Indian South Africans

Alternative names: South African Indians
Location: 80% in Natal province
Population: 870,000 (1983)
% of population: 3%
Religion: Hindu, Muslim
Language: various

Indian South Africans are the descendants of indentured labourers and immigrants who came to South Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although almost all areas of India were represented in the migration, two-thirds of immigrants were Tamil and Telugu-speaking people from Madras Presidency, a predominance which continues today. As in the past the overwhelming majority live in Natal province.

Immigration and settlement

During the course of the nineteenth century there was widespread impoverishment of the peasantry in the Indian sub-continent and this, coupled with opportunities for work in Africa at a time of colonial expansion, resulted in many Indians entering Africa as indentured labour to work on the railways, and in the case of South Africa in mines, agriculture and domestic service. Unlike the majority of Asian labourers indentured in East Africa, who returned to India after the completion of their contracts, most of those who had gone to Natal in South Africa remained, and over 90% of Asians resident in South Africa today are the descendants of those original labourers. After recruitment for labour in Natal ceased in 1911, a small number of professional people such as lawyers, teachers, accountants and priests entered under a clause permitting entry to educated Indian immigrants only. Most of this group came from Gujarat in western India.

Immigration restrictions limited freedom of movement and over 80% of Indians were concentrated in the province of Natal, where they were 12% of the population and equalled Europeans in numbers. Indians in Natal were allowed to purchase land but their trading opportunities and licences were restricted. Elsewhere they were not permitted to own land or enter certain areas without a permit. Indians began to organize, by petition, by representation and, under the leadership of M. K. Gandhi, by mass action, for greater equality with white settlers.

It was anticipated by Europeans that the Indians would eventually be repatriated to India, but Indian opposition to repatriation schemes was widespread. Initially Indians had sought to distinguish themselves from the Africans on grounds of culture and judicial status. They had not been granted equality with Europeans but their position was superior to that of Africans. As a race it was considered that they were better suited to clerical and supervisory posts, and some had already established themselves as a wealthy and influential mercantile class. Indians were also permitted to join trade unions, a right not granted to Africans.

Gradually however Indian attitudes towards equality with Africans changed, partly due to education but also to a more radical climate inspired by the events of World War II and the nationalist struggle for independence in India. Following the Durban riots of 1949 which were triggered by a minor dispute between an African and an Indian, responsible members of both communities began to realise the dangers inherent in the different treatment of the races; only by uniting could they hope to change the situation.

The Apartheid State

South Africa became a Republic and left the Commonwealth in 1961, and in the following year Indians were accepted as a permanent part of the South African population, more than a century after their arrival. A Department of Indian Affairs was established under a white minister, and a South African Indian Council was nominated in 1964 and elected in 1981. Indians had no real power and the policy of separate development effectively restricted contact between Indians and Africans.

Indians, Coloureds and Africans have suffered equally from the enforcement of the Group Areas Act according to which each group is allocated to specific areas. In the vast demographic upheavals which followed the introduction of this Act, 40,000 Indians were moved to new locations, often already overcrowded, and much of their economic independence was destroyed. Property left behind was sold at very low prices but land shortage in the new areas forced up house prices beyond the reach of many Asians, and the majority depend on Council housing.

As was the case also in East Africa, educational facilities for Indians were limited and such schooling as was available was largely a result of financial contributions from the Indians themselves. A comprehensive survey undertaken in 1982 found that only 8% of the Indian population had passed standard 10 and only 3% had any post-school training. Other statistics also reflect the inferior position of Indians compared to the white population, as for example an Indian life expectancy in 1983 of 65 years compared to 70 for whites and an infant mortality rate twice that of whites. As with the majority of the black population, most Indian South Africans lived in poverty although a few did well. Some have gained employment in the separate administrative machinery set up to deal with Indian matters, although critics point out that if there had been no restrictions on the employment of Indians, they would have been employed in all sectors of the economy.

The new South African Constitution of 1983 was presented by the South African government as benefiting the Indian community. In 1983 the then Prime Minister P. W. Botha stated: “Nowhere in Africa ... in the world outside India, did any Indian community manage to reach this kind of constitutional recognition.” The Constitution provided for an extremely powerful executive President and a tri-racial Parliament, whose powers were considerably less than the previously all-white one. An Indian House of Delegates, with its own separate Ministerial Council, was established and was responsible for Indian Affairs. Yet legislation which is concerned with residence, for example, is not within the purview of the House of Delegates. White control is secured by a 4:2:1 ratio in the Houses, the President’s Council and the electoral college that chooses the President.

Indian opposition to Apartheid

The 1980s saw a marked rise in organized resistance movements and Indian South Africans played an important part in resistance activities. The growing unity of groups opposed to apartheid was given structural form in the United Democratic Front (UDF) which was formed in 1983, and in the Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress which were later affiliated to it. The UDF led the opposition to the Constitution, and organized the boycotts of the 1984 elections to the House of Delegates (Indians) and also the House of Representatives (Coloured) and the Local Authorities (Africans). On election day over 82% of Indian voters stayed away from the polling stations despite intimidation by police and campaign workers.

Opposition to the Apartheid system and rejection of the Constitution by all non-white groups continues, and there has been an enormous increase in the amount of organized and spontaneous opposition, which has been met by massive repression by the South African government. UDF leaders — including the Presidents of the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses — have been detained and charged with high treason. The majority of Indians have continued to reject the Apartheid Constitution and in the elections of September 1989 most boycotted the polls, once again despite widespread intimidation.

Some Indian South Africans are dubious about the advantages for them of possible future majority rule, looking to East Africa as an example of the difficulties faced by Asian minorities in the post-independence era, and this fear is deliberately invoked by the government. An increasing number of Indian families are preparing to emigrate, amid continuing uncertainty over South Africa’s future. But this is an option available only to a small proportion of the Indian community. Increasingly Indians have politically identified themselves with the Black cause — a term used to cover Africans, Coloureds and Indian South Africans alike — and have demonstrated that their allegiance is to a non-racial democratic South Africa.

(See also Asians of East and Central Africa)

1 The figures for African and Coloured were 57.5 and 59 respectively.