February 26, 2010

Featured, Non Racialism

By Bennie Bunsee

The Indian Question in South Africa is part of the National Question in the country whose principal political task post apartheid is nation-building based on racial and social harmony and overcoming the racial fragmentation in what is both an African and multi-racial society and respecting the diversity of cultures and languages as enshrined in our Constitution and buttressed on the constitutional principles of non-racialism and non-sexismment.

This year is being celebrated as the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians into the country from Indian, mentioned by Zuma in his State of the Nation address.  An issue has arisen in the politics of India relating to the Indian Diaspora and bearing on the Indian Question in our country. This is how India itself should relate to the Indian Diaspora, and whether the policy that was initiated by Nehru has any relevance today. It questions where the true allegiance should lay, India or South Africa.

It came up recently when a group of Indians descended from the same village in India held a sports event in Cape Town. Some Indians denounced it as reverting to apartheid times. Similar questions were asked about the loyalty of Indians who more vigorously supported the Indian cricket team when it visited South Africa.

Nehru, who was India’s first Prime Minister after independence from British rule, took the position that Indians in the Diaspora must integrate with the indigenous people and be part of the nation in which they currently lived. That special concession were made to Indians living abroad in terms of owning property in India, and even dual citizenship if their grandparents came from India was also acknowledged then. But Nehru was very firm that they should integrate with their host nations. In the case of South Africa it meant  in particular the African peoples. And this has traditionally been the position of all succeeding Indian governments.

This policy underwent slight modifications with the Indian government’s current position to woo Indians living abroad in what constitutes the Indian Diaspora. . There is now an annual event held in India for Diasporean Indians. One aspect of this policy is a call for Diasporean Indians to invest monetarily in India to contribute to its national development.  It is a known fact that the Chinese Diaspora initially played a great role in the national development of China in the early years after China’s independence in 1949 with investments totaling over 56 billion dollars. This gave a fillip to its economic development. The Jewish Diaspora plays a similar role with regard to Israel, and there was a similar call to the African Diaspora and African countries to come to the aid of Haiti.

The Indian Diaspora comprises Indians living in Fiji Islands where they are almost equal in numbers to the indigenous population, Guiana, East Africa, Mauritius, Trinidad and other Caribbean Islands, and of course South Africa itself which has one of the larger  Indian population of 1.2 million.  They are settled populations in these countries, but Indians in varying numbers are to be found in almost every country in the world where they are generally successful as entrepreneurs or in the professional fields, although the overwhelming majority of them belong to the labouring classes. They share the normal vices and virtues of any community but are generally presumed to be industrious, hard working and of good moral character and an asset.

India had early relationships with the African Egyptian civilisation dating back to antique times. It is also believed it had colonies along the coast of East Africa. An Ethiopian writer argues that Ethiopians originated from India. African figures were found in the earliest known Indian civilisation, Mohenjo-Daro in Northern India. Africanist Egyptologists argue that the Dravidian people in South India originated from an African race as part of the Kush-Ethiopian Empire that once spanned the world. Africans once ruled in India as Prime Ministers, Presidents of large states, and commanders of huge armies. Africans, known as Habshis are to be found in various parts of India today.  Tribal North India, known as Advasis, are said to be of African origin.

Indians in South Africa were amongst the earliest settlers in the country. In fact the first two slaves came from Bengal in India, and in the early period of the country’s history they comprised about 25% of the country’s slave population in the Cape, a result of the colonisation of India by the British.  This was the first batch of Indians who came to the country in the latter part of the 17th century. Their heavier presence occurred when they were brought to work on the sugar plantations in Natal in 1860. This was in line with the policy of Britain, the leading colonial power at the time. It used cheap Indian indentured labour to fuel the economy when slavery of the largely African population was officially being banned. This was how the Indian presence spread to various parts of the world. They comprised of various ethnic groups from different parts of India who had their cultural particularities. India is described as multi-national, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation by the Indian Prime Minister, Mohan Singh.

Since their arrival in South Africa Indians are to be found in every walk of life, and have played a significant role in every social field, not least in the political arena. Almost from their earliest arrival they have been politically involved and fought for equal rights, the most notable example being Gandhi’s internationally known and admired Satyagrapha non-violent struggles against discriminatory legislation. Since then they have been an integral part of the political struggles in the country, and produced outstanding leaders, even of a national character in several political organisations, who are household names of our political struggle against colonialism and apartheid.

