Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa threatened by lack of government interest and dwindling funds

Gandhi Museum and the Phoenix Settlement he founded no longer have any major donors

By Benita Enoch

17 February 2023

Broken spectacles adorn the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the museum home where he lived. Photos: Benita Enoch

The Inanda heritage route, north of Durban, has a number of sites of significant historical importance, including the home and grave of John Dube, first president of the ANC, who established a school here, where Nelson Mandela chose to cast his first vote in the new democracy in 1994.

Mahatma Gandhi lived here too, and it is where he established Phoenix Settlement in 1904. His house remains as a museum.

But poor roads, and almost no signage or publicity, means the route is sadly neglected.

Durban resident Jimmy Govender travelled to the Gandhi settlement during the January holidays hoping to share this history with his child. But he struggled to find the place because the signs were not obvious, and he ended up on a dirt road. (GroundUp also struggled to find where to turn off from Curnick Ndlovu highway.) Once at the museum, Govender said the grounds were neglected and the statue of Gandhi had cobwebs on it.

Ela Gandhi, the Mahatma’s granddaughter and a former member of parliament, says her grandfather owned about 100 acres of land and this is where the Bhambayi community built their lives in 1985 after the eNanda unrest. Phoenix Settlement should not be confused with nearby Phoenix Township.

The Phoenix Settlement Trust (PST) has wanted to transfer at least 90% of the land back to the council for the benefit of the communities, but the council has yet to make the transfer. As a result, the installation of desperately needed infrastructure, including road maintenance, street lighting and safety measures, has been held up.

The Gandhi Development Trust (GDT) and the museum hub contributes positively to the communities of Inanda and Phoenix. After the July 2021 unrest, it facilitated healing programs, including counselling for victims, and providing medical treatment and food.

There are communal vegetable gardens managed by the community, an internet café, and regular classes on how to write a CV and apply for jobs. Thousands of students, says Gandhi, became computer literate in Word, Excel and Powerpoint through classes held at the computer centre.

But in May 2021, the internet café and computer training centre suffered a setback when the 35 computers were stolen. Only six have been replaced.

The Shanti Centre also provides schooling opportunities for young children.

“Many children didn’t come back to school [after Covid lockdown] … In spite of this, 64 learners graduated from Grade R,” the trust says in its latest annual report.

The Bhambayi drop-in centre, supported by the Department of Social Development, provides counselling and support services to vulnerable children and child-headed households. It also provides healthcare and chronic medication through a fortnightly mobile health clinic operated by the Department of Health, providing ARVs and TB treatment. The drop-in centre offers psychosocial support, including assistance with registration of births and obtaining identity documents, through a link with the Department of Home Affairs.

Despite these and other good works of the Gandhi Development Trust and the Phoenix Settlement Trust, which are well-received by the community, both organisations are struggling to raise any funds.

“Prior to 2021 we were receiving support from the Durban City Council for many years. Initially the Department of Tourism used to provide a monthly allowance to the PST in return for the space they occupy [at the heritage site],” says Ela Gandhi.

“Three years ago the museums department took over and they were providing an allowance (of R45,000 per month) on the basis of a lease agreement. But last year, for reasons best known to them, our contract was not renewed. As a result we have received no funds from them for the entire 2021/22 period.”

The house where Gandhi lived. A visit to the site shows how the 24-year-old barrister Gandhi transformed into the Mahatma (meaning “great-souled”). The museum describes this transition and how the Satyagraha (soul-force non-violent action) movement he started in 1906 inspired various movements in South Africa and all over the world, including the Civil Rights Movement, and still continues to inspire people who choose to embark on non-violent action. The settlement was purchased by Gandhi to move away from the affluent lifestyle in the city to a simple communal lifestyle, says Ela Gandhi.

With dwindling donations, the Phoenix Settlement Trust and the Gandhi Development Trust merged. While they currently still retain their separate names and NPO numbers, there are plans to get PST registered and get its Public Benefit Organisation status.

“GDT will dissolve and we will have Phoenix Settlement Trust established by Mahatma Gandhi as its title,” says Gandhi.

Gandhi says in previous years it had managed to secure funding for its many social programmes (almost a million rand in 2018 and in 2019).

The Sibaya Trust granted the organisation more than R2-million over a period of five years for its Early Childhood Development programme, but declined its support for the 2021 year, says Gandhi.

The government of India contributed an estimated R500,000 for the upgrade of the building to set up the computer centre and the internet cafe.

“At present we have no one providing support but during this year we will be seeking other funding for various projects we have in mind. We have a 150 club and encourage people to contribute R150 a month through a stop order,” says Gandhi.

The museum was closed from March 2020 to August 2020 due to the Covid pandemic lockdown. It attracted 516 visitors that financial year. Gandhi says the tour guide who works for the Department of Tourism, Durban City Council, was on duty during that period and if there were small groups of tourists, he opened the museum and showed them around.

Gandhi said they are working on new programmes, such as spiritual retreats, to attract more visitors.

The Phoenix Settlement Trust and the Gandhi Development Trust once had national heritage status, but that has since expired and they have not reapplied to have it reinstated. When Dr Lemuel Berry, CEO of National Association of African American Studies, hosted a conference in Durban in 2015, he approached Gandhi to get the museum accredited as a World Heritage Site.

Berry made representations to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, which is the only body who can request that a local site be placed on a tentative list for World Heritage Site status, but Minister Barbara Creecy declined Berry’s application. Gandhi said Creecy wrote to Berry about her decision but this was confidential.

Gandhi said that Berry recently had a follow-up meeting with the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) to discuss some of the points raised by Creecy, and he was presently addressing those issues and would make new representations to the department soon.

Creecy’s spokesperson Albi Modise has not yet responded to GroundUp’s questions. Comment will be added when they reply.

Asked why the grounds were unkempt during our visit to the site, Gandhi says that according to the terms of their lease, the City Council was responsible for maintaining the buildings and the museum.

“This was in line with what they were doing with the Dube House, the Inanda Seminary and other heritage sites. In terms of this agreement, they provided us funds to maintain the buildings. Last year that was stopped but they have continued with paying and hiring security, and paying our utility bills. In addition they are paying for two gardeners, but we have to pay for mowing the lawn and other gardening requirements.”

Gandhi says when Phoenix Settlement was declared a national heritage site two years ago, SAHRA had requested a partnership with it, the City and the trust, whereby the City would undertake to ensure that the place was maintained.

“That agreement has not been signed by the City as yet. It has been over a year. No reasons [were] given,” says Gandhi.

Durban Tourism and eThekwini Municipality have not responded to our questions.