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SA needs a national holiday on 16 November to acknowledge its indentured labour heritage

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

There have been sporadic discussions in government and civil society about a monument and some kind of official recognition of the Arrival Day of Indentured Labourers since the 1990s. But consummate success has sadly remained elusive.

Despite the 30 years of democracy since 1994, South Africans of different rainbow colours, languages, religions, ethnic roots and geographical origins are still trying to find each other, seeking common ground, in spite of sometimes appearing to be residing on different planets in the universe.

The ultimate quest is that this melting pot will find a common cultural heritage. Invariably, there have been robust public debates about what form this “coagulation” should take.

There are justifiable concerns about how Heritage Day has been almost ubiquitously reduced to “Braai Day”. (The insult to vegetarians must be noted, and there is no intention here to curry favour!)

The importance of cultural traditions is significantly emphasised in the preamble to the National Heritage Resources Act (1999), and its purpose was to “encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations. Our heritage… helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing shape our national character. Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others”.

While South Africa is a secular state, Nelson Mandela emphasised that within the nation “there shall also be a social order which respects completely the culture, language and religious rights of all sections of our society and the fundamental rights of the individual”.

Identity and portrayal

A key question emerging is around the various ways that minority groups and their faiths/cultures in South Africa have been portrayed in the national psyche.

The reality is that except for arguably rhetorical homage on Heritage Day, minority cultures and faiths are largely invisible in South Africa. This can be further illustrated by the failure to recognise important festivals in the Muslim and Hindu faiths.

Given that it is the dominant faith in South Africa, the recognition of Christian holidays is important. However, the ANC government has failed to declare a single public holiday for the minority faiths, these being Diwali and Eid, respectively.

Religion, language, music, dance and cuisine established the foundation of Indian culture in South Africa. Indeed, the steady progress of the Indian community since the days of indenture is likely attributable to their strong cultural and religious values (viewed by some as a form of resistance against colonialism) which underpinned community survival strategies.

Regrettably, this history of struggle, resistance and resilience of indentured labourers and their descendants remains largely invisible in the education syllabus.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lest we forget: Indian indentured labourers of 1860 paved the way for the youth of 2020

The apartheid government was well aware of the survivalist nature of the Indian community, and did its utmost to destroy their cultural and religious artefacts by not only suppressing political freedom, but also stifling religious choices in favour of a narrow, Christian Calvinist agenda, which was implicitly anti-Hindu and anti-Islamic.

Additionally, under apartheid the Indian community suffered tremendously as forced removals were instigated through the Group Areas Act of 1950. Temples, mosques, halls and other cultural institutions were destroyed in areas such as Cato Manor, Riverside and Clairwood. 

In light of this amalgam of various oppressive practices, Dr Purba Hossain from the University of Cambridge contended that “the history of Indian indenture highlights the nexus between labour, migration and colonialism, and is crucial in understanding modern notions of servitude”.

Struggle and oppression through indentured labour

Indentured labour is often compared to slavery and oppression, where human beings were reduced to mere commodities on plantations. The key components of servitude included: labour exploitation, favouring plantation owners; fear, as force and punishment were the main strategies to ensure a docile, compliant labour force; restrictions on labour mobility; and for the duration of the contract, the time and labour of the worker were effectively “owned” by the estate overlord, ensuring further suppression. Indentured labourers were only freed from bondage once they completed this rigorous contract period.

Caribbean scholar, Dr Kumar Mahabir, who has played a catalytic role in using the power of social media to connect the global indenture community, added vigour to the argument to recognise indentured contributions to society through national heritage celebrations: “Establishing Indian indentureship sites, sculptures and monuments ensures that the experiences and contributions of the indentured labourers are acknowledged, remembered and passed on to future generations. These are tangible reminders of a chapter in world history that shaped the identity and heritage of millions of people in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific”.

In South Africa, there have been some sporadic discussions in government and civil society about a monument and some kind of official recognition of the Arrival Day of Indentured Labourers (16 November) since the 1990s. There was greater momentum as the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers was commemorated in 2010, but consummate success has sadly remained elusive.

