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Integration and Disintegration: Indians in South Africa Essay

The story of Indians in South Africa is both a story of integration and disintegration into the national space. The processes and patterns of integration and disintegration of Indian community as a minority ethnicity is closely linked to the larger reality of South African freedom struggle and the subsequent efforts of building the new nation of South Africa as a post-apartheid democracy. On the other hand, it is important to remember that the very existence of Indians in South Africa itself is a result of the colonisation of South Africa.

It is through the protracted decolonization process of South Africa, the Indian community too got assimilated into the national space. Struggles against both racism and colonisation have played an important role bringing the Indians and the black natives together in their fight against the white colonial masters. The purpose of the essay is to provide an overview of the experiences of Indians in South Africa and their participation in the nation building with special reference to the post-1994 period of democratic development.

The Indian Community and the ‘New’ South Africa It is the British colonial rule in nineteenth and early twentieth century that catalysed the Indian immigration to South Africa. Therefore, the Indian community in South Africa includes people from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh as well since they were part of India until Indian independence. There are other cleavages in the Indian community in South Africa as they are divided in the lines of religion, caste and language.

Obviously, the idea of an Indian community in South Africa is essentially problematic due to the extreme heterogeneity within the Indian diasporas. However, it is still possible to identify Indian South Africans as a racially distinct group. Ironically, even there is no consensus in the very way for the Indians in South Africa to be addressed. According to Singh, “people of Indian origin varyingly refer to themselves in one of three classificatory ways: ‘South Africans’, ‘Indian South Africans’ or ‘South African Indians” (2008, p. ). It is just a reflection of the openness of identity against the idea of identity as a closed concept. The Indians in South Africa are originated from the diverse regions of colonial India, including today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Telugu and Urdu are the major languages spoken by the Indians in South Africa. They also follow different religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam besides their particular individualist beliefs. Within South Africa, Indians have the highest concentration in Durban.

In the beginning, it is the “the development of the sugar industry in Natal necessitated the immigration of indentured labourers to South Africa in the 1860s” (Jithoo, 1991, p. 344). If they were mainly from South India, then came the ‘free’ Indians from Gujarat after 1874, who were largely into business and commerce. Hofmeyr has pointed out that even a single religious group like the “South African Hindu community is concentrated in four linguistic groups, these being the Gujarat, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. As in India, each has its favoured system of religious ritual, belief, and literature” (1982, p. 139).

The processes of modernization has changed the nature of the identity formation of these groups; although, it has not altered the internal diversity of Indian community in South Africa. And, as a minority within the new nation of South Africa, processes of globalisation and trans-nationalisation too have started marking their influence on the (re)definition of the identities of South African Indians. It is important to note that identity building among any community, especially among the Indians in South Africa is an ongoing process shaped by multiple factors and largely amenable to (shifts in) historical processes.

Identity is revealed at first through self classification and self reference. Importantly, classificatory references are “politically loaded, for historical reasons, in that they demonstrate the individuals’ affinity or lack of it either to India or to South Africa. When a person makes reference to being ‘South African’, ‘Indian South African’ or ‘South African Indian’, they are usually making a statement about how they wish to be seen in the context of their personal beliefs and identity formation” (Singh, 2008, p. 5-6).

As a subject race, in the apartheid times, the South African Indians defined themselves against the master race of whites and placed themselves adjacent to the social position(ing) of blacks and other natives. However, at present, South African Indians are seeing themselves distinct from the blacks and complains that the state which is dominated by the blacks discriminating them for not being black enough. However, it is not fair to undermine the complexities involved in “the dynamics of the cultural politics that is inherent within the heterogeneous population of Indian origin” (Singh, 2008, p. ). The fluidity of the identity of the Indians in South Africa resist any idea of total classifications and binaries as “such categorizations are broad based and tend to ignore the dynamics of regional, religious and linguistically based politics that are intrinsic to the politics of belonging among Indians overseas” (Singh, 2008, p. 6). The crucial point is that Indians in their huge diversity are (being) differently integrated into the South African democratic space of post-apartheid era.

For instance, it has been argued that “the ‘high caste’ Gujarati speaking Muslim household of passenger origin, differs from the ‘low caste’ Tamil speaking Hindu household of indentured origin” ( Jithoo, 1991, p. 347). The very invention of racial categories in the South Africa was induced by the early decades of twentieth century by the British rule. To perpetrate the colonial rule, in this period, “formal distinctions were introduced among Whites, Bantus (Africans), Indians/ Asians, and Colored” (Mabokela, 2001, p. 205).

From this point, the practice of racial segregation acquired a new momentum as it was put into legislation by the National party’s implementation of apartheid system. Extreme forms of racial segregation were integrated into the education policy and education system. it has been argued that “the Bantu Education Act of 1953 created a hypersegregated education system, mandating a different system of education for each racial group in the nation. In accordance with apartheid ideology and policies, White students received the best academic training, followed by that for Indians, Coloreds, and last, Africans.

