Indians in South Africa: Are they Black or White? Does it even matter?

It does matter. Race is not a negligible, arbitrary category in the Republic of South Africa. The institutional racism that permeated during slavery, colonialism and apartheid makes race a real, albeit socially constructed, reality. In a democratic dispensation race cannot be ignored, we cannot act as if Mandela’s long walk to the Union Buildings blew racial realities away.

The purpose of this article is to encourage critical thinking around the role or ‘place’ of Indian people living in South Africa. The term Indian is generally used to refer to people with Indian ancestry. I stay in the largest ‘Indian’ city outside of India namely Durban. One Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, jokingly asserts that the province should be renamed KwaZulu namaNdiya Natal, I jokingly agree.

Indians arrived as indentured labourers in the 1860s to work on sugarcane plantations in the Natal colony. Needless to say they stayed on and now they own that shop you go to for the best bargains in town. At this point it is important to note that not every Indian in South Africa has an ancestor who worked in the sugarcane plantations, or owns a shop. Some Indian people came to South Africa as slaves during the height of Dutch slavery and furthermore globalisation has led to some people choosing to leave India for South Africa over the years. Indian people are not a homogeneous group. It is not a matter of knowing one Reddy and knowing them all. There are poor and rich, Christian and Hindu, ANC, DA and Minority Front, extra hot and mild, aloof and friendly Indian people. To think any differently is to make a mistake.    

What do you make of a pageant titled Miss India South Africa? Do you make a blanket judgement on Indian people based on how your boss of Indian descent treats you? Are you an Indian South African or an Indian in South Africa or, my personal favourite, just a South African? Would you marry a person of Indian descent? A child born from an Indian father and Black African or White mother should be classified as what race? For the purpose of this blog it is not a matter of finding rigid answers but a proposition to being open to thinking about these questions to create a fluid dialogue.

An Indian friend of mine once remarked that during apartheid Indian people were not white enough to be beneficiaries of apartheid, yes those people who go silent when land redistribution is mentioned are beneficiaries, and now they are not black enough for BEE and affirmative action. In ‘Racial redress and citizenship in South Africa’ a 2008 book edited by Habib and Bentley this view is validated as one held by many Indian people. A study cited in the book reports that in a survey Indian people, alongside White people, identified employment equity and employment policy as the single largest source of racism. On the contrary Indian people and Coloured people alongside Black African people reported experiencing racism perpetrated by White farmers, employers, former white schools and the police. The historical basis of this contradictory standpoint is particularly interesting. Why are Indian people sometimes identifying with White sentiment and at other times siding with the views of Black African people?

During apartheid Indian people were racially discriminated against. Important to note this was not to the same extent as Black African people. The tricameral parliament system which came into existence in the 1980s highlighted the differences in discrimination with Indian and Coloured people being allowed ‘representation’ in parliament alongside the white government to the exclusion of the Black majority. Needless to say the United Democratic Front campaigned against this farce and with a turnout of less than 20% Indian and Coloured people at the polls leaders elected in to this tricameral system were seen as sell-outs who lacked credibility. Interestingly during the lead up to the elections for the tricameral parliament Indian shopkeepers, yes they have been selling at discount prices for a long long time my friend, were not unanimous in their action. Some shopkeepers supported UDF calls to close their shops on days like May Day whilst other shopkeepers did not close shop. Like I said ‘not a homogenous group’. They were not ‘Reddy to Pillay’ it the same way.

Indian people experienced real oppression during apartheid hence Indian people were a part of the liberation movement as members of the South African Indian Congress, COSATU, ANC and later the UDF. Indian people are entitled to racial redress measures such as affirmative action. Affirmative action policies make provision for Indian, Black African, Coloured and White people to participate in racial redress in labour. Thus at the policy level we can clearly say that Indian people should benefit to the extent that they were discriminated against. In a nutshell this means more than White people but less than Black African people.

Are Indians White? No. Indian people are not white. The fact that the cunning white government of the 1980s attempted to incorporate Indian people in their plans to eternally oppress Black African people does not make Indians white. A separate analysis is worth exploring. Have you ever heard a Black African person refer to their employer, regardless of their race, as ‘umlungu wami’? For many Black African people their employers, supervisors or line managers are Indian people. The relationship is more often than not a tumultuous one filled with animosity. Accusations of nepotism related to employment and promotions are ubiquitous. Does this make Indian people equivalent to White people? I do not think so. We have large groups of impoverished Indian people in areas such as Chatsworth and Phoenix that dispel the stereotype of Indian people as an affluent group. Yes there are many Indian people who have historically benefited from relatively better social circumstances as illustrated by better schools and delivery of services but issues of class and race are becoming murky.

