Ela Gandhi, Founder, Gandhi Development Trust, South Africa

Words of Wisdom: “African women look at your power; be conscious of your power, and unite with your sisters, so we can together take it to the world. Also empower ourselves and be liberated from the shackles of traditions.” – Ela Gandhi

Interview with Ela Gandhi, Founder, Gandhi Development Trust, South Africa 

Ela Gandhi, Founder, Gandhi Development Trust, South Africa

Ela Gandhi of Gandhi Development Trust was social worker by profession and founder of the holistic approach to Social work.

Her passion is for gender equality, for changing the lives of the poorest of the poor and doing something about the injustices in the country based on race. She became a founding member of the Natal Organization of Women, which joined the ANC Women’s League,  joined the ANC and the SACP in which she was chosen as a central committee member. 

Today Ela Gandhi has been nominated and accepted  to serve on the  Legal Aid  Board of South Africa.  Ela is a Trustee of the Gandhi Development Trust and Chairperson and Hon. Editor of Satyagraha.  She is an Honorary International President of the World Conference on Religions for Peace, and a member of many other local and international organizations working for peace and building a culture of nonviolence.  In 2002, she received the Community of Christ International Peace Award. She was conferred Padma Bhushan award from Government of India in 2007.

Granddaughter of Mohandas/ Mahatma Gandhi has been brought up with generations of peace activism.

Short video promotional video: http://youtu.be/YeBY-7bYIqk

Gandhi Development Trust: www.gdt.org.za/
Satyagraha paper : http://www.satyagraha.org.za/

Ela Gandhi, Founder, Gandhi Development Trust, South Africa

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your comments and words of wisdom !

The Gandhi Development Trust was established August 19, 2002, with the aim of promoting Gandhi values in order to build a spirit of reconciliation and to create a culture of peace and non-violence locally and internationally – Firstly, what are the Gandhi values?

Most of all they are about:

  1. True integrity
  2. Living a selfless life
  3. Live in a communal situation
  4. Give more attention what we do and how it affects the community. How the community benefits us personally.

There is an African word that promotes those values – Ubuntu. Which means, “I am because you are.”

Those are some of the values Gandhiji taught us amongst many others.

You have just written a book called the “Essential Values of Mahatma Gandhi” which is targeted to the younger generation, and make the values relevant to them. Why are you targeting the younger generation?

Gandhiji said that if you want to start a community of non-violence, you start with the youngest person. It is important to get to their children at the very early stage of their lives. The Gandhi Development Trust, the newspaper Satyagraha, and our programs are aimed at young people. This book is a simplified version of the Gandhi ideals.

Once children internalize these values we will start to get a new generation of people that will move away from self-centeredness to start thinking what they can do towards community development. That is what we want to see in the world today. Unless we change our focus we will continue to ruin the earth, the plant, each other and everything around us.

How old should someone be when we instill these values?

Physiologist say that in the first three years of a child’s life there are certain basic beliefs that they will be instilled in a child that will take them throughout their life. These values will remain within that child consciously or unconsciously. So we believe that the first three years are important. After that, it is also very important to provide values education, which should permeate throughout all the different disciples that are being taught to the child.

When you are learning math, your idea is about mathematics, it is not about values. So how do you bring values into mathematics, health sciences, science and technology, and into every subject?

The direct influence is Adults?

Yes it is, the parents and the society. Often when mothers are working and children are left with a nanny, it is not realized that influence that a nanny will have at that age.

Very interesting. The Ignite Excellence Foundation gave a scholarship to a woman who wants to work with the caregivers for that very reason, as they do have such influence on children.

What programs do you have in place to help the young children, but also to ensuring parents are instilling these values?

We are looking at the early childhood development phase. We have been talking to people that run the early childhood care centers, but also with the Department of Education. If you look at the department and the way governments think about education, the emphasis is on tertiary education, then secondary, then primary. There is very little that goes into the early childhood development.

A lot of emphasis has gone into how to teach youngsters on how to count, teach language through play. But there has been very little emphasis on how to teach them values. How does a child begin to think that I have a toy how should I share it with other children?

