The People of South Africa: Indian South Africans

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It is June 1893 – a young Indian lawyer enters the Durban Court (British Colony of Natal), dressed in a frock-coat and turban. The magistrate, spotting the exotically dressed stranger, orders him to remove his headdress. The young lawyer refuses, walks out of court and pens an eloquent letter to the local press, defending the wearing of a turban. Subsequently described by the press as an ‘unwelcome visitor’, it was to be only the beginning for the young lawyer of many confrontations with discrimination in South Africa.

Today that young lawyer is celebrated as one of the most influential people of the twentieth century. His name? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, later in life known as Mahatma Gandhi. The honorific Mahatma meaning ‘great soul’.

Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa fighting for justice for the Indian population. His struggles and victories in South Africa are analogous to the history of Indian South Africans as a whole. The modern Indian South African community is a vibrant and crucial part of the diverse South African social fabric, however its early history was filled with hardship and disenfranchisement.

For most contemporary historians, Indian South African history started with the first indentured labourers arriving from India in 1860. That is not strictly true; Indians in South Africa were amongst the earliest settlers in the country. In fact the first two slaves who arrived in the Cape of Good Hope came from Bengal in India.

A common misconception is that slaves brought to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries were mostly from Africa and Indonesia. Research by Frank R Bradlow and Margaret Cairns in ‘The Early Cape Muslims’ indicated that almost 70% of the slaves at the Cape came from Asia and more than a third from India (including what is Bangladesh today). The majority of the Indian slaves originated in Bengal, the Malabar Coast (Bombay, Goa) and the Coromandel Coast. Over a period of almost 150 years, thousands of Indian slaves were brought to the Cape. To such an extent that by the early 18th century the number of slaves exceeded the number of white settlers. Most of the Indian slaves worked on farms and were often subjected to extreme cruelty. Slaves who ran away from the harsh conditions on farms were flogged, branded and sentenced to hard labour when caught.

Due to the fact that the slaves were distributed over a large area, they lost their identity over time and their descendants became part of the Cape Malay or ‘Coloured’ communities. There were also many instances of female Indian slaves, especially Bengali women, marrying European settlers. This was mainly due to the fact that the ratio of European men to women at the Cape was 4:1 in the 17th century. Another contributing factor to the racially mixed marriages was that the children of slave couples were born into slavery, while the children of a slave married to a European were born free. Thus the progeny of Indian slave women eventually contributed to the greater Afrikaner gene pool. J. A. Heese, in ‘The Origin of the Afrikaners 1657-1867’ concluded that in 1807, between 7 and 11 percent of the ancestors of the Afrikaner population were of African and Asian stock. Even ex- president F.W. De Klerk has been candid about his Bengali ancestry.

Indians also played an important role in the spread of Islam in South Africa: the first mosque in Cape Town was established in the early 19th century by Imam Frans and Imam Achmat, both from Bengal.

After slavery was abolished by the British parliament in 1833 there was a dearth of labour to develop the British Empire’s rapidly expanding colonies. In order to fill the demand, indentured labourers from India were transported to British overseas colonies under five and ten year indenture contracts, with the option to return to India or exchange their free passage for a piece of land. Due to harsh taxation policies, industrialisation and a repressive administration, India was in the midst of a socio-economic crisis. The resulting massive levels of unemployment caused many peasants to look for a way out of their desperate circumstances.

In Southern Africa it was the British Colony of Natal that was most in need of cheap labour, especially on its sugar plantations. The local Zulu population refused to work for the colonists, so a deal was struck between the Natal colony, Britain and the British Indian government to import indentured labourers from India. The sugar magnates, like Sir James Liege Hulett, were instrumental in getting the agreement approved. (Today Tongaat Hulett Sugar is a multi-billion dollar corporation.)

The first group of 342 arrived in Durban in 1860 from Madras (now called Chennai) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Between 1860 and 1911 more than 150,000 Indian migrants were transported to Natal as indentured labourers. Most of them came from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with some from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were a heterogeneous group: 90% were Hindus, the rest mostly Muslim with small numbers of Christians as well as a few Jains and Buddhists.

