Imagining the South African Indian

How do you tell a different story of Indians in South Africa, one that shatters long-held and reproduced stereotypes?

Pataan, 1958. By Ranjit Kally.

The relationship between Africa and India has a long and largely unexplored historical trajectory. Some trace the history of the two regions and their interactions back to the first century, whilst most evidence points to at least the fourth century. Their relationship can be seen in art, architecture, music, cloth and trade. Some suggest that it was East Africans who introduced Sufism into India, whilst there is more solid evidence that between the 14th and 17th century Africans rose to prominence in Indian society as artists, architects and reformers. European incursions into the African continent in the 15th century coupled with the colonization of Southeast Asia, and rapid capitalist exploitation and expansion in the following century, resulted in almost 20 million slaves being taken from Africa to the Americas alone. This international slave trade changed the social, economic and political landscape of these three continents markedly.

When the Dutch East India Company, which previously used Cape Town as a refreshment port, established a trading port and introduced permanent settlers in 1652 to supply the Europe-East Indies trading route, they began to import political exiles from the East Indies. This meant that those who had opposed colonization and occupation of their homelands by the Dutch elsewhere were captured and brought into slavery at the Cape. The first “shipment” of such slaves arrived from West Africa through the interception of a Portuguese ship. The majority of the slaves who continued to supply the Cape, however, were Muslims brought from Dutch East Indies colonies, such as Madagascar, Ceylon, Indonesia and India. Thousands of people from disparate lands would further mix with Europeans, immigrants from Japan, Brazil, Malacca and the Philippines, over time forming what the Apartheid state termed the Coloured population.

The Dutch settlers in the Cape, an unstable grouping of slavers, waged openly genocidal war campaigns against their San neighbours, and had antagonistic relations with Xhosa-speaking people on the eastern frontier. They were soon overcome by the British, who took over the Cape in 1806. The disgruntled Boers, unwilling to be subjected to the rule of the British began their great trek into the “interior” to set up their own “Boer republics.”

By 1837, further north along the east coast of what would soon become part of the Union of South Africa, 4000 Voortrekker (Dutch) boers, accompanied by 4000 of their Coloured servants arrived to an area undergoing rapid change. The death of Shaka, various outwards, and later inward migrations, and the resettlement of people in KwaZulu meant that the arrival of the Voortrekkers was unwelcome. In 1843, the British, under the pretext of disapproving of Boer slavery in the area, annexed it and declared it a British colony. The coastal region with its semi-tropical climate provided the ideal conditions for the settlers to begin experimenting with tea, coffee and sugar plantations, although only the latter proved successful. The problem they faced was how to ensure a steady supply of labor in order to reap the profits they so greatly desired. The idea was to institute a “gate of misery” for the local African population, in the form of hut taxes, marriage fees, long labor contracts, and a system of low wage payments; to squeeze Africans through it and onto the labor market. At the time African peasantry proved arduous to stimulate into the work conditions and subordination white colonialists desired. The abolition of official slavery in 1806 in England, meant that a new form of “indenture” or what was derogatorily referred to as the “coolie trade” rose to fill the gap in the 1820s. “Coolies” were cheap Asian labor imported to work in the cotton, sugar and mining industries. An appeal was made on behalf of the “Natal Planters” to Sir George Grey, Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner over British Territories in South Africa when he visited Natal in 1855. The Natal settlers asked for the importation of “Coolies or other labourers from the East,” and when he returned to Cape Town Grey made such a recommendation. In 1906 captains of mining industry would appeal for importation of “Coolies” from China to work in the gold mines under horrific conditions. Many would die.

The government of India under British Rule, reluctant at first, was soon persuaded by the Natal planters to export labor and on November 16, 1860, a group of 342 people, mainly South Indian Hindus, with a small number of Christians and Muslims, arrived in Natal on a ship called the SS Truro. Ten days later the SS Belvedere brought 351 more indentured laborers from Calcutta. These regular shipments of people continued at random, and according to the needs of white colonists, until 1866 when a world depression temporarily stopped the flow of Indians to Natal until 1872. Indentured labor continued to be imported  until 1911. A new wave of migration also began at this time in Durban, with the arrival of predominantly Muslim merchant Indians, mostly from Gujarat. They arrived in South Africa as passenger Indians, at their own cost and under the protections of British citizenship (which was later rescinded), seeking to explore business opportunities because of the laboring Indian community.

