Visiting the Phoenix Settlement and Ohlange Institute

I have no doubt that most South African’s out there can tell you a little about Mahatma Gandhi and John Langalibalela Dube. But, how many know the roles they played in the history of South Africa, or even that the very homes stayed lived in are open for the public to visit? And moreover, that they are only 20 minutes from Durban?

This is a trip I do on a regular basis with international tourists, but not such much with local tourists. Wanting to correct that sad state of affairs, in February of this year I offered a group of local Durban residents the opportunity to accompany on a day trip from Durban to visit the Phoenix Settlement and the Ohlange Institute.

Heading into KwaMashu Township

For those that don’t know, both Phoenix Settlement and the Ohlanga Institute are situated in Kwamashu. This was enough to make my guests pretty damn anxious. Fact is back int he 80’s and 90’s there was a great deal of political violence on the go and KwaMashu has a pretty bad reputation. But as I point out to every one, I’ve been visiting KwaMashu for over 10 years and have never experienced a negative moment.

I picked everyone from Glenwood and off we went, straight onto the N2 and then turning onto KwaMashu Highway. Along the way I gave everyone a little history lesson about KwaMashu (read my quick history on this page here) and pointed out the new construction that’s going on.

KwaMashu is growing so quickly that it wasn’t long before developers realised that there is money to be made, so a huge shipping center has been built and a very impressive hospital is now open. KwaMashu has also made recent history by acting as guinea pig to a new way of approaching low cost housing, but more about that another time.

My guests who are locals had no idea this all existed on their doorstep. It’s a sad reality that people just don’t like to explore their surrounds, preferring to travel nationally or even internationally. Oh well.

So after leaving the shopping center behind, our first destination was going to be Phoenix Settlement and the home of Mahatma Gandhi.

1st Stop: The Phoenix Settlement

I pulled up to the set of traffic light along KwaMashu Highway (M25) with the intention of turning right which made my guests almost call it a day – you see, without knowing where you are going, the road to Phoenix Settlement looks like to headed into a busy, bustling informal township. I calmed everyone down and turned right and drove up a short hill past “Kasturba High School” named after Gandhi’s wife.

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I continued up to a metal gate, hooted and then drove past the smiling security guard into the parking area. We all jumped out and I walked over to my good friend Bongani who is the site guide here at the Phoenix Settlement. Bongani welcomed my guests and then took them on a tour of the site while I strolled about taking picture after picture.

What You’ll Find at the Phoenix Settlement

There’s four buildings that remain at the Phoenix Settlement – 3 of them original from Gandhi’s time and then the forth building is a more modern hall that is used to showcase the life of Kasturba Gandhi as well as the history of KwaMasha, Isaiah Shembe and Inanda Seminary School for Girls.

The first one you’ll see when driving up to the main gate is the old office of the newspaper that Mahatma Gandhi started, the “Indian Opinion”. This building house the printing press and the offices from which everyone worked. Today this building is home to the computer school that seeks to increase computer literacy among the township dwellers. Durban Tourism also use a portion of the building as their local KwaMashu offices.

The second building also stems from Gandhi’s time. This building was home to Gandhi’s sons. Today it’s being renovated to be used to home aged folk in the area – though I’m told this is still to be confirmed and remains empty currently. There is a stair case that leads to the flat roof of the building and from up top, you get fantastic views of the surrounding area.

The third building is a replica of Mahtma Gandhi’s house; the original house burnt down during the Inanda riots in 1985. The house now serves to document the life of Gandhi in South Africa, the walls adorned with images of Gandhi as a young man in South Africa, from his days serving as an ambulance man in the Boer War to his time spent at phoenix. There is a time line of his life leading up to his assassination as well as words of wisdom attributed to Gandhi displayed everywhere. Personally I think this display is humble but so effective – I really enjoy visiting.

The forth building is the more modern building, effectively two halls joined by a common entry. The fist of the halls reflects and celebrates the life of Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a said fact of life that woman to not get the recognition that men do, in spite of the fact that women tend to suffer more for their partner’s stand against oppression. While Gandhi was traveling about raising awareness of the plight of Indians in South Africa, Kasturba was at home, raising children, keeping households going and suffering racial injustice, all by herself!

In the 2nd hall is the history of KwaMashu and Indanda. As you climb the steps you’re faced by a huge map with pointers indicating your location and then the locations of significant historical sights nearby. Walking into the hall itself you’re faced with large wall displays that document the life and times of such individuals at Isaiah Shembe, as well as the history of Inanda Seminary.

I cannot urge Durban residents (and other South Africans) to visit this site enough, it is such an insight into the history of our little corner of the world. And even if you don’t agree with the man’s words or actions, there’s nothing wrong with embracing history with an open mind and taking out of the experience something that makes us all a little better.

