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South African Indians: the past, the present and the future
The South African Indians represent a typical example of the Indian diaspora thriving in their lands of adoption. Arriving virtually as slaves in Natal, today many occupy senior positions in business, the professions, politics and community organisations. Nevertheless, the pioneering labourers made great sacrifices and laid the foundations for future generations. Various White governments made attempts to repatriate them to the land of their origin (this was strongly resisted and demonstrates that the pioneers were determined to sink their roots into South Africa). With the advent of the first truly democratic elections, and the election of the ANC Government much uncertainty still exists about the future of the Indians. Many Indians perceive the policy of affirmative action as favouring the indigenous Blacks and as another obstacle for the Indian community. However, enormous opportunities are opening up as many Whites are leaving South Africa to seek the security of other developed countries.
The first group of Indians arrived in the British colony of Natal in 1860. About 150 indentured labourers arrived at Port Natal on board the ship Truro. When the sugar industry was established in Natal the local Zulu labourers were recruited to work on the sugar plantations. However, the Natal colonial authorities were not initially aware that Zulu males regarded agricultural work as a female activity. Traditionally, the Zulu males were involved in grazing cattle and defending the tribe against foreign attack. The high labour turnover forced the colonial authorities to seek Indian labour that was already successfully employed in other British colonies.
indentured labourers were given a monthly stipend of two British
pounds. They were also given provisions and their health needs were
catered for. Their earnings as indentured labourers were
considerably higher than they could earn in India. Therefore, future
shipments of indentured labourers were highly successful. At the end
of the initial three year contract the indentured labourers were
given a free passage back to India or given agricultural land
equivalent to the value of a passage back to India. Owning their own
land was an unlikely event in their homeland of India and it is
understandable that the majority preferred to remain in South
By the turn of the century close to 80,000 Indians were residing in the colony of Natal. These people required goods and services to meet the everyday needs which could not be adequately provided by the English traders. An appeal was made to the Protector of Indian Immigrants to allow traders from India to settle in Natal. The Protector of Indian Immigrants was appointed by the Natal Colonial Government to safeguard the well being of the indentured labourers. Permission was granted to the so-called Passenger Indians to set up trading operations in Natal. Passenger Indians were classified differently by the Natal Government because they came as free passengers from India. They paid their own fare and were allowed to own property and to engage in trade activities. As they owned land they were also entitled to vote in local government elections. The Indian traders were hard working and efficient. They soon began to dominate trade throughout the colony. Their Zulu and English customers were attracted by the efficient service and competitive prices. The White traders became threatened and soon began to lobby for restrictions to be placed on the Indian traders. They were accused of unfair trade practices. Legislation was enacted to restrict Indian traders to clearly demarcated areas that were supposed to serve their own community. Soon legislation was also passed to restrict the Indians to reside in areas reserved for them. This was the infamous Group Areas Act that was to be a forerunner of the apartheid policy to be later introduced by the Nationalist Party in South Africa.
Despite the widespread restrictions, the Indian traders prospered and many also set up businesses in the Transvaal. The first Indian settlers found their way into the Transvaal in the early eighties. They were free from restrictions of any kind whatsoever. However, this would change as they aroused the jealousy of the White traders. Various professional Indians such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants also came to settle in the Natal Colony. At the time of World War I, the Indian population had increased to around 125,000, and as a result many Whites feared the domination of the Natal colony by Indians.
The position of Indians under different political dispensations
The political arrangements for the Indians differed greatly between the British colonies (Natal and Cape of Good Hope) and the Boer Republics (Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic). The British colonies valued the economic contribution of the Indians. Discrimination against the Indians was motivated to protect White economic interest. The Boer Republics regarded Indians as racially inferior and believed that discrimination was justified to preserve Afrikaaner religion and cultural values. The British colonies had to contend with British public opinion in dealing with the Indians in South Africa. The Boer Republics did not have to consider any outside influences in their treatment of Indians.
Indians were not recruited to work in the highly successful agricultural industry in Cape Colony. The Cape Coloured community provided reliable workers to work on the fruit farms that dominated the economic activity of the Cape Colony. Therefore, no Indian workers were recruited. However, a small number of Indian businessmen began to operate in the prosperous area of Cape Town. The Cape Colony had a progressive government and the Indians and Coloureds had a qualified vote that was tied to the ownership of land and property in the Cape Colony.
