Being Indian in South Africa today

The fault lines run deep. Four generations later, South Africans of Indian descent are still struggling to come to grips with the new Rainbow Nation.

Published: 06th January 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th January 2019 09:10 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

The fault lines run deep. Four generations later, South Africans of Indian descent are still struggling to come to grips with the new Rainbow Nation. From 1684 till the present, the Indian diaspora in South Africa has had a chequered history. But they remain synonymous with three points of identity: indenture, apartheid and Mahatma Gandhi.

These essays are written with passion, and are a sincere account of the resilience and strength with which Girmitiyas or indentured workers overcame their terrible conditions. They are slowly learning to come to terms with the scars that exploitation has embossed on their souls. They are still trying to live with them. Part biography and part history meet and mingle to make for a fascinating examination of what it is to be Indian in Africa.

Their tale dates back to 1860. Two ships left the ports of Calcutta and Madras, carrying a cargo of human beings. They were the first wave of many more that would come to South Africa from India to work as indentured labourers on the sugarcane fields. The Girmitiyas had arrived. Their story is about simple peasants who had to put their thumb impressions on agreements they could not read. In their village pidgin, those who ‘signed’ the form were henceforth known as ‘Girmitiyas’ or those who had become indentured labourers. Off they were packed like fish in a ship and sent to distant shores: Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad, Fiji and Guyana. Their future was uncertain. Though promised a free return passage every five years, they were cheated by the fine print and many would never see home again. 

In these six essays, Zainab Priya Dala deftly lifts the veil on some of the many other facets of South African Indians, starting with the question: How relevant is Gandhi to them today?

It is a question the author answers with searing honesty, as she tackles the questions of the ‘new racism’—between Black Africans and Indians—and the ‘new apartheid’—money; the tussle between the ‘cane fields’ where she grew up, and the ‘Casbah’, or the glittering town of Durban; and what the changing patterns in the names the Indian community chooses. 

Gandhi wrote: ‘But all my life through, the very insistence on truth has taught me the beauty of compromise.’ And then again he went back to reiterate: ‘Truth is hard as a diamond, and as tender as a blossom.’ But Dala struggles to understand how and why the Mahatma did not pay enough attention to the indentured labour on the farms in their daily struggle to survive. Small wonder then to the South Africans, he was an elitist. 

One finds the last essay too tilted in favour of Winnie Mandela, who is painted as a victim—a young mother, deprived of her husband, Nelson Mandela. How can one brush aside her infamous Football Club and its litany of abuse? How can you gloss over acts like the necklacing of alleged police informers and apartheid government collaborators with tyres set aflame? Can one sweep under the carpet, as it were, the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei? You do not need my thumb impression to know that this book is a must read. Highly recommended.

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