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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.



  1. OneFlew OneFlew 29 May 2013

    Your proposition that “Anyone born in Africa and who prides himself on his Africanness is African” is wrong.

    Anyone who has nationality of any African country is African.

    They needn’t have been born in Africa and there is no patriotism requirement.

  2. Tofolux Tofolux 29 May 2013

    @Brad, two questions, it would be quite easy to be philosophical in this context but what about our reality? and Who in particular posed this question of indians following the Gupta saga? My first impression is that there is a particular campaign and agenda to turn back all the gains we have made as a society to build social cohesion. There has been of late, a particular but deliberate topic around race in our public discourse.Thabo Mbeki quite succinctly made the point in his ”I am an African” speech that our constituion which we all recognise, “constitutes an unequivocal statement that we accept to refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race,colour and gender”. SA belongs to all who live in it, black and white. So where exactly is this conflict with the principles and ideals of our constitution nd nation?The division nd race conflict that exists, is being harnessed, manipulated and used for a very narrow agenda and this campaign is going to have serious setbacks eg Goodman Gallery. But as Mbeki reaffirmed,”whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, africa shall be at peace! Seemingly our true liberators are once again will forever seek lead society on social cohesion. This despite all the anti-black and obvious attacks on particular individuals. I trust that the omniscient vision of a únited people and a united nation will never be compromised by narrow politicking and attention-seeking headlines.

  3. Venkatraman Venkatraman 29 May 2013

    Wise words – and a great contribution to the true spirit of equality, dignity and non-racialism.

  4. Naushad Khan Naushad Khan 29 May 2013

    In most of the places on earth it is the natives who always suffer and the migrants rule the roost.This what has happened in America and Australia and Mr. Obama is at helm of world affairs

  5. dillon dillon 29 May 2013

    “Racial categorisation diverts us from the real issues of class oppression and instead pushes us to petty nationalism and destructive tribalism.” This tool was used in the past as you illustrated above and is a favourite for the current government as well. They wont be happy with you letting the cat out of the bag Brad.

  6. Dave Harris Dave Harris 29 May 2013

    Your ill-informed indoctrinated version of history depicting Gandhi as a racist doesn’t square with the the fact that Natal Indian Congress itself was guided by Gandhian philosophy.

    ” Indians should not be treated like Africans….Gandhi implored Britain to recruit Indians so that they could prove their worthiness for citizenship.”
    This false portrayal of Gandhi is exactly what white supremacists desire.
    Even the book that you reference clearly states in its preface (p11):
    “This work is an account of cross generational change embellished with fictionalized conversations…it is non-traditional in is use of history and biography…”
    Furthermore the author has ZERO standing in the world community in history, freedom struggles or ANYTHING for that matter. Your portrayal of Gandhi from a dubious source is sheer intellectual laziness. Maybe you should try to understand what Albert Einstein meant when he said of Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” This is why, all around the world, Gandhi’s principles are now taught in schools and is the underlying power behind social activism against injustice.

  7. Dave Harris Dave Harris 29 May 2013

    Just as you can’t see the real reason for the media hype over the Gupta hysteria and inaccurately portray the majority of Indians as wealthy, in a previous blog you singled out Afrikaners Dancing to the tune of your colonial masters is immensely destructive to our diverse society already polarized by centuries of white supremacy. Who will be next, Coloureds, Zimbabweans, Jews, Chinese…?

  8. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 29 May 2013

    @brad, the people in SA of Indian descent are a sub-culture like the blacks in the US.The Indians in SA all want to have the rights as SA citizen, but don’t want to be assimilated in the black African population.

  9. Asif Asif 30 May 2013

    Thank you Brad for this mature piece.

    I am Indian, and committed to making SA better for every South African. I will not deny that some older generation Indians have prejudices, but we are changing that day by day.

  10. Joe Soap Joe Soap 30 May 2013

    @Brad Cibane

    Good article, thanks.

    @Dave Harris

    You would do well playing the role of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

  11. GrahamJ GrahamJ 30 May 2013

    @Dave Harris

    So how do explain this genuine Ghandi quote?

    “Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

    Tough, heh?