Having a little knowledge about the education system in South Africa, it is my understanding there was discussion about starting school later rather then earlier? You must also be fighting that notion of starting later?

Those values get entrenched in the first phase of a child life.  If you haven’t paid attention at that stage then later on we are paying the price of what happened before, but now you are starting to teach something new to the child, but are also trying to unteach some of the old behaviours. That becomes even more difficult for teachers. You see the violence in schools, why are the children so aggressive? What is it we have done wrong?

I think that is the crux of what Gandhiji taught. He said that all human beings have good in them, it is up to us to bring out that good. Encourage people bring to the surface that good in them.

If we look at deviant behaviour the emphasis is on how do you help the child to turn around. Some of things that have been said are:

  1. If you have committed a crime you must be punished
  2. If you are punished you learn from the punishment that this is not the right thing to do and ‘hopefully’ you will change.

If you look at statistics you see how many people have been in prison and commit crime then leave but continue to commit crime and return to the prison. That rate is high. How can we actually change the people? Have we actually made an effort by punishing him? My contention is there is restorative justice. A justice that says that says what ever that human being has done he or she is done because of our problems. Society has caused that human being to behave in that manner.

How can we help them to change? How can we change? How can we do things differently so we can help them and prevent them from doing something dysfunctional?

You make some great points, but I can’t help have this question in my mind. Is there any program that you have or will be doing that will help the Parents and Caregivers to instill those values if they are the most influential in that young child’s life?

What we are trying to do get the caregivers, the teachers of the first year and people running these young childhood centers and ask them what they perceive what we are asking. Look at opportunities we can jointly do. Not one person can have all the answers, but jointly we can find many of the answers. They have knowledge and they are trained. All we are doing is asking if they looked at this possibility. When you are teach alphabet, or counting, are we using certain words?

For example, in terms of counting, if you look at it in terms of  ‘what I have consumed’ and ‘what I can conserve.’  Rather then say ‘save this for yourself.’ If you have bought something, as this is how children experience spending and it is an example used to teach how to count. You don’t teach them through plants, or conservation. You can also teach counting through those instruments, rather then buying something.

Another example is I was talking to teachers in order to look how to change some education content and methodology. One of the examples I raise to the teachers was something that I observed in Sri Lanka many years before. If each day a child receives milk and biscuits to eat and each child takes a turn handing them out, how would I behave? The day it is my turn, how would I behave? Would I take all the best bisques for myself and give all the broken bisques to the other children? Or would I give the best bisques to others? Which example would apply to what the children are doing? How do you change the children’s mindset?

The teachers said that they would keep the best biscuits for themselves.

Are the Gandhi values biased toward any religion?

No they are not. One thing Gandhiji said (which is highlighted in the book), he mentions all religions have certain basic values. They all share those values. The rituals and the beliefs are somewhat different, but the values are the same.

For example having prayers in a particular way at a particular time.

Gandhiji said that our prayers would be outside. God doesn’t have to be in a church, temple or a mosque, he is everywhere. Gandhiji prayers we held outside. There were not rituals or signs toward any religion. We learned to recite prayers of all religions.

When you advise citizens that we need to embrace peace, what are some of the things that society needs to do?

We need to be humble. We need to realize that we don’t have the answers to everything. Despite the fact that scriptures give you answers, but they may not be the answers that are acceptable to everyone. We need to grant that space of peoples beliefs. We need to grant diversity of human beings. If we were all believed exactly the same things, how duel would life be?

We should appreciate our diversity, embrace it, accept it and then learn to live with it. Killing diversity, which is what we are doing presently, which is the worse thing that human kind has done in the last few centuries. We have decided that diversity is bad. Any diversity needs to be killed.

I will often say treat people equally different. Meaning treat people as equals, but respect the differences. 

If there was a small initiative that people could employ in their daily lives to elevate the rights of all, what would you recommend people to do?

I think there are some basic human rights that all humans should enjoy:

  1. The right to life
  2. To education
  3. To health care
  4. To have a home
  5. To have the space to live peacefully

People should have all the basic human rights that are endorsed by the United Nations declaration of Human Rights. It is entrenched in those countries that have a constitution. I think those rights need to be respected and have to be available to each person.  In South Africa we have those rights entrenched in the constitution but we don’t ensure that every human being has those rights.

