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Fraught Indian-African relations should impel us to revisit the idea of non-racialism


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

The problem is that there are no leaders who can effectively confront the racism in the Indian community, while opportunists in the RET faction and the EFF are willing to inflame racial feelings.

In a little over a week, the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of 50,000 Indians from Uganda will be marked. The then head of state, the dictator Idi Amin, claimed that the Indians were monopolising entrepreneurial activity. He then confiscated their businesses and properties and forced them to leave the country. The confiscated businesses were handed to his cronies, and many were run into the ground in no time.

Amin was almost a caricature of a dictator. He described himself as “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. But while Amin was so over the top that it is easy to dismiss him and what happened 50 years ago as an aberration, the expulsion had a profound effect across Africa, and in many other parts of the world.

Anticolonial politics had focused on removing the colonial powers from Africa. There were often strong alliances with anticolonial forces elsewhere, including China and India. During the high period of the non-aligned movement there was a very strong sense of international Afro-Asian solidarity. But when Amin turned on the Ugandan Indians, this sense of unity was suddenly broken. Now there were issues between colonised people rather than solidarity against colonialism.

The Ugandan expulsion was an existential shock to Indian communities across Africa, particularly Kenya and South Africa. Here many children grew up hearing their parents whisper about it and for some people there was always a sense that their place in their home, the only home they had ever known, might be precarious.

These kinds of anxieties were soothed by the non-racial politics of black consciousness, the trade union movement, the Communist Party and the multiracial politics of the ANC. But those traditions are now largely a thing of the past. In Durban the ANC is perceived as having developed a narrow ethnic character and very few people among the minorities imagine it as a political home.

At the same time Julius Malema and the EFF have very deliberately tried to stoke anti-Indian sentiment. Their message has not had much traction on the ground but it is very disturbing for parents to have to answer their children’s questions when they see Malema ranting on television.

Some Indian people feel that while they have legal citizenship they are being de facto excluded from full citizenship and full and secure belonging by the fact that the ANC remains silent in the face of Malema’s provocations. There is a sense among some that they should keep their heads down and stay out of politics.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Private enrichment is real fruit of liberation for ANC

The Gupta situation has compounded the situation. The stereotype of the corrupt Indian has become common, and many Indian people have had the experience of being called “Guptas”. Of course, no white people were called “Kebbles” or “Joostes” after the corruption scandals involving Brett Kebble and Markus Jooste. There is a sense that it is open season on Indians.

We see this in the way that Pravin Gordhan is referred to as “Jamnadas” by the EFF and the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC. Instead of engaging in reasoned debate they try to “other” him by playing up his Indian identity.

Indian racism

Of course, there is also a real problem with Indian racism. With the great Indian leaders of the past either long passed on, like Yusuf Dadoo, or no longer politically active, like Jay Naidoo, the community is leaderless and open to racism. Many Indian intellectuals have retreated into ethnic enclaves and some are unwilling to confront the racism in their own communities.

The situation is not all bleak. Now that people no longer live in segregated residential areas, there are all kinds of ordinary convivialities and intimacies that were not easily possible in the past.

But without leaders who can effectively confront the racism in the Indian community, and with opportunists in the RET faction and the EFF willing to inflame racial feelings, it is always possible that the question of Indian-African relations could be politicised in a damaging way. Right now the fascistic impulses that are developing in society are focused on xenophobic hostility towards African and Asian migrants. But it is not impossible that opportunists could incite and inflame ethnic and racial tensions.

We need to revisit the idea of non-racialism and build real politics that unites people around key issues such as jobs, housing, health and safety. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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