Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi landed as a young man in 1893 in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal (southeast), a province that is still home to one of the largest Indian communities outside India. The thought leader, whose legacy in Africa has sometimes been controversial, then works for a law firm.

At the time, British settlers brought hundreds of thousands of Indians mainly to serve as labor in the sugar cane fields. But a small educated elite succeeds in commerce and the professions.

Shy, frightened in court and not particularly committed, Gandhi spent twenty years in the country (1893-1915), where he reached political maturity by standing up against apartheid laws restricting Indian immigration.

"The course of his life has changed here," his granddaughter told AFP. And he left a mark, the hero of the struggle against the racist regime, Nelson Mandela, openly claiming for a time the Gandhian philosophy. His former home in Phoenix, 25 km from Durban, has been turned into a museum.

But more than 70 years after his death, there is not enough money to keep the building in good condition.

The museum tells her intellectual journey, her reflections on race, women, science, says Ela Gandhi. "If we let the place fall into disrepair, he (Gandhi) will end up forgotten," said the woman who sat in parliament during Mandela's time.


Until last year, the foundation she chairs received funding from the municipality of Durban. But aid has been cut and money is now lacking, especially to remedy the ripped windows. Contacted by AFP, the municipality did not respond.

A street named after Gandhi, in Durban, May 6, 2007 © RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP/Archives

The trust also seeks to remove tensions between the residents of Phoenix, mostly of Indian origin, and the black community of the neighboring township of Inanda, says Ela Gandhi. In 2021, Phoenix was the scene of racial murders: thirty black men were brutally killed. The country was caught in the worst wave of violence in the fledgling democracy, leaving more than 350 people dead in riots and looting.

But it is also the memory of Gandhi that is sometimes contested. Famous for his resistance to British colonial rule in his native India, his legacy in Africa is more mixed.

The apostle of non-violence has been accused of racism for claiming in some of his writings that Indians are "infinitely superior" to black Africans.

In 2015 in Johannesburg, a statue of him was defaced with paint on the sidelines of a demonstration. In Ghana, another statue has been removed from the country's largest university.

"Gandhi was indeed a product of colonialism," convinced that "white colonial society was the embodiment of civilization," says Vishwas Satgar, professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But his South African experience transformed him and he fought against racism, says the specialist.

Ela Gandhi is now looking for new patrons to preserve the memory of her grandfather in South Africa.

But the preservation of historic sites "is no longer considered by donors as a priority", especially since the Covid pandemic, laments Sello Hatang, director general of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, also affected by the lack of money.

© 2023 AFP