People in Peril: Indians in South Africa by khabarinc


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									People in Peril: Indians in South Africa
By Archana Shah
June 2012

Temperate weather, sunny days, stunning landscapes, first-world infrastructure, a diverse
culture, and a thriving, competitive global economy. You’d think that with all this to offer, South
Africa, the richest and most developed nation
on its continent, would be a magnet for

The reality, sadly, is quite the opposite. Many
Indians, who have the means to, are fleeing the
country they have called their own for
generations. A little under two decades after
the historic abolishment of apartheid in South
Africa, the promise of a new era has remained
just that for Indians. The discrimination,
subjugation, and harassment they faced in a past dominated by white supremacy has been
replaced by discrimination in an inequitable affirmative action system that ends up benefiting the
indigenous black population at the expense of other race groups.

That coupled with South Africa‟s status as one of the most crime-infested countries in the world
has made life bleak for many of the nation‟s 1.2 million Indians. Making up just 2.5 percent of
the total population, they live in a cloud of perpetual fear—both for their personal safety as well
as for their prospects in a young democracy where the majority black population, too, is
struggling to chart out a course after having been cowed for generations.

Dr. Praveena Singh-Kaw, an attorney who moved to the United States.

“As a South African, I am deeply outraged at the egregious treatment of my community. Indians
are afraid to drive at night, or wear jewelry. They are subject to robbery, rape, and murder. Our
children are no longer safe, our education system and economy have deteriorated, and our homes
are subject to invasion,” says Dr. Praveena Singh-Kaw, an attorney who moved to the United

“The international community barely acknowledges our existence and within South Africa the
mainstream media ignores our plight. We have no voice. Along with being non-entities to the
international community, Indians in South Africa are non-entities to our current government.
Those of us who can move out of the country are the lucky ones. Unfortunately, a majority of the
Indians do not have the resources to emigrate and they are forced to endure untold hardships.
Their story of tragedy is unfolding and the world silently watches,” adds Singh-Kaw.
The fear of crime is so pervasive that there are hardly Indians in South Africa who do not have a
harrowing story to tell. Arshana Shyam Nirhoo and her husband are attorneys with a thriving law
                                                        practice in South Africa but are currently
                                                        preparing for the California Bar exam as
                                                        they plan to leave behind their successful
                                                        careers to start life in the U.S. She
                                                        explains, “My father-in-law was shot and
                                                        killed outside his home during a
                                                        carjacking by a 19-year-old black man.
                                                        Incidents of violent crimes such as these
                                                        have, sadly, not decreased over the years.
                                                        „Smash-and-grab‟ [crimes], where a driver
                                                        is attacked at a stop sign or a red light, are

                                                        Nirhoo‟s concern reflects a fear that
                                                        plagues the South African Indian
community on a daily basis. A 2010 BBC report refers to South Africa as the most violent
country in the world not at war. At slightly less than twice the size of Texas, with a population of
about 48.7 million, South Africa endures 18,000 murders and an equal number of attempted
murders each year. The country also has the highest number of rapes reported in the world.

Referring to a survey of over 8000 participants, an article in the Sunday Tribune published in
August 2011 states, “Ask most Indians what tops their list of concerns about present-day South
Africa, and they will answer overwhelmingly: crime and violence.”

Dr. Anand Singh described this phenomenon in his 2005 book, Indians in Post-Apartheid South
Africa: “For the first time, middle-class Indians were being exposed to the degree of deprivation,
unemployment, and crime that was already part of the lifestyle of African townships almost since
their inception. The gun licenses by the Indian residents increased drastically… houses have fast
been transformed into near fortresses… it radically altered the entire landscape of these areas…
widely generated fear of walking on the streets alone… and substantially reduced the value of
property.” Singh describes this period as “akin to riding on a crest—with the country‟s
confidence levels on all fronts taking a nosedive through rapid escalation of criminal violence
and organized crime.” The failure of the government to control crime has compounded the
insecurity and fear, while simultaneously empowering the criminals.