Next Up: The Ohlange Institute

After leaving Phoenix Settlement, our next stop was going to be the site where John Langalibalele Dube established the first school for Africans, entirely funded by Africans; a remarkable achievement given the atmosphere of oppression at the time.

There are signboards but they are easy to miss, fortunately this is another site I have spent many, many hours visiting. After negotiating the route (it’s easy) you arrive at a large metal gate, behind which is a school. If this is your first visit, it’s easy to think you’ve made a mistake.

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On arrival, the security guard recognised me from all the previous visits and open the gate, waving me in. I turned left and headed up to a second gate whilst dodging high school students who were obviously on a break. The second gate was opened by another security guard with the broadest smile who directed us where to park in a massive empty parking lot.

One of my co-travelers remarked on the fact there were so many security guards, “was it safe” he wanted to know?

Yes. There is a functioning public high school which like all schools world wide will have some form of security, and then there’s the site of the Ohlange Institute which is a city owned and managed site and so they too will place a security guards – it’s nothing to do with crime but rather insurance.

Once again we were met by a site guide, in this case my good friend “Mandla”. I left my guests in the capable hands of Mandla and had a wonder about myself taking pictures. I am very familiar with the history of the site but never seem to have enough photo’s.

What You’ll find at the Ohlange Institute

Once parked you’ll notice a couple of things; first off is a little corrugated metal house, what my parents would have called a “railway house” (not sure if that’s politically correct to say these days. Nearby is a tiny coffee shop in a shipping container. Hidden from sight but just a easy 30 second stroll is the cemetery where Dube and some of the members of his family rest. And lastly, at the far end of the parking is an unfinished building (and amphitheater).

The house where Dube lived still stands today. As you walk up to the small dwelling you’ll be greeted by a seated statue of Durban. Entering into the house you’ll see three rooms. Once room details the lives of each of his two wives, the other two rooms deal with Dube himself. There’s a far amount of information to go through, but it’s not at all dry and many of my guests in past have spent hours here.

Walking out the house and turning left I caught up with my guests at the cemetery. It’s here where Dube lies buried and it’s also here that in 1994, Nelson Mandela stood in front of the worlds press and dignitaries and declared to Dube, “Mr President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is free today”.

One thing to be aware of, it is considered rude to point at a Zulu gravesite with your finger, if you have to point, always point with a closed fist.

Done with the home of Dube and the cemetery (there are actually two but I’ll deal with that on another post) we all headed down to a little hall where in 1994, Nelson Mandela cast the first free and fair election vote in South Africa’s history!

Think about that for a minute. Mandela could have cast his vote in the capital city of Pretoria, in Cape Town, even at his home town in the Eastern Cape. Instead ,Nelson Mandela chose to cast his vote at the home of the John Dube, and the spiritual home of the ANC – I find this amazing!

Inside the small hall is a statue of Mandela that you can stand beside and cast your own vote – I think that’s very cool, in fact I have hundreds of photo’s of visitors doing that very thing.

Departing For Home

After a busy and great morning it was time to head on home. Before leaving I ordered coffee from the little coffee shop for all of us, and some of my guests even purchased a few curios. I think that especially now, in these difficult and troubled times, if you can buy something made locally, please do! Even it it’s a coffee, it means a great deal to the people who man these shops and stands.

There are other sites int he area you can visit, we simply didn’t have time. But if you do, then check out the following;

  • The 1860 Museum – documenting the arrival and life of the first Indentured Indians in Durban. Located very near the Botanical Gardens in an old Indian school.
  • The Cato Manor Heritage Center – great little interpretive center that documents the lives of people in Cato manor.
  • The Indanda Seminary – only open during school terms but well worth the visit. It’s hard to believe this school exists!
  • The Mzinyathi Falls – would you believe there is a waterfall inside Inanda! You do need a go with a guide, it’s not well marked and easy to take a wrong turn.
  • Rastafarian Caves – at the base of the waterfall ridge lies some caves used by the Rastafarian community. best to go with a guide because it’s not easy to get to (some steep walking required) but well worth it.

A Little History

Before visiting either site, it’s worth getting into a little bit of history on the places you’ll visit so that you’ll at least have a bit of background; although both sites have local guides, they are not always available and may even be busy with other groups. Before we get to it though, I’m only giving you enough background here to get you going – I’ll do far more detailed posts at a later stage, so subscribe to my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out!

The Phoenix Settlement and Mahatma Gandhi

Mahandas Karamchand Gandhi completed his training as a lawyer in London and returned to India to open his open legal practice. Two years later and things weren’t going to well owing to the differences in legal practice in England and India. Things were looking a little bleak when out of the blue an offer of work reached Gandhi which he quickly accepted.

