The buck starts here
19 August 2017 17:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Brij Maharaj

Anti-Indian statements are racism of the worst order

  • Brij Maharaj
    Brij-Maharaj.jpg
    Brij Maharaj

    Brij Maharaj is a professor of geography at UKZN who believes (perhaps naively!) that a fair, just, non-racial and non-sexist society is still possible in South Africa.

16 November 2015 marks the 155 anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers from India, to toil on the cane fields of Natal. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on the challenges facing this community.

South African Indians constitute a vulnerable ethnic minority, and have been “sandwiched” between the economically dominant whites, and the African majority. Historically, there have been tensions between Indians and Africans, because the former enjoyed a relatively privileged position compared to the majority, primarily because of community survival strategies. The recent anti-Indian sentiments attributed to the Mazibuye African Forum, is the culmination of an incipient anti-Indianism which has been infiltrating South Africa’s democracy. While there are exploiters in all racial, tribal, ethnic and cultural groups, threatening one community is tantamount to a form of persecution. More sinisterly, the anti-Indian vitriol appears to be emerging from the deep under-belly of the ANC.

A few examples will suffice.

In early 2002, internationally renowned playwright and composer, Mbongeni Ngema released an inflammatory anti-Indian song, AmaiNiya, in the Zulu language in which he called for “strong and brave men to confront Indians ... Whites were far better than Indians … we are poor because all things have been taken by Indians. They are oppressing us”. The song was condemned by the South African Human Rights Commission, and was subsequently banned from the airwaves.

Bronwyn Harris, a former project manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation at the University of Cape Town, contended that Ngema’s song was xenophobic, and also raised questions of identity and citizenship: “AmaNdiya does not only portray negative stereotypes that are drawn on racial lines. It also creates prejudice through the language of xenophobia. By presenting ‘Indians’ as outsiders from India, the song raises questions about belonging within South Africa. This moves beyond race alone because it introduces concepts of citizenship and nationality. It implies that ‘Indians’ are not South African, and, therefore, have less legitimate claim to their citizenship than others”.

Ngema’s closeness to the ruling elite may explain the deafening silence from political leaders, and the government on the song, which would normally have elicited spontaneous, and unequivocal condemnation from those committed to non-racialism. Ngema was also the chief beneficiary of the controversial decision of the KZN Government to close the Durban Indian Documentation Centre.

In 2007, when he was ANC Youth League resident, Fikile Mbalula (current Minister of Sports) presented the June 1976 Memorial Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he contended that transformation had turned the University of KwaZulu-Natal “into nothing but Bombay”, and that African students “suffer on the periphery of transformation … When you get into that institution you think it’s an exclusive university of Indians only”.

One of the ANCs stalwarts, Phyllis Naidoo, maintained that Mbalula’s outburst was “xenophobic”. Veteran activist and scholar, Professor Fatima Meer, contended that: “To call it (UKZN) Bombay is being very racist. The tragedy is that we have just emerged from suffering from racism, and now we go back harping on about not liking one race or another.”

Since 2009 Indians opposed to the destruction of the century-old Warwick market, in Durban, which had an umbilical connection with the descendants of indentured labourers, were taunted with chants of “Hamba khaya! Hamba uye eBombay” (Go home! Go home to Mumbai!), from the rent-a-mob groups aligned to the ruling party, in front of senior ANC leaders, with impunity.

On 17 July 2009, in public meeting organised by the eThekwini municipality: Chairperson of eThekwini Business and Market Committee, Faso Majola, … said in Zulu that, “Indians only want to protect their interests in the Warwick, area and they don’t want township people moving in”. Head of eThekwini Business Support and Markets, Philip Sithole declared that, “Let us take the food from the mouths of the Indians! Now is the time for Africans to be in power! We will remove them all, and replace them with blacks!”

Other attacks include the head of South Africa’s Government Communication and Information Services, and the President Black Management Forum, Jimmy Manyi’s suggestion, in March 2011, that there were too many Indians in KwaZulu-Natal, and that many of them buy their way to the top. Trevor Manuel, National Planning Minister at the time, wrote an open letter to Manyi, in which he called him a “worst-order racist”. In October 2010, when he was the leader of the ANCYL, Julius Malema, made reference to “amakula” (a derogatory term for Indians) when addressing a meeting in Thembelihle, “where service-delivery protests have been lent a sharper edge by perceptions that Indian residents of nearby Lenasia are treated better by the government”. The Times newspaper questioned Melama’s motives, and warned about its ominous consequences: “What is Malema’s intention in using such language - perhaps to incite a Rwandan-style genocide? We are no rainbow nation. That much is clear. And the glibness with which supposed leaders manipulate race and dispossession to fight their causes will surely come back to haunt us all. We have already witnessed the shocking atrocity of foreigners being attacked and killed in South Africa. This time, if we are not careful, it will be our people who are targeted”.

One possible reason for the anti-Indian hype, according to the late Professor Fatima Meer, was that “when the majority community is beset by want, anxiety, dissatisfaction and fear, it tends to exhibit a lack of compassion and tolerance for minorities. It may become dangerously hostile when the minority community next to it … is prospering and on the rise socially, economically and politically”.

As racism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism, xenophobia, cronyism and the celebration of mediocrity become more pronounced in the new South Africa, and the ruling elite blatantly flout democratic principles forged on the anvil of struggle, the passive descendants of indentured labourers increasingly feel disillusioned, marginalised and excluded from the rainbow nation, and anxiously retreat into their religious and cultural cocoons, which is sometimes interpreted as a form of racism.

When he was KZN provincial ANC secretary, Sihle Zikalala, conceded: “There is a perception among people of other race groups that we do not represent their interests. We need to show everyone that the ANC is a non-racial organisation”.

A major problem has been a dearth of astute, credible leadership in the community, who can genuinely represent the working class and the poor. Largely as a result of a lack of astute leadership, Indians face the possibility of being politically marginalised in the post-apartheid era. The various deprecatory comments and racial slurs made over the last decade may well be an appropriate warning to the South African Indian community to awake and arise from their apathetic slumber.

The challenge for South African Indians is to decide whether they would identify with the majority, and in the process develop a platform for constructive engagement with the government of the day, or whether they would continue to regard themselves as a minority, and hanker for some form of connection with India. There have been whispers of forming an “Indian” political party, even reviving the Natal Indian Congress, which was mercifully aborted, and a return to cabal politics averted. Minority political parties are inevitably destined for the fringes.

A silent question is whether it is possible to build a democratic, progressive platform from the grassroots level that could articulate the problems and challenges facing the South African Indian community, without becoming the surrogate of any political party? In 1994 sociologist turned politician, Yunus Carrim, contended that an important gauge of the success of SA’s non-racial democracy would be the “degree to which Indians are integrated into the post-apartheid society”. Judged by this yardstick, there are ominous signals that the non-racial, democratic experiment may well be over. DM

  • Brij Maharaj
    Brij-Maharaj.jpg
    Brij Maharaj

    Brij Maharaj is a professor of geography at UKZN who believes (perhaps naively!) that a fair, just, non-racial and non-sexist society is still possible in South Africa.

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