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Opinionista

Racism by and against Indian South Africans poisons our land

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

For years now, the EFF has been able to threaten and insult people of Indian descent without consequence. The failure of the ANC to deal with the chauvinism in its ranks, and to take a principled position against the EFF, has turned many Indian people away from the party.

In November 1860, the Truro arrived in Durban harbour from Madras, carrying the first 342 indentured labourers brought from India to work on the sugar plantations of colonial Natal. When slavery was outlawed across the British empire in 1833, the colonial authorities turned to indenture as a new form of labour to work the lucrative sugar plantations.  

People dispossessed by English colonialism in India were recruited as indentured workers and sent to colonial Natal, Mauritius and the Caribbean. In South Africa, the anniversary of the landing of the Truro has come to be an annual commemoration of indenture, and the community it founded. It is much like how the landing of the Windrush, which brought the first batch of post-war migrants to the UK from Jamaica in 1948, is remembered in the UK. 

It is often said that the first people from India arrived on these shores on the Truro in 1860. That is a myth that erases a much longer history of Indian presence in this part of the world. Just under a thousand years ago, the ancient city of Mapungubwe was trading with India, China and the Arab world and many India traders spent time in this region, leaving traces of various kinds.  

Many of the slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch were from India, and most people considered to be white Afrikaners today have some Indian ancestry. There were many Indian sailors among those who made their way ashore after being wrecked along the Wild Coast from the early 1500s and became part of the Mpondo community. 

It is true, though, that indenture resulted in the emergence of a large community of people of Indian descent, kept separate from other communities via colonial and apartheid segregation. Unlike the communities of Indian descent in many other African countries who had arrived as traders, the descendants of indentured workers were often not able to keep ties with family in India and developed a new local culture, drawing on various influences.  

Divide and rule was always a central colonial tactic to maintain domination. Across the continent, Africans were divided into various “tribes”, and people of Indian or Arab descent, as well as people deemed to be “mixed race”, were placed as an intermediate racial layer in the colonial system.  

In South Africa, some people of Indian descent embraced this intermediate position. In some cases, this was largely a result of political timidity. But there is certainly also a current of racism that has festered in the Indian community. Although things are changing there are, to this day, families that would be fine with their child marrying a white person, but would find it difficult to accept an African son- or daughter-in-law. 

But many Indians threw in their lot with the majority during the colonial and apartheid periods. People of Indian descent played key roles in the SACP, the ANC, the trade union movement, the UDF and, of course, the black consciousness movement. The political tradition of the ANC initially accepted the colonial and then apartheid idea that South Africa was made up of four race groups – Africans, whites, coloureds and Indians. The Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress were happy to organise on the basis of Verwoerdian conceptions of race. 

It was the black consciousness movement that changed this, declaring that all people not deemed to be white by the apartheid state were black. The black consciousness movement was a direct challenge to the elites in the Natal and Transvaal congresses, and after its explosive arrival in Durban in the late 1960s, serious Indian activists would all work outside of the narrow strictures of apartheid race-thinking. 

Today the non-racial tradition, which came late to the ANC, continues to be affirmed and practised in the trade union movement and in many grassroots organisations. But, for some years now, there has been a conservative faction in the ANC driven by crude forms of chauvinism. An early sign of this degeneration in the party’s politics was the infamous 2007 comment by Fikile Mbalula, then the ANC Youth League president, that the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was “nothing but Bombay”. 

The EFF has its roots in this kind of chauvinism. It does not come out of the SACP, trade union or UDF traditions, all of which took non-racialism as an inviolable principle. For years now the EFF has been able to threaten and insult people of Indian descent without consequence. The failure of the ANC to deal with the chauvinism in its ranks, and to take a principled position against the EFF, has turned many people of Indian descent away from the party.  

The crass chauvinism of the EFF, which often draws directly from colonial stereotypes, has made many people of Indian descent unsure of their future in the country of their birth. Some people feel that while they have legal citizenship, they are being stripped of a substantive access to the experience of really belonging, and being at home. 

At the same time, the rise of overt white racism that followed Donald Trump’s ascent to power in the United States has meant that middle-class Indians are often made to feel unwelcome in elite spaces, like gated communities. Every year there are shocking reports of threats of violence, racist insults and the inevitable demands to “go back to India” during Diwali. Some Indian families report their neighbours or children’s school teachers confidently declaring that “South Africa is a Christian country” during Diwali or Eid. 

If we are to have a chance of a non-racial future, white South Africans need to deal, decisively, with the racists in their midst. 

The ANC needs to take a clear and principled position against the politics of chauvinism, and a new generation of activists of Indian descent needs to vigorously confront the racism that still poisons the minds of some in their communities of birth. DM

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  • Rory Short says:

    “The ANC needs to take a clear and principled position against the politics of chauvinism,”

    What a commendable idea. It would however first require, that the chauvinism(racism) that exudes from every pore of the ANC was acknowledged by the ANC before it could address it in a meaningful way.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A cogent argument which enhances the complexity and nuances of what the ‘non-racial’ tag involves. Given the reference to Trumpism, it should be noted that a potential presidential candidate in the next US election being touted is Nikki Haley as a Republican of ‘colour’. This confused individual who has desperately tried to be ‘white’ (an outstanding requirement to ‘fit in’ with being Republican inspite of her Indian parentage) is now going to deploy her Indian ‘heritage’ to compete against Kamala as a person of colour ploy. Strange how things around identity and non-racialism evolve and change !

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