However, the majority of the Indians were settled in the Colony of Natal. By 1920 the Indian population had reached 130,000 and had surpassed the White population of around 115,000 at that time. The faster growing Indian population threatened the Whites. It therefore became official government policy to marginalise the Indians by restricting them to clearly demarcated 'Indian Areas'. Indentured labour into the Colony was at first discouraged and later completely outlawed. Indians were subjected to the payment of punitive rates of taxation. Repatriation to India was encouraged but was strongly resisted by the Indian community.
professional and business groups within the Indian community
realised that the discriminatory practices of the Natal Colonial
Government had to be resisted. Mahatma Gandhi had come to South
Africa to represent a client in Pretoria who was involved in a legal
dispute with a fellow Indian businessman. Having completed his legal
assignment Gandhi set up his legal practice in Durban. With the
support of the Indian professional and the business communities,
Gandhi formed a political organisation, the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).
Under the inspirational leadership of Gandhi the NIC mobilised the
Indian community to start a campaign to expose the injustices
perpetrated by the Natal Colonial Government. Gandhi started a
newspaper, the Indian Opinion, in 1903 to resist racial
discrimination. Petitions were sent to the Indian Government and the
Colonial Office in London to mobilise support to bring an end to
racial discrimination. As a result of this pressure from the NIC,
much of the petty discriminatory legislation against the Indian
Community was withdrawn.
In the Orange Free State, the Parliament (Volksraad) passed legislation forbidding the entry of Indians into the region. The Boers were suspicious of the Indians and somehow associated them with the Arabs who had previously invaded large parts of Africa and spread the religion of Islam. The deeply religious Boers regarded it as their Christian duty to resist the spread of foreign religions in their territory. The 'Coolie Act' forbidding the entry of Indians into the Orange Free State continued even after the formation of the Union of South Africa.
In the Transvaal Republic, President Paul Kruger was highly suspicious of all foreigners including people of European origin. President Kruger passed legislation that denied political rights to all non-Afrikaaners. The 'Uitlanders' were allowed to develop the economy, but were regarded as temporary sojourners in the Transvaal Republic. The discovery of gold in Johannesburg drew large numbers of 'gold diggers' from all parts of the world. Many Indians from Natal were also tempted to participate in the rapidly growing economy of the Transvaal. Indian businessmen in particular were attracted to the rapidly growing mining town of Johannesburg.
The Transvaal Boers regarded people having dark skins as inferior. The Indians were therefore placed in the same category as the indigenous Blacks and were subject to the harsh racial discrimination. Indians were confined to live in 'Coolie Compounds' under extremely unhygienic conditions. There was to be no physical contact between the Indian and Whites. The Indians were required to walk on the other side of the street when a White person approached. They had to be in possession of a pass at all times. The Indians were politically unorganised and lacked effective leadership. Therefore they were not in a position from which they could challenge the discriminatory laws passed by the Transvaal Government. The most serious of the laws was Law 3 of 1885, as amended in 1886. This law restricted Indians to reside in locations specifically created for them.
The Union of South Africa
The discovery of gold in Johannesburg and the denial of political rights to the large number of mainly White British citizens in the Transvaal would lead to a conflict between the Boers and Britain. At the turn of the century the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) took place. The Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Tranvaal formed a united front and challenged the British forces stationed in the Natal and the Cape Colony. The Afrikaaners lost the Boer War and the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging (1902) stipulated that the Boer Republics fell under British rule. In 1910 the four previous independent states formed the Union of South Africa.
position of the Indians did not change for better in the British
dominated Union of South Africa. In fact, the prevailing
discriminatory legislation in the previously independent territories
was simply adopted by the South African government. Most
importantly, the Pass Laws and the discriminatory taxes applied to
all Indians living in the Union of South Africa.
However, Smuts was not successful in influencing his fellow Cabinet Ministers to abolish all discriminatory laws against Indians. While the position of the Indians in South Africa improved they were still regarded as second class citizens in the land of their birth. The NIC and TIC resumed their political struggle and joined forces with the ANC to form a united front against racial discrimination in South Africa
Afrikaaner rule 1948–1994.