While inheriting an ancient culture and civilisation, which they wish to hold onto and preserve, how they see themselves has been a matter of debate. When speaking in a London meeting with the well known Indian communist, Jyoti Basu, who died recently in India, which I had organised on behalf of the PAC,  Zeph Mothupeng, the PAC leader who had just come out of Robben Island,  said that there are no Indians in South Africa, but only African Indians. The crowd which consisted mainly of Indian people living in the UK cheered loudly, recognising and accepting this definition of Mothupeng.

An East African Indian female once described herself both as an Indian-African and African Indian. This was acknowledging both her Indianness and Africaness. Zubeida Jaffer defines the Indian presence as African-Indians. The Natal Indian Congress which was part of the Congress Alliance disbanded when the new democratic dispensation was ushered in  1994 and joined the ANC, although Rajbansi went on to form the Minority Front which allied itself to the ANC.

When Thabo Mbeki made his “I am an African speech…” in Parliament he incorporated all the non-Africans in the country as part of the African family. The question of who is an African has been an ongoing debate in our multi-racial body politics.

But by interpretation it means that the country belongs to the African peoples who were dispossessed of the land and country through foreign colonial domination by European settlers. That is the firm position of the PAC. The ANC in its Freedom Charter contends that the country belongs to all who live in it. The PAC broke away from the ANC on this basis. Of course both are right. The fact that our national logo and anthem are African, and the words “African Mayibuye” clearly means the return of the country to the African people. The SACP’s theory of internal colonialism also recognises the colonial nature of South Africa but also accepts the white settler presence as part of the South African nation. The PAC of Sobukwe dismisses the concept of racial categories and states that there is only one race, the human race, which is where globalisation is taking us.

Following the new dispensation of 1994 South Africa became a fully territorially integrated society, particularly with the dismantling of the Bantustans. It is not possible for any part of the country to secede. Its why Orania by some Afrikaaners was a failure. It is why also loose talk of the Western Cape breaking away to form some kind of white/coloured enclave of its own is impossible. Nor could earlier loose talk of Kwa-Zulu Natal breaking away in a “federated” South Africa was  possible. Joe Slovo celebrated the fact that this was nipped in the bud.

Our constitution which was largely drawn up by collaboration between the ANC and the National Party does not refer to the National Question in anyway but is based on Western liberal concepts of common citizenship. At the same time it acknowledges the right of the national minorities in our multi-racial society to cultural and linguistic rights, but it makes no specific mention that South Africa is an African country in an African continent, although the ANC tends to mention this in its political documents.

Ultimately it is Sobukwe who is right, that we are part of a common human race and our non-antagonistic ethnic presence is also an integral part of our common humanness. And it is on this basis the task of nation-building proceeds. While just about everything in South Africa is still permeated by racial notions any form of racism is not accepted from any quarter today, whether from the African majority or any national minority, although identity politics still survives in our society largely because residential segregation still exists. Both our sense of a common humanity and identity politics will be with us for a long time while we make the transition to a truly non-racial society through non-violent democratic means.

Ultimately also a nation is judged by its cultural ethos. The dominating cultural ethos in the country is Eurocentric, not African. The heritage of the Black intellectual and intelligentsia, African, Coloured and Indian is mainly Western. They speak through a Western idiom in all their intellectual and cultural concepts. It also reflects a modernist culture but one in which all nationalities are free to add to its component nature after centuries of colonial suppression. Cultures also evolve, and in our globalised world it must evolve.

The Indian Question in South Africa is part of all this. They are part of a common nation, and although they inherit a great culture and civilisation they are largely westernised, more specifically the younger generation who have almost lost the use of the Indian language and know very little of its rich cultural traditions, customs and religion. Their main language is English. Indian culture is peripheral to the country. Aspects of it might be observed in their homes by the older generation and small sects but does not belong to the mainstream.The Iqbal society in the Cape tries to preserve the rich heritage of the Indian/Islamic poet, Iqbal.

It must also be said that Indians were amongst the first to practice integration in sports, especially in cricket and football They did away with the Sam China Cup which was meant solely for Indians in South Africa. They  also did away with Indians only club football, realising that this contributed to racial antagonisms. The writer Ronnie Govender, R.S.Govender and Lutchman of Durban speaheaded this campaign in the sixties already.

