Defend Truth


‘Indian’ is an alienating name for Africans of Indian origin — call me Indo-African


Feizel Mamdoo is a former activist of the Transvaal Indian Congress and United Democratic Front.

In the context of South Africa’s current polarised politics, Indian South Africans are felt to be an immutable breed apart. This sense of isolation is significantly contributed to by the defining category ‘Indian’. It is today a flawed category and constitutes a positive obstacle to the affirmation of Indian South Africans as South African and of Africa.

It is a tragic irony that South Africa’s racial and ethnic boundaries have become more pronounced and entrenched post-apartheid, and a meaningful project for fluidity in the development of identities is lacking.

In the case of Indian South Africans, this impacts on a sense of national belonging that calls for a break with “Indian” as a term of recognition, and to unblock a pathway toward a fused national identity.

South Africa’s increased racial polarisation is grounded in the persisting legacies of the Group Areas Act which ruptured the development of integrated local identities and made for insular racial ghettos over the years. It is an unintended consequence too of continued racial categorisation in the interest of historical redress. It is the result also of continued experiences of racism suffered especially by black African people, as well as the dire socioeconomic circumstances of the majority of black African people in comparison to most of the rest of South Africa’s population.

And it is driven by strident political forces like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), including in particular between black African and Indian South Africans.

The governing African National Congress (ANC) too, the historical advocate and custodian of non-racialism and inspiration of a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, increasingly asserted under the presidency of Jacob Zuma a narrow African nationalism that has undermined its mission.

In this context, Indian South Africans are felt to be an immutable breed apart. But this sense of isolation is significantly contributed to by the defining category “Indian”. It is today a flawed category and constitutes a positive obstacle to the affirmation of Indian South Africans as South African and of Africa.

In everyday discourse, on the streets, in the media, in our institutions and organisations, and indeed in the eye and in the mind, Indian South Africans are “Indian”. But “Indian” as a means of distinction in the South African context, unlike the terms “black”, “white” or “coloured”, accords more than what is in the nature of such differentiation within a common national identity. It denotes a “nation-ness” essentially separate from the rest and carries associations with exclusionary implications.

Indian South Africans are not Indian nationals in the sense of the term that “Indian” denotes, and are socially and culturally different, having changed over generations from the earliest days of the arrival of Indians to the subcontinent.

1860 is generally considered to be the moment of Indian migration to South Africa, but revised scholarship shows Indians arrived first as slaves in 1653 before more substantially as indentured labourers in 1860 and, following, as merchants from the early 1870s.

Pallavi Rastogi (2008) notes that the first Indians who arrived in South Africa had “their Indianness […] erased by centuries of intermingling as well as by the apartheid taxonomy that classified them as Coloured”.

Aline Jeanette John-Naidu (2005) details the passage of this change as follows: “Most of these Indian slaves had been shipped from Bengal or the Coromandal coast. They were unable to preserve their distinct identity in the Cape as ‘Indians’. They married slaves from East Asia, other parts of Africa, or from the indigenous KhoiKhoi and San inhabitants. The descendants became known as ‘Malays’. Interestingly these individuals under apartheid’s classification became classified as ‘Coloureds’.”

Following, the diverse descendants of the 19th century Indian immigrants too evolved over generations in values, outlook, language, dress, religious practices, cuisine, customs, rituals and festivals. These may now be said to be of a distinctly South African kind.

Yet, as John-Naidu says, “in the discourses surrounding Indian national identity, South African Indians very often represent it as being unchanged through time and portray the image of people still adhering to customs and traditions in an absolutist manner”. This ring-fenced representation is a fallacy and circumscribes Indian South Africans from national belonging.

Together with the internal cultural shifts and changes in Indian culture, indeed its South African indigenisation, South Africans of Indian descent have adopted and internalised from South Africa’s diverse cultures. This was particularly evident in cosmopolitan urban communities across South Africa pre the racial isolation of peoples under the Group Areas Act. The experience was one of integrated local identities that drew on a diversity of social and cultural influences.

