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Indian South African identity: Looking backwards to go forward

Most of the indentured shunned the offer of a free return passage to India. Through the many precarious decades of insecurity, they laid the foundations for a life in Africa.

Port City of Calcutta (now Kolkata) pictured in 1865. This port was from where the majority of Indian indentured workers travelled to British Colonies across the world to provide labour in the capital expansion of the empire. Picture: SS Singh Archives housed at the 1860 Heritage Centre.

Published Nov 16, 2023


He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” – Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

16th November marks a historic moment for Indian South Africans. On this day 163 years ago, the Truro arrived in Port Natal. It carried the first indentured labourers. This was part of a worldwide dispersion of indentured Indians to places like Mauritius, Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, St Lucia, Granada and Fiji. It is not a coincidence that this migration came in the wake of the abolition of slavery, leading Hugh Tinker to call it a “new form of slavery”.

Migration forged new identities, beginning in the emigration depot, through the journey across the Indian Ocean and on Natal’s plantations and mines. The ship was an embryonic new society that challenged old social relations.

Indentured migrant Munshi Raman Khan’s autobiography, Jiwan Prakash, poignantly details the changed eating patterns enforced by the colonial authorities. Because upper castes were not allowed to register as coolies, there was a fiddling of hierarchies as Brahmins assumed a lower caste identity. Khan writes hauntingly of this process:

“In order to get food, we had to line up in two separate queues, one for men and the other for women. There was no separation based on caste, religion or class. At this point in time no Brahmin or Kshatriya protested that they would not sit along and eat with Muslims or Chamars (lower castes). This is because they all had become sudras.

“The food on the ship was far better than the food that had been served at the depot in Calcutta. But the nausea prevented us to feed ourselves well. On our ship, more than half of the passengers hailed from Western Punjab and South Bundelkhand. Therefore, rice and rotis were served thrice a week while on Sundays we were given chura or biscuits. Every fifteenth day, fresh sheep meat and rotis were given to us. Daal, vegetable, tamarind chutney, tinned meat and lime juice were also provided … Persons, who were rigid in their religious practices, had not been allowed abroad on the ship.”

The ship became an embryo of a new society. Caste mingled, identities were forged, new friends made. As poet Sudhesh Mishra brilliantly surmised: “Many things were lost during that nautical passage, family, caste and religion, and yet many things were also found, Chamars found Brahmins, Muslims found Hindus, Biharis found Marathis, so that by the end of the voyage we were a nation of jahaji bhais … all for one and one for all.”

In South Africa, a migrant, Ramdeen Ujudha, told the Wragg Commission of 1885 to 1887, that he could not return to India.

“Here, I have eaten with different people and broken my caste. When I go back, I will ask my mother to cook, but I will tell what I have done; she will cook, and I will eat outside; she will not allow me to eat inside where she and my relatives are. No fine could bring me back my caste. Just before coming, my last offering to the Ganges was that of the holy thread: I am not worthy to wear it any longer.”

Most of the indentured shunned the offer of a free return passage to India. Through the many precarious decades of insecurity, they laid the foundations for a life in Africa. They took up farming, market gardening and hawking, built schools, places of worship, and cultural and sports organisations as they established communities across Natal.

It led to a backlash against Indians. The white colonists constantly raised the banner of repatriation. Taxes, discriminatory laws and a hostile environment failed to force Indians to leave. Instead, they began to organise and claim their place in South Africa by emphasising they were born in the country and knew no other.

They turned to India for help. Mohandas K Gandhi was the foremost spokesperson for Indian rights from 1893 to 1914. During the 1920s, as Indians left the rural areas for cities and came into competition with white labour, agitation increased against the “Asiatic menace”.

A roundtable conference between the governments of India, South Africa and Britain resulted in the Cape Town Agreement of 1927, which provided financial inducements to Indians to return to India, and “upliftment” for those who remained.

India sent a succession of agents-general from the elite ranks of Indian society between 1927 and 1946 to negotiate with the white minority government in South Africa on behalf of its “diaspora”. The first, Sir Srinivasa Sastri, was instrumental in establishing Sastri College. India also raised the “Indian Question” at the UN from 1946 onwards. That their “motherland” was a constant source of “trouble” internationally added to white antagonism against Indians.

The Indian was the “eternal stranger” who had to be eliminated. While taking up the cause of Indians, Indian prime minister Nehru was clear that Indian South Africans had to ally with Africans. He stated in June 1953 that “the opposition movement (in South Africa) is far more African than Indian. The leadership is African — we want it to be so. We have told Indians in Africa very definitely and very precisely that we do not encourage or support them in anything they might want which goes against the interest of Africans”.

Within months of the National Party coming to power, the Afro-Indian riots exploded in Durban in January 1949. While the Nats argued that this proved the “inevitability” of “racial strife”, Indian political leaders like Monty Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo saw it as an opportunity to join the ANC in non-racial political collaboration to overthrow apartheid.

Though more apartheid legislation was introduced, privileging white South Africans, the Nats finally accepted Indians as South African citizens after the country became a republic in 1961. A Department of Indian Affairs was introduced, opportunities in education and employment were expanded, and housing was provided. Though many remained working class, tertiary qualifications saw some Indians becoming mobile and taking advantage of opportunities in the economic heartland of Gauteng and abroad. The rise of the Indian professional class was pivotal to the changes wrought on the community from the 1970s.

1994 signalled a new beginning, a time when those who suffered under apartheid could finally take their place as fully fledged citizens under a new flag, national anthem and constitution. The long history of colonial dispossession and racial oppression had ended. While the hope was that South Africans would be free from racial exclusions, time has shown that race cannot simply be wished away. That struggle continues.

Over the past 163 years since the Truro landed with its human cargo, Indians have participated in an epic African journey that saw them go from pariah status to full South African citizens. Through the long 20th century, they made an important contribution to the fall of apartheid and the attempts to build a non-racial democracy and society based on social and economic justice. They have also been “freed” to embark on the process of searching for their roots. For some ,the journey has been futile, for others ,it has been remarkable. Every day, one hears stories of families finding their ancestral villages and joining in developmental projects.

As we reflect on the journey, we need to constantly look backwards to navigate the way forward. To keep researching our history, to remember what was overcome, for this is what will give us the power to confront the challenges of the present.

Goolam Vahed is a professor of History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


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educationSouth Africa