Indian South Africans

© Indian children play on a Durban beach.

South African Indians are an integral part of the country's diversity and culture. They are of South Asian descent and came to South Africa through various routes many centuries ago. Today, South African Indians live in all parts of Mzansi, but the largest group resides in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. 

From unique cuisine and rich cultural practices to religion and sacred traditions, as well as political activism and sporting triumphs, South African Indians form important part of South African society. 

Early History

Evidence suggests that Indian traders were active along the eastern coastline of South Africa long before the Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652, and it is believed that they were taken as slaves by the Dutch throughout the 1700s. After the British colonised South Africa in the 1800s, Indian people were brought from their home country (which was also colonised by Britain at the time) to work on the plantations, railways and mines of colonial Natal (now known as the province of KwaZulu-Natal) between 1860 and 1911.

The phrase used during this time was 'indenture', and although the Indian migration to the country was supposed to be seen as goodwill, it was slavery by contract, set up by the colonial powers of Britain. Many South African Indians can trace their heritage back to these workers, who came from the Indian ports of Madras and Calcutta. 

During the latter years of the 19th century, small waves of Indian migrants arrived in the country from Mauritius via the ports of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and most notably, Durban.

Life During the 19th Century

The city of Durban became a thriving Indian neighbourhood during the later years of the 19th century. The growing community of workers were catered to by the first Indian merchant store that opened in town in 1872, selling spices and other necessities. Throughout the province of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) Indian people would work as cheap labour at sugar cane fields. They were normally indentured for a period of 5 years, and had the intensive task of cultivating, growing and harvesting the sugar cane. 

After their period of work ended, the contract of indenture offered workers the option of returning to India, or a plot of land. History suggest that a small number opted to return to their home country, while majority of Indian workers accepted land to start their own ventures. During the time of indenture, Indian and Arabian merchants arrived in South Africa to set up trading posts, expanding the community once more.

20th Century Legislation

The Indian population had grown extensively by the time the 20th century started. Freedom from their indentured contracts allowed workers to integrate into the community both socially and economically. This, in turn, pressured colonial authorities to restrict the community, as prejudice settlers were uncomfortable with the change of pace. 

A large amount of legislation over the period of just over 100 years followed and curbed the mobility, trading rights, settlement patterns, marital choices and educational access of South Africans of Indian descent. In the early years of the 1900s, The Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State passed laws restricting the rights of all Indians to live in areas designated for white residents only. South African Indians were denied the right to vote, to own land, and to run businesses without proper registration.

South African Indian Resistance Movement

During the 1900s, South African Indians were restricted and persecuted by the government for their existence. However, the community did not shy away from political activism and rose up against the prejudice and extreme legislation they were facing. 

Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi first came to South Africa in May 1893 as a 23-year old barrister, to assist an Indian merchant in a civil law suit. At the time he had no interest in or experience of politics except for a strong sense of duty, an attachment to truth and an urge to serve humanity.

What he experienced in South Africa changed his life forever. He became concerned about educating and uniting the Indian community that was then dispersed and divided by class, religion and language. Gandhi helped establish the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and the Transvaal British Indian Association in 1903 to defend the rights of Indians.

Gandhi led an Indian ambulance corps during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and later a stretcher-bearer corps during the Zulu rebellion of 1906. He also founded the social movement in the Magazine Barracks in 1917, and thus established that South Indians were a force to be reckoned with.

In 1906 Gandhi started the peaceful protest movement, Satyagraha. In 1908 he and 3000 other peaceful protestors burned their registration certificates in protest of the discriminatory laws against Indians. The then South African Prime Minister, General Smuts, yielded after years of struggle, signing an agreement accepting all the main demands of the Satyagraha. Gandhi's example and the Satyagraha he led in South Africa, inspired similar struggles for freedom from oppression in many people and countries around the world.

Apartheid Years

During the mid-1900s, early apartheid legislation came into effect, which meant that severe restrictions were placed on non-white populations, South African Indians living in KwaZulu-Natal were uprooted from their communities and moved 20-30 km away to Indian-only townships. 

Indian activists took their place with other freedom fighters in the liberation movement during the apartheid years. Many were imprisoned alongside their comrades at the Old Fort in Johannesburg, Durban Central, Ixopo Prison and on Robben Island. The late President Nelson Mandela and the late Indian politician Ahmed Kathrada fought side by side in the struggle, which eventually ended in 1994 when the first Democratic election took place

South African Indian Traditions and Customs

Many South African Indians practice their traditions and social customs, as well as their religion and celebratory festivals. Both Muslim and Hindu Indians reside in the country, and have dedicated places of worship. One of the largest Hindu temples in the southern hemisphere is located in the township of Chatsworth, KwaZulu-Natal.

South African Indians are known for their flavourful cuisine, such as spicy curries, chutneys, pastries and other savoury foods. They are also known for their beautiful traditional clothing, worn on special occasions such as weddings, religious days and social gatherings. Their music and dance also play an important role as part of celebrations.

Although some traditional customs are no longer as normalized as it once was (such as arranged marriages), South African Indians have remained true to their heritage.

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