So what can we do?

I think we need to take that responsibility. We need to look at an economic models for health care, education and housing and things like that are basic to human beings and think together how we can we give that to every person.

Gandhiji tried, and he said, “try to do make change from the smallest unit from your neighborhood.”

What would you say is still the biggest gap in human rights and peace in South Africa?

The increasing gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest problem because instead of serving the problem of disparity which was present largely from the bases of race, which we inherited from our apartheid past. Instead of addressing that we have increased the gap between the rich and the poor. We have taken away the racial tag, but we have increased the economic gap. In now means that the poorest of the poor doesn’t need to be an African person, as it was under apartheid, but there is a gap between the very rich and very poor.

What South Africa needs to do is reduce that disparity, not only in terms of race, but class and gender.

From your perspective what is the one thing you think they can do to reduce that gap?

  1. The fist thing they can do is look salary structures in different businesses and within Government. What are the top salaries and bottom salaries and can they make some changes to reduce the disparity?
  2. We need look at how we can create more job intensive companies, rather than companies that are small. Focus on how to employ more people and gain more demand.

As the founding member of the Natal Organization of Women, what have you seen as the biggest changes in women equality?

The biggest achievement since 1994 has been all the legislation that we have. In the constitution there is gender equality. In the Presidency there is a portfolio in the cabinet focused on women and children. We have a gender commission. There are some of structural achievements.

In any discrimination based on gender is unacceptable in South Africa in terms of the law. You can take someone to court. There is also access to jobs. At one time many jobs where unacceptable to women. Today women can occupy those jobs.

There is a lot work being done on gender equality and to create a culture of non-violence, however, there is a very important aspect that is often not seen. People that are taking care of children or the elderly say they will get support. What we don’t realize is that once they have the institutions, what are they doing to change the mindsets? Which is not visible. It is slow, invisible and long-term process.

When it comes to gender and non-violence you have to change the way people think, for instance, the roles of men and women. We have all been brought-up to believe this is what a woman does and what a man does. An internationally renowned feminist believes what if we started in education where men begin to learn domestic duties and domestic care. How would society feel about that, how would society change? How would boys and girls change if they were in these classes together?

Someone saying men would be liberated. Because if you take away the women, the men would be disabled as they don’t know how to take care of children, the house. How do we liberate them from this disability?

They become equal partners. They have shared roles. We brought up the children together, there are no roles it is a shared role. That would be a society where we could say that there is gender equality.

I think the world is very far from achieving that.

I think the world is very far from that as well. To your point, it is not about knowing how to do those things, but getting rid of the ego to do those things.

Do you think men in one country in Africa over another do embrace the equal roles more?

In South Africa we have been able to improve the economic position of women, but they have not been able to change the mindsets. Traditional customs are entrenched. For example, it is the woman who has to perform the traditions of morning. You see when a woman is a widow, but you can’t tell a man is widower.

We tell if a woman is married we can tell by titles, “Miss” vs. “Mrs.” Why are there differences? Not until we remove some of the customs, many of which we don’t barely notice because we are use to them. It is those customs that need to be changed. There is a lot of work we need to do.

Here we have the Chiefs, recently there have been women chiefs as well. What does whole idea chiefdom say? It is about power relations. Change of power doesn’t mean liberation for everybody. It is change of mindsets that liberates you. You are just taking the power from a man chief to a woman chief without changing the rules. So what is the difference?

You are born with a name that has expectation attached to it. Did you feel an expectation being born with the Gandhi name?

Initially it was a little oppressive for me because I didn’t know what people expected from me, or how I should dress. It was a little frightening and uncomfortable. Then I began to think that I have been so fortunate to be born into a family that I have had the privilege of learning the values, that I should celebrate that privilege and share it with people. I wish everyone could have that experience. It is a wonderful experience for me. I would like to share it with other people.

I would say to other people don’t respect me, I am not Mahatmam, I am just his granddaughter.  He is the father of the nation and one can be his granddaughter as well.

