Gandhi's Phoenix Ashram


[The Phoenix Settlement, established by Gandhiji near Durban in 1904, was formally reopened on February 27, 2000, at a ceremony attended by the President of South Africa, the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and many other leaders.

The settlement - the first Ashram of Gandhiji - had been damaged in 1985 riots when some African squatters occupied much of the settlement, and named it Bambayi. Though the Indian community was deeply distressed, it refrained from seeking the forcible eviction of the squatters. The Phoenix Settlement Trust, with financial assistance from the Government of India, recently restored Gandhiji's house and established a clinic, an HIV/Aids Centre and other facilities to serve all the people in the area, African and Indian.

At the reopening ceremony, the Bambayi community leader, Victor Gambushe made an apology. He said: "I apologise for what we did and for taking over land that did not belong to us. I hope the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi will now rest in peace."

King Zwelithini expressed the hope that the settlement "will become a beacon of reconciliation and peace."]

I am greatly honoured to be here today as we celebrate the opening of the Phoenix settlement and the restoration of Mahatma Gandhi's house to its former glory.Six years after our country has emerged from the destruction of apartheid, thanks to the sterling work of the Phoenix Settlement Trust, Phoenix too has finally re-emerged from ashes and destruction to become a place of peace and harmony, a place where freedom can be found.

The great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in his poem "Gitanjali" written in 1912, presents us with a new vision for India and the world. He describes an ideal place:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action - Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. We hope that Phoenix which has seen much violence in its turbulent history becomes such a place "Where the mind is without fear" and "Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls" and where the people of Phoenix through their "tireless striving" stretch their arms "towards perfection."

I believe that in the early history of this place, when Mahatma Gandhi lived here, when political discussions were held every day on truth and justice and a rich interaction and exchange of ideas between Indians and Africans on resistance towards colonialism occurred, that indeed Phoenix was a such a place where "knowledge is free", "where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action."

It is this wealth of knowledge that must guide the new Phoenix, for it is here where the sharing of ideas about the road ahead for all of us must be shaped, where discussion groups must be revitalised and where insights must be found.

The strategy of satyagraha, of non-violent non-co-operation, was conceived here by Gandhi as a weapon of struggle on this soil in a humble wood and iron structure. Yet it is this weapon that led to the defeat of British colonialism in India and also greatly influenced our own liberation movement in South Africa, especially in the 1940s and the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s through widescale resistance to the Pass Laws and the Group Areas Act.

The success of our struggle against apartheid could not have been possible without the contributions of great leaders who were the products of the struggle in this area. I am thinking of dedicated comrades such as A.S. Chetty, Msizi Dube, Ela Gandhi, Curnick Ndlovu, Mewa Ramgobin, Billy Nair and many others.For our present fight against poverty, against homelessness, our struggle for the sustainable development of all our people, in our efforts to overcome the inequalities of apartheid and colonialism, in all our battles, the legacy of Gandhi lives on and has become rooted in the heartbeats of our people.

This great man - who was shocked to see the plight of South Africans on his arrival here and who has written extensively of the cruelties inflicted on Africans during the Bambata Rebellion - was the same man, who preached for an end to poverty, who actively rejected discrimination based on caste, religion or colour, who believed in political freedom and fought for economic independence. Today we must continue along this road that has led us today to Phoenix and takes us tomorrow to all corners of our land. Today in Phoenix we re-commit ourselves to values of sharing, tolerance and understanding, and we rededicate ourselves to the fight against racism and for a better life for all.

Here in Phoenix we are faced with the challenge of demonstrating to the rest of our country that it is possible for people who come from diverse culture backgrounds to live together in harmony, to learn from one another's cultures, and, in so doing, through this rich fusion of traditions and ideas, through a process of cultural interactions to build a new country of peace and economic prosperity.

We must ensure that communities grow together, that at our schools our children learn together and that our programmes prepare our teachers for diversity management and the construction of a non-racial society. Nation-building is the basis on which we shall make progress as a strong, committed people. All of us, every South African, whether we live here in Bambayi or Inanda, Phoenix Township of Kwa Mashu, Chatsworth or Durban North, must work together towards common vision and shared goals.

I have been told that the Phoenix development includes a clinic, an HIV/AIDS centre and a youth centre, a crèche, and a reconstructed Press Building designed for income-generating programmes and skills transfer. I have been told that the Museum and Library Building are near completion and that arts and culture programmes are planned. This development has already created scores of jobs for the people of this area and will create more in the future.

In this way the Phoenix settlement becomes a shining example for us all, a model of commitment, courage and action, without which there can be no transformation and development.

Phoenix, this integral part of our history and our present, is yours to preserve. Cherish it and thrive on this land - it is yours, it is mine, it belongs to all our children and grandchildren and those who have yet to enter our world.

It is here where "words" will "come out from the depth of truth", "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high" that the unfolding of our freedom must begin.

For those who were indentured are free at last. Those who were enslaved are free at last. Those who were banished or imprisoned or forcibly removed are free at last. Into the glorious light of this freedom, without fear, through thought and action, let Phoenix finally awake.