Background Information
Associated Images/links Associated Images/links
View / Listen to Interview Transcript ( requires real or MP3 player )
Listen to Interview (audio and Text) ( requires real player ver 10.0)
Full transcript
Full Audio

Interviewee : ELA GANDHI

Interviewer : Vino Reddy

Date : 18 May 2002

Click here to listen to audio as well (MP3 player)

Click here to listen to audio as well (Real Media)

Transcript (excerpt)

VR: Tell me, at that time, can you tell me a little bit about women’s organizations then?
EG: Okay, for a long time the women were involved largely in social organizations. In the early days, that’s before the 60’s, when all the organizations got banned, women’s organizations had become very strong. From, as you may know, the African National Congress was a all male organization, at the beginning. Women organized, and they fought for their rights and eventually got recognition and were able to become full members of the organization. In 1956 they proved their worth by organizing this huge march, you know, to the union buildings against the pass laws and their campaign was so big, and so well run, that eventually the men got fed up and stopped them. Had they not stopped them, the women would have continued, you know, they had organized themselves to carry on this campaign against the pass laws, but they were asked to put a halt to it, and that’s why they actually stopped the campaign for a while in the ‘50s, ’56, ‘57 period. Then in the 1960 period, they, all organisations, all political organizations were banned with the result that women’s organizations had to now, you know, also disappear. But, as you know, these organizations seldom disappear. They remain because people are there, people’s minds are there, you can’t kill their spirit. You can kill an organization; you can’t kill the people and their spirit. So the ANC was quite active, the women’s organizations were active but not seen, not overtly active. Lots of women then had to skip the country. They became, you know, leaders, they were recognized as leaders, they became ambassadors of the ANC out of the country, and took on positions and largely, I think, it’s the women, themselves, who fought for these positions and then some leaders like Oliver Tambo was a real champion of the women and he, you know, insisted that some of the women take on positions within the umKhonto, within the ANC, and so on. Within the country itself a lot of organizations changed, and became like, you know, changed, they ran crèches, and they ran burials societies, and stokvels and, you know and so there wasn’t real political organization until the 70’s when we had, you know, in 19.. I think it was what year, the 25th anniversary of the march, then some of the women got together, a large number were the Black Consciousness Group. There was Shameem Meer and others, who collected – they were mainly academics who collected photographs and things and had a display of the 1956 struggle of the women and so on – the 9th August was then observed as a day when they would have these exhibitions That raised the consciousness of a lot of women. Then, in the 60’s /70’s onwards, we had women coming into civic organizations, into education committees, and so on. The two sides of struggle were the civic area, and the education and there was a lot of organizations amongst students, that’s why in the ‘76 period, we saw the students coming out. At the university, the students organized the SASO you know, Tiro and these people started the struggle at Forte Hare University and so the students’ movement grew, and (from) within it came a lot of women, Nkosazana Zuma, for instance, was part of that, you know, and there were many other women who were part of the SASO group, the South African Students Organization. A lot of women in the civic organizations, defied, and you found that in the marches, in the defiance against the rent struggles and so on, and these were largely Coloured and Indian and African women, as well. Later, in the townships they opposed educational problems in the schools and so on, but the marches were led by women. They faced guns and they really were very brave.
VR: Now you were banned during this time, weren’t you?
EG: I was banned for 8 and a half years and during this time there was this increase in this civic organization. I had to work underground, not overtly.
VR: What kind of harassment did you suffer during those years?
EG: We often saw them watching our houses you know, people would come. There were lots of little things that we couldn’t do and that was harassment, but we just carried on, you know, where we felt that we just had to do what we could. We didn’t feel that, at that stage, that defying the banning orders would get us anywhere, so we needed to stay out of prison because we were more useful out of prison than in prison. And so, whatever we did, we took care. We broke the banning order many times, house arrest orders, banning orders, but we took care to cover our backs, you know, so that we wouldn’t be caught and fortunately we weren’t, so neither my ex-husband nor I were ever arrested for breaking the banning orders. There were times when we forgot to sign on a Saturday, we quietly went on a Monday and signed the book and nobody knew there was co-operation even from the police, we made friends and there were police who would give us the book to sign so there was a lot of people, at least a lot of sympathy, amongst the people you know, unlike in the white community. I think when white people got banned, they really found it very difficult to survive because they were totally isolated .
VR: So people rallied then.
EG: People rallied around us, yes, ya they would come, there were lots of people, you would remember, you were one of them. Okay, and so, we didn’t sort of feel, it was frustrating, but we didn’t feel that bad about it.
VR: When you look back on those days, would you say you were an activist?
EG: Absolutely, ya
VR: Yes, tell us about that.