I have had a different experience being in the family and that is the intimidate knowledge of what Gandhiji had taught.

What do you feel the biggest impact you have made in your career so far?

Taking Gandhiji’s thoughts to the world. I am trying to do this with this book and I have been talking to people. I have developed program and look at the work we do especially when it comes to the community. Our family has been schooled in doing something for other people selflessly without expectations. It is also part of our religious training, the renunciation that you do what is the right thing to do. You don’t expect people to praise you or give you money.  We don’t do it for that reason. It is selfless services.  It’s looking at how we can improve the lives of others rather then ourselves.  It is looking at the right thing to do. It sounds simple but soon as you get up in the morning we have challenges and you have to decide what is right and what is wrong.

It is not easy. It challenges us to put the motivation in the right place. What is the motivation for doing something?

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

I don’t like to public speaking. I don’t have the confidence that a leader would have to get the community to do something. I always ask people. Some may see it is a strength in some ways and in some ways it is a weakness.  People feel a leader needs to show the way. There are times when I do have to say “enough with discussions this is what we need to do.” But that is my difficultly.

What Leadership Lessons would you give to men or women wanting to lead a team or project?

  1. Integrity is the most important thing.  If a leader does not have integrity then the leader will not be followed nor what they say will not be accept.
  2. Your message must be very clear and distinct. At the same time you must have humility to discuss it.
  3. There is fine line between humble and assertive about what you want to achieve. In order to make that impact you have to take a few steps and you can’t compromise by hesitating. There is a fine line between assertive and humble. I think a good leader should be both humble assertive at the same time.  By listening I am willing to give in on certain things.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

You are an individual, like everyone else in this world. You have an identity of your own and you must be proud of that. Be proud of yourself and don’t let anyone put you down. You also have a lot of inner strength look at the abilities you have and try to bring those out.

Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?

I wish I were told those things. My parents didn’t feel that I should go to school and decided to teach me at home. My parents did say I have strength too and I used that strength to tell them that I wanted to go to school.

I went to school late. I couldn’t understand why my parents did not want me to go to school, and by understanding that I could have overcome the challenges. We were being taught in school government propaganda. We were to go to a segregated school where we didn’t have the opportunity to mix with other racial groups, which means we would have started thinking we are different from other groups.

We all are human beings, we may look different that doesn’t mean we are different.

So because in my home we were not taught to segregate, and I didn’t go to school, I didn’t grow up thinking I was Indian. I think if I went to school at an early age I think I would have grown up thinking I was an Indian and looking at other people as difference race groups.

You do think of yourself as South African?

For me it is important for us to build a spirit of togetherness of South Africa before we can build a spirit of togetherness with the world. You start at home.

Words of Wisdom for African women

They have a lot to offer to the world. They have a lot of skills and the philosophy of Ubuntu, which still exists with African women. It may be gone with the rest of the communities concerned but it does still exist with African women.  Women have the wisdoms of the past. Those wisdoms need to be shared with the world. Women need to feel themselves as powerful. That power can only be realized if untied.

“African women look at your power; be conscious of your power, and unite with your sisters, so we can together take it to the world. Also empower ourselves and be liberated from the shackles of traditions.”

Watch or listen to the interview to gain more insight into Ela Gandhi leadership lessons and strategic insights. Please comment on the site; we want to hear your wisdom. Share Wisdom Exchange TV with other future leaders, they will appreciate it!

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    2 replies to "Ela Gandhi"

    • Wisdom Exchange

      Hi Suzanne!

      Hope all is well!

      I wanted to let you know that I shared Ela Gandhi’s book today with my class, and we watched your interview with Ela Gandhi….my class has been very inspired by Gandhi’s teachings, and so it was amazing for them to be able to see your interview, and have an opportunity to hear her message!

      Thank you so much for all you do!


    • Labels attempt to define us. Allowing people to authentically reveal themselves will remove us from boxes, and allow us to celebrate our unique differences. When interviewing Ela Gandhi, she shared a perspective on the world that we all can… click the title to read the blog she helped inspire […]

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