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Ela Gandhi, the grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, was born at the Phoenix Settlement (district of Inanda, Durban) where she spent some of the most important and formative years of her life. Ela read for a BA degree at Natal University and thereafter obtained an Honours in Social Science through UNISA. She subsequently practiced as a social worker at the Verulam Child Welfare.

Ela’s father was involved in the defiance campaign and when she was 15, in 1955, he attended the Kliptown Conference which gave birth to the Freedom Charter. He wrote a piece on the meeting in the Indian Opinion which later appeared in the UN documents. He courted imprisonment and was arrested several times. Ela’s mother, on the other hand, equally challenged the apartheid laws. She started a non-racial school for children at the Gandhi house in Phoenix but was asked by the authorities to close it down as it went against the grain of apartheid policies.

Ela continues the Gandhian family tradition of passive resistance. At the very young age of 12, she joined the defiance campaign marches, which marked the beginning of a dedicated and courageous life in politics. She participated in many boycotts, marches and fund-raising events. In 1971, together with Mewa Ramgobin and others, Ela helped revive the Natal Indian Congress, of which her grand-father, Mahatma Gandhi was a founding member and its secretary. She was duly elected the Vice President of the Natal Indian Congress. In 1975 she was banned and house arrested for 8.5 years, but this did not deter her from continuing her community and grassroots activism underground. Ela was actively involved in the UDF. She served on the Transitional Executive Council before the elections in 1994 and served as an Member of Parliament in the newly led ANC government.

In her interview Ela talks of her life at the Phoenix settlement, her early education and employment, of the repressive apartheid laws, her activism, the impact of banning orders on family life and of her political affiliations. She makes extensive references to her role as social worker amongst the poor in the Black Townships and Indian communities and touches upon Gandhi’s philosophy, the economy, globalization and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Compiled by K. Chetty