EG: Well, I think activism is working at grassroots level. I think it also trains you in democracy, trains you to consult, to value opinions of the people, you know, not to have a judgement, not to make up your mind in a drawing room or something, to go out there in the community, experience what the community is experiencing and work with them and listen to what they are saying rather than, you know saying that they are having a bad time so we need to do something about it and you know go and sort of impose our views on the people. So I think activism, because activism is organizing at grassroots level, speaking to the community, interacting with them, organizing them, helping them, you know, to come together and to identify and to interpret the, you know, difficulties that they were experiencing.
VR: What was your goal as an activist?
EG: Well, the main goal was to bring an awareness amongst the people, as I said, people can get comfortable with apartheid and sad, sadly to say the very fact that a lot of Indian people voted for and Coloured people voted for the National Party, you know, indicates that many of the people became comfortable in their townships. Prior to the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s, there were no Indian townships, there were no Coloured townships. There were African townships, you had Kwa Mashu and you had Umlazi and so on, but Indians were staying all over, and lived with African communities in Cato Manor and Inanda and other places. A lot of the poor Indians lived in Magazine Barracks in Durban, lived in wood and iron, you know, huts all over Malagazi, Inanda. So they knew what it was to live as African people were - are living, even today. It was in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s that things changed, they felt we needed to co-opt these people and they started building houses, removed all the shack settlements, brought Indian people into the built up houses, built schools for them, gave them water, electricity which they never had in the shacks, and so on, and so people became comfortable with that, yet those schools would not compare with the white schools, Michael House and others, you know. Those schools had sports facilities; they had everything, you know, that a school should have. A lot of the Indian schools hardly had good playing grounds, you know, good sport facilities. They didn’t have all those things but they were comfortable with it because it was better than what they had and then they had a slightly higher status than the African community had, so today when things have changed they are unable to see, you know, what, and also the fact that they put them in this ghetto together, with restricting their movement into African areas, so many Indians have no idea how African people live. They don’t know and they don’t know what African people suffer. We had that experience because we worked in Inanda, I went to African homes, I sat with them, I even lived there in African, you know, wood and iron houses at times when, you know, we had to go, so we slept in those houses, and that is what activism means, that you know exactly what people are suffering and that is the reason why we fought against the tri-cameral system because it was dividing us, it wasn’t uniting the community and the result of that is the fact that the people voted for the National Party, that’s my, you know, what does one say, assessment of the situation, and the way people elect, ya. And it’s moving, slowly people are beginning to realize that this is not the right way.
VR: So at that stage, tell me, how did you banning orders affect you activism?
EG: Well I moved in, because I was a social worker, and I went in the child welfare car, so I was able to go many places which other people wouldn’t have been able to go to. As a social worker, I visited the rural areas of Inanda and so on. I worked there, I changed, you know, at that time social work was also segregated but at Verulam Child Welfare, where I was working and I had a lot of co-operation from the Child Welfare itself as well. I was able to reach out to the African community to work in Amoutana, in Amouti, I visited the places, I worked with the people there, and we reached out from the Child Welfare and did work there, you know, so we said that this is not an Indian child welfare. In those days, so we laid the foundation for transformation unlike other agencies, you know, so I think I had that, you know, experience. So the banning orders in themselves didn’t prevent me from going there. Fortunately, my banning was in the district of Inanda and Inanda had a large African population and a large Indian population, so I was able to work in those areas. When the Indian people were moved from Springfield flats to Phoenix, I was the first social worker in that area and I worked with all those people there.
VR: So inadvertently they did you a favour, didn’t they?
EG: No, they didn’t do me a favour (laughs), because if they hadn’t banned me I would have been able to go throughout the country which would have been better because then I would have been able to do more work.
VR: You made the transition from the overt work you were doing to underground work, and were you involved in the underground?
EG: Well, no I wasn’t involved directly in the underground, in the sense that I didn’t actually distribute anything, get anything or contact people outside or anything like that, but I worked closely with people who were in the underground so I would, you know, simple things like, there were a whole lot of people who had come into the country and looking for accommodation, just for the night. I put them up at home and then they went, you know, in those days we didn’t ask names or anything because it was safer not to know, but they came, they stayed, and then they went on their way. Little things like that, you know, we used to get a lot of leaflets from overseas, we used to get the Sechaba and documents and so on, we read them, we passed them on and those kinds of things.
VR: How did all this impact on your family life and the children?
