contacted me to say that the University of Wisconsin was doing a program on his book, and Ela was speaking there,” said Keita.  “I asked if Ela would mind speaking at Carleton College.”

While in Northfield, Gandhi visited the grave of Nathan and Ann Webb Clary, parents of the woman who would eventually become John Dube’s adoptive mother.  “Gandhi appreciated discovering and coming to see these connections,” Keita explained.  “Coming to Northfield was like a pilgrimage for her.”

In her talk, Gandhi said that her own work was far from over.  “We have to unravel all the damage done by Apartheid society,” she said.  In Inanda, there is a great deal of poverty and unemployment, and although the city has electricity, running water, and public transport, “none of them are reliable.”  Gandhi promoted nonviolent activism as a means of finding solutions to these problems.

Keita seemed confident that Carleton has made a friend in Ela Gandhi.  “She was fascinated by Carleton and the people that she met there,” he recalled.  “She was really impressed, she just wished she had more time.”  Keita and Gandhi also used their first chance to meet face-to-face to discuss possible collaborative projects between Carleton and the Gandhi Development Trust.  “Everything is connected in incredible ways.”

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