A Place of New Beginnings1st Jan 2019
Sometimes we travel to relax, to eat, to see great art, beautiful scenery, or amazing animals. Sometimes to hear great music – whether it’s a rock concert in a football stadium, or an opera at La Scala. But sometimes – sometimes – we travel to look at things afresh, to get a totally new perspective on life.
Inanda is about 20 kilometres north of Durban CBD, but it’s worlds away from the high-rise hotels and the beachfront – and it was even further away more than a hundred years ago.
In the early 20th century, even though grand apartheid had not been dreamt of, the British colony of Natal was pretty darn segregated, and the closest to Durban that people who were ‘not white’ could own land was in Inanda. It was wild country – undeveloped and untrammelled – and that’s where, in 1903, Mohandas K Gandhi bought a derelict farm portentously called Phoenix, and built an Ashram
The Phoenix settlement ultimately consisted of a school, a farm, and a printing press from which issued the Indian Opinion – the newspaper that was, largely, the voice of the Natal Indian Congress, the political movement started by Gandhi.
A few minutes’ leisurely stroll away was where missionary-cumeducator-cum-activist John Dube established the Natal Native Congress, and published South Africa’s first indigenous-language newspaper, Ilanga Lase Natal. Dube had also started a school that focused on practical education and ethical religious beliefs. Established in 1900 as the boys-only Zulu Christian Industrial School, it grew to become the co-education Ohlange High School after a girls’ dormitory was built in 1917. This, the first educational establishment founded by a black South African, complemented the older mission-founded Inanda Seminary for Girls, which is still going strong, and is the alma mater of some of South Africa’s most prominent women.
So – to summarise – both Dube and Gandhi started self-sufficient communities with schools, industries and a newspaper, and founded political movements. It doesn’t take much to figure out that these two exceptional men must have spent many hours chatting, comparing ideas, and sharing dreams of equitable societies.
While both Gandhi and Dube were devout believers in, respectively, Hinduism and Christianity, they were just men – albeit exceptional ones. But their neighbour, Isaiah Shembe, was a prophet, who – evidently – had direct communication with God.
After wandering a metaphysical desert for a few years, Shembe bought land at Inanda and founded yet another community – the holy ‘city’ of eKuphakameni. It sounds quite pie-in-the-sky, but Shembe, while definitely a mystic, was a practical mystic. The church – initially – lived as a sustainable community, growing their own food, subsidised by members who had jobs in town. Shembe discouraged women members from going into domestic service, suggesting rather that they make and sell crafts on the Durban beachfront – a market community that has become an integral part of the tourism scene, and has grown to include many non-Nazarites. Another notable thing Shembe did was to instruct his followers: ‘If you are standing at the bus stop, and someone eats an apple and throws away the core – pick it up, bring it back here, and plant it.’ The Shembe church – or, more correctly, the Church of Nazareth – is still going strong with about four million members.
While Dube and Shembe had some theological differences, they are known to have communicated, and it’s almost certain that Gandhi joined in some of their conversations.
There’s nothing passive about resistance
It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed the concept and practice of satyagraha, which can – very loosely – be translated as passive resistance, and which was put to effective use by independence movements both in India and here in South Africa. The power of satyagraha, Gandhi maintained, is that it marshals the innermost resources of disenfranchised people, thereby giving them the dignity their legal disabilities sought to deny them.
‘Satyagraha,’ he said, ‘is soul force pure and simple. […] It is not a weapon of the weak.’
In 1894, Gandhi and others started the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). Six years later, no doubt partly influenced by his neighbour, John Dube was the moving force in the founding of the Natal Native Congress (NNC). In 1908 and 1909 Dube and the NNC petitioned strongly against the Act of Union, travelling to London to state their case, and then playing a leading role in the South African Native Convention, which tried to obtain equal citizenship rights for all races in South Africa. They were unsuccessful, but three years later, in January 1912, many of the delegates, including Dube, met in Bloemfontein to form the South African Native National Congress, which was renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.
In 1919, the NIC morphed into the South African Indian Congress, which – as apartheid started taking shape – worked closely with the ANC and other liberation organisations to combat the growing inequality in South Africa. Famously, Gandhi did not stay in South Africa. He returned to India in 1915, where he continued to refine the concept of satyagraha, and played a huge role in the independence movement that, in 1947, freed the subcontinent from British rule.
On 27 April 1994, when South Africans joyously went to the polls as one nation, Nelson Mandela chose to cast his vote at Ohlange School – in recognition of the role that Dube (and his neighbours) had played in getting us to that point.
What’s in a name?
In 1985, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, Gandhi’s house was burned to the ground, and many other buildings in the settlement were damaged. But (what do you expect when you burn a place called Phoenix?) they were rebuilt from the ashes after the 1994 elections, and today stand as a symbol of the birth pains of our democracy.
A place of pilgrimage and contemplation
I had visited Inanda on a guided tour soon after the reconstruction of Phoenix, and I was keen to return, so I set off with a friend, who is a Durban local. Despite my friend’s local knowledge and the GPS on my phone, we struggled to find our first stop at Phoenix, but it was worth the ever-decreasing circles we drove in. In contrast to our usual nineteen-to-the-dozen chattering, we both fell silent when we entered Gandhi’s house, which has been turned into a low-key but evocative museum. We drifted apart – each of us connecting with the spirit of the place in our own way.
And then ‘the lady who lives in my phone’ sent us round and round the village, circling the high school like a dog at a bone, until we gave up trying to find the entrance to the museum at Ohlange, and headed back to Durban to do the full-on tourism thing by cycling along the beachfront.
A guided tour is definitely the more practical way to explore Inanda, but, we agreed, despite having lost our (physical, geographic) way in GPS-led spirals, we had found something – something intangible but very real. And that, after all, is what pilgrimage is about.