EG: Earlier you asked me if they did us a favour by banning us, the one thing that did happen, is that you know a lot of people spend a lot of time socializing, we had no social life whatsoever, so we spent all our time in politics or in organising in activism and so my children grew in that, they participated, for them there was no social life besides the life that we had in the political activism. We used to run camps, as you may remember yourself, you were one of those who came to our work camps at Phoenix, where we sat and we discussed various issues, Black Consciousness, amongst other things, the Freedom Charter and our education system and many other very important topics, we had discussions on those, but at the same time we also worked. There was a flood, I am not sure whether you were there at that time, in the neighbouring community and we helped people rebuild their houses and that gave us an opportunity of, you know, interacting with the neighboring communities in Phoenix and my children were a part of it all. They also associated with the students, played with them, everyone came in, they had meals together and so on. So the children became politicized, became activists, themselves. My daughter, when the schools went out, my daughter was in primary school; and it was the only primary school that also went out with all the high schools in the area. She went around from class to class and told the children why it was important for them to come out of the classrooms, so at an early age she had already learnt about, you know, what was happening in the country, what actions were being taken, why they were being taken. But during the time when we were banned, what we missed out on were the activist forums, we had a lot of activist forums where people came and had discussions, they would go out, they would visit communities, they would do a little survey on how people felt about the move from Springfield Flats to Phoenix, for instance, or if there was a rent hike or something, how did they feel about it, they would do a survey of that and then they would all meet together and analyse and discuss, what do you think, you know, how do you think we could take this forward, what action would you feel would be justified, would be supported by the people and would get, you know, the reaction from the authorities and so on and what gains would we make on a political level? So these were discussions that were held after the surveys were taken and they were very important discussions because you then begin to analyse, actually learn politics in that way, how to apply political principles to these real issues you know of the people, and that we missed out on, because we couldn’t attend many of those activist forums, but people came and reported back to us you know and that was a really good thing because we really valued the fact that people came and the fact that people discussed the issues with us, they didn’t leave us out of things. We didn’t, we never felt isolated because of that.
VR: At that time, and after that, who were your role models in terms of the struggle against apartheid?
EG: In the early days Chief Luthuli was a very strong role model for me; he was, and of course, my grandfather Gandhi was a strong role model as well. Also, you know Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, were strong role models. My father himself was a model for me, a role model. Monty Naicker, Yusaf Dadoo.
VR: What was the atmosphere like then? Was there a sense of hope? How did you feel at that time, in those very dark years?
EG: The really dark years when we felt complete disillusionment were the 60’s, soon after the bannings, you know. The bannings took place in 63, the arrests took place within 3 years, they had, you know, uncovered this, and there was a deep sort of gloom and unhappiness. There was a lot of fear in the community, people, people you know sort of began to be afraid of people like for instance Ismail Meer, or you know Dr Randeree and other people, MD Naidoo because they felt that you know there was this whole scare for communism and it was a very orchestrated thing from the government , so you found this you know fear in the community that, you know, we will be implicated, we won’t be allowed to continue to study, we wouldn’t, as other people were for banning orders because, you see, why people were so afraid was because they never gave reasons. They could detain you without any reason, they could ban you without any reason, so people were afraid, they didn’t know what was legal and what was illegal but that fear of being banned or being arrested was there because of the uncertainty and so there was a lot of gloom in those days, until I think the student movement started you know and I remember that there were meetings at…
VR: This was when, Ela?
EG: This was in the ‘60’s, late sixties, ‘68, ‘69, period ’70, when the students decided, there was this breakaway between NUSAS and the South African Students Organisation. The NUSAS students were active in their own way. The South African Students Organisation was active in its own way, and those were the meetings that were active you know, that brought some spirit into the people, that there was something going on. In the community you didn’t see that, you know there was fear in the community, there was apathy in the community, our old leaders were all listed or house arrested or in detention, so they didn’t come out and we were like a community without leaders, until you know the revival of NIC, the revival of the Black Consciousness Movement, BC, BPC, I think it was and that brought people back into the organisation, the release Mandela committees, but even then, you know, the action wasn’t and then the trade union work, you know, that people were doing. There were little bits of things, pockets of work carrying on all over the show, but nothing co-ordinated until the UDF, you know. The UDF brought all these bodies together, and that was really a show of what we really were you know, because we had our organisations all over and they were able to come together so quickly, within the UDF. If we didn’t have those little organisations we wouldn’t have been able to mobilize the UDF.