Whites soon began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the number of “free” (post-indenture) and “passenger” Indians who had become traders and farmers, and presented a threat to their monopoly on agriculture and trade. They sought to have them sent back to India and this was the beginning of a growing anti-Indian sentiment in Natal. In 1893 Natal was granted responsible government and with it came the imposition of new laws which deprived Natal Indians of many rights, including the franchise (following the Glen Grey Act at the Cape), restrictions on further entry of Indians into the country and a new tax which was meant to compel them to return to India. It was at this time that Mohandas Gandhi arrived in South Africa to fight a legal case and remained for 20 years building a program of passive resistance to the colonial state and setting up the Natal Indian Congress to oppose restrictions set on Indians.

Gandhi also purchased a small farm at Phoenix, outside Durban, where he instituted a communal settlement and set up a printing press. The settlement became the center of the strikes on the North Coast and the passive resistance of 1913 where a group of 500 resisters were whiplashed and fired at for refusing to work during the struggle. In 1914, without the unanimous support of the Indian community Gandhi concluded an agreement with General Jan Smuts to suspend the passive resistance campaign in order for some gains in the rights of Indians. These rights included Indian marriage rites, the abolishment of the imposed tax, and the admission of wives and children into the country. What remained however was that Indians were denied the right of free movement from one province to another, especially the Orange Free State, and only those Indians born before 1913 could enter the Cape Colony, under extremely stringent regulations. Thus, the concentration of Indians in Natal was by design rather than volition. It is also interesting to note that of all 107,529 Indians who arrived in Natal as indentured laborers between 1860 and 1911, only 25% were women.

By 1960, 94.6% of all Indians in the country were South African-born and almost all Indians in the country lived in Natal, making it the largest Indian city outside of India. Once Indians were out of indenture they began working mainly in manufacturing, coal mining, railway, commerce and the service industries. As such, in a period of just 30 years, from 1951 to 1980, the South African Indian population went from 6.33% of the population using English at home to 73.31% who used it as their home language.

So developed then a very specific Durban Indian identity. In places like Cato Manor, near the city center, land was leased to Indian market gardeners who had just finished their indenture and having nowhere to go moved to the city. These first occupants of Cato Manor in turn leased plots to African families, who were prohibited from owning land at the time. For a while Cato Manor became a space of hybridity and mixing, a kind of Sophiatown or District Six, where a particularly Durban culture was able to ferment. In 1949 the outbreak of the Durban Riots brought an abrupt end to this period when an incident on the commercial Grey Street fuelled anti-Indian sentiment and led to massive violence, looting, the destruction of houses and shops and 137 deaths, mostly of poor Indians.

Thereafter, people were forcibly removed from Cato Manor, under the Group Areas Act, although people continued to mix despite restrictive laws. The majority of this population, were concentrated in the Durban, Inanda, Pinetown (DIP) region, and lived in sprawling townships. More than 100,000 Indians were forcibly moved to the township of Chatsworth, a farmland 20km outside the city without access to drainage electricity and water, whilst many of their previous spaces of residence were rezoned as white areas.

The Indian population although consisting of various religions, castes and cultural backgrounds, sometimes constituted themselves as a community around conservative family values and a community of self help. Through hand-to-hand collections they built the first and only high school for Indians, Sastri College in Durban, raised funds for the RK Khan Hospital, considerable capital for the University of Durban Westville—today part of the University of KwaZulu Natal—and places of religious worship such as temples and mosques. Yet, they remained a politically and religiously disparate group of people with differing class interests.

From the time of the arrival of Gandhi the factions within the Natal Indian Congress were clear. There were tensions between the radicals and the reformers: those who supported an alliance with the ANC and later joined when membership was open to members of all race groups, as well as those who joined the UDF, were starkly opposed to politics of Indians who participated in the Tricameral parliamentary system or Apartheid reforms. Furthermore, the class tensions between the largely working-class and poor populations of Indians, descendants of indenture and merchant Indians, continued to be a fault line in everyday relationships. While continuously circumscribed by the Apartheid state as a community and viewed as homogenous because of this classification, religious, caste conversations and class continued to stratify the population, an open secret amongst South African Indians, even today.

The arrival of large number of merchant Indians in earlier decades meant that the importation of food, clothing, music and art sustained itself in the Durban area, and this influenced the nuances of the largely working-class population visible in the street foods like Bunny Chow, Samoosa, Vedahs, curry sandwiches and Roti-rolls that became a feature of the Durban takeaways that fed working-class populations; the Rickshaw pullers of the Durban beach front; and various vegetable and food markets. One such market was the Casbah where the documentary Legends of the Casbah is set.