But the fact that Indians inherit a great culture and civilisation, aspects of which are fervently pursued by other South Africans – yoga, meditative practices, Buddhism, study of the Bhagavad Gita, and other such spiritual practices is why the Indian will be both an Indian and an African. They are not antagonistic. It not only reflects the diversity of our society but diversity within our individual selves because an individual can have multiple identities. One can be a woman, lesbian, disabled, pensioner, mixed parentage, a sports fan who likes hockey and hates all other forms of sports, a devotee of the Bahaai faith, Seventh Day Adventist and so on.

The fact that Indians are celebrating 150 years of their arrival here with an interesting history of its own should be something all South Africans should know and participate in. That only Indians do so is an indication of the fragmentation of our society. In a similar manner we should know one another’s history in this country, and understand why we can be both South Africans and preserve the progressive aspects of our culture and ethnic identities. They are not necessarily antagonistic, but actually enrich our society.



  1. Daniel Choonoo Says:

    Proud Indian South African


  2. Kamala Thomas Says:

    i enjoyed reading your article. As a African of Indian decent, i must say that i am firstly a very proud South African Indian. I was born in Clairwood in 1969. Raised and grew up there. Learned everything abt the hardships of life as we had now lights, flushing toilets & water was communial a distance away from home. But we survived. I live now in Woodlands, durban. I am saying all of this because something in your article caught my attention & i would like to suggest that in celebration of 150 years of Indians in SA and not just making us indians proud of this but all south africans, that in our communities wherever we live, lets invite our neighbours & together celebrate this historic event so our children & grandchildren can know that we all shared to make SA a safe, happy, wo nderful place to live. I love SA.


    • Omar Badsha Says:

      I agree, that the celebration of the arrival of Indians should be like all other national celebrations, the celebration of the ethos of the liberation movements which fought for a non racial, non sexists and democratic society. How we celebrate and what we celebrate is an important question, can we say that we South Africans have overcome the barriers of language, race and class and if not, then how and what African Indians celebrate becomes a crucial question.


  3. Jamie Chan Says:

    Ok so what about the coloureds? Are we going to celebrate 400+ years of coloureds in South Africa?


  4. Dhireshen Iyer Says:

    A good read. Although im of the younger generation,only 28 and missed the apartheid times, i consider myself a south african indian not just an indian and its very disheartening when you go for a cricket match in durban were india and south africa are playing and the majority of indians are supporting india. Although we feel some sort of obligation to india, we live in South Africa, we were born here, and integrate with all races and im proudly south african. We cant hold on to the excuse that there are no indians in the cricket team, which in itself is of a racial mindset. Hashim Amla is now there, and did we ever consider, maybe there are not 2 many good indian cricketers in south frica out there. But in time i believe attitutes will change. We should all as south africans celebate the 150 celebrations!


  5. Fathima Says:

    Hi there

    Great article, but what about the accomplishments of South African Indians in the past 150 years?
    Mahatma Gandhi, Ahmed Kathrada, Fathima Meer, Yusuf Daddoo, Dr. Motala, just to name a few fought beside Nelson mandela to end apartheid.
    Indians have contributed to democracy and to the end of apartheid.
    @ Dhireshen: I am 33 years old and attended Indian schools, saw “Indian cricketers” that could have topped the likes of Kepler and Andrew Hudson, yet alas the changes happened too slowly and the cricketers changed their focus!
    Many “indian” cricketers played “Indian” cricket during the days of partheid, despite not having coaches and opportunities, and are today businessmen and professionals in their own right, but talk to them about cricket, and they will get a nostalgic look in their eyes and say “… ahhh, what great cricketers we could have been.”


  6. Ashantha Armogam Says:

    Fantastic article. Today a proud moment for all Indians and South Africans to really take a moment to ponder our history. We are standing on the shoulders of giants!


  7. kereshan Says:

    Dhiresen. you have alot to learn; you probably tried to make a joke in stating that Indians in South Africa may not be good enough. You certainly need to be educated on the srtangle hold that the whites still have. I am your age but much more aware of our politics and sport which go hand in hand. Will africans in europe not be good enough to make the football team?


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