Defend Truth


SA Indians face challenges of identity


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

South African Indians are usually seen as a homogeneous community that presented a united front against apartheid. However, the democratic era and empowerment policies have seen a re-emergence of ethnic and sub-ethnic divisions as different groups seek identity in class, language and religion.

The date 16 November 2019 marks the 159th anniversary of the arrivals of indentured labourers in South Africa. The origin of South African Indians can be traced back to the agricultural labour requirements of colonial Natal in the mid-19th century.

It has been conventionally argued that the abundant indigenous Zulu labour in Natal was inadequate and unsuitable for sugar plantations. However, on the contrary, the local Zulus comprised a capable labour force and were “by no means disinclined to labour, or unwilling to render it to the planters, but upon their own terms and at their own times”. (Daily News, 13/11/1960). The indentured labourers undermined the Zulus’ bargaining power and this led to Indo-Zulu tensions, which persist and periodically resurface in public – even in the democratic era.

According to historian PS Joshi (1942) the indentured labour system was introduced by the British as a substitute for “forced labour and slavery [or what in the 21 st century would be called human trafficking]. The indentured coolies were half slaves, bound over body and soul by a hundred and one inhuman regulations.” Indentured labourers were vital to the economy of Natal because they could be exploited with long working hours and low wages, which were further reduced through massive penalties for petty offences.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers on 16 November 2010, Phumelele Stone Sizani, chief whip of the ANC, in an address to Parliament, made the following comparative observation:

When the Indians arrived in the colony of Natal to work on the sugar cane farms they were, in fact, no different from the African people, who were hunted like animals, captured and forcibly transported to the Americas to work on the farms, in households and in the construction industries that produced the great civilisations of Latin and North America.

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; by their culture of self-help and self-reliance, and a sense of development and progress. These values sustained their human dignity in adversity and aroused the disposition to associate with one another for mutual benefit.”

Traditionally, South African Indians have been viewed as a homogeneous community and presented a united front in opposing apartheid. However, the democratic era has witnessed the resurgence of ethnic and sub-ethnic identities (class, language, religion). Linguistic divisions, linked to geographical ancestral roots in India, for example, were very strong in the first half of the 20th century. They diminished somewhat over the past thirty years, as a result of a significant increase in inter-linguistic marriages. Ironically, in the post-1994 period, there has been a resurgence of linguistic divisions and associated “business forums” in a community where the majority neither speak nor understand the vernaculars.

What is the nature of connections with India? And how does India connect with the indentured diaspora?

For some, a reconnection is taking place via the internet, satellite TV networks, Bollywood – and dime a dozen “gurus” exploiting the vulnerable. (Of course, there are some senior swamis who are doing amazing work, empowering the poor and straddling race-class boundaries.)

Most descendants of indentured labourers have no links with India except as an abstract, spiritual motherland, which many pilgrims find disappointing as faith has been commodified and religion betrays the poor and disadvantaged.

An interesting issue from which the motherland could benefit was an acknowledgement by the High Level [Singhvi] Committee on the Indian Diaspora that, among descendants of the indentured, “a form of Hinduism … was being practised by people who had rid themselves of traditions and customs like jaati (caste) and sati (immolation of widows), gotra (lineage)and dowry”.

The relationships between religions, especially Hinduism and Islam, are fairly harmonious in South Africa and this has been significantly influenced by the way in which Indians participated in the struggle for democracy. However, there is a need to be wary of sinister attempts to import the politics of India and Pakistan into South Africa, which have the potential to destabilise religious tolerance and harmony and undermine social cohesion.

Nascent tensions and conflict between Africans and Indians have resurfaced periodically and have increased the vulnerability of the minority group, compounded by the frustration of being sidelined in affirmative action and black economic empowerment schemes. The government response was that Indians also ought to be favoured by affirmative action and that any attempt to exclude them from such programmes was a deliberate misinterpretation of the legislation. In 1998 President Nelson Mandela maintained that “affirmative action is not intended to benefit any particular ethnic group but is intended to open opportunities and resources to all previously disadvantaged people – Africans, coloureds and Indians, women and the disabled of all groups”.

While those in the business and professional sectors have thrived in the post-apartheid era, working-class Indians increasingly feel disillusioned, marginalised and excluded from the Rainbow Nation. There has also been an alarming increase in psycho-social problems, as reflected in an increase in family violence, suicide, abuse of women (as patriarchy is challenged), divorces and inter-generational conflicts. Many of these workers have little in common with affluent Indians as far as lifestyle is concerned (a function of vastly different consumer capacities), yet they are identified with middle- and high-income earners.

As Adam Habib and Sanusha Naidu contended in 1999, the poorest sections of the Indian community have been adversely affected by the “simultaneous application of an affirmative action policy with a neo-liberal economic programme”. Those Indians with low levels of skills and training are vulnerable and can be easily replaced by Africans when companies are forced to change the demographic profile of their employees.

As racism, ethnic chauvinism, xenophobia, cronyism and the celebration of mediocrity become more pronounced in the new South Africa, and the ruling elite blatantly flouts democratic principles forged on the anvil of struggle, the descendants of indentured labourers increasingly feel disillusioned and marginalised and anxiously retreat into religious and cultural cocoons.

In spite of these concerns South African Indians are clear about their identity, and this is encapsulated by the views of Judge Jody Kollapen when he was South African Human Rights Commissioner:

When we look at ourselves as South Africans, we face all kinds of challenges. One is our identity. Who are we? Are we Indians? Are we Indian South Africans? Are we South African Indians? And culture is a very important component of who we are, defining our existence…

Without a doubt, we have a strong umbilical cord to our origins in India and we should not be ashamed about that and be proud about that. We should wear our culture proudly on our arm, but at the same time, we should remind ourselves that we live in Africa, and our destiny is inextricably linked to the people of this continent…

The constitution doesn’t just require us to advance and respect our culture. It requires us also to be South African – to step outside the box of our own culture and to embrace other cultures; to be enriched by those cultures. That is the challenge in many respects for South Africans of Indian origin.” (

South African Indians need to consider ways in which they can contribute towards nurturing and consolidating our fledgling democracy, as well as assisting in the process of reconciliation, reconstruction and development. There is a need to reach out to other communities in a way that is not condescending, but out of genuine concern to shed prejudices and breakdown barriers entrenched by apartheid.

The Indian contribution to the socio-political transformation should be the satyagraha tradition, to “demonstrate to the country and to the world that the principles of non-violence, democracy and racial tolerance will have a home in … South Africa … and a vigorously protected one at that”. (Leader, 18/9/91). DM


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