In places like Cato Manor, Fordsburg, Vrededorp, Marabastad and Sophiatown, a more or less common social culture was shared by so-called coloured, Malay, black African and Indian South Africans. While there were racial, ethnic, religious and class-based distinctions, this coexisted with diffused margins between peoples in a melting pot of shared identity. It was expressed inter alia in the slang that was spoken, the variety of language expressions that were assimilated, the clothes worn, the food eaten, the festivals participated in and shared between faiths, and the kind of social life enjoyed.

From research I undertook about the community in which I was born and raised, Pageview/Vrededorp, endearingly nicknamed “Fietas”, the ways in which cultural exchange and assimilation took place to fuse a shared identity is instructive.

Rashid Subjee, formerly of Sophiatown, lived in what he describes as a “mixed compound”. His mother spoke Afrikaans and Urdu, as did his father, but not English. “Everything was done in Afrikaans,” he says. His mother could also speak “black languages” and often cooked pap with tomato curry and a small piece of snoek for supper.

Ntate Modimokwane, whose home language is Tswana, remembers speaking a variety of languages in Fietas as a young boy, including Afrikaans, Zulu and English. Junior Jacobs, the son of a Zulu mother and “coloured” father, learnt words specific to the Malay people which became part of his own vocabulary, like kanala (please) and kasi (thank you). And Russel Abrahams, a Lenasia pastor, relates how Indian South Africans spoke Afrikaans because of the influence of “coloured” people.

As for religion, festivals, in particular, were appreciated and shared across faiths. Christmas earned Subjee a glass of juice and sweets. And for Junior Jacobs, a Christian, “everyone in Fietas would celebrate Eid because as Muslims and non-Muslims we all lived together”.

Boeta “Bhakkie” Abrahams echoes the inclusivity of cultural participation in Fietas. “Ramadan was lovely. All the kids used to stand on the stoeps and wait for the azaan and then run all over the streets screaming, ‘azaan, azaan, azaan’. The non-Muslims were part of all of this. At times hulle was eerste op die voet when it came to breaking fasts or sighting the moon.”

Jacobs also regulated his daily life by the early morning azaan. He would chop wood to make a fire, and with the call to prayer at dawn, warm the water for the father of the household to wash in time for work.

The exposure to and embrace of culture can be one-sided as a factor of unequal power relations, dominated, as in this case, by Muslims for example, including because of greater wealth or social organisation. But in Fietas, it was a two-way street of exchange.

While Junior learnt surahs (prayers) from the Quran, he also shared his knowledge of the Bible. And Zwelakhe Zulu recounts how members of “other ethnic groups like Indians” were exposed to the culture of stick fighting that was practiced by Zulus, Sothos and AmaMpondo.

Abrahams tells a classic story of cross-cultural engagement: “I remember on New Year’s Day the Malays would come past singing in their costumes and the Africans would throw them with buckets of water. You see for the Malays they sing when it is New Year and the Africans throw buckets of water for New Year because it cleanses you of your sins… You see, there wasn’t a problem”.

This experience of multicultural interaction and integration eschews a multiculturalism wherein cultures are considered immutable, strongly bordered, and coexist separately from one another. Instead, there is a fluidity, allowing for dynamic cross-cultural assimilation and the making of new identities. Aspects of old cultural identities are retained, influenced and changed; aspects of new identities embraced and internalised; and the whole of the subject culturally transformed.

Vijay Prashad (2001) uses the term “polyculturalism” to describe this. It differs from multiculturalism, he says, “by acknowledging that cultures are dynamic, interactive and impure”. Where multiculturalism treats cultures “as static entities and emphasises their differences”, polyculturalism “pictures them as always in flux and emphasises their connections”.

In South Africa’s quest for a shared non-racial national identity, the openness of and exchange between its cultures must be encouraged. The signifier “Indian” tends to work against this, closing off in separation rather than reaching out in connection.

Indian South African identity is, without doubt, hybrid and uniquely South African. However, the assimilation of Western and white European culture by Indian South Africans is dominant. Indian South African assimilation of black African cultures is on the face of it less obvious. This is a factor of power in colonial and apartheid relations and globalisation, which historically includes assertions of the West as better, desirable and, now, taken as natural and given, the ordained norm.

