Ela Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in South Africa at the age of 24 and left at the age of 45.  These 21 years, most of which he spent in South Africa, were the most crucial years in his life.  It was during this time that Gandhiji began to crystallise a unique philosophy of life.  A philosophy that earned him the title of Mahatma and a philosophy that cannot be overestimated in its importance.  In this essay I would like to trace the building blocks of this unique philosophy.  

Mahatma Gandhi was neither a philosopher nor an academic and although a prolific writer he was not an author and hence as he himself said “my life is my message”.   He has not written about his philosophy as academics and authors would write.  He was essentially an activist with a well-developed conscience, which urged him to write about all his mistakes and not his achievements.  However in my opinion it was his conscience and a deep sense of social justice that consistently led him on the path to transformation.  

We see this conscience developing in his life in London.  In the early days of his life in London he spent lavishly on clothes on learning to ape the English aristocratic way of life.  But that changed once he realised that his family had to make many sacrifices to enable him to live in this fashion.  He was not happy about this and so immediately began to curb his spending.  He began by carefully maintaining his accounts recording every cent he spent.  He sold all those articles that he did not absolutely need and moved to a cheaper residential quarters and resorted to walking rather than opting to take public transport.  Even on his daily consumption of food he was thrifty and made do with little but nutritious diet.  All these changes were driven by that conscience or what he refers to as the inner voice which kept his actions in check.  

While he kept to a vegetarian diet, abstained from consuming alcohol or flirting with women because he had promised his mother he would abstain from wine women and meat, he soon realised that vegetarianism is a healthy way of life and followed it with conviction and not because of a promise.  He also realised that alcohol is a ruse and can only lead to depravity; he again abstained on principle and not because of a promise.  His sense of loyalty to his wife also led him to abstain from flirting.  Later however he learnt the importance of feminism and the ills of patriarchy, which led him to respect women and not treat them as sex symbols.  

His willingness to travel to South Africa in 1893, two years after his return from London, can be attributed to his conscience, which aroused in him the concern about his inability to pay back his debts on the meagre income he was earning in India at the time.  He was not concerned so much in terms of his career path as to be able to pay off the debt he owed to his family for financing his education and trip to London.  He saw the trip to South Africa as an opportunity for him to earn some money in order to pay off that debt.  No doubt he had a flare to learn about other countries and their histories, but having just returned from London he could not have been that keen to leave his family and go abroad once again.
It is clear from many of his actions that when he arrived in South Africa he was class conscious, he would stay in the area where professionals of his stature lived, he would only travel first class as would any professional person, he would obtain services from service providers, such as grocers, hairdressers and hotels, who attended to professional people.  He was also very conscious of his appearance and selected the finest clothes and regardless of the weather dressed immaculately in suit and tie and spent time grooming his hair.  This obsession with western fashion was again projected when on his second trip he brought to South Africa his wife and children. He insisted on his wife and children dressing up with gloves and stockings and socks and shoes.  
But when he realised that white hairdressers in South Africa refused to attend to non-white people he felt so humiliated that his conscience would not allow him to go to another hairdresser but rather to attempt to cut his own hair.  At that stage his desire for self-respect and dignity superseded his wish to be well groomed.  People’s banter did not deter him from the practice of cutting his own hair.  

We also see once again his attempt to cut down on his personal expenses when he began washing his own clothes and starching his collars.  In his enthusiasm he over starched his collars and even though this led to flakes falling off his stiff collar arousing the amusement of his friends, he remained undeterred.  

No doubt his conscience, developed with his study of theology and his faith in God.  We see this in his study of the scriptures in London and the interest he displayed in the theosophists in London.  Obviously he did not subscribe to any fanatical adherence to any particular faith but found it important to imbibe the best from the different faiths.  It was also this recognition of faith apart from religiosity that led him to withstand the pressures to convert to Islam or Christianity while in South Africa.  His faith in God never wavered although he did not practise any religion in any ritualistic manner.  In fact his spiritual transformation and a deeper relationship with God began in South Africa as he studied the different faiths intensely and critically questioned some of the beliefs and practices.  But it was in South Africa that he began the practice of group prayers where people were able to chant the prayers of each faith, Hindu, Christian, Islam, Zoroastrian and any other if there were people there of other faiths.  There were no religious symbols at these prayers, which were held out in the open air, and no rituals were performed.  

