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June 16, 2016

This Heritage Trail Near Durban Is a Must For History Buffs

Text by Maria Louis. Photographs by Sejal Purohit

Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance, Nelson Mandela’s first democratic vote and more — the Inanda Heritage Trail speaks eloquently of movements and moments

Not far from Durban is the Inanda Valley, a densely populated semi-rural settlement that played a large role in shaping the history of South Africa. Just around 30 kilometres outside the city, this valley and its surroundings hold institutions that are as close to each other as their founders were. So, this trail would take only three or four hours, covering the Phoenix Settlement, where Mahatma Gandhi fine-tuned his philosophy of passive resistance; the Ohlange Institute, where Nelson Mandela cast his vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994; the Shembe church; and the Inanda Seminary.

Of particular interest to Indians is the communal Phoenix Settlement that Gandhi founded in 1904, on a mammoth farm that housed a community centre, clinic, school, homes including his own, and the printing press where he published the newspaper that influenced the course of South Africa’s history — Indian Opinion. His philosophy shaped the opinion of the people and helped them win the struggle for freedom, and he became known as the Mahatma. Next to the Phoenix Settlement is the Kasturba Primary School, named after Gandhi’s wife.

A school built on the site in her honour in 1954 was destroyed in 1985, so this one replaced it.

Nearby is the Ohlange Institute set up by John Dube in 1901, the first educational institution founded by a black person in South Africa. Dube went on to become the first president of the African National Congress (ANC) later. The school laid great emphasis on teaching self-reliance, and focussed not just on basic education but also on vocational skills.

Apart from being friends, Dube and Gandhi shared a common philosophy along with Isaiah Shembe’s Shembe religion and Inanda Seminary, one of the oldest African private schools for girls, established in 1869 by the American Board of Missions, both of which were founded in the same neighbourhood. The seminary is significant because it has remained unscathed throughout the apartheid era, when Bantu education was enforced, and has fascinating archives. The community centre wall at the Phoenix Settlement discloses that the four ‘shared a deep spirituality, a lively social conscience, a commitment to hard work, a hunger for education and an intense concern for the weakest and poorest in society’.

The highlight of our tour of the Ohlange Institute was meeting and listening to the tourism officer and site guide, Mandla Nxumalo — who was the first person that the late former president Nelson Mandela shook hands with after he cast his first democratic vote in 1994. We visited Dube’s grave, hallowed ground, where Mandela made his famous statement after casting his vote: “Mr President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is now free.”

We learnt that Mandela deliberately postponed his release from prison to February 11, 1990 to coincide with the death anniversary of his party’s founding president; and that the reason why he decided to come and cast his first democratic vote at the Ohlange Institute is because he wanted to honour the life and times of the co-founder and first president of the African National Congress.

The Phoenix rises

The movement of passive resistance, called satyagraha, was crystallised here during the 21 years that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spent in South Africa. Most of those years were spent at this settlement, where he lived with his wife Kasturba and their children in a cottage called Sarvodaya (‘well-being of all’).

The International Printing Press was burnt down at the time of the Inanda riots in 1985 and rebuilt as a museum focussing on the newspaper Indian Opinion and the press. During those dark days, South Africans of Indian descent were brutally attacked by the local Inanda-African population; they were forced to relocate to surrounding townships like Phoenix. In fact, a large portion of the settlement was razed, including Gandhi’s home — but following the first democratic elections, it was rebuilt.

What remains now are the wall panels which document significant landmarks of Gandhi’s journey from a newly qualified lawyer to a political activist. One room of the house is recreated to look like Gandhi’s study-cum-bedroom.

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