Although the majority worked on the sugar cane plantations, many also worked on the railways, dockyards, in the municipal services, in coal-mines and in domestic service. Their labour made an almost immediate contribution to the growth of the Natal Colony’s economy. A fact that was widely acknowledged.

Conditions on the sugar plantations were often very harsh. Leading some commentators to label the indenture system as a new form of slavery. Workers were housed in barracks, isolated from the rest of the colony, with floggings, poor living conditions, separation from family members, and seven day work weeks the order of the day. This caused many of the first few groups to return to India. Their complaints of ill treatment made the Indian government halt the shipment of indentured labour to Natal. Recruitment resumed after a Commission of Enquiry lead to the promulgation of new regulations. In response to severe criticism, the British Imperial Legislative Council abolished the indenture system in 1916.

A second smaller group of Indian immigrants came to South Africa after 1860. Known as ‘Passenger Indians’ they were mainly Muslim and Gujerati-speaking Hindu traders, hawkers and merchants who had paid their own fares. About 1000 came to South Africa to take advantage of the commercial opportunities created by the burgeoning Indian community in Natal and the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.

The huge growth in the Indian population sparked intense anti-Asian sentiments amongst white colonists, who perceived Indian competition in agriculture and commerce as a threat. In fact only 10% were traders, the rest were ordinary labourers. Repeated demands for Indian immigration to cease and for Indians already in South Africa to be repatriated persisted until the 1960s. In 1961, Indians were finally officially recognised as a permanent part of the South African population.

A series of legal restrictions and discriminatory laws were implemented against the nascent Indian community:

  • In 1891 the Statute Law of the Orange Free State prohibited Indians from owning businesses or farms in the Orange Free State. All Indian businesses were forced to close and the owners were deported from the Orange Free State without compensation.
  • Act 17 of 1895, of the colony of Natal imposed a £3 tax on ex-indentured Indians, who failed to re-indenture or return to India after completion of their labour contracts. (£3 was equivalent to about 6 months’ earnings)
  • The Transvaal’s Onerous Act 3 of 1885 barred Indians from owning land and confined them to locations.
  • The Franchise Act of 1896, disenfranchised all Indians in Natal.
  • The Asiatic Law Amendment Bill (The Black Act) of 1907, proposed the registration and fingerprinting of Indians, who would be required to carry registration certificates (similar to passes) at all times.
  • The Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act of 1908 barred all non-resident Indians from entering the Transvaal without permits,
  • The Immigrants Regulation Act, No 22 of 1913, classified all Asiatic persons as undesirable. It effectively put an end to Indian immigration and restricted Indian entry into provinces not of their domicile.
  • A judgement by Justice Malcolm Searle in March 1913 in the Cape division of the Supreme Court rendered all marriages conducted according to Hindu or Muslim rites invalid. This meant that all married Indian women in South Africa were reduced to the status of concubines whilst their progeny were classified illegitimate and deprived of all their rights of inheritance, property, assets and legal claims.

After the National Party came to power in 1948, a further multitude of restrictive and discriminatory legislation was enacted under the apartheid system of racial segregation. Among the most notorious was the Group Areas Act which assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas. Between the late 1950s and late 1980s more than 41,000 Indian families (about 278,000 individuals) were forced to leave Durban city and its suburbs, declared white areas under the Group Areas Act, and moved to peri-urban Indian settlements, the largest being Chatsworth and Phoenix, 30km north and south of Durban.

The Indian struggle for civil rights before 1948:

The Natal Indian Congress was founded by Gandhi and others in 1894 to fight discrimination against Indians. This followed by him setting up  the Transvaal British Indian Association (forerunner of the Transvaal Indian Congress) in 1904. Gandhi also became editor of the newspaper, Indian Opinion, established in 1903 as the organ of the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congresses.

In 1906, at a meeting of 3000 people in Johannesburg, gathered in protest against discriminatory laws, Gandhi introduced his Satyagraha (Sanskrit for ‘truth and firmness’ ) philosophy of passive resistance. It essentially meant non-cooperative, non-violent action and sacrifice.