A history of second-class citizenship
The complex racial tensions that perturb Indians have built up over several generations since
their arrival in the country some 150 years ago.
A memorial at the Talana Museum in KwaZulu Natal honors the legacy of indentured laborers
from India.

Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured laborers in the 1860s, most from Tamil Nadu and
Andhra Pradesh, and some from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were contracted to work on the
sugar plantations but later also worked in coalmines, railways, dockyards, and municipal
services, and as domestic workers.

A much smaller second wave of “passenger” or “free” Indians came to South Africa after 1880,
mainly as traders from Gujarat attracted by new opportunities. These immigrants set up retail
shops. Much later, teachers, accountants, lawyers, priests, and other professionals arrived, also
mainly from Gujarat.

Their struggle started from the time they first set foot in the country. The white colonists who
recruited the Indians referred to them as “coolies” and perceived them in mechanistic terms. An
editorial in the Natal Witness aired these views brazenly: “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 labor 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.”

The indentured laborers were overworked and malnourished, and had to endure squalid living
conditions described by historians in such terms as “primitive,” “brutal,” “inhuman,” and “akin
to slavery.” One Indian recorded of an employer: “He uses whatever comes next to hand: stones,
sticks, sjambok. He treats the Coolie like a bull buffalo.”

As word about the oppressive treatment reached India, the South African government set up the
„Coolie Commission‟ in 1872 at the insistence of the Indian authorities. The Commission
exposed the ill-treatment of Indians, including illegal withholding of wages and rations, lack of
medical attention, complaints of flogging and assaults, fines in excess of the law, and excessive
working hours.

The indentured system ended in 1911, but only 23 percent of immigrant laborers returned to
India. Those that remained continued to be victims. Segregation and inequality, which had
                                                always existed in South Africa, were enshrined
                                                in the law when the Nationalist Party came into
                                                power in 1948. “Indians are a foreign and
                                                outlandish element which is inassimilable,” the
                                                Nationalist Party declared in its election
                                                campaign, and vowed to repatriate as many
                                                Indians as possible. With the enactment of
                                                apartheid in 1948, racial discrimination was
                                                institutionalized and Indians, along with non-
                                                white race groups, found themselves completely
                                                shackled by the government‟s racist policies.

                                               The race laws dictated almost every aspect of
                                               life, including the sanctioning of “white-only”
                                               jobs, specifying where non-whites could live
                                               and buy property, and which schools and
                                               universities they could go to. Marriage and
sexual relations between whites and non-whites were, of course, banned.

Even in life-and-death situations, patients could receive blood transfusions only from donors of
their own racial groups, had to be conveyed in racially exclusive ambulances, and could qualify
for treatment only in racially defined hospitals.

It was only as a teenager that Harshna Kanaye (second from left) found out the reason behind
all those childhood camping trips with her family in the South African countryside—it was not
just that they were the adventurous, outdoors type.

Harshna Kanaye, who immigrated to Atlanta in 2010, recalls her childhood under the segregation
laws: “One of my fondest childhood experiences was going camping with my Mum, Dad, and
two older sisters. I always thought we were so adventurous and I relished those trips to places
like Coffee Bay and Port St. Johns where crayfish were bountiful. My Mum, armed with her
masala and rolling pin, would make the most delicious crayfish curry and roti I have ever eaten
in my life.

