Phoenix Site In South Africa Still Sits in Ashes

Gandhi's settlement is now in shambles and houses only squatters and nesting birds

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AMID these muddy hills and low-slung valleys on Durban's outskirts, the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi founded a settlement in 1904 devoted to activism, self-sufficiency, and reconciliation.

Initially, there was only his simple house and a building housing a printing press where he produced his journal Indian Opinion. Later came an imposing two-story home built by Gandhi's son, Manilal, a school named for his wife, Kasturba, a clinic, and a museum built to commemorate the centenary of his birth.

Today, only a cement slab remains of the house Gandhi lived in. It is edged by the densely packed shacks of Bhambayi, as the area is now known. Squatters and birds have made nests in the rooms of Manilal's former home, which no longer has a roof. The printing-press building stands stripped of windows, doors, roof, and scarred by militant graffiti. Only a facade remains of the Kasturba Gandhi school. The museum is empty. The clinic doubles as a refugee center for those fleeing the violence that ravages Bhambayi.

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Last Friday, at least three people were killed in the square when fighting broke out between Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) supporters.

Until 1985, blacks and Indians coexisted peacefully in this area. Then local political and economic fissures erupted, and Zulus drove the Indians from the settlement and vandalized the site.

``It is a monument now to the pain and horror of apartheid,'' says Richard Steele, former curator at what was called Phoenix Settlement.

The settlement lives on in the memory of those committed to sustaining its spirit. One of these is Gandhi's grandaughter, Ela, who was born at the settlement in 1940 and still lives in South Africa. She has continued her family's tradition of political activism: Once banned by the government for anti-apartheid activities, she is now on the ANC's election list.

Her grandfather came to South Africa in 1893 as a merchant lawyer and stayed to initiate passive-resistance campaigns against anti-Indian legislation. It was the first significant nonmilitary challenge to South Africa's government.

``He felt that with the defiance campaigns, there was a need to train people and provide families with shelter,'' Ela Gandhi says of the 100-acre settlement's founding. ``He offered plots at Phoenix to people who were interested in working the land and in freedom and revolution.'' It was his first ashram (Hindu religious community), and the place where the seeds of his philosophy germinated.

While Phoenix Settlement was originally primarily Indian, there was a great deal of interaction between Indians and black Africans living in the surrounding area of Inanda. There was also little economic disparity between them.

Ela Gandhi, who lived at the settlement until 1978, says that things began to change with an influx of impoverished squatters into the region. She estimates that between 1973 and 1993, the population of Inanda increased 20-fold. ``People were building shacks, and they were no longer living off the land,'' she says.

The Indians at Phoenix had adequate houses, water, electricity, schools, and community facilities. The black newcomers had none of these in any proper degree or condition. ``That discrepancy, cheek by jowl, creates enormous tensions,'' Mr. Steele says.

Those tensions climaxed in 1985. The government, which wanted to forcibly remove Indians from the area, told local Zulus that there would be no development in the region until the Indians were driven out.

Soon after came an invasion in which Zulus wielding sticks and spears burned 47 Indian shops and forced more than 500 Indian families to flee. ``The Zulus told families to get out and then burnt their homes and shops so they wouldn't come back,'' Ela Gandhi says.

Political conflict also played a role in the attack. By 1985, the Gandhi settlement was housing many black refugees from local conflicts between the IFP and the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front (UDF).

The attackers were IFP-aligned. ``They saw a link between the place and the UDF,'' says Fatima Meer, perhaps South Africa's preeminent sociologist and an Indian with strong ties to the Gandhi settlement.

Ms. Meer was working there in 1985 when the trouble began. She found the invaders looting and burning historical buildings, including the Gandhi museum, which contained many historical artifacts and his library. Some items were rescued; they remain in Meer's possession awaiting a permanent home. Fearing for her safety, she left the settlement that evening. The museum building survived, badly damaged, and today stands empty.

When Meer returned the next day, people were helping themselves to the remains of the buildings. Everything from electrical cables to galvanized iron roofs, along with Gandhi's entire house, disappeared into nearby shacks. ``It was poor people helping themselves to whatever they could,'' Meer says.

Steele also witnessed the destruction of the house. ``To protect it,'' he says, ``we would have needed violence and guns, and that would have been a contradiction.''

So the house came down, and the shack settlement Bhambayi - the Zulu translation of Bombay - sprang up. ``It made me very sad and disappointed for what the future would hold,'' Ela Gandhi says of the attack.

Today, religious groups still make pilgrimages to the site, which, like most nonwhite history, remains uncommemorated by the South African government.

Steele describes the settlement's state as an ``open wound,'' and says, ``For those of us who care about the place, the temptation is to close it up quickly.'' Steele, who is white, served one year of military imprisonment in 1980 for objecting to compulsory military service on the grounds of universal religious pacifism and noncooperation with apartheid structures. He would like to rebuild Gandhi's house as a living museum to resistance and a monument to reconciliation.

But a symbol of peace is meaningless in the middle of war, and that is exactly where the remains of Gandhi's house sit. Bhambayi has been ravaged for the past year by factional conflict between rival ANC factions and the ANC and IFP.

An independent commission attributed some conflict, which has been responsible for more than 300 deaths, to deliberate destabilization by IFP hit squads. But like many nonwhite South African communities, Bhambayi is simply trapped at the intersection of poverty and violence.

LIKE her grandfather, Ela Gandhi is understanding of the roots of inhuman behavior. She points to Bhambayi's constant influx and outflux of largely unemployed residents, and says, ``They are not regulars; it is not an organized or stable place. Violence will always be an underlying feature in such communities.''

She would like to establish an agricultural college at Bhambayi - a practical vision that would resurrect the ideals of Phoenix's past for the benefit of Bhambayi's present. ``If you want to return to any Gandhian principles, the people living at and around Phoenix Settlement need to be properly rehoused and access to community facilities given to everyone,'' Ela Gandhi says. ``The people in the area want basic needs met - and my grandfather would have wanted that as well.''

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