x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gandhi's old home fails to find a buyer

Wealthy Indians targeted by property agents after South African househunters take a pass on the legendary leader's long-ago residence.

The former home of Mahatma Gandhi, now owned by an American, has attracted Indian buyers.
The former home of Mahatma Gandhi, now owned by an American, has attracted Indian buyers.

JOHANNESBURG // Asked to name South Africa's most important political figure, most people would undoubtedly reply Nelson Mandela. But the country also played a key part in the political development of another of the 20th century's towering personalities, Mahatma Gandhi. As a young man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in Durban in 1893 to work as a lawyer. By the time he returned permanently to India in 1914, he had become a political activist, organising protests against discrimination in South Africa, and developed his philosophy of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, that was an essential part of his fight for Indian independence.

For much of his time in South Africa he lived in Johannesburg, and one of his houses there is now on sale for the first time in 28 years. The Kraal, as it is known, was designed by his friend Hermann Kallenbach, an architect who later paid for the 445-hectare Tolstoy Farm, to the south of the city, where Gandhi set up a commune on satyagraha principles. The house stands in Orchards, a suburb north of the city centre, and remains stylistically unchanged from the time it was built in 1907. It marries traditional African architecture - the main house is in the shape of two rondavels, linked by another room - and a traditional European interior, with much visible wood and thatch ceilings.

Originally, there were only two bedrooms, one for Kallenbach and one for Gandhi, although the latter often preferred to sleep on a mattress on the stoep - a South African term for a veranda. There was no running water, which was installed by a later owner, but there was a large tennis court, and a fowl run at the back of the property for chickens. Unsurprisingly for an ascetic, there is no Gandhi memorabilia left at the house, and Nancy Ball, the owner, said: "It wasn't what he was about and I think this place was probably very sparsely furnished.

"In my quiet moments I'm just astonished to think that I'm living in a place where this man, one of the most revered leaders of modern times, walked through these rooms. He cooked in the kitchen, he actually slept in that room and walked through the garden to this tree. "There's a tangible sense of peace and tranquillity here that I have rarely felt in other places, so I like to think that's part of the spirit that he left here."

An American textile artist from Wisconsin, she and her husband Jarrod, a waste management consultant, have raised three children in the house, and are now selling to move to Cape Town, to be closer to them. It had been "a real privilege" to live in the house, she said, which they bought for 65,000 rand in 1981 - when the South African currency was worth more than the US dollar. "It would be wonderful if it could be preserved for the public."

Houses in the area nowadays sell for between 2 million rand and 2.5m rand (Dh946,000-Dh1.2m), but with its historical connection making The Kraal unique, a premium can be expected. Nonetheless, several months of discreet marketing failed to find a buyer. A proposal for it to be acquired by a trust to use as accommodation for visiting academics or writers fell through, and while recent publicity has triggered fresh interest from one of Gandhi's descendants and wealthy Indians around the world, the situation suggests a certain South African disinterest in its own history - perhaps because there has been so much of it in recent decades.

Stephen Gelb, founding director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, said that the period when Gandhi lived in the house was "a fairly critical time in the development of his own philosophy". The first expressions of the satyagraha approach to political activism took place in Johannesburg in 1907, with Indians burning their pass books in protest at the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, and Gandhi himself was arrested and imprisoned at least four times.

"It's important to people who value Gandhi's contribution to the progress of humankind, which is a pretty large audience," he said. But he added: "In many societies there's limited interest in preserving the past, it may be more extreme in new societies." Mrs Ball, 55, agreed. "I think certain people will always have an interest [in history] but the common man probably not." The face of Johannesburg is changing rapidly, she pointed out, with "dreadful cluster complexes springing up at the expense of beautiful properties that have such a past being replaced by soulless monstrosities.

"That's what I would fight to the death to prevent happening here," she said. sberger@thenational.ae