Kiru Naidoo
Kiru Naidoo

OPINION: Our diversity is good for business

Time of article published Nov 25, 2019

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Durban - Hats off to Sibaya for marking the anniversary of the first Indian indenture in South Africa. A large part of its clientele find their origins among the 152000 people of the “secret slavery” shipped to the plantations of colonial Natal between 1860 and 1911.

Sibaya’s investment in a stellar visual exhibition and commemoration dinner ought to make other KwaZulu-Natal businesses straighten up and ponder. History and heritage are important to all our communities. Our South African nationhood is founded on the principle of unity in diversity. Respecting and honouring the emotional aspects of our collective being therefore assumes great importance.

It might not have dawned on the 500 or so guests at Wednesday’s event that we were seated in the very fields of the Zulu Kingdom that had been invaded by British imperialism in the 19th century with the final death knell being the 1913 and 1936 Native Land Acts. The toil of Indian and African workers has added value to those lands creating billions of dollars in share value for the sugar barons and their descendants.

The French economist Thomas Piketty is best-known for his work on income inequality. His views of the cane- fields are that the income of the workers and their children will never catch up with that of larnies and their children. The argument centres around generational wealth. Those who have wealth will pass it down to their heirs. Breaking that cycle will take bitter medicine. A sweeter medicine is for the beneficiaries of imperialism, colonialism, unfettered capitalism, apartheid and indeed our new democracy to put back into the communities that have made them wealthy.

With all its sophistication, even capitalism must realise that to constantly extract and give nothing back is bad for business. There was barely a whimper from big business when His Majesty, King Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu led the celebration marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Zulu Kingdom and more recently his conciliatory gestures on the 140th year since the Anglo-Zulu War.

The 2011 census recorded over 10 million people in KwaZulu-Natal. The second largest community in the province, comprising 7% of the population, are of Indian origin. A prevailing view especially in the tenements of Chatsworth and Phoenix is that this is an ignored and marginalised community.

There is however an even stronger conviction that the businesses from supermarkets to banks and retail chains that do a roaring trade in their townships simply take the money out.

One needs not to go so far as read Piketty to work out that there is something quite wrong about shameless extraction and that a revolt is brewing.

This might sound a roundabout argument to make the simple point that business has an obligation to be responsive to not just the material needs of its customer base, but also the emotional aspects of their history, heritage, legacy and culture. Leftist ideas consumed my younger years.

I was convinced by the scholar Benedict Anderson that cherishing my Indian heritage placed me in an “imagined community”. Our focus on nation building and reconciliation drew attention away from the pride we have in our distant origins and unique cultural make-up. As my temples grey, it has become quite apparent that cherishing my Indian heritage is not at odds with my deep South African patriotism.

Next year will mark the 160th anniversary since the landing of the SS Truro in Port Natal. That anniversary must translate into a legacy to enrich our common nationhood. The larnies in the boardrooms should not be looking the other way.

Kiru Naidoo works as a public servant and is the author of Made in Chatsworth. These are his personal views.

The Mercury

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