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Phoenix Site In South Africa Still Sits in Ashes

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

By Amy WaldmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1994



BHAMBAYI, SOUTH AFRICA

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.

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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.

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.