The 150th anniversary of Indian workers in South Africa

Indian origin comprise a heterogeneous community distinguished by different origins, languages, and religious beliefs. The first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era, as slaves, in 1684. A conservative calculation based strictly on records shows over 16 300 slaves from the Indian subcontinent having been brought to the Cape. In the decades 1690 to 1725 over 80% of the slaves were Indians. This practice continued until the end of slavery in 1838. They made up the majority of slaves that came from the Far East and were by the 1880s totally integrated into the Cape White and Coloured communities.

In the second half if the 19th Century, Indians came to South Africa in two categories, namely as indentured workers in 1860 and later as ‘free’ or ‘passenger’ Indians. The former came as a result of a triangular pact among three governments, which stated that the indentured Indians were to work for the Natal colonial government on Natal’s sugar plantations. The ‘free’ Indians came to South Africa mainly as traders alert to new opportunities abroad. These ‘free Indians’ came at their own expense from India, Mauritius, and other places. However, emigration was stopped in 1914.

Between November 1860 and 1911(when the system of indentured labour was stopped) nearly 152 184 indentured labourers from across India arrived in Natal. After serving their indentures, the first category of Indians were free to remain in South Africa or to return to India. By 1910, nearly 26.85% indentured men returned to India, but most chose to stay and thus constituted the forbearers of the majority of present-day South African Indians.

With 1994 and the advent of a democratic constitution, immigration policy restrictions, imposed by the apartheid regime, were scrapped. People from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, arrived in South Africa as new immigrants. However, there is a major cultural division between these new groups and Indian South Africans.

A key factor that helped forge a common South African “Indian” identity was the political struggles waged against harsh discriminatory laws enacted against Indians and the other Black oppressed groups in the country. As a consequence, the Indian community established a number of political formations, the most prominent being the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) established by Gandhi in 1894, and the Transvaal and Cape Indian Congresses in the early part of the 20th century. Members of the Indian Congress, together with socialist activists in the Communist Party of South Africa were instrumental, from the 1930s, in building cross racial alliances. The small Indian, Coloured and White progressive sectors joined with progressive African activists and together, they conducted a common non-racial struggle for Freedom and Equality.

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