Ela Gandhi was born on 1 July 1940 to Manilal and Sushila Gandhi at the Phoenix Settlement (district of Inanda, Durban) where she spent some of the most important and formative years of her life. The younger of two daughters, Ela Gandhi obtained a BA Degree from Natal University and Honours in Social Science through Unisa. This staunch peace activist helped revive the Natal Indian Congress, founded by her grandfather, Mohandas.K.Gandhi.
Growing up in an ashram of the Phoenix Settlement, the Gandhi children became strongly influenced by the Gandhian family tradition of non-violent resistance. Initially, Ela was home schooled by her parents and at the age of eight after insisting that she be sent to school like other children, Ela won her battle against figures of authority. At the young age of 12, Ela Gandhi joined the Defiance Campaign marches, which marked the beginning of a dedicated and courageous life in politics. She was involved in many boycotts, marches and fund-raising events. In 1971, Ela was elected Vice President of the Natal Indian Congress. It was the first time that she took on such a position. She participated in a number of support groups assisting people who had gone to prison, as well as those who had been arrested. She was a member of the Detainees Support Committee in Durban. She was also involved in women’s organisations and became a founding member of the Natal Organisation of Women and was elected its treasurer for a number of terms and later served the ANC Women’s League Provincial structure in the same capacity. Their organising slogan was the triple oppression of women. Women suffered oppression by virtue of being black and poor, but in addition they suffered because they were women. Liberation was therefore aimed at removing all three barriers namely, race, poverty and gender. Ela’s work revolved around the strategies to raise awareness of these oppressions and how to remove them. Her work as a social worker too was influenced by this reality.
In 1975, Ela Gandhi was banned and under house arrest for eight years along with her ex-husband Mewa Ramgobin. There were three parts to this restriction. The first part was a restriction on all social activities, the second part restricted one to a particular area and the third part restricted one to the home between certain hours. In essence this meant that you could just go to work in order to live but do nothing else beyond that. A consequence of this was that they were prevented from going to meetings. One of her sons was killed during the struggle against apartheid. All these harsh realities of living under apartheid did not deter her from continuing her community and grassroots activism albeit some of it surreptitiously Ela believes that not enough recognition has been given to the support groups that were formed by the different religious communities, people who did a lot of work quietly, not politically, but as concerned individuals.
Ela Gandhi’s role as an activist and a social worker was to ”raise awareness among people of the apartheid oppression.” Following her graduation, she worked as a social worker with the Verulam Child and Family Welfare Society for 10 years and the Durban Indian Child and Family Welfare Society for five years. The most important defining moment in Ela’s life was the formation of NIC. “Think Black, not Indian,” inspired her a lot. It was this slogan that ensured that the non-racial focus of all her activities remained intact despite the various restrictions. She really made a difference to empower communities and put her energies into educating, informing and empowering them. Ela believes that when communities are suffering, they are suffering in silence, They need to be empowered to raise their voices and believe in the power that they possess within them. The Freedom Charter said, ‘The people shall govern’ and we should make that possible by empowering people to speak out and express their needs themselves.”
Ela Gandhi was actively involved in the UDF. She served on the Transitional Executive Council before the elections in 1994 and served as a Member of Parliament in the newly led ANC government. During her first term in parliament she helped the people in Phoenix which was her constituency to set up a 24 hour domestic violence help line service. Local people, both men and women, were trained and helped to run the 24 hour service. In 1999, she together with a number of concerned activists, formed a committee to start a monthly publication called Satyagraha. She also, together with a few other committed people, founded the Gandhi Development Trust to promote Gandhian values. She serves as a member of the ANC’s Religious Affairs Committee. She serves on the Mahatma Gandhi Salt March Committee which organises an annual salt march for non-violence and peace. She serves on the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Trust which is an organisation that holds a property donated by Mahatma Gandhi to the Natal Indian Congress and during the years of repression the NIC transferred the property to a trust to keep it away from the reach of the government. In 2002, she received the Community of Christ International Peace Award. She was conferred the Padma Bhushan Award by the Government of India in 2007.
“There’s enough in the world to meet the needs of everyone but there’s not enough to meet the greed of anyone.” said Mahathma Gandhi. This belief is genetic because Ela Gandhi also beleives in an egalitarian way of life and society. She has seen the huge gap between the poor and the rich, and for as long as that continues, Ela cannot see how anyone can be happy and proud of their country. She believes that one cannot speak about democracy to a person who is hungry and dying of Aids. She holds close to her heart the belief that for the people to govern, we must empower the people to take that power to be able to tell the government what their needs are. If she could change one thing it would be the economy. Ela feels strongly that South Africa has opened up our economy too quickly and brought in overseas investment without really thinking about it. She believes that the most important thing is to create enough jobs for all the people. This can only happen if we have job intensive industries. Unharnessed importation of clothing has affected the local clothing industry and has caused the retrenchment of thousands of workers. Similarly other industrial closures too have caused unemployment. Like Gandhiji she believes that a local economy, which is self sufficient and able to provide the essential needs of the people, should be the model for the development of economic growth. When we ignore local economy and place emphasis on the macro level there is bound to be skewing of access to wealth and to services which leads to suffering and dissatisfaction. There needs to be a balance. Gandhiji had developed a holistic vision incorporating all aspects of life. He strongly believed that any problem in any one aspect of life invariably affected other aspects of life . He accordingy studied and wrote about issues ranging from environment and diet to the political and economic, and from the rights of women and children to the issues of religious beliefs and socio- cultural issues. He believed that compartmentalisation of these leads to undesirable effects.
Ela Gandhi’s message to the world is that we need to heed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi more passionately now than ever before.