Smuts lost the election in 1948 and the National Party (NP), under
the leadership of D F Malan, came into power. It was clear that
racial discrimination would intensify because the NP’s political
slogan was 'The Kaffer in his place and the Coolie out of the
Country'. The NP set about creating a systematic form of racial
discrimination that in Afrikaans they called apartheid or
separateness. They identified four distinct racial groups: Whites,
Blacks, Coloureds and Indians. In theory, each racial group would
have their separate facilities where they could enjoy unfettered
rights. However, in practice, the best facilities were reserved for
Whites and the other groups had vastly inferior facilities. For
example, the Whites who comprised about 20% of the country’s
population were allocated 80% of the land.
The Indian community also felt the full sting of apartheid. However, the NIC and TIC introduced various programmes of self-help for the Indian community. The Indian community raised the necessary funds to build schools, hospitals, welfare organisations, and recreational facilities. This was in response to the deficiencies created by apartheid, and the Indian community sent several representatives to the United Nations and the Government of India to highlight the evils of apartheid.
The TIC, NIC and the ANC started to mobilise the non-White communities to challenge the policy of apartheid. Several other political organisations such as the Pan African Congress (PAC) also joined the fight. This opposition was strongly resisted by the South African Police who enforced the apartheid laws. For example, in 1960 the PAC arranged a political meeting to object to the Pass Laws. The police opened fire on the protestors and almost a hundred protestors were killed in Sharpeville. The NP also banned all-Black political organisations such as the ANC and PAC. Many Indians who were members of the ANC joined their Black brothers and went into exile in the neighbouring countries and Europe.
in exile reached a decision to isolate the apartheid Government of
South Africa. They gained recognition at the United Nations as a
liberation movement and formed a pressure group to declare apartheid
a crime against humanity. They also established a military wing to
infiltrate South Africa and sabotage the military and economic
capacity of the country. The mounting pressure at the United Nations
and the passing of the Anti Apartheid Act of 1984 by the United
States made life very difficult for the NP Government. This was
followed by the United Nations passing economic/cultural/sports
sanctions against South Africa. These sanctions were preceded by
protest programmes by countries such as India and the Soviet Union
that had applied sanctions against South Africa since the 1950s. The
South African economy went into a recession and the NP Government
experimented with a phased approach to the abolition of apartheid.
The ANC Government: April 1994 to date
The first truly democratic election in South Africa had substantial implications for the South African Indian community. The high profile of the Indians in the ANC hierarchy was very beneficial. When Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa he included six Indians in his cabinet of sixteen members. The Indians, making up three percent of the population, were over-represented at executive level. They also had a proportionally larger number of members of Parliament. With Mandela and Buthelezi being the only traditional 'chiefs' in the cabinet many maintained that 'there were too many Indians and not enough chiefs'. The high profile of the Indians in the political process reflects the great sacrifice that the Indians made when the ANC was in exile.
Government systematically began to abolish all previous
discriminatory legislation. All the previously disadvantaged groups
benefited. The Indians prospered the most because of the advantages
of superior education and greater wealth. In particular, the Indian
business community prospered in the post-apartheid South Africa.
They were now able to enter many sectors of commerce and industry
that were previously not open to them. Furthermore, wealthy Indians
could now move into residential areas that were previously
restricted to Whites. The ANC Government introduced legislation to
empower previously disadvantaged communities. Many companies had
previously discriminated against local Blacks. Therefore, their
affirmative action polices tended to favour the Blacks. They also
interpreted Blacks as meaning people of African origin. The Indian
community objected strongly and on several occasions Nelson Mandela
and his senior officials assured the Indian community that all
previously disadvantaged communities (African, Coloureds and
Indians) should be treated equally in affirmative action programmes.
Since South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy, Nelson Mandela has endeavoured to make the country's minority communities feel more secure. He has held many meetings with White, Coloured and Indian opinion-makers to address their insecurities. In May 2000 Mandela held a meeting with about 30 young Indian graduates and professionals with whom he wanted to discuss pertinent issues related to the Indian community. Mandela opened the meeting by asking Indian intellectuals for their assessment of the ANC Government's performance since 1994 and to raise issues of concern to the Indian community. Mandela was surprised at the level of insecurity expressed by the Indian youth. There was a litany of complaints about the Indian not having a place in the 'rainbow nation', resentment about the progress of unqualified and inefficient Blacks, the hackneyed line about Indians not being Black enough, insecurities about affirmative action and fears about Blacks 'taking over our schools, suburbs and jobs.'
