Contested Indian Identity in Contemporary South Africa

By Imraan Buccus · 30 Apr 2010

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Picture: Ind{yeah}
Picture: Ind{yeah}

One hundred and fifty years ago the first indentured Indians were brought to South Africa to work in sugar cane fields. They were soon joined by ‘passenger Indians’ who came of their own free will to trade.

The indentured Indians were not the first Indians to be brought to South Africa. On the contrary, a significant number of Indians were brought to the Cape Colony as slaves, but their descendents became part of the groups classified as White and Coloured under apartheid.

But, of course, the indentured Indians and the merchants that followed them were contained as a separate ‘race group’ by apartheid social engineering, and so developed a particular Indian identity. It is their experiences and achievements, which are being memorialised and celebrated in various events and publications being prepared to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured Indian workers in South Africa.

As the brilliant photographer and historian Omar Badsha recently observed in an important intervention in the Sunday Times, these attempts at memorialisation are taking very different trajectories.

It has been suggested that in common with other minorities, many Indians have responded to the perceived or potential ethnic chauvinism in South Africa by turning away from the nation towards a narrower conception of ethnic and religious identity. There is certainly a lot of truth in this observation, but we should recall that the Rainbow Nation ideal of the Mandela Presidency was already an ideal of a multi-racial rather than a non-racial society. 

No doubt the role played by Mandela was an important one. A country as scarred as South Africa was after such a traumatic history, surely needed a project of nation building and social cohesion. However, the problem was that we had embraced a culture of multi-racialism rather than one of non-racialism. Experiments in popular non-racialism happened in the Black Consciousness and trade union movements but not much attention was paid to this. 

The tradition of non-racialism has largely been abandoned in post-apartheid South Africa. It has even, to some degree, been written out of history. Young Indian students know more about the ethnic politics of the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses and nothing at all about the non-racialism of the Black Consciousness and Trade Union movements.  It is essential that we recuperate the memory of this non-racial politics and celebrate those who committed their lives to it.

The abandonment of the tradition of non-racialism has led to a situation where it is regularly assumed that Indians are a homogenous group whose support can be delivered by self proclaimed elite leaders. This is nonsensical.  What do some of the elite leaders have in common with grassroots activists who organise against evictions and disconnections in communities?

The fact is that the Indian community is deeply divided by class, with rich and poor living in totally different worlds. Poor Indians living in shacks have almost nothing in common with rich Indians living in mansions. There are also deep divisions in terms of religion, language and caste. And there are deep political divisions within the Indian community.

For a start, the attempts to portray the Indian community as uniformly committed to the anti-apartheid struggle are deliberately dishonest. As in all communities there was heroic resistance, outright collaboration and a large amount of political apathy. But it really is important that we begin to be open about this fact. We also need to be open about the fact that not all of the Indian opposition to apartheid was constituted on the basis of a popular non-racialism.

Furthermore there has long been a taboo on openly admitting the prevalence of anti-African racism within the Indian community. When African people raise this issue, Indian intellectuals and self appointed community leaders rush in to shut the debate down. But it is a debate that needs to be had. Some young Indian intellectuals who have been raising these debates need to be celebrated for their courage in surfacing them directly and fearlessly. If we don’t discuss Indian racism we can’t deal with it.

There are many Indians who courageously fought apartheid racism, and many Indians who in their more ordinary day-to-day lives exist far from the poison of racism. But it is also true that there are many Indians who seem to think that racism is a White disease and who, unthinkingly, engage in shockingly racist behaviour towards African people on a daily basis. Even within the community there is, in some quarters, a real prejudice against darker skinned Indians on the part of lighter skinned Indians. Indian racism is not always a question of Indian nationalism. There are many families that would welcome a White daughter or son-in-law with open arms, but who would not accept an African spouse for their child.

It’s not clear how the non-racialism cultivated in the Black Consciousness and trade union movements can be returned to the fore of civic life in contemporary South Africa. It still exists, of course, in the commitment, lives and work of many individuals. And it certainly still exists in some social movement politics. But the only thing that really seems to bind South Africans together these days is consumerism and the worship of bling. Consumerism can tie the children of the elites together, but for the majority who are not rich the culture of bling only compounds their sense of marginality and even desperation. The fact that so many young people are desperate is a real threat to nation building. There is always a grave risk that this desperation can be exploited by ethnic entrepreneurs hiding their fundamental complicity with racism behind the languages of culture, minority rights or even, on occasion, the left. 

The turn to a politics of racial and ethnic chauvinism leave no space for the children of the Indian working class and the poor in general. No doubt the same is true for Coloured and White youth. For those of us who remain committed to non-racialism it is time to return to the trenches of struggle.

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