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I witnessed 1949 riots, 1985 attack and now this mayhem: this is what I’ve learnt

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OPINION: In each of these three circumstances I have witnessed, it is clear that in the front line were poor, vulnerable people, whose hunger and poverty rendered them easy prey to be used by those with wealth and power, writes Ela Gandhi.

Picture: Bongani Mbatha /African News Agency/ANA

I WAS 9 years old when I witnessed the horrific 1949 riots. At that time, I was gripped with fear, disbelief and anger. We lived at the Phoenix Settlement, in eNanda, established by Mahatma Gandhi and over the nine years of my life, I had only seen friendship, love and mutual respect among the local African and Indian communities. Suddenly what happened? My little mind could not fathom.

My parents and friends from the neighbourhood explained to me that this was orchestrated to sow division in the community. My friends assured me that Phoenix Settlement would never be attacked as it was reputed to be a holy site in the community.

I witnessed a coming together of our leaders such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr Monty Naicker and others. They went around and appealed for peace and friendship among all the oppressed people of our country. It was good to realise that mutual respect had not died. We were able to heal each other’s wounds.

Eventually this coming together resulted in the defiance campaign of 1952 and later in 1955 the Congress of the People was organised where the Freedom Charter was adopted calling for the unity of all in South Africa against the apartheid policies. Still, there were some, a small minority of all races, who continued to harbour racism and hatred.

On the other hand, a large majority of the people came together in the various community projects and demonstrations and built unity in action. This unity was manifest when the UDF was launched. However, seeds of dissent were being sown even then to break down the unity of the people.

In 1985, another horrific attack occurred in eNanda as Indian homes and property were looted and burnt. Phoenix Settlement was also burnt down and occupied. I saw the hidden hand of apartheid behind these six days of mayhem.

The last few days of systematic attacks again reveals clearly a hidden hand with an agenda. The precision with which the operation was carried out and the targets chosen were all part of a very well orchestrated action to destabilise.

In each of these three circumstances I have witnessed, it is clear that in the front line were poor, vulnerable people, whose hunger and poverty rendered them easy prey to be used by those with wealth and power.

The use of religious, political, ethnic and racial differences have been seen as potent ways to divide communities and cause major strife in many countries not least in South Africa. Over the past days, we have heard racist rhetoric from those intent on sowing divisions and strife.

History has shown that peaceful societies exist where a sustainable partnership between all sectors of society and the State exists. In the past decade, inequality, unemployment and poverty have grown, while rampant corruption and looting of state resources became endemic and service delivery reached an all time low. Inequality grew creating an ideal situation for the use of divisive tactics.

The chaos of the last few days reveals the effects of our highly unequal society. Fear anger and aggression gripped the people as they saw their livelihoods snatched from them. Laudably communities came together across all barriers of race, religion and ethnicity to protect their common neighbourhoods, as state structures failed to provide safety and security to the people and property.

Sadly, some went overboard and engaged in violent confrontation leading to the loss of lives. This loss of life is unacceptable. Such violence must be condemned, investigated and stopped.

As we look for solutions, we need to recall the voices of our leaders. Nelson Mandela said, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

Che Guevara said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

Martin Luther King jr said, “Violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism, the hallmark of its grandeur and misery.”

Steve Bantu Biko said, “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.”

From my earlier experience and from the words of our leaders, I see clearly that our resilience against any future unrest can only be built if we are able to heal the wounds of the past few days and unite as South Africans.

If we work together, constructively on issues of poverty and unemployment; discard materialism, corruption and greed; build a humane culture of non violence with compassion and love; and cherish the values of our constitution; that we will be able to avert any future occurrences such as the one we have witnessed.

* Gandhi is a trustee of the Gandhi Development Trust and Phoenix Settlement Trust.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of DFA and Independent Media.

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