Cultural outlook seem to offer a clue on why Indian people are neither white nor black. Indian people have to a large extent not assimilated to the culture of the majority in South Africa or the elite minority. Thus Indians living in South Africa are South Africans whose identity reflects both their ‘pro-black’ political existence in the republic and the ‘made in India’ religious and cultural heritage. They should be allowed to just be. If we are to truly celebrate our diversity than I say embrace Indian people and next time you are offered Diwali goodies find out about the meaning of the gift.

ImageAhmed Kathrada, seen alongside Nelson Mandela, spent 26 years in prison after being found guilty of treason during the Rivonia trial.



This cartoon captures the essence of the Tricameral parliament. In the squashed top left and right rooms are Indian and Coloured representatives. In the spacious room down stairs are the White representatives. There are some observers checking over the fence as well.



Miss India South Africa 2013 contestants.



30 thoughts on “Indians in South Africa: Are they Black or White? Does it even matter?

  1. An interesting article that opens many areas for controversial debates- I’d say after reading we can be “Reddy to Pillay”.

  2. Hahaha…”Reddy to Pillay”. I always laugh & learn when I read your blog.
    I once made a ‘confession’ to my Black friends about my strong attraction to Indian women. They looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you?”.

    1. I hope your friends have not discouraged you from dating people of other races. My girlfriend is Sepedi. We have been dating for almost 4 years. Being in a multi-racial relationship is not that easy, especially in durbs (although mindsets are slowly changing especially with the younger generation). we made our relationship work because its our happiness and future together that counts, so who cares what others think. its a free country brother!

  3. I know I’m extremely late in saying this…but anyways, very thought-provoking! You handled a sensitive topic well. I see myself as a Muslim first, then a South African and then an Indian. “Indian people are not a homogeneous group. It is not a matter of knowing one Reddy and knowing them all”-lol spot on! But at the end of the day, what we all have in common is our humanity.

  4. Thought-provoking indeed. I must say, I giggled at the manner in which Indians are presented as an exotic species, almost reminding me of a Steve Irwin documentary. Indians have never truly been accepted into South Africa. Through the years, we have tried to become interwoven into the fabric of this society, yet I can’t help but feel that if this country were a jersey, we’d be that irritating strand of cotton that, try as you may, you just can’t cut off. Which is a shame, seeing as how much most of us love this country, and that our ancestors were forced to move here. You raise many valid points, but I simply can’t see the relevance of this topic in today’s society, besides as another dinner conversation topic. Just shows that although we are no longer under that evil blanket of apartheid, prejudice and oblivion still serve as integral parts in this regressive society.

      1. Thank you 🙂 It’s an interesting topic amongst the academic elite, of which I assume, judging by your broad mindset, you are a part of. Maybe my views are individual. Sometimes, I lose hope for Indians, due to the negative publicity and media attention. May I add, I am a South African first, and an Indian second. I love all people, black, white, brown etc. It’s a pity, people limit their thoughts, based on a few incidents, stories and misconceptions. We are, all one in the same, really. It just takes a little insight to realize this.

  5. great balanced piece..I am an South African born Indian..I come from a generation that boycotted, held meetings, joined protests fought the struggle etc to the extent that we sacrificed our education and careers and in many cases our lives to fight this ugly apartheid. we continue to fight social ills without any fanfare or publicity, quitely doing what is required and right…..i feel a distinct distaste when such articles that are printed. I dont deny racism within our midst but I cannot deny rascism amongst blacks white coloured as well…this is to say that this is not unique to us nor to this country.

    This government I feel makes me feel unwelcome and denys my rightful place in this country and this makes me bitter….. I sometimes am tempted to lump all blacks into this category but when i calm down i realise that its just the insecure, unsincere manipulative government playing politics to ensure that they receive the vote playing into populism to ensure votes in a similar manner that the NP effectively used swart gavaar to protect and justify their position.

    We are here to stay because this is our land…we have no where to go and just for the record the first Indian slaves were brought here in 1654 . the NIC was founded in 1894 and the first martyrs in the struggle against oppression were 4 Indians in Mt edgcombe around 1908 or so, We are hard working productive South Africans who would like nothing better than to be accepted as South Africans .

    Thank you for a wonderful article

  6. Our salvation and that of this wonderful country of ours lies in educated ,intelligent and broad minded people like you. God Bless you.

  7. Its matters to know who they are.Majority of South African Indians are dark skin and copper color like black South Africans.But the media in India hide dark skin and copper color Indians on TV, films,and drama series.Most of them prefer to date light skin Indians or white British,Swedish, keep light skin color in the family.I am a black South African living in Ireland.My neighbor is Indian and she handle go out in summer cos she has to protect her skin not to be dark and being classified as poor.I find it as a self hate ( sorry to speak).South Africa might call Indians as black cos of their skin color or b’cos some Indians fought with Blacks for freedom.In America if you are not white as white,you will be called black or African American.

  8. South African Indian…South africa is our mother land. We don’t know India. The lifestyle there is totally different, we will not last more than a week there. This is our home and we will not trade it for the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s