Although Africans have comprised the majority, about three-fourths, of the South African population, they historically have received the smallest share of educational resources compared to Whites, who comprise 15% of the total population; Coloreds, who make up less than a tenth (7%); and Indians, who comprise about 3%” (Mabokela, 2001, p. 206). Until the independence in 1994 and the subsequent election of African National Congress, the black majority had very limited access to education in comparison to all other social groups in South Africa.

Importantly, Indians got access to compulsory education in the 1980s itself. It has been noted by many theorists that the ethnic roots of Indian South Africans are often revoked and mobilised by the competitive democratic environment of post 1994 period. At present Indian ethnic minorities have a tendency to juxtapose themselves with Whites for a number of reason such as “affirmative action in employment and the rapid escalation of violent crime are widely seen in racialized terms- especially in the sense that Africans are viewed as the culprits and Indians and Whites as the victims” (Singh, 2008, p. ). It means that the Indian perception of being part of the majority of blacks gives way to the new perception of being part of white minority. This is the disintegration of Indian community from the Black majority and re-integration to the white minority national space. Moreover, Jithoo (1991) has argued that the Indian community in South Africa has undergone tremendous internal changes related to joint family structures and the caste institution which in turn is reflected in their relations to the external world.

The infamous Group Areas Act (1950) was central to defining the Indian family structures as it involved many restrictions such as compulsory segregation on them. Although a minority, the Indian community cannot be termed as less privileged, especially in comparison to the black majority in the sphere of education. It is true that Indian community were as oppressed and exploited by the white apartheid regime but the point is that they enjoyed a relatively better position than the black majority.

Lindsay has noted that, even after the end of apartheid, “the presence of “Blacks” (African, Indians/Asians, and colored groups) and women of all races and ethnicities in South African universities as students, faculty, and professionals is still limited in various disciplines, faculties and administrative areas” (1997, p. 522). Although classified into a single group for the purpose of affirmative action policies, it is a matter of fact that Indians are far advantaged in terms of education in South Africa than Blacks and Coloured people.

It can be well argued that “education was the institutional mechanism set in motion, maintained and secured by the apartheid government to control the black majority economically, politically, and socially” (Lindsay, 1997, p. 522). If the secondary school enrolment of black Africans 1 in 5 in the period of 1969 to 1989, it was 1 in 2. 6 for the Indians in the same period. At the sphere of education, it indicates that the position of the Indians were as twice as better of the Blacks Africans until 1994 free election.

The present non- juxtaposing of Indian community with the black Africans and the tensions arise from it are thus deeply rooted in the historical reality of segregated nation building of South Africa. It is one of the peculiarity of the South African reality that still a number of groups or members of particular group do not identify themselves simply as South Africans. Apparently, a recent survey shows that “although South Africans are increasingly identifying as ‘South Africans’, 36% still identify as ‘African’, black, white, coloured, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa, English or whatever” (de Jongh, 2006, p. 5).

It means that the South African national identity is still relatively weak with relations to strong racial and ethnic identities. On the other hand, it does not mean there is a necessary tension between such a racial or communitarian indemnification and modern national identification. It could be especially the case of Indian ethnic minorities than other racial groups as the Afrobarometer 2000 survey shows that “only Indians listed racial identities more frequently than nonracial ones (61% naming a racial identity).

The other three groups predominantly gave nonracial responses (Africans identified racially 30% of the time; whites, 12%; and coloureds, 45%)” (Ferree, 2006, p. 807). It also point fingers to the (possible) disintegration of Indian community from the New South Africa. Also, Indian community has most profound distrust of the economic polices of the black Africans led government as they perceive them as favouring the blacks vis-a-vis the Indians. Obviously, the foundations of legitimacy of the state with relations to the Indian community have been weakened in an unprecedented manner.

It is also important to note that Indians largely perceive the African National Congress as an African party. It has affected the political legitimisation process of the new South Africa as well. Conclusion The very idea of South African Indians itself is problematic as the Indian community in is heterogeneous in multiple ways. Even as an ethnic minority, they are internally diverse with reference to religion, region, language and self reference. Importantly the groups within the Indian community in South Africa are not similarly integrated into the South African national space.

The integration of diverse groups within the Indian community is different in both quantity and quality. The fluidity of the identities of South African Indians is well expressed in the fact that they tend to revive and reconstitute their identities and belongings with relations to the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions. The changing social, political, cultural and economic conditions in South Africa have led the Indian community to identify themselves with the whites as a fellow minority community. This disintegration from the black majority cannot be perceived as disintegration from the South African national space.


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