It is my belief that a person’s conscience develops at the pace at which his relationship with God develops.  The inner voice becomes stronger and more reliable as a guide to the actions one plans.  Gandhiji has consistently talked about the inner voice.  Often when exasperated politicians questioned his sometimes-abrupt decisions, he referred to the inner voice.  Gandhiji speaks of God as “a personal God to those who need His personal presence.  He is embodied to those who need his touch.  He is the purest essence.  He simply is to those who have faith.  He is all things to all men.  He is in us and yet above and beyond us…we can feel Him if we will but withdraw ourselves from the senses.”  
This strong faith developed as Gandhiji began to experiment with various ways of life.  

His nursing of Kasturba, his wife, against the advise of the doctor on vegetarian diet and experiments with mud packs and hydro therapy; his experiment with his son Manilal’s illness when everybody else had given up, with wet pack therapy; his constant experiments on his own health with various forms of nature cures all indicate the existence of the deep faith he had in God and in alternate modes of therapy.   This interest in conditions of good health rather than treatment of maladies as he called it, began in South Africa.  Again all these experiments began with that inner voice which made him reject the forced feeding of chicken broth to his wife, and made him continue to try despite the doctor’s prognosis, to bring down the temperature, through the use of wet packs, when his son was writhing with typhoid fever.  

It was certainly this inner voice that, after having paid back his debts to his family, led him to simplify his life style and create the Phoenix settlement in 1904.  Here he further developed his communal simple, agrarian life style.  He developed the philosophy of dignity of all labour and the discarding of class-consciousness, as he began to experiment on healthy use of night soil and conservation of water, of trees, of animals including serpents.  He learnt here about the laws of nature that governs and controls naturally the population of each of the species essentially useful for the healthy development of the soil and the environment.  During this time he overcame his fear of serpents by learning to live with them.  The story of the serpent that slithered over his body while he was sleeping on the floor on the verandah at Phoenix is well documented.  Many people who engage in organic farming talk of the value of snails and earthworms, Gandhiji even in those early days recognised the value of bio diversity.  

He further began to grapple with his personal life vis a vis his public life and here again at the risk of losing the faith of his wife and children he refused to accept gifts, bursaries and offers of help for his family from friends and the community.  Instead on leaving South Africa he not only left 100 acres of land at Phoenix Settlement in the hands of the community for communal purposes but also left two sizeable properties in Durban for the use of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).  He, in addition left expensive jewels and other gifts he received in Trust for use by the NIC.   In India he gave up rights to all family property and transferred it to his brother who had assisted him through education.  By 1914 when he left the shores of South Africa he had paid off all his debts.  

Another important aspect in his life in South Africa was that when he arrived he came at the behest of Dada Abdulla, a businessman, and so all his associates at that time were business people and professional colleagues.  A year later when he established offices in South Africa, he began to come into contact with the indentured workers and his circle of associates changed from being the middleclass group to the poor and oppressed workers.  Phoenix Settlement, where he spent many years of his life in South Africa, was situated in the vicinity of the large sugar estates where the indentured workers lived in compounds and barracks.  On leaving South Africa he was dressed in the garb that the indentured workers wore.  

His perception of the practice of law had also changed from the adversarial to a conciliatory approach.  He began in his very first case in SA involving the Dada Abdulla family, to look at alternatives to court action.  He began to see the role of lawyers in a different light.  He became an expert arbitrator and was able to resolve Dada Abdulla’s case, a most difficult and complicated dispute between family members, through arbitration rather than litigation.  He came to the conclusion that “the duty of an advocate was not to exploit legal and adversary advantages but to promote compromise and reconciliation.”  This in later life became his way of dealing with issues.  

Martin Luther King Jr has summed up the Gandhian way in the following principles when he said that opting for non-violence is not a path of the weak or the coward, it requires greater courage, even more so than violence does, to be able to confront an opponent with nonviolent action than to resort to violence.   Gandhiji was able to invoke courage through his faith and discipline, which he cultivated in South Africa in his ashrams.   Both he and Martin Luther King consciously trained volunteers who were prepared to go out on defiance campaigns.

When using nonviolent means one does not create suffering for others but inflicts suffering on one’s self.  This infliction of suffering on himself was also cultivated through his stringent discipline and fasts when he voluntarily gave up food in order to gain that spiritual strength.  But also in opting for imprisonment refusing to pay fines.  He schooled himself and his fellow campaigners to withstand assaults from the police without flinching or retaliating.     

This idea of not inflicting suffering on others is a central feature of nonviolent action.  In order to practice this principle one has to learn not to hate but to positively love the opponent.  In this way one eliminates all possibility of there being any place for any form of violence in word thought or deed.  In this way one tries to win over the opponent so that he can see the effects of his actions and be prepared to transform.   

