Brad Cibane
Brad Cibane

Indians not African?

In the aftermath of the Gupta saga a concerning debate has erupted. The debate is about the status of Indians in (South) Africa. It is concerning not only because of the subject matter but the language used. This post seeks to set the historical context for the debate.

Between 1806-1820 most of the area today known as South Africa became a British Crown colony. India became a colony in 1857.

The British Crown was facing a shortage of labour in the South African colonies. The Africans who lived in organised tribal communities were self-sufficient and had no interest in working for money. So the British looked to India for immigrant labour.

The first recorded ship to transport Indians to Africa was the Truro, which departed from Madras in November 1860. The second was the Belvidera, which departed from Calcutta.

There was an important difference between the Indian immigrant labourers and the Africans: the labourers received protection (somewhat) from the Indian government. For example the Coolie Commission was “appointed to inquire into the condition of the Indian immigrants in the colony of Natal; the mode in which they are employed; and also to inquire into the complaints made by returned immigrants to the Protection of Emigrants at Calcutta”.

In fact Mohandas Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work as an attorney for the Muslim Indian Traders in Pretoria. Gandhi himself argued that Indians (as citizens of the British Crown) should not be treated like Africans. When the war broke between the Boers and the Crown, Gandhi implored Britain to recruit Indians so that they could prove their worthiness for citizenship.

While Indians climbed up the racial ladder, Africans were pushed further down. Starting from 1909, the South African government took various severe measures to de-South Africanise Africans. These measures made South Africa a racial boiling pot, which was the reason for the Durban riots in 1949.

A statement from the ANC Working Committee on the Durban riots (signed by AB Xuma in 1949) explained that: “The Union policy of differential and discriminatory treatment of various racial groups is the fundamental contributing cause of racial friction and antagonisms. It has rendered the African the football and servant of all which he silently resents. It has given him an accumulation of grievances and a sense of frustration which find expression in unpredictable actions of violence or otherwise, to which no section is immune.”

With the institutionalisation of racial segregation in 1948, the situation worsened. Apartheid created a hierarchy of races with whites at the apex, coloureds second, Indians third and natives at the bottom, if anywhere at all. A brutal machinery was put in place to fortify these divisions: the education institution made sure Indians were better educated than natives, the Group Areas Act ensured that Indians lived in better areas. Indians and coloureds blossomed (somewhat) while blacks wilted.

The above, however, is not the complete history, it is one part. It seems that the more apartheid sought to divide races, the more the races united. The struggle marriage between Africans and Indians was solemnised by the “three doctors’ pact” in 1947 and further strengthened when the South Africa Indian Congress joined the South African Congress in the 1950s.

The government recognised the threat of a unified anti-apartheid movement and tried to the kill the spawning unity with the Tricameral Parliament in 1983, which promised Indians representation in parliament. While some Indians fell for the plan, some of the strongest opposition came from Indians. The Natal Indian Congress led a strong protest against the South African Indian Council, which agreed to take part in the elections for the Tricameral Parliament in 1984.

Indians in democratic South Africa

Having set the history the important question is: What is the status of Indians in South African today? There are two facts to consider.

The first fact is that Gandhi’s propaganda regarding Indians and Africans was not unique. Many Indians believed they should be treated better than Africans. The successive racist regimes in South Africa between 1860 and 1994 further entrenched this prejudice.

The second fact is that while the apartheid system favoured Indians over Africans, it did not improve the lives of all Indians. Indians got better homes, better schools, better jobs but they were subject to similar economic, political and social prejudices.

Therefore Indians and Africans have lived (to some degree) in perpetual hate and mistrust.

That said, inequality is as rife in Indian communities as it is in African communities. While some Indians have made fortunes (say the Guptas or the Reddys) others endure the same degree of poverty and need so prevalent in African communities. But those Indians are far fewer in number.

The solution proposed by the Mayibuye iAfrika Campaign is to strip Indians of their BEE status and secondly — and more incomprehensible — is a proposal relating to land.

These are not solutions for poverty and need, not the least for Africans. BEE status has proved ineffective for Africans. Secondly taking land from Indians and giving it to blacks will not solve the problem of poverty and inequality in South Africa. It will merely exacerbate negative race relations.

In my view to speak in racial terms is lazy (and often counterproductive). Anyone born in Africa and who prides him/herself on their Africanness is African. Racial categorisation diverts us from the real issues of class oppression and instead pushes us to petty nationalism and destructive tribalism. That A is more African than B is a conversation for the simple-minded.

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