Indian CommunityMarks 150th Anniversary of their Arrival in South Africa* — A Feature by Eric Singh, ANA Snr. Contributing Editor

Ela Gandhi being interviewd in her office in Durban (earlier this year)

On November 16, 2010, the Government of South Africa is planning to hold an official function to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Arrival of Indians on the shores of South Africa. This is apart from the many functions that have been planned by various groups all over the country before and after the main event.

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Exactly 342 passengers boarded the SS Truro in Madras, India, and arrived in Durban 35 days later. The passenger list consisted of 190 men, 80 women over the age of 16, along with 36 boys and 36 girls under the age of 15.
Despite the hardship and brutality of the colonizers, bordering on outright slavery, Indians overcame their sufferings and deprivation, and advanced on to become a driving force for human rights and justice in this land on the southern tip of the African continent. They made their mark in various fields, be it academic, business or cultural. Most important aspect of their contributions is in the struggle for freedom led by the African National Congress. Thousands of Indians, young and old, did not hesitate to throw in their lot in the quest for freedom and justice. Quite a number paid for it with their lives.

One of those thousands is a lady with an illustrious family name and background, and active participant in the liberation struggle. Whilst in Durban recently, your scribe Eric Singh, took the opportunity of talking to Ms Ela Gandhi, a freedom fighter and an MP for the ANC in the first democratic Parliament in 1994. Today, she is the publisher of Satyagraha one of the oldest newspapers in the country.

Ms Gandhi, November 2010 will mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indian immigrants to South Africa. That was in 1860. Can you please illustrate the impact of this historic event in the country ever since.

The people came with very high expectations because they were told that South Africa is a land of milk and honey. But when they arrived it was a completely different story. They realized that they were actually enslaved. The contracts they signed before their journey began actually robbed them of their rights. Many of them could not read and write and their “signature” was represented by an X. In that respect, many of indentured labourers who came to South Africa, were greatly disappointed.

The impact of them coming to South Africa was colossal. I think the most important issue for me is the way the Indian people were ready to participate in the movement against injustices. Firstly against those suffered by themselves and their community, and later they went on to embrace the entire black community. They began to look at the injustices as a whole in the country and together to cross the race and ethnic barriers, in order to fight against racism and apartheid in South Africa. I believe the Indian community made a very important contribution which is a valuable lesson for the world that you can together and be united despite the hurdles that divide us.

Ela Ghandi in Berlin

The people who came here originally worked under slave conditions. But they were free to go back after five years. Why did so many remain?

They were not. Firstly, they did not have a passage. After five years they could not go back for the simple reason they had no money. During their indenture they were not paid. They were given rations (groceries). There was no possibility of accumulating funds in order to establish themselves. It was after a long, time-consuming struggle that they were guaranteed a small piece of land. This was offset by the colonialists imposing a ten-pound (£10.00) tax which was a fortune in those days. Just to earn the ten pounds, the people would have had to do backing-breaking work for many hours per day to meet this sum. They simply refused to pay and eventually that tax was abolished.

It was the same with the African people. Taxes were imposed so that they would be forced to leave their lands in order to earn money in the cities, especially in the mines with its awful working conditions, to pay their taxes. There were no benefits or services attached to this. That is why people like Bambatha** objected to this practice which resulted in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 that broke out in the mid-Natal region of Graytown. It lasted for months and the superior weapons of the colonialists finally crushed it and beheaded its leader Bambatha.

In the later stages, I am now talking about the 20th century, things took a dramatic turn where people became more aware of their strength, and then there was the arrival of a certain Gentleman by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who happens to be your grandfather, somebody who changed the whole political landscape in this country. Tell us something about your grandfather. Especially what he did to make the people move as they did.

When my grandfather came to this country he was just a young man. He came to South Africa in 1893 and lived here for about 21 years. He came to the country as a lawyer just as any other person to earn a living, make some money and go back to India where his family was living. During his stay here, he came face to face with the injustices that prevailed against the Indian people and the black community as a whole. He felt he was obliged to do something about it and began mobilizing and in the process changed his own life-style. That was the miracle which happened in his life.