The ensuing Satyagraha campaign lasted seven years and thousands of Indians were jailed, flogged, or shot for striking, refusing to register, for burning their registration cards or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. Strong international reaction to the repression of peaceful protesters forced the the Prime Minister, General Smuts, to negotiate with Gandhi. The resulting agreement led to the Indian Relief Act of 1914, which repealed the poll-tax and validated Indian marriages. However restrictions on land ownership, trading rights, immigration and movement between provinces remained unresolved and resistance would continue for many decades to come. In 1914 Gandhi left South Africa to begin his work in India.

The South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was founded in 1923 to form a national bulwark of resistance against growing segregationist tendencies in local and national legislation.

In 1945, Dr Yusuf Dadoo took over the leadership of the Congress in the Transvaal and Dr G.M. Naicker became the leader in Natal. They started following a policy of uniting Indian political organisations with other black bodies in order to present a common front. The Xuma-Naicker-Dadoo Pact of 1947, signed between the leaders of the two Indian Congress movements and the African National Congress (ANC) signalled a new era of solidarity between Africans and Indians in the struggle against discriminatory and oppressive laws.

Political involvement after 1948:

Passive Resistance Campaign 1946 – 1948:
The Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill of 1946 severely restricted the rights of Indians to own or occupy land. It also provided for the election of European representatives for Indian voters. The SA Indian Congress organised a march of 6000 people in Durban who occupied municipal land for several days. Many were arrested. As a result of international condemnation South Africa was refused the right to annex South-West Africa at the United Nations.

The Defiance Campaign, 1952:
The first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilisation against apartheid laws under the leadership of the ANC and the SAIC. A campaign commitment was made to mass action, boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. 8,500 people including Nelson Mandela were arrested. Subsequent rioting lead to many being shot and killed. As a result harsh new measures for civil disobedience in the form of the the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Laws Amendment Act were introduced. On the positive side the publicity drew international attention and helped to cement solidarity against apartheid across racial lines.

The Congress of the People, June 1955:
The Congress Alliance was formed in 1953 as a broad non-racial front against apartheid policies. It consisted of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, and the Congress of Democrats, which housed radical and liberal white supporters.

It was decided that the alliance should convene a congress of the people, at which a freedom charter for a democratic South Africa would be adopted. The Congress of the People was eventually held at Kliptown, near Johannesburg, on 26 June, 1955.

The Freedom Charter, 1955:
The Freedom Charter affirmed that South Africa belonged to all its people, both black and white. It called for the scrapping of all forms of racial discrimination, the institution of a democratic system of government, and equal protection for all before the law. The charter demanded equal access to education, social security, and employment. It also asserted a need for a fairer distribution of wealth through the nationalisation of industry, mines, banks, and the redistribution of land.

1956 Treason Trial:
Several prominent Indian leaders were arrested and accused of treason after their participation in the compilation of the Freedom Charter, which was seen as a communist manifesto by the government. Among them were Dr Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the SAIC and Dr Monty Naicker, leader of the Natal Indian Congress. The trial lasted till 1961 when the last of the accused were found not guilty.

Umkhonto we Sizwe, translated as “Spear of the Nation,” was the armed wing of the African National Congress during its struggle against the apartheid regime.
Notable Indian members were Mac Maharaj, Billy Nair and Rashid Aboobaker Ismail.

During the 60s, 70s and 80s several Indian activists were banned from public speaking, arrested or forced into exile because they were members of banned organisations or planned/carried out sabotage attacks.

The Rivonia Trial took place between 1963 and 1964. Ten leaders of the African National Congress were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system. Two Indians were in the group of accused: Ahmed Kathrada and Billy Nair. Both were incarcerated on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

The Tricameral Parliament:
The South African government established a tricameral structure for the country’s parliament in 1983, to give limited political power to the country’s Coloured and Indian populations. The Indian ‘House of Delegates’ had power over so-called ‘own affairs’ that included education, social welfare, housing, local government, arts, culture and recreation. This limited form of democracy was opposed and derided from inside parliament by the official opposition and on the outside by the United Democratic Front, a huge coalition of anti-apartheid organisations. As a consequence, voter turnout in the two elections of its existence (1984 and 1989) was extremely low, with the elected officials having little credibility amongst the Indian electorate.

