An exhibition was launched on June 4 at the Phoenix Settlement to mark the 120th anniversary of the ‘Indian Opinion’ newspaper started by Mahatma Gandhi during his time as a young lawyer in South Africa.
Gandhi had started the publication as a mass communication mechanism for the Natal Indian Congress, which he had helped establish to fight the oppressive laws of the government at the time.
After Gandhi’s return to India, the ’Indian Opinion’ continued to be published by his son Manilal and his wife Sushila until its final edition in 1962.
With a firm focus on human and civil rights issues, the newspaper served as a vehicle for a large number of Indians who had first come to South Africa as indentured labourers for the sugar cane farms to voice their dissatisfaction with the racial intolerance that they were subjected to.
Ela Gandhi, a granddaughter of the Mahatma and trustee of the Gandhi Development Trust which administers the Settlement, explained how the exhibition showcases not just the newspaper but also the origins of the Phoenix Settlement and Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement.
The exhibition launched at Phoenix Settlement, where Gandhi's, press was housed also marks the 130th anniversary of the incident when Gandhi, on his way to Pretoria from Durban to fight a case for a client, was unceremoniously thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg station in 1893 because he was travelling in a coach reserved for whites only.
The incident sparked his path to Satyagraha and led to the fight against oppression in both South Africa and India.
“He started ‘Indian Opinion’ a decade after this incident. The movement started by Gandhi would likely not have had the same impact that it did without the media coverage. That is why the exhibition also displays the resistance media, comprised of the independent newspapers started by the different political parties of the time as their voice,” Ms. Ela said.
“The main purposes of ‘Indian Opinion’ were threefold— education, mobilisation and information of not just those who were oppressed, but also as an informational tool for the oppressors,” she said, adding that the closure of the newspaper after 58 years was brought about because of the draconian censorship laws and banning of political organisations by the white minority apartheid government.
Gandhi endorsed a comment made at the launch by veteran journalist Alf Karim, who was involved in the production of several resistance media during the years of apartheid, that the time was ripe for the community to consider setting up independent media along the lines of the resistance media, but with a focus on building communities.
“This is a need for the present times with the new technologies,” Ms. Ela said.
Uma Dhupelia, retired academic and historian and great-granddaughter of Gandhi, explained the need for this kind of media in that era.
“Gandhi, like the African elites of the time— John Dube, Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, Walter Rubusana, Jon Tengo Jabavu, Alan Soga and Sol Plaatjie - saw the need to have their own newspapers in English and the vernacular to ensure their voices were heard.
“‘Indian Opinion’ highlighted the grievances of Indians but also that of Africans and also the plight of indentured workers. Its major purpose was to have a moral influence on its readership to act against injustice and to live an ethical lifestyle,” Mr. Dhupelia wrote in a Facebook post.
Mr. Dhupelia said the ‘Indian Opinion’ would have closed down in the 1920s already when Gandhi returned to India if it was not for the dedication of Gandhi’s son Manilal and his wife Sushila.
“One striking feature of the paper’s history is the role of women in its production— notably Sushila Gandhi who edited the Gujarati section and managed the accounts and Sita Gandhi who assisted with administration, clerical work and the production of special issues,” Mr. Dhupelia wrote.
The exhibition was a precursor to the four-day ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela & Martin Luther King jr. International Conference’, to be hosted by the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Foundation (PGF) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal later this week.
“The conference will bring together world-renowned academics, intellectuals, activists, and critical scholars to critically and constructively reflect, conceptualise, and mobilise for non-violent, peaceful change in a violent world,” the PGF said in a statement.