It is narrated by curator Riason Naidoo (he doubles as the film’s co-director), with writer Aziz Hassim who together take the viewer on a journey to revisit historic spaces in Durban city and through them to tell a forgotten narrative of its everyday history. Legends of the Casbah essentially explores the history of the Durban Indian Community in the 1950s from the vantage point of 2012.

Through the historic Indian market, the Casbah which still exists today, we get a different perspective of life in the 1950s. Far from Casbah as marketplace which induces worn histories of South African Indians as business savvy, with cultures rich in flavorful food and spirituality, it becomes a foundational and creative space, “where a person who is running from the police and knows his way around can disappear for two weeks.”

Through a recasting of masculinity, the effeminate, superstitious deal-maker is set aside through images of young Indian footballers, gangsters, life-savers, sportsmen and community builders. For many, including myself, these are exceptional stories that are relatively unknown and have not received attention. Many are the stories of young, poor Indians, excelling beyond the boundaries that were set for black people by the Apartheid state.

Out of the Casbah, the Crimson League and the Salot Gangs controlled Durban’s underworld and football teams like the Manning Rangers or Aces United. Far from the batsmen wielding gentleboy perhaps celebrated in the figure of South African cricket, Hashim Amla, is the famous boxer who works carrying 200kg bags of rice in and out of the Casbah.

The idiom and grammar of the film too is decidedly Durban Indian, in as far as humor, accent and moral code is concerned, which many will find familiar. It is very much a story about exceptional people making it in the worst of times, building community, developing interracial cultural spaces against Apartheid segregation and hungry for broader citizenship and non-racialism. The development of the country’s first interracial soccer federation after Indians, Africans and Coloureds refused to play each other in segregated leagues sits alongside the triumph of “Papwa” Sewgolum, the self-taught golfer who held his club the wrong way, and beat notorious racist Gary Player in the Natal Open, but had to receive his trophy in the rain because he wasn’t allowed in the whites only clubhouse. (Sewgolum also won the Dutch Open three times.)

The narratives of everyday characters like these sportspeople and the underworld gangsters are mixed with that of the anti-Apartheid Doctors Monty Naicker and Yusuf Daddoo (they respectively led the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congress against colonial and Apartheid “reforms” which adversely affected Indians and made common cause with Africans). The inclusion of ANC activist and former government minister Pallo Jordan’s commentary is meant to affirm Naicker and Daddoo’s political impacts.

Women too are presented through two examples, one of them Dr Kesaveloo Goonam (a well- known medical doctor and activist who later went into exile), as exceptions to the stereotypical sari-clad Indian woman relegated to the home and overburdened by culture. (The other is the motorcycle stunt rider, Amaranee Naidoo.) This comes as ready relief, since stylistically interspersed between men speaking about footballers and gangsters are often images of women in fashion shows, and beauty competitions in a variety of dress.

There are other stylistic choices too. The documentary is made in a film style most probably inspired by “The Godfather” trilogy or the films about underworld figures like Al Capone, as is evidenced by the Little Chicago reference and seen in the representations of Sheriff Khan, a local tough who was known as “South Africa’s Al Capone” and who died a violent death.

Yet, if the film is decidedly about a certain slice of history, the interviews with the people who survived this history and are still alive today seem frozen in the spaces and time in which they appear and are supposed to represent. We do not see them in their current lives, where or how they live; or what they do.

It is a film then, that addresses the important work of breaking down worn stereotypes by telling an everyday history of extraordinary people and cultural life under Apartheid. It also reaffirms the idea of a “dream deferred” by constant references to “the old days;” a community that appears to be mourning the loss of its community-ness, the helping hand of neighbors, the creation of new spaces, the defying of legal tyranny, the kind of gangsters that would carry groceries for old women and donate bail money to jailed activists… “the good old days.”

The very idea of community refuses to deal with the antecedents of Indian slavery at the Cape and the unexplored history of sexual mixing in Natal. Religion, caste, class, race are all left unexplored in this narrative and perhaps the reliance on exceptional stories is meant to affirm a transcendence that is quite non-existent in an extremely fractious group of people.

If the end of the movie proclaims the way in which the Indian as descendent of indenture, becomes the South African Indian struggling against Apartheid to become an equal and unracialized citizen, that citizenship remains unseen and unrelatable. The Casbah as an existing space that has changed, shifted and evolved over the years, as has the city around it, is used as metaphor rather than a way to bring this conversation into the post-Apartheid present. A present where politics continue to change and unfold against a backdrop of history that is constantly being retold and repurposed.

The film leaves one with a sense that there is a South African Indian, an imagined subject I have no hesitation to reject.

Further Reading