“It was only much later as a teenager, when my Mum and I were talking, that I learned the
reason for our camping trips. Yes, we were adventurous. But the camping [was a] necessity.
Being Indian, we were not allowed to stay at any hotels along our way. It is hard to describe the
feeling of being excluded. As a child I used to think, „Don‟t they know that we‟re good people?
Don‟t they know that we live in a nice house and we have lots of friends that like us?‟ But
eventually, as we accumulated a collection of camping gear through the years, when the time
finally came for us to be „allowed‟ into the same hotels that once turned us away, all we really
wanted to do was pitch a tent anyway.”
The South African government pushed the envelope on segregation with the highly insensitive
Group Areas Act of 1950 that forcibly removed non-whites from their homes. The act came after
the government received petitions from whites objecting to the presence of coloreds and Indians
in “their” areas, claiming that this led to the devaluation of property in their neighborhoods.
Dasarath Bundhoo, author of the book Whisperings of a Gandhi Follower, states: “The
pernicious Group Areas Act was the worst form of cruelty, where hundreds of thousands of
voiceless, peaceful, and law-abiding people were uprooted. At the time, I did not think it would
work because it was a colossal task to move millions of settled people from their hearths and
homes and send them miles away from their places of worship. But I was mistaken. My newly
built home was bulldozed.”

The present-day community

Indians have come a long way since the days of indentured labor and today have distinguished
themselves in almost every sector of South
African life including medicine, law, academia,
media, government, and business. Many are
visible in positions of significant leadership and
affluence. The vast majority of them, however,
are middle class. Most do not speak their native
Indian language, because of an education
system that legislated English and Afrikaans (a
language derived from Dutch) as the medium of
instruction in schools, to the exclusion of all
other languages.

Many Indians who don‟t know where their
forefathers came from search for their roots in
India, but their attempts most often prove futile.
Generations of acculturation in a dominant
white society have dissipated their Indian
identity. This makes them unique and not easily comparable to the Indian diaspora in other parts
of the world.

In an article titled “The Mystical Nature of the Indian South African,” which appeared in the
Sunday Times recently, journalist Nikita Ramkissoon writes, “We are not Indian. Our race may
be stated as „Indian‟ on official documents, but we are South African. Most of our families have
been in this country for up to seven generations. Most of us have not even been to India.”

The Hare Krishna Temple, known as the Sri Sri Radhanath Temple of Understanding, in

While most Indians consider themselves „South African‟ before „Indian,‟ they have retained a
strong cultural heritage. There are temples and mosques wherever there is a sizeable Indian
population. The Hare Krishna Temple, known as the Sri Sri Radhanath Temple of
Understanding, with over two million visitors a
year, is a major tourist attraction in the largely
Indian area of Chatsworth. It is noted for its
stunning architectural design and lavish marble
tiles, gold-tinted windows, crystal chandeliers,
and golden statuettes.

The majority of Indians practice a form of
Hinduism that is not too concerned with caste,
creed, and endogamy, but continues to observe
traditional rituals. Diwali is a huge celebration,
as are Holi, Navaratri, Eid, and Kavadi, which
celebrates the god Murugan.

Bollywood enjoys a hold here, too, with Hindi
movies subtitled in English broadcast on the
South African TV channels a few hours every
week, and satellite TV bringing Hindi and South Indian language shows into Indian homes.
Indian radio stations like Lotus FM and Hindvani provide coverage of Indian music, news, and
entertainment. Ethnic newspapers like the Post, Herald and Sunday Times Extra cater to Indian

The Miss India South Africa Pageant attracts young hopefuls every year who display their
cultural heritage, and many in the South African Indian community proudly recall that it was in
South Africa that Aishwarya Rai won the Miss World crown in 1994. Indian dance forms like
Kathak and Bharatanatyam are alive and well, too, along with fusions of Indian and African
dance styles.

Durban’s Jummah Masjid is known to be one of the southern hemisphere’s largest mosques.

About 80 percent of Indians in South Africa live in KwaZulu Natal and its city of Durban. It has
the largest concentration of Indians in any city outside of India. Indians form one of the
majorities that own businesses. Durban reflects Indian cultural influences everywhere—its
Victoria Street Market is redolent of the aroma of spices and incense.

The “bunny chow,” which is a dish unique to South African Indians, originated in Durban. This
is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with an Indian curry of your choice. The term derived from
the words “bunny” (referring to Bania or Gujarati-speaking people) and “chow” (slang for food).
Every year the Bunny Chow Barometer competition attracts hundreds of entrants.