  12. Sipho Sipho 30 May 2013

    Going by Brad’s logic everyone equally fought against apartheid, since opposition to apartheid was drawn from every community in South Africa. There were whites, Indians, Africans, Coloureds who participated in the struggle. So what is Brad’s point? Brad, it’s not about the past it’s about the present, and what we’re doing to improve race relations. There’s no denial that there are tensions among various South African communities which require much more than superficial take on history. A good start would be to desist from denying people’s experiences and listen with empathy rather than dismissing them outright. Even amongst the Africans there’s still tension about who played a pivotal role in opposing apartheid and who collaborated.

  13. Mr Sarcasm Mr Sarcasm 30 May 2013


    1) “There has been of late, a particular but deliberate topic around race in our public discourse.” – At least you have not stoked any anti-white sentiments on Thoughtleader have you, no. ;-)

    2) “Seemingly our true liberators are once again will forever seek lead society on social cohesion.”

    Phew. Spot on, could not agree more. ;-)

  14. Dave Harris Dave Harris 30 May 2013

    Pure fabrications by colonial writers, translators, academics, journalists…
    e.g. New York Times Joseph Lelyveld, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India” exemplified this by claiming that Gandhi was bisexual/homosexual and some even claimed pedophilia.

    The desire to tarnish the image of powerful black leaders and create division in societies they wish to oppress is an age old colonial strategy. Where do you think racism came from? People of color?

  15. Tofolux Tofolux 31 May 2013

    @Mr Sarcasm, oh mr sarkie, you of such perfection, thank you for being pedantic and pointing out that you are unable to read between the lines. Let me assist and once again reiterate that ” seemingly our true liberators are once again tasked to forever lead society on social cohesion”.

  16. Mr Sarcasm Mr Sarcasm 31 May 2013

    And the first point Tofolux:

    1) “There has been of late, a particular but deliberate topic around race in our public discourse.” – At least you have not stoked any anti-white sentiments on Thoughtleader have you, no. ;-)

  17. Sipho Sipho 31 May 2013

    If truth be told you cannot cheat your way through life, sooner or later it will catch up with you. Any history is based on cognitive dissonance hence people’s current experience is a true measure of national mood. It’s of no relevance what Shaka, Verwoerd, Luthuli, Nongcawuse, Mandela, Mbeki, Ghandi, etc. said. There are life-time heroes in life only heroic acts.

  18. Sipho Sipho 31 May 2013

    I meant to say there are no life-time heroes only heroic acts.

  19. Anti Racist Anti Racist 2 June 2013

    Dave Harris: ‘Where do you think racism came from? People of color?’ No Dave – from lickspittle propagandists like yourselves – sucking up to corrupt political elites by dishing up nauseous antiminority racist propaganda.

  20. Mbonisi Mbonisi 14 August 2013

    Defining ourselves in the context of our adopted homes is one of the biggest problems we face as human beings. This continuously fuels lingering tensions between communities. In Europe, blacks born of generations of immigrants are still not seen as Europeans; in Africa whites born in Africa are not seen as Africans and in some cases, they themselves contradict their own identities as Africans by continuously ridiculing everything African and supporting just about anything western. Those of Indian origin, find it difficult to define themselves as African and prefer to call themselves Indian, though they are South African by citizenship. Among the Indians themselves, culturally they also have difficulties accepting the dark complexion though many of them are dark and some even darker than the black African. We need to sort out this confusion among ourselves if we expect to ever unite ourselves as a nation and one continent.

  21. mkabayi mkabayi 12 October 2013

    as an african nationalist of the school of lembede, mda and sobukwe, my take is historical..the struggle was about the re-possession of african land and wealth coming out directly and indirectly off that land back to the indigeneous african belongs to the africans. indians came over our shores out of their OWN FREE WILL as indentured labourers on Natal’s sugar cane plantation..they did not come here as slaves…their interest was self-improvement through engaging in wage labour for foreign european settlers who had forcefully ursuped african land, thus wittingly or unwittingly furthering the purpose of european imperialism and capitalism …the fact that they ended up being, together with africans, on the receiving end of white racial oppression and economic and political disenfranchisement was therefore only incidental…i accept that they did play a role in the struggle against racial oppression but i hold the view that african sacrifices and moral claim proved ultimately decisive to our final victory.. it is common cause that indians never experienced such accute levels of political, social and economic oppression as did native africans…and many even passed down the mild racism meted out on them by whites to the ultimate victims, us the african people…i accept that all safricans must be equal before the law but do not accept that bee policy should also benefit indians for without white settlers, indians would almoast certainly not have come over here.

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