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Let’s talk about Indian privilege in apartheid South Africa


Ayesha Fakie is the Head: Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation. .

The Indian community has a part to play in acknowledging our privilege and our prejudices.

I once asked my father why he left India, in the 1960s, for South Africa of all places. I was a teenager at the time and like every know-it-all teen was eager to point out how less-than-smart he was for coming to a country that had apartheid as the law of the land.

He never really answered me definitively. I don’t think I’ll ever get a clear answer. I do know now, though, that the opportunity for a better life was out of reach on the southern coasts of India. And to make a better life for his family there he and his brother made their way to South Africa. Apartheid South Africa. I’ve often mused on how it must have been inconsequential to them; India is infamous for its caste system, after all. My family, on both my mother and father’s sides, are descended from Passenger Indians (traders, teachers, merchants who paid their fare to SA), different from the indentured migrants that are more commonly known in Indian-South African history.

Growing up, my father made clear to my sisters and me that we were to get educated, earn our own living and never be dependent on a man. So far, so good. It was also made clear to me that I shouldn’t even think of dating a Malay Muslim, that I’d better marry the right Indian man from the right family, with the right credentials. I remember him going on a rant about how some last names were dead giveaways for their place in the caste, how he’d have none of that.

This kind of thinking is a mere hint at the dark underbelly of prejudice in the Indian community that I’ve seen. Prejudice against other Indians and Muslims (despite what Islam preaches about unity and equality in the faith). And, more disturbingly, prejudice against anyone else.

From inside the community, Indian-on-Indian and intra-Muslim prejudice abounds. Your name is your legacy. What variant of Indian language you can speak and how well you can speak it. How people from a different village “back home” is lesser. What your family has achieved (houses, cars, money). Whom your daughters and sons have married. How beautiful your daughters are, where beauty is measured by the luck of fair skin and yards of hair.

Colourism is so rife that when my mother, nicknamed “wit vrou”, married my “as dark as Mandela” father, people were approvingly surprised that the kids came out like mom. Gender relations are so harmful that the collective Indian liver needs a detox: My sister once had some words to say to a sheikh; he responded to end the conversation, “I do not talk to women!” Her comeback, with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow, has become sisterly lore: “So you and your wife have silent sex?”

Attending an extended family gathering increases your likelihood of hearing vile racial slurs against black people that make you want to leave the room. The way some domestic workers are treated, whether coloured or black, is telling of Indian chauvinism – separate plates and utensils. You can’t claim it is for halaal reasons when you’re the one serving the food, so what else is it than viewing other races as sub-human, even if it is on some atomic scale? White people are, of course, still respected, even deferred to. They’re also considered cultureless fools whose women are “loose”. Some of the prejudice is so nonsensical (all racism is irrational, to be honest); Pakistanis don’t escape it. Or rather, especially Pakistanis don’t escape it.

Confronting any of it makes you a race or faith traitor, you’re told to keep quiet and know your place. Indian people like to celebrate the Kathradas and Gools and all the others that fought in the Struggle. However, what’s not talked about is the ongoing prejudice and racism. And how Indians benefited from apartheid more than any other race group besides white people, because not all oppression is equal. How, post-1994, Indian South Africans have seen the “fastest growth in per capita income (468%) according to Standard Bank economist Siphamandla Mkhwanazi. It’s no wonder that IJR’s own SA Reconciliation Barometer found that Indians are most optimistic about their financial future (compared to more than half of South Africans who felt that their personal financial situation was likely to deteriorate) and that their family fortunes had changed for the better since 1994.

We have a part to play in acknowledging that and making it right. How we Indians benefit more from empowerment policies than black people such that while the focus is on the black economic elite, there are far more Indians (14%) making up the 46,800 millionaires in South Africa. We are relatively and significantly well off as a minority (3%) against the backdrop of mass poverty of black people in their own land.

Unless we’re comfortable with all of this we need to do better. Racial prejudice is not uncommon among and between persons of colour. Colonialist legacy and white supremacy oppresses all our minds. Yet when we acknowledge the ways in which we all discriminate, the ways we are all complicit in some form or another, it should motivate us to try understanding each other in these more layered ways. Ways that do not “currywash” the past without asking hard questions among and between people of colour. Especially where privilege benefits Indians to the extent that our economic and social capital allows us to advance disproportionately. And, create a national conversation on how Indian people in South Africa, especially, must confront our complicity while celebrating our part in the Struggle, and talk more and do more on the subject of Indian privilege. DM


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