Interestingly, despite problems such as rampant crime, rising unemployment, and continued
racial tension, for many like consultant nephrologist Vironica Chathury, South Africa will
always be home. After returning from a recent vacation in Goa, Chathury commented, “Just
returned yesterday and the first things that stood out were our fresh air, clean roads, courteous
South Africans and gorgeous homes that I was so happy to return to!” She had considered
emigrating a few years ago but decided against it, saying, “We have been part of our changing
South Africa. Its rich culture, deep history, beautiful land, good people, and fast growing
economy are a few great reasons to why no other country may compare! There is a huge sense
of homeward-bound that will keep us rooted. The only other country I feel [the same way about]
is New Zealand. But the natural disasters there versus the crime in SA reminds me that life
balances itself out. You have to continue to strive to perfection, and crime is a controllable

Indeed, the government has made crime reduction one of its top priorities. Finance Minister
Pravin Gordhan announced in 2011 that South Africa will inject billions of dollars into fighting
crime this year, with funds being used to recruit more police officers, magistrates, and judges,
increase the number of courts, and upgrade correctional services and facilities.

Despite the new set of difficult challenges Indians face, some of them have also reaped the
benefits of post-apartheid South Africa, with their advantages of superior education and greater
wealth. They were able to enter many sectors of trade and business that were denied to them in
the past. Wealthy Indians can now move into more affluent residential areas that had been
previously reserved for whites. Although affirmative action is seen as discriminating against
Indians, opportunities opened up for them as white South Africans emigrated in hordes, leaving
behind thousands of skilled job openings.

A transition that held much promise

The year 1994 marked a new chapter for South Africa when it transitioned from over 300 years
of white rule to a black government. Apartheid was abolished and there was a radical shift of
power. Thousands of South Africans took to the streets and danced and sang when Nelson
Mandela became president of South Africa. There was a widespread feeling of euphoria as the
new rule marked the end of the white domination over blacks, Indians, and “coloreds” in South
Africa. The historic election also granted Indians the right to vote for the first time since their
arrival in the country.

Indian faces could now be seen in the Cabinet, enjoying top posts like those of Finance Minister
and Minister for Economic Development. Mac Maharaj, who had played a pivotal role in South
Africa‟s liberation movement, suffering brutal torture and 12 years in jail together with Nelson
Mandela, is today spokesperson to President Zuma.

Not black enough

At his presidential inauguration, Nelson Mandela announced, “Never, never again will this
beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.” But the end of apartheid didn‟t
mean a happy ending—democracy in South Africa brought a new set of challenges for Indians.

Take the case of attorney Arshana Shyam Nirhoo, whose decision to leave the country reflects a
growing concern among the Indian community that the government‟s affirmative action policy
favors the black population to the detriment of deserving Indians. She is concerned about the
future of her four children and their professional growth in South Africa. “The minority groups
in South Africa have become too complacent. Perhaps it‟s fear of reprisals against them, or they
lack the courage and confidence to stand up against injustice. Whatever it is, it does not bode
well for the future of Indians in this country. It is disappointing that they have forgotten that their
forefathers were also part of the struggle against apartheid, and therefore their children should
not be subjected to additional discrimination by being rejected at tertiary institutions as a result
of their skin color,” says Nirhoo.

Indians who were citizens before 1994 and were discriminated against by apartheid are
considered black for the purposes of Employment Equity and are eligible for affirmative action,
but some of them feel they suffer because they are viewed as being “not black enough.”

Nirode Bramdaw, who owned an Indian newspaper in South Africa, describes the hierarchy of
preference for job-seekers: “If you‟re a black woman, you can walk into any door right now. If
you‟re a black man, you‟re second. Then come colored and Indian women, Indian and colored
men, and then whites.”

