Indians in South Africa – 150 years of toil and triumph
From “coolies” to Cabinet
When, on 16 November 1860, the S.S. Truro sailed into Durban Bay, Natal, an important new ingredient in the already heady cultural mix of South Africa was about to be added.
On-board the Truro were 342 people who had joined the ship in Madras (now known as Chennai), the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, on 12 October 1860. They were leaving their situation of abject poverty in search of a better life.
The opportunity to seek a better life had come as a result of the Natal colonial government's Act No 14 of 1859 which, in response to the rapidly-growing labour demands of the burgeoning sugar industry of Natal, had made possible the recruitment of “coolies” in India to work in the cane fields.
The Truro was the first of 384 ships which brought indentured workers from India to South Africa. The last ship to arrive was the “Umlazi 43” in 1911. Those ships brought an estimated 152000 Indians to South Africa, where the Indian community has grown to be the largest outside of India itself.
Through the years the Indian community has made significant contributions to the cultural, social and political life of South Africa, adding a vibrant colour to the magnificent tapestry of people that populate the country.
Today there are Indian South Africans in the country's cabinet, notably the Minister of Finance, Mr Pravin Gordhan; an Indian South African is currently the top One Day International (ODI) cricket batsman, Mr Hashim Amla, who plays for the Proteas (South Africa's national cricket team).
The first Speaker of the first democratic House of Assembly (the lower House of Parliament) after the 1994 elections was an Indian South African, Dr Frene Ginwala. The first President of the Democratic South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, appointed six Indian South Africans to his Cabinet, while many Indian South Africans were in the highest posts of the ANC.
Ms Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of the Mahatma and a Member of Parliament for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) summed up the cultural issue: “I am a South African; a very proud South African. The Indianness comes in at the level of culture, the way we eat, the kind of things we eat, the kind of things we appreciate – like music, drama, the language we speak. We only enrich our country by having all these different tastes and habits. What I am basically saying is that that is where the Indianness stops.”
The arrival of the S.S. Truro
When the Truro dropped anchor in the bay off Durban she had arrived earlier than expected and so the preparations for the reception of the indentured labourers had not been completed. As the local newspaper, the Natal Mercury , reported on 22 November 1860, “The barracks were not completed. Whoever expected they would be? Was any work, ever executed by any Government, ready for an emergency?”
As there was at that time no harbour for ships to dock in the passengers had to be brought ashore in smaller boats. The Natal Mercury reported the event: “There has seldom been such a crowd at the Point as there was on Saturday. The boats seemed to disgorge an endless stream of living cargo. Pariahs, Christians (Roman Catholics), Malabars, and Mahometans, successively found their way ashore. The major portion of this lot are, we understand, not so much field labourers, as mechanics, household servants, domestics, gardeners, and tradespeople. There are barbers, carpenters, accountants, and grooms amongst them. Among the women we find ayahs, nurses, and maids. It seems to be rather a heterogeneous assortment, comprising a few of all callings, than a supply of labour for the plantations ... They were all provided with two days’ rations from on board, consisting of rice, fish, ghee, and dholl. Each of them carried his household chattels in a teakwood box, and may appear to be flush with spare cash, which they immediately endeavoured to invest in the purchase of ‘something to warm them’.”
In fact, the religious groups of the passengers were 2 % Brahmins, 9 % Kshatriyas, 21 % Vaishyas and 31 % Sudras, 27% Scheduled Castes, 3 % Christians and 4 % Muslims. There were 75 women and 83 children under the age of 14 among the 342 people who arrived on the Truro.
The late Professor Fatima Meer, in her delightful book A Portrait of Indian South Africans (Avon House, 1969) commented: “They brought to their new country ancient traditions which had become theirs through telling and retelling, through learning and remembering over hundreds of generations – accounts of gods and sages and kings, and crafts of wood, metal and fibre and husbandry of animal and soil.” (Professor Meer was a sociologist!)
The early years – units of labour
The first Indian South Africans who came as indentured labourers struggled to settle and make livings for themselves. They had to contend with very stringent terms of indenture and the racism of the white colonists, who saw them as simply “units of labour.”
The newspaper The Natal Witness , commented in an editorial: “The ordinary Coolie ... and his family cannot be admitted into close fellowship and union with us and our families. He is introduced for the same reason as mules might be introduced from Montevideo, oxen from Madagascar or sugar machinery from Glasgow. The object for which he is brought is to supply labour and that alone. He is not one of us, he is in every respect an alien; he only comes to perform a certain amount of work, and to return to India ...”
That so many stayed on after their periods of indenture had expired is tribute to their resilience and inventiveness. For the five or ten years of their indenture they suffered incredible hardships including floggings, poor living conditions, separation from family members, and nine-hour working days seven days a week.
