Image: Zulmaury Saavedra (Unsplash)

The 12th of October 2020 marked the 160th anniversary of the SS Truro leaving the shores of Madras (Chennai), India with 342 Indian indentured labourers aboard. On this landmark day in South African Indian history, I think it is important to reflect upon the history of South African Indians and what the future holds for us as a race within South Africa (SA). It should be noted, that even though we officially celebrate the indentured labourers’ departure which took place in 1860, the first Indian slaves were brought by the Dutch to the Cape in 1648 with an estimated 16 300 Indian slaves arriving from India. There are also ongoing archaeological and anthropological debates which argue that Indians arrived even earlier on the continent of Africa.

With the abolishment of the slave trade within the British Empire in 1833, there were no sources of free or cheap labour and colonies petitioned the British Empire for assistance, like in the case of the Natal Colonial government who needed workers for the sugar cane fields. The workaround this, was the “indentured labourers” system which was essentially a system of free labour or slave labour. The labourer (most of whom could not read) signs a contract to work for the owner of the indenture for a period of time and thereafter will be set free and compensated for some of the work done. The owners of these contracts could often sell the contract off to a 3rd party, in this case, the British Colonial government sold these contracts to the Natal government from 1860-1911. This resulted in over 150 000 indentured labourers being imported from various parts of India to work the sugar cane fields in Natal. After 1911, Indians that arrived during this period were known as “free” or “passenger” Indians who came at their own costs seeking opportunities for a better life. As a result of this forced and voluntary migration of people, SA now has the largest population of Indians outside of India and they constitute about 3.5% of 58 million South Africans.

Reflecting upon the indentured labourers’ arrivals and the current context of South African Indians, we need to consider the positives and negatives that we, as a racial grouping bring to this diverse nation. Our ancestors’ arrival in 1860 brought with it, a rich substance of religion, culture, skills and languages. These include bringing the religions of Hinduism, Islam (Islam had already existed on the continent before these labourers) and Sikhism. As well as diverse languages like Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Guijrathi to name but a few. They also brought with them a work ethic and a desire to make a better life for themselves and their families. This can be seen in modern-day SA, in relation to SA’s population size, Indians occupy prominent positions in government and research. They have also excelled in professional areas of work like business, education, law, engineering, accounting, and science which has helped shape South Africa. Additionally, as a group, Indians have played a pivotal role in the fight against Apartheid and discrimination, with iconic South African Indian struggle icons like Ahmed Kathrada, Dr GM Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo, to name but a few. As well as the late famous Anti-Apartheid lawyers like Priscilla Jana who represented the likes of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Meritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ebrahim Ebrahim, Solomon Mahlangu and Steve Biko. The South African Indian Congress (SAIC) which was formerly absorbed by the African National Congress (ANC) was an important tool in voicing the concerns of Indian South Africans during Apartheid. The SAIC was also a member of the Defiance Campaign, the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, which was initiated by the ANC, SAIC, the South African Colored People’s Organization (SACPO) and the South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD). The SAIC also had members who were amongst the Treason Trial defendants and members in the uMkhonto weSizwe when it was formed in 1961. Based upon these facts, in a short space of time, the Indian race have achieved a lot, especially when considering that they are a product of colonialism, they make up a small portion of SA’s population size and their ancestors braved and suffered through some of the most inhuman conditions, so that future generations could have a better life.

In light of these positive contributions, we also need to consider the current stance of South African Indians in South African society. As there is not enough empirical scientific data to back this up, some of these view points are based on my lived experiences as a 3rd generation South African of Indian origin (I recently discovered that my great-grandfather arrived during the period 1860-1911). The most important point to ruminate upon is whether South African Indians consider themselves as a part of building the future South Africa. Based upon my lived experiences, you come across two types of South African Indians, those (like myself) who consider South Africa their home (with religion being the only link to India) and those who see South Africa as a springboard for something else. The latter, is what I term, the “diaspora thinkers” or the Indian South Africans who consider themselves Indian before South African (we see this especially when South Africa and India play cricket against each other). These “diaspora thinkers” are the ones who are looking to move on to greener pastures abroad. There is nothing wrong with looking for better opportunities for you and your family. Indians in general, are renowned for their diaspora communities around the world they have made successful lives in the United States (US), Canada and New Zealand, to name but a few. The problem with these groups of people, however, is that they encourage a negative divide amongst South African Indians which contradicts the nation-building process we are trying to achieve in modern day South Africa. Things may not be perfect in South Africa, but this country has given us livelihood and substance, it is therefore important to be respectful towards it.

Another major issue we need to reflect upon is the racism and colourism within the South African Indian Community. A few years ago when Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) leader Julius Malema said that Indians are racist, this caused a stir within the Indian community. I agree with Julius (to a certain extent), some Indians can be racist, but his statement oversimplified a complex issue within the Indian community. I have heard some members of my family and a few friends use “colourful” words to describe members of the black and coloured communities within their homes and this is unacceptable (these are the same people who want to support the #blacklivematters movement). This needs to change and we need to confront these family members and friends about these preconceptions about other races. Arguments that our family members “will not learn” because they are “old” or it is just a “word” is something we should not stand for anymore. We also need to address the issue of colourism within our own communities which encourage this racist behaviour. We have all heard the “don’t play in the sun because you will get black” or that if you are fairer in complexion then you are assumed to be prettier or more handsome. This colourism and discrimination stems from the caste system and these are outdated systems of thought that must die. The irony of this problem is that South African Indians were a major factor in the fight for democracy and equality, yet we are still afflicted by these racial prejudices. 

That being said, South African Indian’s have played a major part in shaping South Africa and will continue to do so. We have contributed significantly to this country in terms of culture, language, identity, politics, art and business. We still, however, face issues of fully accepting our identity as South African Indians and issues of racial prejudices. In relation to the population size, South African Indians will continue to play a vital role in shaping a positive future for all South Africans. It is time that we embrace our unique histories and identities as Indians, South Africans and Africans, and we use this unique amalgamation of backgrounds to help build a brighter South Africa. I hope that South African Indian readers of this article reflect upon their history and how they will contribute positively or negatively to the future of South Africa. 

I salute my ancestors for the great sacrifices they made! I am proud to call myself a South African Indian who is vital in shaping the future of South Africa.

Jervin Naidoo is the founder of The Art of Politics and works as a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Politics Science at the University of Pretoria.


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