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Interview with Ela Gandhi

The Gandhian View on Sustainable Development

Johannesburg, South Africa
Ela Gandhi is a member of the South African parliament. She represents Phoenix, a large township of 300,000 near Durban. As a peace and gender activist she was banned and put under house arrest between 1975-1983. She is the granddaughter of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on August 26, 2002 at the People’s Earth Summit, a parallel event to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.


In Motion Magazine: Please describe some of the work you do.

Ela Gandhi: I’m Ela Gandhi and I am a member of parliament for the ANC (African National Congress) in South Africa, but I also run two NGOs. One is Satyagrapha which brings out an alternate newspaper once a month in which we try to get news on alternate issues and alternate viewpoints from the mainline newspapers. The other is a domestic violence helpline, which looks at empowerment of women, assisting them with their problems. It’s a 24-hour telephone service but at the same time we have courses and training for women and work opportunities for women to become self-sufficient. We believe that self-sufficiency is very important if the women are going to report about abusive relationships.

In Motion Magazine: Why did you feel it was important to attend this meeting today?

Ela Gandhi: In Satyagrapha, that’s the newspaper that I run, we try to promote Gandhian views. If you look at Gandhian views on sustainable development I think that they are far more relevant today than they ever were in the world. And so my purposes in attending this conference are to promote Gandhian views on sustainable development, on non-violence, on the rural lifestyle, the agrarian lifestyle, and to affirm that Gandhiji's transformation from an ordinary middle-class professional person into an agrarian simple-living person occurred here in South Africa. I think it’s time that we publicize this and make this known to the world.

Identification with the poor

In Motion Magazine: Could you talk about that transformation and how it impacted his view on sustainable development?

In the Alexandra township.
In the Alexandra township near Johannesburg. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ela Gandhi: You can see the transformation in his attire. When he came to South Africa he was very particular about his suit and tie, designer clothing and all of this. When he left South Africa, he was in a hand-made shirt, a loose shirt which was made at home and loose pants. From that he changed into the loincloth in India. That attire is the outward image of something that went on inside his mind, his life. He began to realize that you identify with the majority of the people who are poor. This was very important for him. He therefore found a place where he could set up a communal farm at Phoenix settlement ) that was very close to the sugar workers, the indentured workers who were working in the Mount Edgecombe sugar estate.

So, firstly, identification with the poor, taking up issues of the poor, beginning to realize that consumerism and people who try to enrich themselves are not a good thing. He said, and I would like to quote him, “There’s enough in the world to meet the needs of everyone but there’s not enough to meet the greed of everyone.” That was his message at that time. He realized that and that’s why he began to change.

Build up a local economy

The other very important feature of sustainable development which he propagated was the whole question of local economy. To build up a local economy where everybody in the area would be self-sufficient. They would be employed. They could sustain themselves and their families with dignity and working.

His view was that at the local level this was possible. If every little village became self-sufficient then you would have an ideal set of life. Therefore he did not advocate macro economic policy. He said we must work from the bottom up. All villages have to become self-sufficient. If they have their own power then they can bargain with the cities and the rest of them. It must work from the bottom upwards and not the top down.

In Motion Magazine: Is that economically and politically?

Ela Gandhi: Both ways, yes. He advocated that the highest power must be in the panchaya, five people in a village who would be the government of that village. Those five people must work with the community.

In Motion Magazine: Would they be elected?

Ela Gandhi: Yes, they would be elected. It’s the system that is working in some places in India at the moment. Not working very well all around. But people need to really learn about the system before they can apply it. It’s just like democracy. If people know what the power of their vote is and how they can exercise that power through unity, through communal organization, then democracy would work even better than it is at the moment.

In Motion Magazine: That’s how Gandhian principles would inform how to run democracy?

Ela Gandhi: I think so, yes. I think participatory democracy is what he would have wanted. And a socialist kind of system that he advocated where people would have access to a job, access to all the basic requirements.

The South African Parliament

ANC election posters in Johannesburg.
ANC election posters in Johannesburg.
Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: Are any of the issues being discussed here today being dealt with by the South African parliament?

Ela Gandhi: Some of the issues are. Some of the issues, sadly, are not at this stage. Even though the South African Parliament does say that they are trying to deal with the issues of poverty and so on, what we see on the ground is that poverty has increased. The gap has increased between the poor and the rich. And we need to really address that issue. We need to find a solution for it and although there are poverty eradication programs, they are not at this stage working very well in the country. We hope that in the future they will work.

One must also realize that we come from a highly divided society. It’s only seven years since we’ve had change of government in South Africa. But also there hasn’t been sufficient empowerment of the community, education, understanding of the issues and so on. And how to deal with issues.

