S Africa, India pay homage to Gandhi

PM Manmohan Singh and his host President Thabo Mbeki moved from one event to another to celebrate their shared heritage.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2006 14:29 IST

On the eve of his 135th birth anniversary, Mahatma Gandhi was the theme through the day on Sunday in South Africa as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his host President Thabo Mbeki moved from one event to another to celebrate their shared heritage.

The mood shifted too, much like the weather in Durban, from the sentimental to the pop.

If the function at the Phoenix settlement, the commune on the outskirts of Durban founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1904, was simple and emotive, the 100th anniversary celebrations of satyagraha at the Kingsmead Stadium here were pop patriotism at their kitschiest.

Quite appropriately, the Sahara Kingsmead stadium, the site of many a cricket match, had two stages erected and two giant screens on the side for the crowds. While one stage had a banner reading "Celebrating our heroes", the other, where Manmohan Singh and Mbeki along with other dignitaries were seated, stated "Satyagraha centenary commemoration".

The cultural programme on offer included some Bollywood dances, including the popular title track from the hit Rang de Basanti that ironically has a group of youngsters killing the defence minister and a father on grounds of corruption.

There also was a Bharatnatyam performance, a sarod recital by maestro Amjad Ali Khan, fusion dance, and a vigorous Zulu dance as well.

The response to the much trumpeted event - observing the day 100 years ago in September when Gandhi chaired a meeting of 3,000 people in Johannesburg against a law discriminating against Asians and launched what Mbeki called a "non-violent defiance campaign" - was lacklustre, with a chill wind blowing through the stadium.

But that was just the weather. The atmospherics between the two countries and the two leaders more than made up for it.

The superlatives flowed freely at Phoenix earlier in the day and at the stadium as Manmohan Singh, on a three-day visit to South Africa, and Mbeki recalled the Mahatma and the ties that bind two nations.

"Our emancipation is only 12 years old. It is not so long ago that the celebration we hold today would not have been possible. It is not so long ago that it would have been impossible for a prime minister of the great country of India to set foot on our shores," Mbeki said at the Kingsmead celebrations.

Dwelling at length on the contribution of Gandhi "whose unparalleled leadership and example inspired the triumphant march to freedom and democracy both in India in 1947 and in South Africa in 1994", Mbeki also focused on the events that transformed a political leader to a Mahatma.

He said that it was no accident that it was India at the UN in 1946 that "first put on the global agenda the issue of the imperative to mobilise the international community to join us in our struggle for liberation from racism and white minority domination".

The bilateral component was important too, Mbeki stressed as he moved away from Gandhi.

"A century after satyagraha began ... we will tomorrow on Mahatma Gandhi's 135th birthday have the privilege to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his delegation to discuss the further measures we must take to raise to higher levels our concerted effort to strengthen our bonds of friendship with India," Mbeki said, referring to the bilateral talks the leaders will hold in Pretoria Monday.

In Phoenix earlier in the day, Mbeki spoke extempore but extended the theme of friendship in a speech punctuated with humour and lots of laughs.

He told the gathering - comprising Indian ministers Ambika Soni and Anand Sharma and National Security Advisor MK Narayanan as well as Gandhi's granddaughter Ela - that he would very much like to keep Manmohan Singh back in his country, much like Mahatma Gandhi in Phoenix who stayed on longer than he intended to.

"We want you to follow in Gandhi's footsteps ... so we want to keep you here for a little longer," he said.

"I don't know what will happen to India then," he added to laughs and splattering of applause.

Saying that "to many of us India is a second home", Mbeki said India was a country South Africa could always turn to.

"I trust you won't get tired of us and the high commission will not get tired of issuing us visas," he said good humouredly.

Manmohan Singh more than kept to the mood with his speeches.

"In remembering satyagraha, we pay homage to the Mahatma. And in honouring the Mahatma, we honour South Africa . . ." he told crowds at the Kingsmead stadium.

"South Africa has shown that it is possible to resolve even the bitterest of differences with a spirit of reconciliation. You live the life Mahatma died for," he said and described in detail the Johannesburg meeting that set the pace for satyagraha.

"On this centenary of the launch of satyagraha, let each of us pledge, as those in the Empire Theatre did 100 years ago, to do everything" to bring about a world of equity and equal opportunity.

In an interesting aside, he also made it a point to mention the hit film Lage Raho Munnabhai, though not by name.

"I was heartened to see recently that back home in India the most popular movie this festival season is a film about a young man's discovery of the universal and timeless relevance of the Mahatma's message."

His speech at Phoenix was simple and emotional.

This is the "blessed land" that transformed Gandhi into a Mahatma, Manmohan Singh said at the simple function at the settlement on the outskirts of Durban.

He added that he felt "spiritual bliss" to be present on the "sacred soil" of Phoenix, which was inspired after Gandhi read John Ruskin's "Unto This Last", which extolled the virtues of the simple life of love, labour and the dignity of human beings.

The settlement that was razed by apartheid violence in 1985 and then painstakingly rebuilt was a testament to Gandhi's spirit, said Manmohan Singh.

"I could almost feel his presence here today," he said at the complex of simple buildings surrounded by a sprawling urban settlement.

Earlier in the day, Manmohan Singh went to the resistance park, which commemorates the first resistance in South Africa, and also visited the Ohlange High School and the memorial of Rev John Dube - a friend of Gandhi's who later went on to become the first president general of the African National Congress.

First Published: Oct 02, 2006 14:29 IST