First democratically elected parliament, 1994:
There were 32 Indian South African members of the National Assembly (8% of the 400 seats), while the 1994 cabinet contained 4 ministers of Indian descent: Jay Naidoo, Mac Maharaj, Valli Moosa and Kader Asmal. The first female speaker of the National Assembly, Frene Ginwala, was of Parsi-Indian extraction.

Indian South Africans today – the fast facts:

  • 2,5% of the population.
  • 1.3 million souls.
  • 550,000 practised the Hindu faith according to the 2001 census. The balance mostly Muslim or Christian.
  • The world’s 7th largest Indian community outside India, and the biggest in Africa.
  • The largest group of Indian descent born outside India in the world, i.e. born in South Africa and not migrant, compared to countries like the United States.
  • Durban has more overseas Indians than any other city outside India.
  • English is the first language of most Indian South Africans. A minority, especially the elders, still speak some Indian languages, such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati as first language.
  • The Tamil community has promoted a revival in the use of the Tamil language, and created increased language awareness.
  • Average household income for Indian families is the second highest in the country after whites at ZAR251,541. (2011 Census)

The Legacy of the Indian South Africans:

South Africa has had as big an impact on the Indian community as they had on the country themselves. The epiphany for Gandhi’s Satyagraha philosophy occurred when he was confronted by the convoluted and tortured realities of South Africa. A complex learning school that stood him well when he went on to agitate for the liberation of India from British colonialism.

Vice versa, his approach of non-violent, non-cooperative passive resistance set a template for decades of civil mobilisation against the apartheid structures. That lesson would not have been learned by the broader South African community if it was not for the support that he received from the local Indian community. A lesson that probably prevented much more blood from being spilled during the struggle for democracy.

The same challenges that confronted Gandhi upon his arrival in South Africa also confronted all other Indian immigrants. The fact that common obstacles to a better life were in all Indian migrants’ way, meant that caste, religious and linguistic differences became less pronounced than in the mother country. It made for a more cohesive and integrated community.

On the political front many Indian South Africans made huge sacrifices and contributions in the fight against apartheid, on a scale vastly disproportionate to the size of their community. A civic role that continues today in various national and international, governmental and non-governmental roles.

From poor indentured sugar cane plantation workers to doctors, lawyers, economists, accountants, actors, directors of companies, writers, artists, ministers of cabinet and much more, they have shown grit and a true passion for their adopted country.

Other accomplishments:
The University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) was built with a rand-for-rand contribution from Indian South Africans and the government in the 1970s.

Food! Indian cuisine has been part of the South African culinary fabric for so long that many have probably forgotten that some of their favourite dishes and snacks were originally introduced by their Indian compatriots: samoosas, rotis, biryani and curry stews. Probably the most idiosyncratic would be ‘bunny chow’ – a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry, that originated in the Durban Indian community. It was a portable way for migrant workers to carry food to the sugar plantations. The apparent origin of the name is that ‘bunny’ is a corruption of ‘bania’, from the mostly Gujarati traders who started selling it. They were merchants who traditionally sold their wares under the ‘bania’ tree (also known as the banyan, or Ficus bengalensis) and were therefore called ‘ban’.

A short list of Indian South Africans who have excelled in their respective fields:
Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman – founded the Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster relief group of African origin.
Pravin Gordhan – South African Minister of Finance.
Ebrahim Patel – South African Minister of Economic Development.
Fatima Meer – a South African writer, academic and screenwriter, known for her anti-apartheid activism.
Hashim Amla – first player of Indian descent to play Test Cricket for South Africa.
Navanethem Pillay – United Nation’s High Commissioner for human rights.
Anant Singh – Academy Award nominated film producer

At a meeting of the YMCA in Johannesburg in 1908 Gandhi described his vision for the future of South Africa:

“If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen?”

1 thought on “The People of South Africa: Indian South Africans

  1. Brilliantly put together and researched. You must have enjoyed writing this article, because it’s short & sweet and makes so much sense (would not be a bad addition to the current history syllabus in schools). As a history teacher I knew that the Indian community had always been a part of our history, but did not realise that they had such a strong influence on who we are in South Africa today. Thanks for that new perspective.

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