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.
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.