Gandhi arrived in Durban in 1893 and quickly became aware of the racism directed by the white community towards Indians. Over the next few months Gandhi himself would experience at first hand just how Indians were treated. Although the incident where Gandhi was forced off of a train in Pietermaritzberg is often used as the moment where his thinking changes, the fact was it was a number of different incidents of which 4 were to make a lasting impression – for more details read the SA History site here.

After his experiences, Gandhi become involved with politics, preparing petitions to ensure Indians were able to ride first class in trains and assisting the local Indians in fighting what would eventually became known as the “Franchise Amendment Act”. He quickly organised a meeting and prepared the way for Indian opposition.

And then he left back for India. It wasn’t long however before he started getting requests from the Durban Indians to return and help fight against the oppression of Indians in Durban. In 1896 Gandhi returned to Durban with his family and right away faced the wrath of the white settlers in Durban. After a quarantine period to allow tempers to cool, Gandhi finally disembarked in Jan 1897 only to face a mob baying for his blood only to be saved thanks to the quick action of the wide of the Chief Constable who apparently held the crowd at bay with her umbrella,

In 1904 Gandhi established a communal settlement called Phoenix. Inspired by thinkers such as Raskin, Gandhi sought to establish a commune based on equality. While there he established the very first Indian newspaper called the “Indian Opinion“.

Gandhi wasn’t alone at Phoenix, he had a neighbor who lived only a few kilometers from him on top of a hill that overlooked Phoenix. This neighbor would become just as an important figure in South African history as Gandhi, his name, John Langalibalela Dube. Gandhi and Dube often visited one another and shared ideals and dreams, it’s no wonder then that both men shared common goals.

John Langalibalela and the Ohlange Institute

John was born at the Inanda Mission Station in 1871 and was AmaQadi by birthright, his father Rev James Dube) was one of the minor chiefs in the Zulu kingdom. This birthright meant that John was a minor chief of the AmaQadi – unfortunately for him, conflict between Western and traditional ideas meant he would never act that capacity.

John was schooled at Adams Missionary School which meant his thinking was vastly different to those of his kin who were more traditional. Over the years John would be influenced heavily by the missionary work of William Wilcox who arranged (at John’s request) further schooling at Oberlin College in the United States.

John’s thinking was different that his Zulu contemporaries at the time. He had been exposed to the works of Booker T Washington and others, he traveled and lectured and gave talks and wrote books. Dube returned to Durban and in August 1900, he established the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute which was renamed the Ohlange Institute in 1901.

Dube believed that black people needed to become self-sufficient by learning skills such as printing, farming, shoe-making, and cooking and more. This didn’t sit well with his more traditional neighbors and led to great deal of conflict; Dube persevered though.

In 1900 Dube was instrumental in establishing the Natal Native Congress with other like thinkers. This organization in time would become the African National Congress.

Like Gandhi, Dube established a newspaper called the “Ilanga Lase Natal” with which he reached out to spread the word. He published articles both in Zulu and English and became heavily involved in bring to light the injustices suffered by black people by the white settlers.

As an interesting side note; Nelson Mandela was arrested just outside of Howick in 1962, turns out he was returning to Johannesburg after attending a meeting at the home of John Dube.

KwaMashu

The township of KwaMashu (place of Marshell) was originally a sugar cane farm pre-1950’s. It was owned by Sir Marshall Campbell. He donated the land (some say sold for the princly sum of 350,000 pounds) to Durban City Council (DCC) for use as township land.

With the introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1951, the DDC found itself having to relocate thousands of people, Black and Indian who were all living happily at Cato Manor. A number of sites were identified (Chatsworth being one) including what is today KwaMashu.

By 1958 a number of houses were completed and Black people were already starting to occupy the hosues. This wasn’t a convenient move for Black people – it was further away from the places of work leading in increase in transport costs, there was little in the way of the usual city resources (think about hospitals, stores etc) which meant this was not a move most Black people were willing to make.

The name KwaMashu was even chosen by the city. A comptetion of sorts was run to give the new township a name, but the very people who were going to live there were exluded from voting on a name. The name KwaMashu was selected and has stuck every since.

Before Travelling to These Sites

If you’re planning an a similar day trip to any of these or anywhere else for that matter, please call or email ahead! In these difficult covid-19 days, there’s no guarantee stores, restaurants etc will be open. And wherever you end up visiting, take all the precautions recommended to keep you and your family safe.

Want to Contribute?

There is so much that is happenign in and around Durban that’s it’s almost impossible for me to cover it all. So if you know of a site, an experieince, a grat place for meals, let me know and I’ll get on it. If you want to write a guests post, then I’m all for that! Get in touch by visiting my contact page.

About Shelldon

Hi, my name is Shelldon and I'm a tour guide based in the city of Durban, South Africa. For years I've been taking visitors from around the world on trips throughout South Africa. I write about the places I've visited and things I've done.

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