Though apartheid was officially dismantled in 1994, consciousness of race remains and as long as it continues to influence relationships in South Africa, so long will the society be divided into ethnic and racial groups; so long will there be an ‘Indian’ community in the country. And ‘Indianness,” regarded as exotic, leads to racial stereotyping. So in South Africa, ‘Indianness’ refers to the trappings of the culture: saris, samoosas, biryani and bharata natyam. As such, ‘Indianness’ is a superficial manifestation that obscures a way of life, which has adapted to the South African environment but retains, in different degrees, the essence of the old culture. ‘Indianness” maintains South Africans of Indian origin as other so they remain, for the most part, marginalised.
People who keep South Africans of Indian origin tied to stereotypical notions are simply pushing them back into apartheid. Such people don’t understand change as a condition of existence. Circumstances change, people change, cultures change and people of Indian origin who have been domiciled in South Africa for a hundred and fifty years have changed and become South African.
This seems not to be understood because Indian South Africans remain a small cohesive, distinctive group.
There are many reasons for this.
Transplanted to a foreign country in 1860, those who came as indentured labourers lived under conditions tantamount to slavery. Set apart from the colonists who had brought them from India and from the indigenous people whom they had supplanted as labourers on the sugar plantations, they lived in a hostile environment and developed their own close-knit communities.
When they left the sugar plantations and established their own homesteads as farmers and traders, they continued to live in little communities separate from other races. When gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and in the Cape Colony, some of these former indentured labourers along with new arrivals from India left the then British colony of Natal to seek their fortunes at the diggings. As they were not allowed mining rights, they made a living by providing other services. When they moved to other parts of these republics, the British authorities restricted them to ghettoes for Black (African, Coloured and Indian) people, which were divided along racial lines, and each racial unit was known as a location. Africans, Coloureds, Indians conformed to the racial divisions and there was little mixing.
From about 1875, Indians looking for better prospects emigrated to South Africa; they were mostly merchants and traders. As they were independent, they lived under better conditions and became successful in business and trade. But they were resented and many laws were promulgated in the colonies and the republics to control their trading activities and their acquisition of land. M. K. Gandhi was brought out to South Africa by these merchants to help them fight their legal battles in Natal and in the Transvaal. In 1894, Gandhi established The Natal Indian Congress, a political organisation that challenged the British authorities. In 1904, he established the Transvaal British Indian Association which later became the Transvaal Indian Congress. Gandhi, who had studied law in London, based his political resistance on the belief that Indians were British subjects and deserved better treatment from British colonial governments.
From 1910, when South Africa became an independent British colony, South African governments continued the policy of racial segregation and with apartheid in 1948, brought in strict separation of the various racial groups.
Before 1994, therefore, Indians had always lived in segregated communities; consequently they retained the sense of otherness. Living in their own group areas allowed them to pursue their own cultural and religious traditions and fostered their view of themselves as Indians.
All races in South Africa conformed to the dictates of segregation laws, affirmed racial identities and remained foreign to one another. Segregation and ghettoization boosted the idea of difference and each group developed a cultural consciousness that did not extend beyond its group area. And like all the other race groups, Indian South Africans retained a consciousness that could not meld into a common South African consciousness. Even in 2011, perceptions of cultural differences between the races still deter attempts at integration. For a minority group like the “Indians,” (about three million in a population of 49 million) it means continued marginalisation.
In their own group areas, once they were allowed to build places of worship ‘Indians’ established temples and mosques. As they were a literate people with books of religion, philosophy, songs, prayers, poems and moral codes, they had the means to keep their customs and beliefs more or less intact. They established vernacular schools, taught children to read and write and had them memorise the wisdom contained in sacred and other literature. In the 1940’s, Indian films brought the great stories of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Moghul Empire to life in Indian cinemas.
Movement between India and South Africa also helped to keep Indian traditions alive. People returned to India to refresh themselves in the practice of Indian customs and traditions and many Indian scholars, musicians and dancers were invited to South Africa to share their knowledge and skills.
In the 1940s, the struggle for Independence in India was watched closely and inspired feelings of patriotism. People began singing the Indian National anthem and songs like “Arise Awake.” They carried the Indian flag and wore Nehru caps. And the division of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, led to some estrangement between Hindus and Muslims.
Until about the 1950s, the home languages of Indian South Africans were Gujerati, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Hindustani, Memon, Urdu and so on. Language was a strong factor in the retention of Indian culture. As the languages die out, however, so does adherence to Indian customs and traditions. Education in government schools based entirely on western culture, history, literature etc., gave people new insights and either alienated them from old ways or broadened their cultures through incorporation of new norms and values.
With the advent of television and computer technology, come massive changes as young people in particular adapt to new cultures disseminated through them. The vestiges of Indian culture that remain are being eclipsed and all that is left is ‘Indianness,’ a pseudo culture of stereotypical superficialities that obscures the reality that Indian South Africans have adapted to Western ways and live in circumstances common to economic classes that cut across all races.