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14 Sep 2004 07:55
They originally came as indentured workers but almost 150 years later, South Africa’s million-plus people of Indian origin have carved out a special place in the country’s political and economic landscape.
The community of about 1,2-million people is made up largely of descendants of labourers who worked in sugarcane plantations, most of whom were herded onto ships to South Africa by British colonial rulers in their homeland.
This community—one of the largest outside the sub-continent—will be one of the main focus areas during Indian President Abdul Kalam’s visit to South Africa—the first by an Indian head of state—which starts on Tuesday.
“The immigrants who came were not educated people but we have made a great contribution to this country by working hard and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” said Tholsiah Naidoo, director of the Indian Academy of South Africa.
Although Indians comprise only three percent of South Africas 45-million people, they feature significantly in all aspects of public life.
Indian-run businesses are thriving and Indian political representatives serve in all tiers of government from local councils to the Cabinet.
“This visit by the president only gives further impetus that Indians must continue in this role that will make the future brighter,” Naidoo said.
The history of South African Indians dates to 1860 when about 700 migrant workers and traders arrived in Durban from Madras and Calcutta, mainly to work on newly established sugarcane farms in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.
When their terms of indenture were over, some moved to Johannesburg and Cape Town, but most remained in the eastern region.
“If you look at the history of KwaZulu-Natal, the arrival of Indians here was to save the economy of the province at the time from certain bankruptcy,” said veteran politician and leader of the Indian-dominated Minority Front party, Amichand Rajbansi.
Today, one in every three of Durban’s three million residents is of Indian descent.
Although Indian activists featured prominently in the liberation struggle in South Africa, some feel that these contributions are not acknowledged even today.
“The Indian president arrives at a time when half our heroes are not recognised,” said Naidoo.
“We hear about the contributions of black leaders but never of Indian people.”
Kalam is due to spend two days in Durban, meeting with political and business leaders.
He is due to visit the Gandhi Memorial in Phoenix, where India’s independence hero Mahatma Gandhi founded a communal farm 100 years ago and where he forged his policy of peaceful resistance which ultimately led to India’s independence in 1947.
Gandhi also had his political awakening after being kicked out of a whites-only train carriage, a journey that Kalam will retrace in what Indian officials call a “pilgrimage”.
What sets South African Indians apart from their counterparts in other African countries, Rajbansi said, is that they are fully integrated into the mainstream.
“Make no doubt about it, we are part and parcel of the African population. India is merely our motherland to whom we look for cultural and religious inspiration,” Rajbansi explained.
But the relationship between the local African and Indian communities has not been always smooth.
In 1949, rioting Zulus looted and burnt Indian businesses in Durban in racially based violence, sparked by claims that the traders were exploiting blacks.
More recently, a song by a popular Zulu artist which said Indians were oppressing black Africans sparked public outrage.
“Those tensions are still present,” Naidoo admitted.
But Indian culture remains a central feature of the city along with its Zulu and English colonial cultural heritage.
“Our Indian cultural heritage is very significant to our marketing of the city and the province,” said Iris Francis of KwaZulu-Natal Tourism.
“We are the second largest Indian community outside India so one of the key features that we promote internationally is our Indian culture, the food, the dancing, the people,” she said.
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