Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Am I an Indian in South Africa or an African Indian?

The 16th November 2010 marks the 150th Anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers in South Africa. The 1860 Legacy Foundation was set up to acknowledge the contribution made by Indians since the introduction of indentured labour in South Africa and co-ordinate the various celebrations planned across the country to commemorate this event. Am I alone in not being excited about these celebrations. Truth be told, I cannot understand what all the fuss is about.

With the exception of the 20/20 Cricket match between India and South Africa planned for January next year at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium, I do not feel inclined to support any of these commemorative functions (for obvious reasons). I am not clear exactly what it is we are celebrating here or why we are choosing to celebrate it every 50 years? Do the African Americans celebrate the arrival of the slave ships that transported them to America? I believe that to be a fair comparison because indentured labour was in essence the colonial solution to the labour problem in the colonies after the theoretical abolition of slavery in the early19th century.

I have 2 primary concerns. Firstly, this commemoration will perpetuate the myth that the Natal indentured labourers that arrived on the SS Truro mark the start of Indian history in South Africa even with volumes of historical data to the contrary. People may argue that there may have been a handful of Indians in South Africa prior to 1860, but the arrival of 342 Indentured Indians on the SS Truro marked the first significant influx of Indians into South Africa. This notion is contradicted, amongst others, by Dr Robert Shell in his book “Children of Bondage” where he states that, “In the early decades of the 18th century, nearly 80% of all slaves imported came from the Indian sub-continent”. He goes on to state that during the period of slavery (which theoretically ended in 1807), there were 16,317 Indian slaves in South Africa, a figure which did not include the free black Indian population or the offspring of Indian slaves. These Indians played a significant role in the history and development of the Cape Colony and, no, I am not confusing this with the Malay Community, which has a rich heritage all off their own. For more on the history of Indian slaves in the Cape Colony I found this article by Patric Tariq Mellet to be particularly informative.

My second concern is whether this commemoration is helpful/ relevant to us as a developing democracy with the deep racial fractures inherited from Apartheid still very much present. Should our Indian heritage not be celebrated with the rest of our country on Heritage Day, a day set aside to allow South Africans the opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge our collective diversity? How many Indians attend the Reed Dance or go to stadiums to commemorate events that were significant in the history of our country? I know that the previous question may sound preachy so let me confess upfront that I have not attended these events, neither do I understand Zulu culture as well as I may know the history relating to the American Civil War. It is for this reason that I would feel uncomfortable celebrating and explaining my Indian-ness to my fellow South Africans. Furthermore, I believe the request recently to national government to assist with funding for these commemorative celebrations should be considered carefully. We are a country severely affected by poverty, and money should be channeled to causes that would assist us in achieving our millenium goals, not the arrival of 342 Indians to South Africa, a 150 years ago. Perhaps if the events were more socially involved, rather than merely speeches, dance and biryani, I would have been more inclined to support the initiative.

I suspect that there will be many people who may take offence to and disagree with my point of view, but understand that all I am asking for is to not be considered a “traitor” or “too-westernised” when I choose not to participate in these events. I am not asking people not to support this initiative, just explaining why I think it is irrelevant.

When Zeph Mothupeng adressed a rally of mainly Indians in London, shortly after his release from Robben Island, he said, to much cheer and applause, that there were no Indians in South Africa, but only African Indians. That is what I wish to be identified as, an African Indian.

1 comment:

  1. The people that know me often question my Indian-ness... I appreciate that because I think of myself as South African. Even in the face of HR statistics at my company or when having to select Indian [or Asian] on an application form, I still identify more with my country of birth than with the country of my label.
    I had serious objections to the 1860 celebrations. Actually I had serious objections to the only 1860 celebration I am exposed to. I was not clear as to why until I read your last paragraph. I am African, I am South African... I love Africa, my home. I do not doubt that older generations of Indians feel differently and I understand and they are entitled. I did not live under the same circumstances as they did. I have only seen the best of this country. We represent the best and the worst the world have to offer, we are the runt of the litter that is scrappy and wily and has the potential to beat all the odds. With all the bad, the mediocre, the arrogance and frustrations I still want to be South African. Which is why a 1860 commemorative celebration; which if done incorrectly may highlight differences and divide rather than promote integration; bothers me. I think that the relevance of the celebration of this particular event in history should be questioned. Why not rather include a celebration of African Indian heritage on Heritage Day? Indian culture and and heritage is South African. South Africans of different cultural heritage have shared their fashion, food, religions and celebrations with each other and we have embraced them all. So I find that I am more comfortable celebrating South African Indian heritage on the designated day.

    There is no doubt that we must remember our past. We must look back on history in order better understand ourselves. But 150 years on, we are South African. And if our forefathers did not come to South Africa we would not be the people we are today [good or bad]. So I am for any celebration that commemorates Indians and the Indian culture being woven into the fabric of South African people and culture and against any celebration that implies we are separate. I feel that the celebration of this particular day may separate.

    Mohamed, thanks for this post and for including your research.