As Pallavi Rastogi writes, the assertion of an “Indian allegiance to South Africa” and “South Africanness” does not necessarily equate with identification with “African”. “It is an African separateness”. This remains the challenge for Indian South Africans. Despite the undoubted complexities of issues of identity, Indian South Africans, in their already fused cultural identities, need to give expression to and define themselves more greatly in terms of their African identity.

There is much that challenges notions of black African outlooks and cultural practices as foreign to Indian South Africans and which mitigates strict boundaries of identity between Indian South African and black African. The bonds in heart, mind and soul that underpin an outlook on the world should be recognised in the historically shared Indian and African experience of suffering and resisting European colonialism.

Indian South Africans are also fundamentally-oriented with traditional Africa in many concepts, including those of marriage, family, community, ritual and spirituality. Faith healing is a shared practice as is the place, role and respect of elders, the strength and living role of extended family, and definition by historical clan and village lineage. In the case of Indian cultural intersection with Islam, it includes polygamous customary marriage and the ritual slaughter of ruminants.

In roots, ties and destiny, consciousness and outlook, language, culture and tradition, South Africans of Indian descent have been peculiarly forged by African conditions. The reality of this change and unique development calls correspondingly for a term of identity that accommodates change and orientation as much as it does historic origin.

While it is progressive to dispense with terms of racial signification, in recognition of the primary humanity of all people, and the inaccurate homogenising of complex subjective identities, they are not insignificant and without meaning, least so for the people who subscribe to them. They provide a means by which “others” and individual and collective selves are “known”.

As the renowned late cultural theorist Stuart Hall put it, “far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside, they are the way in which we are recognised… without others there is no self, there is no self-recognition”. However, the “way in which” Indian South Africans “are recognised”, without and within, needs to be transformed.

Terms of identity — especially it would seem as they relate to “diasporic” peoples — are not static and should not be seen as divinely fixed, conforming to an essentialised sense of identity. They are an eligible site of intervention for progressive change. The African-Americans have shown how categories of identity may be changed and become widely accepted. Note Afro and Negro before Black and African-American.

In the South African experience of such intervention, the term “black” promoted by Steve Biko was a signal unifying and liberating one and, today, “African” enjoys unchallenged currency. There should be no fear that to break with “Indian” would be to deny the culture and heritage of Indian South Africans. Rather it would be to uniquely define Indian descendants within their national African context and contribute profoundly to national belonging and national identity. The greater fear in fact should be of the undermining of national belonging and identity as a result of not making that break.

What should this new term of identity be? How is it to come about? Can it at all be avoided as an imposition on individuals? How may its homogenising implications still be avoided?

Both our own experience and that of the African-Americans suggests that a conscious intervention for it, which also becomes widely accepted and is not predominantly negative in any implication, is not of necessity precluded.

So, call me Indo-African. It may not be perfectly appropriate, but right now the profound significance of its implication is more important than its semantic accuracy. It has immense imaginative power and will transform the way Indian South Africans know themselves and are known by fellow South Africans. It is a route to the integrated national identity that South Africa is committed to and is striving for.

Above all, it resonates a chord deep within. DM

Feizel Mamdoo is a former activist of the Transvaal Indian Congress and United Democratic Front.


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  • Christopher Campbell says:

    I’m sorry but the world doesn’t need another racial label, you are African. If you don’t believe that, don’t stop at labelling yourself but go through the entire population and classify everyone. We don’t need Oriental-Africans, Euro-Africans, White Africans, Yellow-Africans, Reddish-Africans, or whatever you can think of. The late Archbishop Tutu came up with the Rainbow Nation and that is what South Africans are. It doesn’t matter that they came from East Africa, Asia, Europe or were always here. What is important is that the racism that has raised it’s head in recent years must be quelled and we all live together.

  • Merle Favis says:

    Fascinating article, Feizel. Thank you for the rich research and a thought-provoking argument deserving of debate.

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