The real tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa is that the long awaited peace dividend has not materialised. The poor economic prospects and the high level of unemployment has resulted in minority groups such as the Whites, Coloureds and Indians being fearful and suspicious of the Blacks who have been the main beneficiaries of the policy of affirmative action. The Indian community seems to be at the crossroads. Should they be grateful for the privileges they have enjoyed in the past and should they use their advantaged position to support economically disadvantaged communities? Should they be responsible for building a society based on equity and justice in which there is a place for all the citizens of South Africa? Politically, the Indian community is very divided. In the general election of 1994 over fifty percent of Indians voted for the National Party. The Minority Front Party also received good Indian support. The majority of Indians reside in the province of Kwazulu Natal. The Indian support for other parties enabled the IFP to become the ruling party in the province by a small majority. There is a political conundrum facing the Indian community. They have always expressed admiration and support for the ANC. But there is a general suspicion that, while the ANC has appointed many Indians in key government positions, it has, in its actions, tended to marginalise the Indian community as a whole from mainstream economic activities.
A major development in post-apartheid South Africa is the pessimism of the Whites regarding their future in the country. This is based on the firm conviction that the Blacks will seek revenge for the apartheid policies of the past. Furthermore, many Whites believe that the policies of affirmative action will make it difficult for them to obtain jobs. As a result many Whites may have joined the 'chicken run' and have sought greener pastures in overseas countries. Emigration is very easy because they invariably enjoy dual citizenship. Most Whites prefer to return to the country of their origin or to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
White brain drain has had a crippling effect on the South African
economy. Under apartheid Whites had dominated all spheres of life in
the country. In particular, they dominated economic activity in
South Africa. For instance, it is said that at the time of the
political settlement in 1994 South African Whites owned 98% of the
shares listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. They also had a
virtual monopoly in the mining and manufacturing industries. The
Whites also dominated the various professions in South Africa. Since
1994 an average of some 1200 White professionals have emigrated from
South Africa annually. While this may not appear excessive, it must
be kept in mind that South Africa has a narrow base of skilled
professionals. It is clear that a large-scale emigration of Whites
would have a detrimental effect on all spheres of life in the
A greater role in the economic development of South Africa.
South Africa is said to have accomplished a 'political miracle'. Political freedom in itself is meaningless if it is not accompanied by an 'economic miracle'. The post-apartheid period is characterised by the economy going into a severe recession. The expected economic growth rate of 1.0% in 1999 is inadequate when the population is rising at a rate of 2.5%. Furthermore, unemployment among Blacks is estimated to be as high as 30%. The high rate of unemployment among Blacks and the low economic growth has contributed to the high crime rate prevailing in South Africa. This high crime rate has prevented many overseas companies from making meaningful investments in South Africa. The expected peace dividend has not been achieved in South Africa. Instead White capital, management know-how, and professional skills are leaving the country and this will further slow down future economic growth. This vicious circle can only be broken down if the Indian community fill the vacuum created by the departing Whites. Under White rule the Indians could only play a minor role in the economy. The Group Areas Act dictated that they could operate only in areas demarcated for use by the Indian community. In their own areas there were limited facilities for trading and minimal facilities for manufacturing. They were precluded from participating in the mainstream economy. Several enterprising Indians used White nominees or formed companies with White shareholders to set up manufacturing operations in the main industrial regions of the country. Under ANC rule there is tremendous scope for the Indians to get into the mainstream manufacturing and service industries. The departure of many Whites has created opportunities for Indians to acquire their businesses.
Many overseas companies are setting up manufacturing operations in the new South Africa. The preferred route is to take on Black equity partners. Such a business structure qualifies these companies to tender for lucrative government contracts. The relatively wealthy Indian community have the funds to take up equity stakes in overseas companies establishing manufacturing operations in South Africa. Malaysia has been the largest foreign investor in South Africa since 1994. The close cultural and religious ties with the Indian community resulted in this group being an obvious choice when the Malaysian investors set up manufacturing operations in South Africa. The work ethic and entrepreneurial flair of the Indian community also makes them an obvious choice for overseas investors seeking local business partners in South Africa.
