President Pratibha Patil on Sunday visited the Phoenix Settlement, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1904 on the north-western edge of Durban to experiment with satyagraha, sarvodaya and ahimsa (non-violence). It was here Gandhiji first used three principles to champion the cause of mine and sugarcane workers, liberation of women and fight against alcohol.
Ms. Patil saw an exhibition on the Mahatma's life, offered floral tribute at his bust and visited, Sarvodaya, where he stayed for much of the 21 years he spent in South Africa before returning to India in 1915.
The President later observed that Sarvodaya “still seems to be pervaded with the compassion and serenity which characterised Mahatma Gandhi.”
The Phoenix Settlement was set up to put into practice the values which he followed and preached for the rest of his life — self-help, dignity of labour and simplicity. “Gandhiji taught us to fear no one and constantly struggle against injustice and exploitation,” she said.
The President noted that “it was in Phoenix Farm on March 5, 1913 that Gandhiji wrote, “refuse to believe that you are weak, and you will be strong.” It was this faith that Gandhiji had in the innate goodness and strength of every individual that motivated countless men and women to join him in the freedom struggle; in the fight against unjust laws in South Africa and it has continued to inspire humanity to work for the welfare of all.”
The President spoke of how the Government of India, in cooperation with the South African government, provincial government of Kwa-Zulu Natal and eThekwini Municipality had set up a Mahatma Gandhi Information Technology Centre at the Settlement to help fulfil the needs and aspirations of the South African youth.
Till 1985, the Settlement stood out as an island in South Africa where the Gandhian aspirations for social justice, harmony and peace were fostered actively. However, on August 9, 1985, right wing vigilantes resorted to rampant destruction in the area while the police and army looked on. The Settlement was destroyed by apartheid violence. “It was the handiwork of the apartheid regime, which had sown seeds of hatred among people,'' said Bongani Mthempu, a former information officer of the Phoenix Settlement Trust, who now works with the government.
Having worked with the Trust and the government for the last 18 years, Mr. Mthempu recalled how subsequently everything was built from scratch. “In 1994, with the installation of the Democratic Government, the restoration of the Settlement was expedited. Sarvodaya was rebuilt and re-inaugurated in 2000; the Printing Press Building and Kasturba Bhawan were rebuilt; and the museum and library buildings and the clinic were restored.''
About 1,390 children study in the Kasturba Gandhi School now, a free eye and dental clinic operates out of the Printing Press building; a crèche takes care of 135 coloured children; school outreach programmes cover another 60, the orphanage is home for 60 children, while 25 health workers go out to people and address their problems at the doorstep.
While about 85 acres of the 100 acres owned by the Trust were encroached in 1985, in keeping with the Gandhian spirit, the Trust has made it clear that it would not make the homeless more homeless by invoking laws to remove informal settlers. Rather, it has decided to make the 85 acres owned by it available to the Durban Local Authority to ensure that crèche, schooling, health, housing and road projects could be undertaken on them.
The President also visited the memorial of John Dube, first President of the African National Congress and a very close friend of Mahatma Gandhi. “It is surely more than a simple coincidence that the crucible of Gandhiji's political awakening is located close to the site of one of the ANC's founding leaders,'' she said, recalling how India and South Africa were united in their struggle for justice and equality.
At the memorial, Ms. Patil met the late leader's daughter, 81-year-old Zulu, who hoped that “things would improve further in South Africa.”