The Gandhi museum in South Africa struggles to survive amid lack of funds

Ela Gandhi, 82, did not leave South Africa, where her grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, developed his method of nonviolence. But today she fights against leaks in the roofs and the lack of money to preserve the heritage of the world figure.

A young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi landed in 1893 in Durban, KwaZulu Natal (southeast), a province that is still home to one of the largest Indian communities outside of India. The master thinker, whose legacy in Africa has sometimes been controversial, worked for a law firm.

At that time, the British colonists brought hundreds of thousands of Indians, mainly to work on the sugar cane plantations. But a small educated elite succeeded in commerce and the liberal professions.

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

"The course of his life changed here"tells AFP his granddaughter.

And it left its mark on the hero of the fight against the racist regime, Nelson Mandela, who for a time openly boasted of Gandhi’s 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 isn’t enough money to keep the building in good working order.

The museum tells of her intellectual trajectory, her reflections on race, women and science, explains Ela Gandhi.

"If we let the place deteriorate, he (Gandhi) will be forgotten"regrets who worked in Parliament in Mandela’s time.

Racist Gandhi?

Until last year, the foundation that he chairs received funds from the Durban municipality. But aid has been cut and money to fix broken windows is scarce.

Contacted by AFP, the municipality did not respond.

The trust is working to defuse tensions between Phoenix residents, mostly of Indian origin, and the black community in the neighboring Inanda township, Ela Gandhi stresses.

In 2021, Phoenix was the scene of racial murders. About thirty black men were savagely murdered. The country was caught in the worst wave of violence in the young democracy, which caused more than 350 deaths in riots and looting.

But it is also Gandhi’s memory that is sometimes called into question. Famous for his resistance to British colonial rule in his native India, his legacy in Africa is more varied.

The apostle of nonviolence has been accused of racism for having stated in some of his writings that the Indians are "infinitely superior" to black Africans.

In 2015, in Johannesburg, a statue bearing his effigy 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 a product of colonialism"convinced that "white colonial society was the embodiment of civilization"explains 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, stresses the specialist.

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

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

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