File Picture. 1860 Heritage Centre
File Picture. 1860 Heritage Centre

160 years after they arrived in SA, Indians on the whole are decent, upstanding and trustworthy

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 4, 2020

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Yogan Devan

OPINION - Answers usually follow questions. But there is one answer that became the question. That is the Indian community.

When they arrived in then Natal from 1860 onwards, Indians were the answer to labour problems on sugar plantations. Years later, after completing their indenture, and joined by wealthy “passenger” Indians, they became the question.

With the increase in and dispersal of the Indian population throughout Natal, many whites were unhappy about the inroads Indians were making into the hitherto exclusively white settler preserve of commerce. They began to complain about Indian “encroachment”.

Complaints of “vice, uncleanliness and disorder” and the outcry from white storekeepers who found themselves unable to compete with Indian traders, were the order of the day.

The white colonial mind was opposed to accepting the Indian as a settler and fellow colonist. Indians faced political exclusion. A torrent of anti-Indian legislation was passed. The plight of Indians was taken up by Mohandas Gandhi (later to become the Mahatma who liberated India from British tyranny). Mass non-violent protests followed.

What should become of Indians? This was to become known as The Indian Question. The solution metamorphosed into the problem.

There were many commissions that sat to decide on the predicament of Indians. It was at one of these that the then minister of railways and harbours, Henry Burton, said that while there were many difficulties of substantial importance, he did not despair of a satisfactory solution being arrived at.

And then Burton said something which is the nub of this column. “As far as we are concerned, it is only fair to say - and it is the truth - that we have found that the Indians in our midst in South Africa, who form in some parts a very substantial portion of the population, are good, law-abiding, quiet citizens; and it is our duty to see that they are treated as human beings, with feelings like our own, and in a proper manner.”

Decades after Burton’s flattering character testimonial of the Indian community, and as we approach the 160th anniversary on November 16, 2020 since Indians first arrived in South Africa as virtual slaves, it can be said without any contradiction or challenge that Burton’s endorsement is still relevant. Indians, on the whole, are decent, upstanding and trustworthy.

The overwhelming majority of Indians carry a moral compass - and use it. They owe their value system to the early descendants of indentured Indians who endured great difficulties - physical pain, mental torture and humiliation - but being strong people with clear goals and indomitable spirits, they used their resilience and inventiveness to contend with harsh racism.

They went to prison and some even lost their lives so that their children could enjoy a brighter future. They did not allow themselves to be subjugated. They built schools to educate themselves. They worked hard even though their white masters treated them as workhorses. Poor and generally honest, they raised their children well.

Through the decades, Indians have excelled. They have progressed from peasantry to privilege, risen from the ranks of struggling tenants to wealthy landlords, from being unskilled to proficient.

It is because most Indians place high value on uprightness and scrupulousness that they join other South Africans who respect rectitude and righteousness, in denouncing the rampant corruption that is competing with Covid-19 for first place on the pandemic podium.

Public anger is mounting over the misappropriation of funds to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Recent reports have highlighted how the oxygen was sucked out of the sick and poor gasping for air when billions of rand in Covid-19 relief contracts was looted by officials. Tenders were dished out to friends and relatives, while food parcels and other aid was stockpiled for personal use and profit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has admitted the ANC must be blamed and warned that the 108-year-old party’s reputation was being undermined and its support eroded by officials who abused their positions for personal gain. He said the ANC stood as accused No1.

With the rot setting in across national, provincial and local government; with endemic self-enrichment and patronage and no tangible steps being taken to put perpetrators in orange overalls; the ANC must begin practising to write its obituary.

Unpunished corruption at the top leadership of a country leads to self-replicating behaviour by ordinary citizens. Dominance of countries by corrupt leaders further fosters the acceptance of corruption as normal.

Too many officials are indulging in corrupt practices without remorse, as if they have never learnt what it means to possess strong moral integrity.

Contracts are awarded to politically connected individuals at the municipal and provincial level in particular, then recycled back through a variety of trust fund structures into the ANC’s campaign coffers at election time.

Corruption is being perceived to be a natural and legitimate way of life - it is entrenching itself as a distinct cultural trait of the land. If not, how do we explain that a large number of government officials, with criminal records or corruption charges, continue behaving in an odious manner in the public sphere?

Corruption is also rampant in the private sector. A recent survey by PwC found that South African companies experience more fraud and bribery than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

With the polity becoming more and more immoral and dishonest, Indians are also being counted - albeit in small numbers - among those being implicated in corruption.

Indians are not exonerated from unemployment, which can be a bait for crime and corruption. Indians are also being booked for murder, rape, fraud, assault and woman and child abuse. The breakdown of the joint family systems as an institution of social security and guardian of morals and ethics is culpable.

Some Indians have also changed their value systems. Traditions, convention and religious principles, which were pointers on the moral compass and kept one on the honourable path, have become blurred.

Fortunately, for every handful of corrupt individuals, there are thousands more who are happy to sign up as corruption fighters.

Devan is a media consultant and social commentator.

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