Indian origins in SA caught in entanglement between Asia and Africa
Opinion - Understanding the Indian identity is special in 2020 because it marks the 160 years of the first arrival of Indians in South Africa, as indentured labourers, as well as the 110th official recognition of Diwali as a religious occasion.
All these festivities ought to also be celebrated under Covid-19 conditions, again signalling this auspicious moment in human history.
The question of conceptualising the Indian identity comes from these histories and in South Africa, it is framed as an “identity crisis”.
While Indian people in South Africa may be dealing with this “identity crisis”, it also shows the commemoration of African history that can help with the greater goal of addressing social inequality and climate injustices.
The Indian diaspora in Africa is prominent in countries such as Tanzania, Angola, Mozam- bique, Mauritius, Kenya and Uganda.
People of Indian origin in South Africa are caught in an entanglement and often there is no clarity on whether India or South Africa is the “motherland”.
The African identity, which is a historically political and cultural struggle, has been reconfigured due to this Indian diaspora, and understanding this African identity from a South African perspective consists of recognising this colonial Indian history that starts at the port of Natal. Nevertheless, Indian people in South Africa are unique because of this Indian history.
The crisis of identity among people of Indian origin in South Africa is more than the question of what is an African identity.
Moreover, South Africa has its own turmoil that adds to this crisis and lies close to the social construction of race.
In social sciences, it is argued that race is a social construction, meaning it was createdand imagined by the white oppressors to control and regulate the black oppressed. When
filling in legal and official documents, a South African citizen must “tick the box” of their race category.
For Indians, there is one box with two distinct labels: “Indians” or “Asians”.
What do you pick? Personally, I find this problematic because I am not Asian, despite having descents from India.
But I also do not come from Asia. I come from Africa – as a fourth- generation Indian South African. Hence, I am more Indian than Asian, but I am also not an Indian from India.
Another scenario around this social construction around race is the binary between white and non-white (black) people and I use Steve Biko’s definition of black people (African black, coloured and Indian persons).
Indian people, like people who identify as coloured, are caught between white persons of European or Western descent and African, black people.
Indian people are considered “black” due to the racial discrimination and their inferior treatment by the apartheid government.
However, Indians are also not African black people, thus some Indian people in South Africa lean closer to the white race, especially with colourism and the perception of whiteness.
The lighter and fairer of one’s features such as eye, hair and skin colour exemplify the Western idea of beauty and aesthetics and, again, this socially and culturally implicates the black conception of ethnicity and culture.
The identity crisis of Indians is demonstrated in this social construction of race, and the point is that race is used to identify people instead of people identifying their own race.
There are many lessons to take away from the history of Indian indentured labourers that not only assist with this identity crisis but also helps to think through social issues of race and religion.
These include the exclusion of caste, interfaith marriages, interracial relationships, as well as linguistic diversity. Included here are the addition of Indian languages such as Hindi,Tamil, Telugu and Urdu in a democratic society, and also the introduction of South African languages like isiZulu and Afrikaans.
Also, in this history of Indian indentured labourers, interfaith marriages occurred among the Christian, Islamic, and Hindu communities.
Today, South Africa is known for its religious diversity that also includes African indigenous religions, as well as for its multicultural and multilingual society.
The noise of religion – whether the fireworks of Diwali, the church bells of Christianity or the call of Azaan in Islam – treads upon a balance between the infringement of noise on others and the right to religious practices.
The tolerance of religion is symbolic of the greater quest for the acceptance and appre ciation of different histories, languages and identities in South Africa. Moreover, this lends a critique of thinking of what it means to be Africans, as people of Indian origins in South Africa.
Social cohesion is one of the few objectives in South Africa, along with eradicating poverty, fighting corruption, failures of service delivery, and combating climate crisis. While the topic of fireworks is sensitive for pet lovers, there is a greater insight of air and noise pollution that disrupts ecological harmony and releases ozone gases.
Let us also not forget that on New Year’s Eve, fireworks are bound to ignite, regardless of religious and race divides.
Amid the social challenge of an identity crisis, the planetary crisis has revealed itself in a deathly timeline for humans to act upon.
The world has 10 years to combat climate change, otherwise humanity reaches a point of no return.
This history of remembering Indian indentured labourers in South Africa is needed for the greater cause for climate justice, racial equality and social cohesion.
Understanding the identity crisis of Indian people in South Africa in the bigger context of climate change opens the platform to engage with untold historical accounts to discuss socio-economic and environmental issues, as well as its critiques.
Like a climate crisis, identity crisis begins with conversations and deliberations. Only through dialogues can we move forward and combat these social and ecological problems that bode ill for our society.
Moodley is a Master of Arts student in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University.