Some did indeed choose to return to their places of origin, but most stayed on, making livings out of market gardening and fruit and vegetable vending, gradually branching out into other occupations.
As Meer points out in Portrait , “For many, no matter how deplorable the condition, there was no return to India, for their manner of leaving was such as to constitute an irreconcilable breach. Young men had left without the blessings of parents and your women without parental knowledge. For many, caste taboos had been broken, and life back at home would be a life in exile.”
New wave of immigration
In 1863 a young man called Abubaker Jhavary, originally from Porbander on the Kathiawad Peninsular, arrived in Natal via Mauritius. By dint of hard work and business acumen he prospered, his trade flourished and he was soon exporting dried fish cured by Indians on Salisbury Island in Durban Bay to India in his own fleet of ships.
This set off a new wave of Indian immigration with the first arrivals in 1869 of so-called “Passenger” Indians – people who paid their own way to Natal. These were mostly from the West Coast of Indian, in particular Mumbai, and were mostly Gujarati traders who added their rich culture to the already rich mix of languages and customs among the Indians in Natal.
These new arrivals soon spread throughout the country, setting up country trading stores in remote parts of Zululand and even moving into the Transvaal, or Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). Here they also flourished as the gold mining industry began to take off and money started to flow in serious quantities into the country.
These immigrants were usually young men who arrived alone. As they became more established and their businesses started to prosper, they would build shops with residences either above or behind the shops. When these were ready for occupation they would return to India to fetch their families.
The most famous Indian to settle in South Africa was, of course, the great soul, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who arrived in 1893 and left in 1913, having played an important role in the “South Africanising” of the Indian community.
The passing of Pageview
One such area in the former Transvaal where Indian South Africans established themselves as businessmen was the suburb of Pageview on the western side of the central business district of Johannesburg, the rapidly growing centre of the gold mining industry.
By 1885 there were sufficient Indians in the country to worry members of the Volksraad (Parliament ) of the ZAR. As a result of the fears of the whites, Act No 3 of that year was passed which took away the right of “Coolies, Arabs and other Asiatics” to own land in the ZAR. The government also had the right, by this law, to restrict them “for purposes of sanitation” to certain areas.
In 1886 the restriction on land ownership was lifted in the so-called “Coolie locations” set aside in terms of the Act. One of the “Coolie locations” was Pageview which existed until the apartheid regime declared it a “white area” in terms of the Group Areas Act of 1950. Pageview was finally “cleared” of Indian-owned and run businesses in 1977.
Thus passed a colourful and vibrant cultural era, killed by the social engineering mania of the apartheid ideologues.
A Johannesburg architect, Manfred Hermer, published a tribute to Pageview The passing of Pageview (Ravan, 1978), containing a collection of his wonderful and evocative paintings of the area in its last days. Some of these lovely paintings are reproduced here.
Celebrating 150 years of “Indianness” in South Africa
The 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa as permanent residences and, at last, citizens, has been celebrated both in India and in South Africa.
Celebrations have been both at national and individual levels. In India the city of Chennai and the State of Tamil Nadu have held various official functions to mark the anniversary.
In South Africa one local family member organised a huge family reunion to celebrate the anniversary. She is Ms Mandy Moodley who wrote in the local popular magazine You (of 23 September 2010): “My grandfathers on both sides were born in India and arrived in South Africa as young boys. The year was 1860 and they struggled. They worked in the sugar-cane fields and lived in barracks. They were poor but well-raised despite the hardships of those days.”
Ms Moodley managed to get 189 family members together for the reunion on 17 April 2010 at the community centre in Chatsworth, Durban.
As Ms Moodley wrote: “We are proud Indians who were born and brought up in South Africa. We fly both the South African and Indian flags at our homes and we're proud to belong to two such wonderful countries.”
Hermer, Manfred: The passing of Pageview. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1978
Meer, Fatima: A Portrait of Indian South Africans. Durban: Avon House, 1969
Saunders, Christopher (editor): The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa. Cape Town: The Reader's Digest Association, 1988.
The kwaZulu-Natal newspaper The Witness has been publishing regular articles on the anniversary of the arrival of the indentured Indians in 1860. These have provided me with interesting additional information.
The newspaper also published this call to all South Africans: "A call is made to all South Africans, whatever colour, creed, race or
religion, to light candles and lamps and display them in front of their
homes on November 16 from 7 pm. This will show unity in diversity and
your place in a rainbow nation." I will certainly be lighting some candles!
The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor, who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
More by this Author
A tour of South Africa illustrated by cigarette cards. These cards are very pretty with coloured drawings by South African artist Charles Ernest Peers
South Africa is my home, my birthplace, and in spite of many problems and issues that still exist in the country I would not change it for anything.
Empathy is an attitude and more than that, it is a skill that can be used to deepen all kinds of relationships - at work and at home.