Kalpana Sharma

The Other Half: At the crossroads of identity

Early Indian labourers in South Africa. Photo Courtesy: The Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa  

Until they begin to speak, South African Indians could be mistaken for Indians from India. Yet, their journey to South Africa and their lives since then is a fascinating chronicle — of oppression, suppression, self-assertion, struggle and now a renewed search for an identity.

On November 18, 1860, a shipload of Indian workers — “indentured labourers” — landed in South Africa. This was a new form of slavery, six years after slavery had been officially abolished. They had travelled the distance not out of their free will but out of the compulsions that crushing poverty imposes on people. They thought they were escaping poverty. Instead, they landed in a country where their “Indianness” would determine their place in society for more than a century.

Later, others who were “free”, or paying passengers, followed. These were traders who chose to go to South Africa from India, Mauritius and other countries. Still later, post-1994 and the end of the system of apartheid, more people from the subcontinent chose to move to South Africa, people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These waves of migration together make up the complex, diverse and fascinating population of over one million South African Indians. This year, which marks 150 years since the arrival of that first boatload, has seen a series of events to “commemorate” and remember the presence of this community in the “rainbow” nation of South Africa.

The Gandhi connection

Indians know of South Africa and its racist past and of the Indians who lived there because of Mahatma Gandhi's struggles and experiences in that country. What is not so well understood by Indians is how the descendants of those early waves of migration view themselves today when South Africa is a free, democratic country and not one ruled by a small white minority that enforced separate development and apartheid. Do they consider themselves as overseas Indians, or non-resident Indians (NRIs), part of the Indian diaspora or are they South Africans of Indian origin?

This was one of several questions that came up for discussion at a two-day meeting in October organised jointly by the University of Johannesburg, the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa of the University of Witwatersrand and the Indian Consulate in Johannesburg titled, “South Africa and India: Dialogues on Social Justice and Contested Transitions”. It provided for many of the Indians who attended this meeting, a nuanced and insightful understanding of what it means to be a South African Indian today — 16 years after the country threw off the oppressive and cruel yoke of apartheid.

I personally got a hint of the significance of the question even before I landed in Johannesburg. A much-delayed flight allowed me to engage with several South African Indians on the way back home from holidays, visiting relatives and various ashrams. In fact, a significant number of passengers had spent time at an ashram near Bengaluru — a ritual which some of them said they followed every alternate year.

A couple told me how they had only recently traced their ancestry — prompted by the 150 years celebrations. A prosperous doctor from Pietermaritzburg said he had visited Faizabad/ Ayodhya from where his family originated and that ideally he would like to have dual citizenship. Why, I asked. “Because you never know how things will turn out in South Africa,” he said.

Younger people, on the other hand, were quite clear. A young woman, who works in government, said, “We are South African Indians. Of course, I love India, I love Bollywood and I love the fact that I can move around freely without fear of violence in your cities. But I am a South African. There is no confusion in my mind.”

Between these two responses lies the story of the South African Indians, a group who were lumped together under one racial category during apartheid. Since 1994, Indians are now free to assert their multiple identities — regional, caste and religion. There are also strong differences in attitude between the post-1994 migrants from the subcontinent and descendants of the original Indians.

Of the many papers that discussed various aspects of this issue, one that addressed, at least partially, the question of how Indians in South Africa identify themselves was a study of a place called Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg. It is located in the Indian-dominated area of Fordsburg. As the name indicates, it is a shopping centre but one with a distinct history.

The traders in Oriental Plaza, which is now a buzzing and popular shopping centre, once lived and worked in a mixed neighbourhood called Fietas, now called Vrededorp. Under the government's rules, they were not permitted to own property. So they established their shops in rented property and much as Indians do in many parts of this country, lived on the same premises. The entire family was engaged in the business.

In 1942, the Johannesburg City Council asked Parliament to allow Indians to buy property and by 1943, many Indians had become owners of shops and homes. Their neighbourhood, Fietas, comprised Africans, Indians Coloured, Malay and Chinese people following many different religions. There were mosques and churches and Indian traders dominated the 14th Street bazaar. All this came to an end in 1950 when the government imposed the Group Areas Act that marked specific areas for specific races. The people of Fietas were forced to move to distant residential areas allocated according to their race while the locality that had been home to them for decades was redeveloped for whites only.

For the Indians, this meant separation of home and business. They were moved to “Indians only” residential neighbourhoods while their shops were relocated to Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg. Oddly, even though the law gave people no choice once the government decided they had to move, it also laid down that the government had to provide an alternative site to traders. Although some shopkeepers resisted, over time the majority moved, as they had no choice.

But, as the study presented by Pragna Rugunanan, Mariam Seedat-Khan and Letitia Smuts shows, the problem the traders faced was not just being forced to move, but also to radically change their style of trading. Traditionally, Indian traders would keep a little of everything in their shops, much as our kirana shops do even today in India. But under the new law, they were forced to sell only specific goods. So a person who sold men's shirts could only sell that and not men's socks. The traders were also not allowed to choose their shops; the authorities allocated these.

Thriving today

Today, all this is in the past and Oriental Plaza has become a much-desired location for trading as it receives an estimated one million footfalls each month. But beneath the bazaar-like atmosphere so reminiscent of Indian markets, there are tensions and questions that still remain. There is resentment against new traders who do not fit into the description of South African Indians. Some are part of later migrations and thus think of themselves as Pakistani, or from Bangladesh.

The study tried to research, amongst other things, how the traders identified themselves — as South Africans, or South African Indians? The majority of the traders said they are proud of being South African. But with the caveat, as explained by one woman, “It is important to include the Indian part, because a mere South African means the values and religion of the Indian identity goes missing”.

This “Indian part” and the extent to which it is still important and relevant is just one of the many issues that the South African Indian community is debating today. Their link to India is undeniable. For the younger generation, Bollywood has brought it alive with new releases opening simultaneously in India and South Africa.

But the debate goes deeper than the superficial aspects of “Indianness”. How much should people hold on to identity in a country where racial identity was the marker for separate development? In a multi-racial democracy, can separateness be accepted and respected even as a common and new identity as South Africans is being forged?

No simple answers

There are no simple answers as this quote from the paper quoted above illustrates:

“The concept of Indianness, on the one hand, subconsciously creates a sense of isolation from the broader South African society and, on the other hand, Indianness also fosters a strong sense of community among Indian people… While efforts are being made by South African Indians to integrate into a broader South African culture, the process is flawed on both ends. There still exists a large degree of separateness in living, working, socialising, schooling and in the general way of life that Indians have created for themselves. This is reminiscent of the principles and values of separate development and segregation popularised by apartheid. In this sense, South African Indians have inadvertently perpetuated a culture of separateness within a society from which they feel alienated.”

The choices that South African Indians face 150 years after they first arrived on that continent are not very different from those many ethnic groups in other multi-cultural democracies face.

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