Indian professionals are playing a major role in the post-apartheid economy. In the past, job reservation for Whites and the thirst for education produced a substantial pool of Indian academics and professionals. Chartered accountants play an important role in any economy. In South Africa the Blacks and the Coloured communities each have approximately two hundred chartered accountants. The Indians currently have well over a thousand. Similarly, over seventy percent of lawyers and attorneys in the non-White group come from the Indian community. About twenty percent of the lawyers and attorneys come from the Coloured community and only ten percent from the Black community. Indians occupy leading positions in various organisations representing legal practitioners. The Chief Justice of South Africa, Ismail Mohammed, also comes from the Indian community. The emigration of many White computer professionals has resulted in the Indians now dominating the computer service industry. Furthermore, the close links between India and the ANC government has resulted in many professionals from the Indian sub-continent settling in South Africa and filling the gap caused by departing White professionals.
Education and training of disadvantaged communities
The Indian community has placed a premium on university education and has the highest number of graduates per capita of population. In contrast, the Blacks have the poorest performance record of all the different racial groups. At school level, Black pupils attending township schools have performed miserably. The lack of resources at Black schools and the many under qualified Black teachers being the reason for this. The decline in the Indian population in recent years has resulted in many Indian teachers being made redundant or unemployed. The Department of Education has started to re-deploy Indian teachers to the poorly resourced Black schools. Similarly, Indian university academics have been urged to teach at historically Black universities. The ANC government is placing great emphasis on implementing changes to rectify the inequalities in education created by the legacy of apartheid. The Indian community is ideally placed to assist in achieving this objective.
Traditionally, only Whites have had access to private education in
South Africa. In recent years Indians have started to make dramatic
inroads in the establishment of private schools, colleges of
education and private universities. For example, a group of Indian
academics have established a private college, the Management College
of Southern Africa (MANCOSA), to offer distance education management
programmes franchised from British universities. After four years of
operation and facing competition from forty other private colleges
they have become the largest providers of the Master of Business
Administration (MBA) degree in South Africa. Their recipe for
success is that they are paying particular attention to the special
needs of students coming from disadvantaged communities.
Integration with other racial groups
challenge facing the Indian community is their perceived disloyalty
to South Africa. This is based more on the experience in the rest of
Africa rather than the reality of the South African situation. For
the vast majority of Indians, South Africa is their natural home.
Indians have very little contact with their kith and kin in India.
After 129 years in the country the Indian community has the largest
population outside India. The long established historical roots have
been strengthened by the progressive Indian leadership such as the
NIC and TIC which has consistently advocated a policy of political
and racial accommodation with their Black counterparts. Compared to
Whites very few Indians have emigrated. They do not have British
passports and the immigration policies of the major western
countries have a distinct bias for people of European origin. The
vast majority of the South African Indians belong to the middle
class and even the wealthy do not export excess capital to India or
any other country. A recent study by the Human Sciences Research
Council in South Africa revealed that only about 10% of the Indians
fall into the high income category, and 65% and 25% fall in the
middle and lower income categories respectively. The stringent
foreign exchange regulations existing in the country since 1960
preclude the possibility of diverting any meaningful amount of
capital out of South Africa. Nevertheless the old arguments of
milking the cow rather than feeding the cow still prevails.
From humble beginnings as indentured labourers the Indians have progressed to a point where despite their small numbers they are playing a leading role in the social, political and economic life of South Africa. In the past Whites discriminated against Indians because they perceived them as an economic threat. Under the ANC Government the policy of affirmative action is perceived by the Indians as a means to marginalise them in favour of the Blacks. While a democratic form of government had been obtained in South Africa there has been no accompanying economic prosperity. The resulting high level of unemployment and crime are threatening the long-term prospects of South Africa. Evidence in other countries have shown that a transition to a democratic form of government is only successful if it is accompanied by economic prosperity that satisfies the aspirations of the vast majority of the population. The Indian community, possessing a good education, entrepreneurial flair, capital and a work ethic, are ideally suited to boost economic growth. Furthermore, the Indians could fill the vacuum created by the many skilled Whites who are leaving the country because of the prevailing political and economic uncertainty. A major challenge may be to demonstrate their patriotism by showing their commitment to all the people of South Africa.
J (1981) The Contribution of the Indians in the Economic
Development of South Africa, 1906-1970: An Historical – Income
Approach. PhD thesis, University of Durban-Westville.
reprinted from The Imperium Journal