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Gandi South Africa Legacy Uncertain

FILE: Famous Indian statesman and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi, an example of peaceful resistance. Taken may 21, 2012. A statue of Gandi also stands in Johannesburg.
FILE: Famous Indian statesman and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi, an example of peaceful resistance. Taken may 21, 2012. A statue of Gandi also stands in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG - Mahatma Gandhi's 21 years in South Africa stand out. Gandhi lived in Britain's southern African colony from 1893 to 1915. He created the hallmark of his campaign of peaceful protest -- the Transvaal March, contesting a ban on Indian immigration.

Today, though, the physical legacy of Gandhi's historic stay in South Africa is decaying for want of funds, his granddaughter Ela Gandi, 82, says.

Now turned into a museum, the house where he lived in the eastern town of Phoenix and which also housed his newspaper is falling into disrepair.

Its turquoise paint is dulling, some windows are broken and the roof is leaking.

"If we allow the settlement to be dilapidated completely, his memory will be lost," Gandhi, who lives in nearby Durban, told AFP.

- Community work -

She heads the Phoenix Settlement Trust, which manages the museum and provides food aid, temporary shelter and computer literacy classes to destitute people.

The trust was for years bankrolled by the municipality of nearby port city of Durban to keep his legacy alive. But it recently turned off the taps.

The granddaughter and ex-lawmaker said the Trust's activities help ease tense relations between Phoenix's residents, who are largely of Indian origin and predominantly black community of Inanda.

More than 30 people died in an outbreak of vigilante violence in Phoenix during the July 2021 deadly riots. Most victims were black South Africans.

"Until last year we were receiving some funds from the municipality to enable us to continue and grow our programs; now it has stopped," Gandhi told AFP.

The town was providing 40,000 rand monthly - around $2,100 - before the funding ended.

The municipality did not respond to a request for comment.

- Changed man -

Hundreds of thousands of Indians came to South Africa during British Colonial rule in the 19th century to work on sugarcane plantations on the east coast.

Gandhi landed in South Africa in his early 20s to represent an Indian businessman in a legal matter.

Nearly a decade after his arrival, Gandhi purchased 100 acres (40 hectares) of land in Phoenix.

There, he invited some of his friends to join him to build a community of self-reliance, which became an incubator of the Satyagraha doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience.

Not everyone in South Africa is a fan of Gandhi. Some argue he held racist views.

Protesters defaced Gandhi's statue in Johannesburg with white paint in 2015.

Gandhi used racial slurs in some of his writing, also claiming that Indians were "infinitely superior" to black Africans.

He was indeed a "product of colonialism" who arrived believing "white colonial society was the embodiment of civilization", said Vishwas Satgar, an international relations professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg.

But South Africa changed him.

"He displayed something very important, that human beings are capable of transformation," said Satgar.

Ela Gandhi said the house-museum shows how her grandfather "changed his life" and discusses his "attitude toward race" and other issues.

She is looking for alternative funding to keep the Trust going, but times are hard.

"It's been a tough market to fundraise for historical sights post-pandemic," Sello Hatang the Nelson Mandela Foundation's chief executive, told AFP.

In 2021 Liliesleaf, a farm that Mandela used as safe house, was forced to close its doors indefinitely after years of underfunding.

Preserving these sites "is no longer something donors feel is a priority," said Hatang.