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Monument to the indentured – or figment of the imagination?


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

In 2010, on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers, the KZN government and the eThekwini municipality made a commitment to build an R4.8-million monument to honour the indentured. But the trail of the proposed monument suddenly went cold.

In the history of the movement of indentured labour, the following dates are significant: Fiji, 14 May; Mauritius, 2 November; Trinidad, 30 May; Guyana, 8 May; Suriname, 5 June; Jamaica, 10 May. These are the dates of arrival of indentured labourers at their respective destinations. These dates are also recognised as national holidays in these countries, and are called Indian Arrival Day.

There is some debate about what is being celebrated, as expressed by Trinidadian Shastri Sookdeo: “I have a clear understanding that my family comes from India, but the link is tenuous enough that I do not feel a link to India as a country. I speak no Indian languages and understand little of life in India. Yet there is a link. It is that link to heritage that I believe should be celebrated, more than the celebration of arrival.”

On 16 November 1860, the Truro arrived at the Port of Natal out of Madras with the first batch of 342 indentured labours, followed by the Belvedere from Calcutta 10 days later, these being the ports of departure from south and north India, respectively (not sure whether this may explain historical regional and linguistic rivalries?).

Out of the ship’s holds emerged a human cargo of indentured labourers. The journey had replaced their names with numbers and their future was to be cogs in the white man’s machine. Hardly had they landed on terra firma, than they were separated and bundled off to sugar plantations to labour under conditions of near slavery.

As historian PS Joshi argues, the British introduced the indentured labour system as a substitute for “forced labour and slavery. The indentured ‘coolies’ were half slaves, bound body and soul by a hundred and one inhuman regulations”. Subsequently, there were 384 trips across the kala paani (“black waters”) between 1860 and 1911. The last indentured cargo arrived on the Umlazi on 21 July 1911.

The resilience of the indentured in overcoming adversity was emphasised by senior ANC member Phumelele Stone Sizani in a parliamentary address on 16 November 2010, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers: “These Indians, like African slaves and workers in America, came from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but were united by their spiritual traditions which nourished their self-respect, self-worth and self-esteem, culture of self-help and self-reliance … Thus they conducted their lives according to sound moral and ethical principles, despite the adverse conditions in which they lived and worked … social transformation cannot be achieved without spiritual transformation. The Indian community built its own temples, schools, mosques and cultural schools, through which they preserved and practised their diverse cultures, religions and languages … In our work as public representatives, community workers and leaders we must learn from the Indian community, the African diaspora and the founders of our nation, that social transformation cannot be achieved without spiritual transformation.”

For several reasons, November 16 is an insignificant day on the South African calendar, let alone a public holiday. There was an idealistic belief in democratic non-racialism, and the expectation that the Mandela mode of reconciliation and nation building would endure. Third and fourth generation descendants of indentured labourers had long lost their umbilical connections with India, which at best served as some form of abstract, distant religious and cultural reference point.

Disgracefully, the non-racial dream is rapidly turning into a nightmare as the ruling ANC political party is torn asunder by ethnicity, tribalism, racism (and above all, looting from the public purse), unimaginable when the democratic South Africa’s founding document was penned. Barely a decade into democracy, there have been public comments and mobilisation from some sectors that South African Indians should consider returning “home” to India. (Of course, the adopted Indian prince may provide succour for some and especially the consolation that the Zulu King has not yet been captured, unlike the ruling elite in the ANC).

In 2010, on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers, the KZN government and the eThekwini municipality made a commitment to build an R4.8-million monument to honour the indentured. In an editorial comment on 2 November 2016, the Post newspaper expressed concern about the delays in honouring this commitment:

What is particularly frustrating is that erection of this monument is not just an initiative by the Indian community. It was meant to be an inclusive project embracing all South Africans – one that would serve to bring people from different communities together and unify them. A clear message needs to be sent out to the organising committee that these endless delays and excuses cannot be tolerated any further. If there is apathy or a lack of political will within your ranks, get rid of the dead wood immediately. If there is hint of political interference behind the delays, let’s bring this out into the open. If you need guidance from experts in the choosing of a suitable sculpture, just say so. Monuments like the 1860 project are important to South Africans wanting to celebrate a shared history, so get your house in order.”

Perhaps responding to this call, on 15 November 2016, KZN Premier Willies Mchunu, together with the leadership of eThekwini municipality, participated in a sod-turning ceremony at Addington Beach for the erection of a monument to indenture.

Premier Willies Mchunu reassured South African Indians: “We remain indebted to the Indian indentured labourers for their contribution, especially in terms of establishing the agricultural potential of KwaZulu-Natal, making it the world renowned region of the sugar industry. By working towards the erection of the monument, we are expressing our deep appreciation to our fellow brothers and sisters from India who unequivocally declared South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal in particular their preferred place to live in”. Sadly, as subsequent events reveal, the real KZN ANC boss, Sihle Zikalala, had other ideas about South African Indians.

Inevitably, there is speculation about whether this is why the trail of the proposed monument suddenly went cold. There was apparently a public call for design proposals that would reflect the “aspirations and sentiments” of Indians South Africans. The monument would not only be “commemorating the arrival of the 1860 indentured labourers, but creating a landmark tourist destination for the city. The memorial must also act as a catalyst for further development along the promenade”.

A project of this nature will require public consultation and participation, but there is no evidence that this has taken place. It was left to academics to initiate debate on this issue, led by indenture specialist Professor Ashwin Desai: “How does one do justice in recollecting, and honouring, the journey through one-and-a-half centuries of an Indian community who has been viewed, for the greatest part of that period, as a minority and as insignificant to the country they’ve adopted as home – a country far removed from their motherland, and alien to their culture, religion and ways of life? How does one not only commemorate but also empower the memory of such a people, and address their unique contribution to such a country, in the most solicitous and worthy of terms?

Professor Goolam Vahed warned that honouring the past should not “lead to ‘ghettoisation’ and isolation from historical relationships with other ‘racial’ groups in post-apartheid South Africa”.

As delays and procrastinations take their toll, and public funds are transferred to dubious Dubai, one wonders whether the monument to the indentured will ever see the light of day, or remain a figment of the imaginations of their descendants. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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