Inside Africa

Mahatma Gandhi's descendants thrive in South Africa

Colin Hancock and Pete Kowalczyk, for CNNUpdated 26th September 2015
Durban, South Africa (CNN) — Looking out across Durban port, the Indian Ocean stretches thousands of miles east, connecting two countries whose stories are deeply entwined. Home to the largest Indian population outside of India, Durban is a bastion of Asian culture from across the sea.
The palm tree clad port at Durban has welcomed Indian traders, businessmen and their families since the 1860s. Longtime home to one Mahatma Gandhi, the city has played its part as a launchpad for the young Indian lawyer's political activism and minority representation.
Today, the place is a testament to multiculturalism, and a symbol of how the cultures of South Africa and India are indelibly linked.

A journey across the seas

Over 150 years ago, scores of Indian people made their way across the ocean arriving into Durban in search of work in the city's sugar cane industry. Still today descendants like local photographer Ranjith Kally have a strong connection to their families' stories.
"My grandfather came from India for better prospects" says Ranjith. "When my family were brought here, they were told there's gold all over the city streets and there's a good life. Then they were made to go and work in the sugar fields. That's how they came here."
Explore the past and present of the Indian South Africans, a community that has become a major part of Durban's cultural landscape.
Today, over a million Indian people live in Durban province. Communities integrate into the social and economic fabric of the region through trading business and clothing markets to religious festivals and architecture.
"They make the city in many ways," says Ashwin Desai, professor at the University of Johannesburg. "You look at it in terms of its architecture, the Grey Street mosque, the old churches and the temples. Just the religious parts of that and what they give to this corner of Africa is incredible. They bring a sense of a deep history."

Class struggle

This sense of history runs deep among South Africa's Indian communities. It's a story that's embodied by Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1893, a 24-year-old Gandhi arrived in Durban to settle legal disputes between traders -- he quickly became active in local politics representing minority Indian communities.
Discover the intricate footwork and the precise hand movements behind the music of Durban's Indians.
"He was sensitive enough to realize what was happening around him," says Mewa Ramgobin the chair of Phoenix Settlement Trust - a cultural project aimed at preserving Gandhi's legacy in South Africa. "His own compatriots from India, my grandfather and others, were suffering at the hands of their employers and the entire government at that stage, which inspired him to resist evil wherever he saw it."
Gandhi would end up spending 21 years in South Africa, working to give South Africa's Indian communities a political voice. In 1894 he helped establish the Natal Indian Congress, the region's first political advocacy group to represent the views of Indian people to the government and the press.
"For us in South Africa, we have a kind of responsibility not to extol the virtues of Gandhi, but to find out whether we can use those values to transform our country," says Ramgobin.

Multiculturalism, not activism

Today, Durban's Indian communities aren't defined by class the struggles and political activism of their forefathers. Durban is a veritable hub of Asian culture -- their heritage survives in myriad forms from music and food to festivals and dance.
"[Our ancestors] brought a rich heritage from India -- a very colloquial basis of how they would survive in terms of their culture," says Verushka Pather -- a local dance teacher who's ancestors came to Durban from India to work in the cane fields.
Pather's ancestors, and their generation, brought with them the art of Indian classical dance. An intricate display -- including 13 head postures and 36 eye movements -- contrasts radically with South Africa's indigenous Zulu dance forms. The Indian dance holds within it a form of cultural nostalgia that carries on to this day.
"Every weekend, people would do these activities in the evenings with their families and small communities -- it was very basic dancing which was telling the stories of the scriptures to keep it alive now that they've moved from India."
The unmistakable gestations of Indian dance were self-evident on the streets of downtown Durban last month, as hundreds of South Africans of all origins and backgrounds gathered together to celebrate 68 years of Indian independence from British colonial rule.
"We're very proud that we have maintained it, we have allowed it to evolve as we have evolved within the country." Dance teacher Verushka continues to teach and develop her dance in a contemporary context.
"It's not just for telling Indian folklore stories, now it's become a medium to share contemporary stories. [We're] telling South African stories through this Indian classical art."
This amalgamation of cultures -- distilled into a street dance -- is a symbol that Gandhi would be proud of.
To find out more about the Indian community in Durban, watch the video below:
Explore the past and present of the Indian South Africans, a community that has become a major part of Durban's cultural landscape.