In these 21 years he transformed from an affluent professional class-conscious human being to an ordinary person who respected labour, by that I mean physical labour and gave up all the trappings of the background that he came from. He gave South Africa the weapon of non-violence – the Satyagraha. He demonstrated through his involvement that you can protest against injustices through non-violent means.

Please portray some of the injustices which Gandiji highlighted in South Africa.

There was the race injustice. Soon after his arrival, he was thrown out of the court because he insisted on wearing a turban. When he tried to explain to the judge that a turban is the same as a wig he was rudely asked to leave. That was his first confrontation with racism. A few days later he boarded a train en route to Johannesburg in the first class compartment. A white person objected to his presence and he was literally thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg even though he had a valid ticket. The trains were segregated in South Africa and my grandfather was unaware of this. On this trip he encountered many such incidents of racism including assault, insults and all the other elements of colonial racism, simply because his skin had the “false” colour. The experience he accumulated within the first few months of his arrival were decisive in directing his future.

It worried him a great deal that people were prepared to accept the status quo as every day life and did nothing about it. He began to mobilize and speak to the people that there are serious injustices prevailing and some thing has to be done against it. In the process, thousands of people were mobilized and this resulted in the formation of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894. The job of the NIC was to mobilize and guide the people in their fight against injustice. One of the biggest campaigns on a mass basis was the fight against the permit laws in 1913 when thousands of people crossed the border between the two provinces – Natal and the Transvaal – and courted imprisonment. Many thousands of Indian workers laid down their tools and went on strike. They withstood the harassments and assaults meted out by the colonial police very courageously without resorting to weapons or violence. This resulted in quite a number of the unjust laws being repealed in 1914 (people of Asiatic origin were not allowed to move about the four provinces without a travel permit –es)

With his Satyagraha philosophy Gandiji  won a lot of disciples. Is this philosophy still valid today?

Well one of the most prominent disciple was Chief Albert Luthuli, President General of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. That was in 1960. Chief Luthuli continued the non-violence policy in South Africa. He in turn was joined by such great leaders of the local Indian community like Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker. Even ANC leaders Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela became strong Gandhian scholars.

Satyagraha spread throughout the world and even the great leader of the Black community in the USA, Martin Luther King, adopted this principle and put it to good use in the fight for justice and human rights for his people. It is still a strong weapon, and is being applied in various struggles for freedom and justice in many parts of the world even today.

Lets look at South Africa today. The Indian community has benefited greatly from society through the struggle for peace, freedom and human dignity. What would you say is their role within the new dispensation in the land once ruled by racism and colonialism?

The Indian community played and can play a major role working together with the other like-minded people of the various ethnic groups that exist in this country. At the moment the challenges that face South Africa are the challenges of transformation. Transformation of a society that was divided on a racial basis. Institutions like schools, colleges , tertiary institutions, hospitals, etc – they were all segregated during apartheid. Today we are looking for integration. This is not easy. Any kind of transformation comes with a lot of pain. Therefore, one needs to find ways with which to fill the gap. How to make it happen? For that you need lots of patience, a plan of action , plus people who are dedicated to transforming ideas. Finally, its not just about changing the colour, its about changing the ideology. This is precisely what we need to look into in South Africa.


*South Africans of Indian origin comprise a heterogeneous community distinguished by different languages, religions, castes (although this does not play a major role anymore) and regional origins. The first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era as slaves in 1684. The records show that over 16 300 slaves from the Indian subcontinent were brought to the Cape, a procedure which continued until the abolition of slavery in 1813 after which they were integrated into the Cape communities.

Following an agreement between the Natal Colonial Authorities and British ruled India in 1860, the next phase was brought into play. Between 1860 and 1911 about 140 000 Indians arrived in South Africa although indentured labour was officially stopped in 1901.

The third phase was the passenger who paid his/her way to Natal. This group was made up of traders and artisans. Today, the Indian community represents 2.5% of South Africa’s population of 47 million people.

** Chief Bambatha kaMancinza was head of the Zondi Clan in Zululand, Natal.