Government indifference

It is now abundantly evident that government seemingly struggles to get the simplest priorities right — such as providing basic services for the poor — ensuring instead that kleptocratic bungling is well entrenched, and mediocrity and incompetence are routinely celebrated.

It is thus up to the descendants of indentured labourers and like-minded folk to take matters into their own hands. Ostensibly, this serves as a “clarion call” to those who can do so to negotiate for leave on 16 November 2023 (a case of using this position of privilege to symbolically advocate for the greater good) to host commemorative gatherings in the different local and regional centres across South Africa.

Interfaith prayers and cultural items can be organised fairly easily, with minimal cost. Hence, temples, mosques and churches should be partners in this initiative. Government agencies and progressive political organisations may want to join (especially with an eye on electoral support), and should not be excluded. Such broad community support can only make the need for recognition more overt.

As a caveat, it must be emphasised that schools, colleges, universities and all essential services workers are excluded from this call for obvious reasons. Nor is this a call for any kind of civil disobedience, which was the catalyst for the earlier struggle against colonial domination initiated by that noble soul from Porbandar.

This civil society project must serve as a stimulus for the establishment of a national holiday on 16 November to commemorate the arrival of indentured labourers in South Africa, highlighting their trials and tribulations, and dispel notions of “Hamba khaya uBambayi!”(Go Home to Mumbai!) The ultimate goals should be to mobilise, organise and create a united front for the proclamation of a national holiday on 16 November.

Drawing from the ideas of Valerie Forgeard, director of World Citizen Artists, the proclamation of a national holiday on 16 November will:

  • Reflect shared values, historical milestones, and unique traditions, providing insights into cultural identities and diversity;
  • Play a crucial role in preserving cultural identity, promoting unity, and fostering social bonding; and
  • Serve as a platform for cultural appreciation, connection to heritage, and teaching future generations about their cultural heritage, bridging generational gaps and strengthening family ties.

Significantly, as Strini Moodley (from the Black Consciousness Movement who was imprisoned in Robben Island in 1976 in a cell diagonally across from Mandela’s) had argued that the anniversary of the arrival of the 1860 Indentured Labourers “should not be an event that is organised and commemorated exclusively by the Indian community, for the Indian community. Such an event must be used as a platform to bring all the communities together so that the past can be remembered in solidarity.”

Notwithstanding the fact that South African Indians are only 2.5% of the national population, it is the sheer impact that the community has had in terms of civil society, charity, culture, economics, academia and politics, all of which far exceeds its proportionate size, highlighting a compelling need for a national holiday to be declared. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    We don’t have as many public holidays as many other countries so why not.

    However, regarding the comment that heritage day turned into braai day:

    …”There are justifiable concerns about how Heritage Day has been almost ubiquitously reduced to “Braai Day”. (The insult to vegetarians must be noted, and there is no intention here to curry favour!)”…

    I likewise do not mean to offend, but I hope you realize that for the majority of people globally don’t really care about the reason for public holidays and just like having another day off.

    And… here’s the harsh reality… I’ll bet your R 100 that ☺️within 3 years this just turns into “Curry Day”!

  • mjhauptstellenbosch says:

    Why cant you people not get a grip on yourselves?

    Forget about apartheid, the Anglo-Boere-War, WW1+2, Phoenix, etc etc
    and move on.

    Forget, yes, forget about these injustices,
    look forward,
    and start working on yourself,
    because that is the only way to better mankind.

    There is no need for any holiday,
    especially the lot we got in South Africa.

    Practice your beliefs at home,
    and do not use it to divide people,
    rather concentrate on that what we have in common,
    namely a soul.

    Drop all these costumes that we are wearing:
    color, race, sex, orientation, politics, caste, etc etc
    as they only divide us.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Should we not have a day of remembrance for Afrikaners for the loss of life and belongingings because of the scorched earth policy and aciont of the English in the Anglo Boer War. Really, this is getting rediculous. We have Labour day and Heritage day. Get over it. Denise Smit

  • Ben Harper says:

    Shame, feeling left out or is it you don’t feel your heritage is worthy of being celebrated with everyone else’s heritage on Heritage Day and deserves more than everyone else?

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