In 1951, a young Nelson Mandela wrote of his personal doubts and those of his fellow African nationalists towards South African Indians. “Many of our grassroots African supporters saw Indians as exploiters of black labour in their role as shopkeepers and merchants,” he said. A few years earlier, in 1949, communal rioting against Indians engulfed the city of Durban and its surrounds, even threatening to spread to Mahatma Gandhi’s experimental ashram of non-violence at Phoenix.
These riots were borne out of long-suffering resentment by Zulus towards Indians, who they felt continued to perpetuate and benefit from a superior racial hierarchy instituted by the British. The Zulus’ resentment at the time was not ill-founded – as any careful reading of Gandhi’s objectives in South Africa will show, his political objectives were clearly limited to winning concessions for Indian merchants, and he considered it vital not to conflate Indian and Black African agendas, considering as he did Black Africans to be “too uncivilised” to become political allies with.
Now in her late 90s, my grandmother – hovering between bouts of cogency and heart-breaking signs of dementia – increasingly gravitates to her youth as the nightmares of 1949 flood back. She remembers rushing back from the Warwick Market as Black African youth attacked shops, and scurrying back in time to avoid being attacked. Just under 40 years later, the scenes replayed themselves during the 1986 riots against Indians in (then) Natal – and this time Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement was not spared. I remember my parents going out under cloak of darkness to try to help save whatever could be salvaged from the Settlement before the angry mobs burnt everything; a few things were saved, but a large amount of history wasn’t. As Joseph Lelyveld says of the times and of Indian-African relations, “A hangover of fear and mutual suspicion lingered…”
Over the past few weeks, sparked by the fallout from Guptagate and incendiary comments in our media, anti-Indian sentiment has again come to the fore. There has been widespread condemnation to the recent City Press diatribe by Phumlani Mfeka, who perhaps has been receiving more publicity than he is worthy of. In observing this fallout, I recall these incidents from our past not to show how victimised Indians have been in South Africa, but because they point to an incredibly complex and fraught cross-cultural relationship which I believe is essential to understand in order to make sense of recent developments.
Of the responses to Mfeka which I read, most tended to offer in response the historical contribution of Indians to the struggle, and offer that up as a defence for their role in the country’s development. So, yes, it is true that the same Mandela who expressed reservations about Indians and who famously denounced Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, would also come together with Indians to form the Defiance Campaign; and Indians would in time actually become the intellectual nucleus from which his political genius flowered. And as many commentators have pointed out, South African Indian intellectuals have historically exerted a disproportionate influence in the liberation movement’s politics – from Congress Party, to the SACP, to the PAC, the ANC and to the UDF. Their contribution cannot – must not – be forgotten. Indeed, perhaps nowhere else in the world has an Indian community played such a prominent and positive role in shaping a country’s political development – their contribution for their relative size arguably outstrips their disaporic counterparts’ political contribution in the United Kingdom, America, even Singapore. All of this is true. But to focus on just these virtues, and not to be alive to the very real resentment which has bubbled up cross culturally for all these years in South Africa, would be a very dangerous thing to do.
Such diatribes as Mfeka’s actually speak – even if unintentionally – to a deeper complaint which is not so easily answered, and which is I think cause for so much of the recent disquiet against Indians. If you examine the arguments more closely, they also speak to a grievance as to what modern Indians are doing in the land of their birth. So forget about the Cachalias, the Meers, the Ismail Mohameds and the Monty Naickers, this argument goes; look instead to the betrayals of their successors.
Writing a few years ago on the occasion of the 150th anniversary celebrations of Indians first arriving in this country, I remember noting this very same point and cautioning that as the “celebrations wind down and fades away, the emergent associations of our community in other South Africans’ eyes are increasingly coming to be represented by a few individuals who are notorious for nothing other than their ability to buy their way into transcient political power for personal gain.”
As a young South African of Indian origin, it would be very easy to write off Mfeka’s article as vitriolic hate speech – but to do so would be to delude myself; there are some very real cancers eating away within my community. It pains me that the calibre and moral fibre of past generations of Indian leaders do not appear to be present in so many of the Indian South Africans who find themselves in positions of power and influence today. Whereas we once had leaders of national importance, men and women of real substance – filled with their own foibles, of course, and their own personal flaws – today our community seems to be filled with hollow patriotism. It pains me to remember what heartbreak the actions of Schabir Shaik, Mac Maharaj and Mo Shaik wrought on the first decade of our democratic nation. It pains me to see that when President Zuma says, “I’ve always said a wise businessman supports the ANC… you can support… [and] your business will multiply”, the most visible expression of this brand of blatant cronyism appears to be Vivien Reddy, who has won numerous tenders not awarded through the usual processes. And I think it pains many of us to find out that the president’s son Edward, who has recently begun coming into politically connected deals, has had his house and much of his assets “bought” by Roy Moodley, another Indian accused of benefitting from dodgy empowerment deals. All of these, and several other, very powerful men have seemingly little of the purpose of integrity and civic duty which characterised their Indian predecessors. They espouse a venal brand of insider wealth accumulation so at odds with the vision upon which our new democracy was advocated – and it is this reality which pushes people like Mfeka to react in the way that they have.
So as much as I dislike his crude stereotyping, his words force us to confront some harsh truths. My hope is that Indians of my generation will in time rise up and rediscover the spirit of selflessness and civic duty which so characterised our community’s experience in this country. Until then, the resentment will only endure. DM
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