LETTER - Selvan Naidoo’s “Children of Indenture” (The Mercury, November 8) is a poignant account of exploitative child labour in the Natal sugar estates.

The parents of these children are referred to as “indentured labourers”, when the system of indenture approximated conditions of semi-slavery.

Tomorrow marks the 159th year of indentured labour introduction to Natal.

Indentured labour was recruited from the agricultural classes in two streams. One was from the Madras Presidency (largely Tamil and Telugu-speaking) while the other was from Upper India (mainly Hindi-speaking).

A total of 152184 indentured Indians emigrated to Natal between 1860 and 1911.

After completion of their five-year indenture the so-called free Indians sought a change of employment and offered their services as artisans, tailors and laundrymen.

Others sought employment in the coal mines in Northern Natal and in the municipal services.

Others again leased or bought land for themselves and became suppliers of fruit and vegetables. Some went into commerce and opened shops.

The increasing prosperity of the Indian community soon had another result: free immigrants began to appear from 1874 onwards.

These immigrants, designated “passengers”, were predominantly, though not exclusively, Muslims, who came mainly for the purpose of engaging in trade or serving in commerce. The biggest group of the so-called passenger Indians were from Kathiawar, Surat and Porbander, speaking the Gujerati language.

There were also a few Urdu-speaking Muslims from Mauritius and East Africa. Other passengers included a few Parsees from Bombay, Zoroastians by religion, who set up insurance and travel agencies.

Indians could then buy in Natal the condiments, spices, medicines, grains, clothing and trinkets they were accustomed to and Natal was beginning to look like a second India to them. In time to come they supplied goods desired not only by the Indian people but also by whites and Africans in various towns in Natal.

In these ways they became integrated into the structure of Natal’s economy.

Apart from commercial ventures, Indians soon realised the value of education in the upliftment of their communities. In the early days there were relatively few Indian schools that the Natal provincial administration provided.

To redress the situation the Indian community voluntarily donated money which together with the contribution by the province resulted in the construction of so-called government-aided schools.

At one time there were more government-aided than government schools in Natal.

It is important to note that all Indian children, irrespective of the language groups they belonged to, were taught in English. In the early days Indians spoke a little English.

They soon acquired a facility with the language and were able to read with meaning and thereby acquire a conceptual understanding of the various subjects taught at school. This stood them in good stead when they went on to study at tertiary level.

Today, Indians are without doubt one of the most highly educated groups in the country. We can count among them outstanding educators at all levels of education. It is, therefore, not surprising that Indians excel in medicine, law, science, engineering, law, commerce and accountancy. They are well placed to cope with the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. Proportionately, Indians probably have more diplomas and university degrees than any other population group in the country.

Today, there are 1.5 million Indians in South Africa, a mere 2.6% of the total population of 56 million. This relatively small group punches well above its weight and, no doubt, can play an even greater role in the development of the country if those in power give them an opportunity to do so.

The Mercury