He also insisted that one has to separate the deed from the doer and so you hate the deed and all actions are aimed against the deed and never against the doer or perpetrator.   It took a great deal of discipline and faith in God to be able to both love the opponent and to separate him from the deed that was offensive.  One has to be able to internalize these principles in order to be able to practice them when the time arises.   It is therefore essential that one begins to live by these principles in daily life, and it becomes a way of life.   

Nonviolent action is also not aimed at defeating the opponent or humiliating him but rather at transforming him so that he can love himself better and so that the others too are satisfied and are able to get what they set out to achieve.  This idea of transformation of human beings is based on the fundamental belief that human beings are capable of changing.  This idea is at the heart of Gandhian philosophy and one sees its outcomes in the amount of respect he was able to inspire in his arch foe in South Africa, General Smuts.  To be able to remain respectful, focused and able to transform a person who is a foe, one has to be highly disciplined not to give in to provocation from the opponent.  It is a common practice among police officers and politicians to goad and annoy political opponents and defiance campaigners.  To be able to respond as nonviolent defiers of unjust laws one has to be trained to be disciplined and focused and steer clear of engaging in opposition politics.   

The 21 years in the life of young Mohandas, major portion of which were spent in South Africa, were actually instrumental in transforming him and in giving perspective to his philosophy of life.   

A great deal of emphasis has been paid to his political work, the Pietermaritzburg station and other incidents in his life which no doubt were key moments.  I have in this essay tried to look at some of the other more mundane features of his life, which nevertheless played an important transformative role in Gandhiji’s life.  What we see as a clear change in him is the change of attire, but behind this change were many other issues that helped to develop Gandhiji’s thinking.  His political strategy of Satyagraha has received much coverage, but the spiritual and personal changes have not been covered with the same degree of importance.  Here I have tried to present those areas of his philosophy of life that in fact informed and developed his political thoughts.  


Ela Gandhi is a granddaughter of the Mahatma, a native and resident of South Africa. She has been placed under house arrest for 8 years for political activism and was a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly from 1994 to 2003. She runs a newspaper and researches and collects information on Mahatma Gandhi and other heroes of the liberation struggle to compile them into documentaries for purposes of research and education.

Serves in a voluntary capacity as:

-Hon. International President of World Council on Religions for Peace
-Chancellor of Durban University of Technology
-Chairperson of Satyagraha and Trustee of Gandhi Development Trust
-Member of African National Congress’ Commission on Religious Affairs
-Vice Chair of International Centre of Nonviolence (ICON)
-Board member of the Legal Aid Board (LAB)    

Ela Gandhi is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace and Development


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Mar 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: MAHATMA GANDHI’S SOUTH AFRICAN EXPERIENCE – A UNIQUE MODEL OF TRANSFORMATION, is included. Thank you.

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  1. KAYIF says:

    I want to thank you for publishing these kinds of information for us.Not only for us it is also very very helpful for the school children also. I requests you to establish these kinds of information in Tamil also and with some related photos of that passage. Thankyou very much

  2. On my recent visit to South Afric & Durban in particular, I wanted to lean more about indentured Indian labourforce, qouta ystem of female immigrants from India and ofcourse Mahatma Ghandhi. I failed on all counts due to my brief visit to Durban, poor interaction with the Asian community & my guides lack of interest in the subject. For this I am very disappointed as I may not be able to travel to Durban again at my age. I am still collation information from different sources on theses 3 issues. Apartheid as a subject matter is of interest to me as I have experienced it first hand due to an accident of birth being born to India immigrants in Kenya. I have fought discrimination all my life with some success and a great deal of disappointment
    However, I can be assisted with unpublished first hand knowkede or information passed down by verbal communication or first hand information documented in old Indian National Congess records. I was not aware of Ela Ghandhi. God Bless.

  3. Ela Gandhi says:

    To answer In 1860 the first batrch of Indian indentured workers arrived in South Africa aboard the Truro
    They were a total of 340 – 203 men, 87 women, 21 boys and 19 girls and 10 infants. These were the first recruits. Others followed. The male female ratio was imbalanced. More information can be found on South African History on line website. There are many books written on the subject. Over 800 000 South Africans of Indian origin live in Durban and it is therefore amazing that a visitor was not given information by the guide. The Pietermaritzburg station has a plinth where Gandhiji was thrown off the train and several boards giving the story. The Phoenix settlement which he established has an exhibition on his life in S.A. Johannesburg has a comprehensive exhibition and there are may statues all over South Africa and stories of Gandhiji and the struggle which continued after his departure. We recently staged a march to Volksrust in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the march of 1913.