Mewa Ramgobin – Memories from Inanda, Durban


1 Introduction
2 Manilal and Sushila Gandhi
3 Honouring Gandhi
4 Remembering  Luthuli
5 Remembering Buthelezi
6 Political Life
7 Sources

Mewa Ramgobin, born on 10 November 1932 in Inanda, Natal, is the grandson of one of the indentured labourers brought from India in the mid-nineteenth century to work on the sugar plantations of Natal. Descendants born of this past regarded their ordeal as part of the same exploitation and injustice as the indigenous, black people of South Africa were experiencing.  Ramgobin has dedicated much of his life, under the profound influence of the presence of Gandhi, to the freedom struggle.  For more than fifty years he played a key role as a South African Indian in the struggle politics.

Mewa Ramgobin From Ramgobin’s rich life experiences comes a wealth of precious anecdotal memories:

Manilal and Sushila Gandhi
Ramgobin treasures fond memories of Manilal and Sushila Gandhi, father and mother-in-law to him through his marriage to Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of the Mahatma Gandhi. He lived in their home from 1961 to 1976 and from 1976 until her death in 1988 Sushila lived with him and his family at their family home in Verulam. In his latest book ‘Prisms of Light: “within my memory”‘ he remembers Manilal’s anecdotes about prison life, from his experiences in the Pretoria Gaol where he spent time during the Defiance Campaign in 1952 after being sentenced on account of walking into a Germiston Township without a permit.

His close relationship with Sushila allowed him in 1960, when the State of Emergency was declared, to encourage her to join Albertina Luthuli in a five day protest fast.  She obliged and despite unhappiness her decision caused in NIC circles, the two ladies fasted in Sarvodaya where they slept together on the floor. He remembers her inner strength when the printing of the  Indian Opinion newspaper ceased in 1961.  She promptly renovated a room in the press building to start the Mahatma Gandhi Clinic, which was then officially inaugurated by Mrs Lavinia Scott, principal of the Inanda Seminary.

Honouring Gandhi
During Ramgobin’s life he has done much to honour Gandhi, including establishing a Gandhi Museum and library, organising the Annual Gandhi Lecture and educating people from different race groups on Gandhian thought. He also played an important role in mentoring leaders of the struggle for South Africa’s freedom.  In 1962 he was appointed thes of the Mahatma Gandhi Centenary Committee, who took control of both the centenary celebrations, marking the 100th birthday anniversary of Gandhi and of Phoenix Settlement.  The new Centenary Buildings, comprising the Museum, the Library and the Clinic were completed under his management and officially opened in June 1970 by Mr Harry Oppenheimer  Some six thousand people, among them Chief Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelithini attended  Of Mr Oppenheimer he remembers that, arriving in a Mercedes driven by his wife, he got out and moved two of the big white washed stones barricading the home area to prevent congestion so that his wife could drive through and park inside.

Remembering  Luthuli
Ramgobin first met Chief Albert Luthuli as a young 19-year old student at a mass meeting on ‘Red Square’ in Durban, (today’s Nicol Square Parkade) in 1952 during the Defiance Campaign. Of that encounter he recalls in his book ‘Prisms of Light’ “I will never forget the roar of the crowd when singing; especially when they were led by the thunderous voice of Chief Albert Luthuli. … I was …inspired by the grandeur of the Chief. It was his power through dignity…that was …mesmerising.(p.33)” Ironically, whilst on this occasion Luthuli was addressing the crowd from the flatbed back of a lorry, Ramgobin’s next encounter with the great man would be inside a lorry.

In the mid-fifties, working as a counter-hand at the family trading store on the Old Inanda Road, he looked up from his work to recognise to his great astonishment the man himself among the few passengers alighting from a bus across the road. Luthuli was going to walk to Phoenix Settlement to meet with Manilal Gandhi. Aghast, Mewa offered him a lift, but then realised he only had his father’s old rickety D40 International lorry available. Luthuli didn’t mind at all and they had a relaxed father –to-son like conversation while bumping along the two kilometres of winding dirt road through the sugar cane fields to Phoenix Settlement. Years later when the old lorry was to be scrapped for spares he protested strongly: “No, please don’t. I gave Luthuli a lift in this lorry!”

Remembering Buthelezi
Ramgobin met Chief Gatsha Buthelezi in his student days, when both were involved in liberation politics, he loyally supportive of the Indian cause and calling Ramgobin publicly one of the ‘homeboys’. He chuckles about an ironic incident happening on occasion of a social visit of the Buthelezi family to the Ramgobin family at Phoenix in the late 1960’s. The children were playing together in the garden and were called in for tea. The Chief ordered his kids to sit on the floor and Ramgobin protested: “Come on, Gatsha, this is my home”, upon which Buthelezi retorted “these are my children”. In this tussle between modernity versus custom, decorum demanded that Ramgobin as the host should lose the contest (Prisms of Light, p.136)!

Political Life
Ramgobin started becoming aware of the political situation in South Africa when he was a teenager and he saw the difference in how he was treated compared to the Pondo children. This idea was strengthened when he finished Primary School, but could not get a space in the only Indian school in Natal, Sastri College. The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) stepped in and started a new school. It was at this point that Ramgobin became aware that there was an Indian Congress and that as an Indian he could not do as he liked. When he was seventeen, an Indian bus driver of one of his father’s buses was killed by a group of blacks. This incident sparked the awareness that in his own way he was discriminating against other race groups and he realised he could not complain about discrimination towards Indians if he discriminated towards blacks himself. s
During his student years at the University of Natal he became more politically involved. He was active in NUSAS and headed the non-European SRC. In 1965 he received his first banning order, but this did not affect his political involvement. In 1970 his banning order expired and he founded the South African Committee for the release of Political Prisoners. Ramgobin began to work towards a revival in the Natal Indian Congress, an organisation orginally founded by Gandhi in 1894; by the end of the year he was elected President of the organisation.

In September 1971 Ramgobin was banned again after he organised a petition for clemency to political prisoners. He remained under house arrest until February 1973, when the government restricted him further, meaning he could no longer work in Durban, so he moved his office to Verulam. In 1975 he was banned for another five years, but was unbanned in 1983.

In 1983 he became the treasurer of the United Democratic Front (UDF). He was arrested in 1984 but released after 19 days. After his release he went into hiding and sought refuge in the British consulate, but was arrested again on 6 October and accused of high treason after the 1984 people’s riots. He was acquitted in December of 1985 and continued his work with the UDF. Mewa Ramgobin is presently a Member of Parliament for the ANC and Chairperson of the Phoenix Settlement Trust.

On February 27, 2000 the newly rebuilt Phoenix Settlement was re-inaugurated by Thabo Mbeki, then President of South Africa.  Of Mbeki Ramgobin remembers his humbleness in anecdotes of occasions where he was very happy to share a bedroom in Mewa’s modest two-bedroomed apartment in Verulam and did not mind drinking Coca-cola from a polystyrene cup and eat  goodies from a paper plate on the formal occasion of the re-inauguration of Phoenix Settlement.  They all stood, says Mewa,  watching him in awe and admiration, a lesson indeed.

He has written the following books:
1986: Waiting to live.
1990: The People shall Govern: an overview of the Freedom Charter
2009: Prisms of light: “within my memory”

Ramgobin, Mewa. 2009. Prisms of Light: “within my memory”. East London: Iqula Publishing.

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