Phoenix Settlement extracts the best from diversity

Phoenix Settlement was based on a system of ideas, which are encapsulated in our constitution, in the bill of rights and our freedom charter

Mahatma Gandhi, dressed in Indian attire, at a mass meeting in Verulam. Pictures: Supplied

Published Feb 9, 2024


It would be appropriate in this 120th year of the Phoenix Settlement for all South Africans to reflect on the history of Phoenix Settlement and the ideals on which it was based. It was a group of African American academics who visited Phoenix and took upon themselves the task of having this site declared a Unesco world heritage site.

The struggle to attain this continues.

Significantly for South Africa, Phoenix Settlement was based on a system of ideas which are encapsulated in our constitution, in the bill of rights and our freedom charter.

The ideal of selfless service is seen in the fact that Gandhiji gave up his luxurious home in the urban area to live on a farm close to the poorest of poor. It was here that he began his powerful experiments with the basic elements of a non-violent way of life, the essence of which were a life change from affluence to simplicity, from over consumption to conservation, from individualism to communalism, and from status consciousness to respect and dignity for all.

His belief that the individual’s life is linked to the universe and so unlimited wants, individual freedoms or rights are a problem, was put into practice at the Phoenix Settlement. Phoenix represented a belief in the equality of all labour and particularly a belief in the value of manual labour and a rural lifestyle. It represented learning about each other’s culture and religions, and respecting them.

The message at Phoenix was not to just tolerate one another but to extract the best one can from our diversity.

Significantly this year marks the 130th anniversary of the Natal Indian Congress which was formed in 1894 to oppose the unjust discrimination against people on the basis of their race. The history of Phoenix Settlement and the NIC is closely linked as the method of struggle developed by Gandhiji was an active non-violent mass based struggle against injustice. Phoenix Settlement became a training ground from the early days when satyagrahis broke the law against trading on the streets of Durban, and later the border control targeted at the Indian population, in particular in 1913.

Gandhiji’s sons Harilal and Manilal went to prison on numerous occasions as teenagers for defying these unjust laws. Manilal returned to South Africa in 1918 and lived here for the rest of his life with his wife and three children. He was regarded as one of the first scholars that Phoenix had produced.

He joined his father at the age of 17 in the Satyagraha of 1910. Gandhiji wrote to his teenage son `Our mission is to elevate Phoenix; for through it we can find our soul and serve our country’.

Gandhiji believed that education was about training oneself spiritually and morally, so that one could be empowered to take on the needs of society and work to improve it. The school curriculum at Phoenix represented a rejection of colonial education.

The young students at Phoenix were taught to have pride in their heritage and culture, and history. Character building was the most important part of education. Children were taught skills both in handwork as well as in learning. Their training was not to fulfil a goal of individual enrichment but to be educated to serve others and to become self-sufficient.

Later in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, many leaders of the struggle learned to commit themselves to the struggle selflessly. While learning from people like Rick Turner, Steve Biko, Jerry Hoosen Coovadia, Pravin Gordhan and many others about critical thinking and political analysis, they also learned the principles of mass based struggle.

But from the early days life at Phoenix was not all politics and hard work. Fun walks, picnics, games, music, poetry, writing and reading formed part of the lively ashram life.

In addition alternate methods of healthcare such as the use of mud packs and hydrotherapy, and well-regulated and balanced diets with fresh fruit and vegetables grown on the farm was practised here. Everyone was taught good sanitary habits for better health.

Phoenix represented an important space where women could break out from the chains of tradition.

As Gandhiji said, it allowed the women “to come out so boldly”. In 1913 Kasturba (his wife) led a group of 16 Phoenix settlers to defy the laws and cross the border between Natal and Transvaal at Volksrust, and courted imprisonment. Phoenix represented a symbol of resistance against injustice.

In 1904, he bought a 100 acre piece of land and started a settlement along these ideals with about sixty individuals, including his own family. In 1915, when Gandhiji had returned to India he reflected: “There is no institution today in the world to excel Phoenix in its ideals or way of life.”

The press was closed in 1962.

Sadly, while it was not affected at all by the 1949 unrest, in 1985, Phoenix was totally vandalised and occupied. In 2000, after government intervention, some of the buildings were reconstructed and a small area fenced off to protect the heritage buildings. This section was declared a national monument in 2020. The Trust owns five buildings within the fence and two outside the fence.

The press building serves as an education and training centre. It (Trust) gave over the rest of the property to the city council. The museum has several important exhibitions, and a section of it serves as a hall where the Trust has many functions.

The original Gandhi home known as Sarvodaya has a display on the changes that occurred in Gandhiji’s life. The Manilal Gandhi home named Kastur Bhuvan, houses a reference library. The two buildings outside the fence are a clinic and a creche. Both services are provided by community groups.

Attempts are being made to restore the buildings and to enable the Trust to provide services to the community while promoting the important message of the Phoenix Settlement to the local, national and international community.

Ela Gandhi is the Chairperson of the Gandhi Development and Phoenix Settlement Trusts.