While affirmative action was intended to redress past imbalances where blacks and Indians were
denied the educational opportunities afforded to whites, many Indians feel that the policy is a
means to marginalize them by reversing the discrimination in favor of blacks. “In the past we
were not white enough, now we are not black enough” is a thought echoed by many Indians in
everyday conversations and the media.

The late politician Amichand Rajbansi condemned affirmative action for “having a negative
impact on the country.” He also felt the people who were in charge of the policy were applying it

A growing sense of disenchantment

After apartheid, a fundamental question on the minds of South African minority groups (mostly
Indian and white) has been whether to stay or to leave.

Research reveals that the majority of South Africa‟s skilled population has considered emigrating
since 1994, and that amongst Indians, the widespread urge to emigrate is a result of a growing
sense of disillusionment, fear, and lack of faith in the country.

While material lifestyle is certainly a motivating factor in the brain-drain phenomenon luring
South African Indians to more lucrative pastures abroad, it accounts for only a small reason why
they leave, with social factors being the primary driver of emigration. The two most often cited
reasons are crime and affirmative action.

Apartheid‟s segregation of the races had insulated Indians to their own so-called „Indian areas.‟
However, with the dismantling of segregation, people were free to live where they chose which
resulted in an influx of other race groups that drove up crime in these areas.
While apartheid was an unjustifiable evil and had to go, many Indians felt that they had a better
quality of life under apartheid. In 2002, the Chicago Tribune cited a survey conducted by the
Institute of Democracy, in which the majority of South Africans looked back on the apartheid era
with nostalgia and said they believed the country was run better then.

In an article on the experiences of Indian South Africans, Praveena Singh-Kaw wrote, “When the
call for freedom came, Indians whole-heartedly joined in the fight. The cause was just and the
time was right. Many Indians lost their lives in the apartheid struggle, many more were tortured
and imprisoned. Yet today under the rule Indians fought so hard to achieve, they are being
massacred on a weekly basis. Action needs to be taken or the entire Indian population faces
extinction. As an Indian South African, and one who has participated in the Struggle for
Freedom, I am appalled that I have to consider that life under the apartheid regime, while not
optimal, was preferable to life in the new South Africa. I wonder what has become of the Indian
politicians and the African National Congress activists who championed the fight for a free
South Africa. Are they indifferent to the cries of Indian South Africans or have the Indians in
                                                  South Africa fulfilled their role and are now

                                                 While the dismantling of apartheid liberated the
                                                 Indians of South Africa, giving them more
                                                 choices in life than their forefathers had dreamt
                                                 of, conditions under the new rule have also
                                                 made them prisoners in their own homes,
                                                 cowering for fear that they may be robbed,
                                                 assaulted, or even murdered at any time. Indian
                                                 homes barricaded behind increasing layers of
                                                 security, with panic alarms, guard dogs, and
                                                 patrol groups are a common sight.

                                                 Gandhi Square in Johannesburg.

                                                  Eighteen years after apartheid was abolished,
Indians are disappointed that South Africa has not lived up to its promise of racial equality and
harmony. Who knows what the future holds for Indians in South Africa? Mahatma Gandhi had
said: “The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by the abolition of forms.
It requires change of heart.” By that token, the dismantling of the apartheid laws in itself cannot
eliminate racial tensions and inequalities, and unite the different race groups under a truly
democratic South Africa, until the people themselves support that change.

Although Indians in South Africa have made significant progress since their forefathers arrived
in the country as indentured laborers, their struggle for equality is far from over. According to
T.G. Ramamurthi, author of the book Apartheid and Indian South Africans, “Ethnic Indians in
South Africa were never a people, but have always been a „problem‟, a „question,‟ or an „issue.‟”

Indians in South Africa seem to acknowledge that analysis with sadness as they contemplate the
question that looms before them—can they not call this land home anymore?
Archana Shah is a South African Indian who is now settled in the United States.

Published by Khabar Magazine, Cover Story section June 2012 issue.

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