So, yes, we are making mistakes. Yes, we haven’t been able to achieve a lot of things. But I think once the community begins to realize this and also realize it’s own position …. We come from a background, the ANC comes from a background of the Freedom Charter. The main principle of the Freedom Charter is that the people shall govern. If we truly believe the people shall govern then we must empower the people to take that power to be able to tell the government what they want and how they want it.

Genetic engineering -- a different type of colonialization

In Motion Magazine: What’s the position of the ANC on genetic engineering?

Ela Gandhi: The position in the ANC hasn’t been discussed but in the department itself there is a strong lobby that comes from the universities, comes from the research department that genetic engineering, that GMOs are not rejected completely. This is what they say -- not what I say.

There will be a conference of the ANC. The government’s decision was articulated to me because I asked them about it. And their position is that they have a body in place which looks at all genetically engineered products. They don’t just accept everything. They look at the viability. How much of it is that. So there is a committee that looks at that and then once the committee is satisfied we accept it. The position is that we don’t reject it completely outright.

Since they have written to me, I have found and I have learned a lot at this conference. I’m not a scientist. I haven’t done agriculture, so I cannot pretend to know everything, but at this conference from the literature that I have received I’ve seen the harm the GMOs can do to biodiversity, the harm that it can do to self-sufficiency, because we will be forever dependent on somebody to give us seeds. It’s a different type of colonialization because you can’t make your own seeds any more. If you can’t make your own seed you are dependent on them. They can set any price and you can’t do anything about it in the end. That would be a total disaster for the world if that is what happens.

We have seen it for instance in the bead industry. You know beadwork is an indigenous kind of art in this country but the monopoly for beads is in a Czech family. This family produces all the beads all over the world.

In Motion Magazine: Really?

Ela Gandhi: Yes, they do. I made the research because I’ve been working with the community.

In Motion Magazine: All the beads?

Ela Gandhi: Everything comes from a family in the Czech Republic who makes the beads. They have the recipe. They won’t give it to anybody else and, yes they have control over that. But we are trying now in South Africa to produce our own beads. Maybe they are not going to be like the Czech beads but we are trying to produce our own. We thought that we can’t be forever dependent on somebody. They control the prices and once you have monopoly you do whatever you want.

The same thing can happen with seeds. And certainly I am going to take this matter up as strongly as I can within the organization and further in the department as well.


Billboard in Soweto.
Billboard in Soweto.
Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: Some of your work relates to HIV/AIDS. Could you talk about that?

Ela Gandhi: HIV is becoming a huge problem in South Africa. In my constituency, as well, we’ve seen quite a lot of HIV. I think it’s very important for us to deal with this problem as urgently and as strongly as possible.

From my research, what I’ve found is that good diet, exercise, good healthy living habits are very important to actually live with HIV. What we are saying is that people should know that once they have HIV it isn’t a death certificate because you can live a long life even with HIV. Besides the preventive mechanism, people should go for checkups and if they find that they are HIV positive that’s not the end of the world. They should have a treatment program given to them and part of the treatment program is good eating habits, good exercise, fresh air, and a stress-free life. With that, lots of people have been able to live quite a long life and the condition hasn’t deteriorated into AIDS.

I think that that is very important for people to know so that instead of trying to keep the secret that you have HIV people would be willing to go and have themselves tested, go on the treatment program and live a good life. This is the message that we want to give to people.

In Motion Magazine: Do you know what the approximate percentage of the population is that’s effected?

Ela Gandhi: In Kwa-Zulu Natal it’s been said that it’s almost 25%. It could be more. Because those figures are old figures. It’s really bad and if you go to the graveyards you see these funerals coming on the weekends almost all day. You see that people are dying.

In Motion Magazine: (South African President) Mr. Mbeki’s position on that was controversial for a while?

Ela Gandhi: Yes, it is controversial. But he has now said in parliament that he accepts that government policy is based on the fact that HIV does cause AIDS. So he is officially not denying that HIV does cause AIDS. I think that the important thing for me in particular in the work that I’m doing is that you have to differentiate between HIV and AIDS because the virus getting into your body is the stage when you need to detect it. And I look at for instance TB, cancer, and illnesses like that. TB was terminal at one time. Cancer can be terminal. But if you discover that you have cancer in the early stages you can do something about it. Similarly with HIV, if you discover it at the early stages you can do something about it.

This is what we want to say to the people. Don’t lose hope. Make sure that you look after your health. Grow food in your own garden. If you have a little place you can grow your carrots and your spinach, there’s no excuse for not eating a healthy diet. That’s what you need.

At our own peril

In Motion Magazine: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Ela Gandhi: Just a message to the world that if we ignore Gandhi we ignore him at our own peril and that was said by Martin Luther King. I’d just like to repeat it. We ignore Gandhi at our own peril.

Published in In Motion Magazine, December 3, 2002
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.