‘Awake and arise from your slumber’
HAMBA khaya! Hamba uye eBombay – Go home! Go home to Mumbai!
November marks the 157th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers from India to toil in the cane fields of Natal.
This year also marks the century since indenture was abolished. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on the challenges facing this community.
South African Indians constitute a vulnerable ethnic minority, and have been “sandwiched” between the economically dominant whites, and the African majority.
Historically, there have been tensions between Indians and Africans, because the former enjoyed a relatively privileged position compared with the majority, primarily because of community survival strategies. The recent anti-Indian sentiments attributed to Julius Malema, the Mazibuye African Forum and Sihle Zikalala, are the culmination of an incipient anti-Indianism which has been infiltrating South Africa’s democracy. While there are exploiters in all groups, threatening one minority community is tantamount to persecution.
More sinister, the vitriol appears to be emerging from the deep under-belly of the ANC. A few examples will suffice. In early 2002, internationally renowned playwright and composer, Mbongeni Ngema, released an inflammatory anti-Indian song, AmaNdiya, in Zulu, in which he called for “strong and brave men to confront Indians… Whites were far better than Indians… we are poor because all things have been taken by Indians. They are oppressing us”.
The song was condemned by the South African Human Rights Commission and was subsequently banned from the airwaves.
Bronwyn Harris, a former project manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation at the University of Cape Town, contended that Ngema’s song was xenophobic and also raised questions of identity and citizenship: “AmaNdiya does not only portray negative stereotypes that are drawn on racial lines. It also creates prejudice through the language of xenophobia. By presenting ‘Indians’ as outsiders from India, the song raises questions about belonging within South Africa. This moves beyond race alone because it introduces concepts of citizenship and nationality. It implies that ‘Indians’ are not South African, and, therefore, have less legitimate claim to their citizenship than others.”
In 2007, when he was ANC Youth League resident, Fikile Mbalula (current minister of police) presented the June 1976 Memorial Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he contended that transformation had turned the University of KwaZulu-Natal “into nothing but Bombay”, and that African students “suffer on the periphery of transformation… When you get into that institution you think it’s an exclusive university of Indians only”.
Since 2009, Indians opposed to the destruction of the century-old Warwick market, in Durban, which had an umbilical connection with the descendants of indentured labourers, were taunted with chants of “Hamba khaya! Hamba uye eBombay” (Go home! Go home to Mumbai!), from the rent-amobs aligned to the ruling party, in front of senior ANC leaders, with impunity.
On July 17, 2009, in a public meeting organised by the eThekwini Municipality, the head of eThekwini Business Support and Markets, Philip Sithole, said: “Let us take the food from the mouths of the Indians! Now is the time for Africans to be in power! We will remove them all, and replace them with blacks!”
Other attacks include the head of Government Communication and Information Services and the president of the Black Management Forum, Mzwanele Manyi’s suggestion, in March 2011, that there were too many Indians in KwaZulu-Natal and that many bought their way to the top.
Trevor Manuel, national planning minister at the time, wrote an open letter to Manyi, in which he called him a “worst-order racist”.
In October 2010, when he was the leader of the ANCYL, Malema made reference to “amakula” (a derogatory term for Indians) when addressing a meeting in Thembelihle, “where service-delivery protests have been lent a sharper edge by perceptions that Indian residents of nearby Lenasia are treated better by the government”.
More recently, as leader of the EFF, Malema referred to Indians as exploiters.
A newspaper had questioned Malema’s motives: “What is Malema’s intention in using such language – perhaps to incite a Rwandan-style genocide? We are no rainbow nation. That much is clear. And the glibness with which supposed leaders manipulate race and dispossession to fight their causes will surely come back to haunt us all. We have already witnessed the shocking atrocity of foreigners being attacked and killed in South Africa. This time, if we are not careful, it will be our people who are targeted.”
One possible reason for the anti-Indian hype, according to the late Professor Fatima Meer, was that “when the majority community is beset by want, anxiety, dissatisfaction and fear, it tends to exhibit a lack of compassion and tolerance for minorities. It may become dangerously hostile when the minority community next to it … is prospering and on the rise socially, economically and politically”.
As racism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism, xenophobia, cronyism and the celebration of mediocrity become pronounced in the new South Africa, and the ruling elite blatantly flout democratic principles forged on the anvil of Struggle, the passive descendants of indentured labourers increasingly feel disillusioned, marginalised and excluded from the rainbow nation, and anxiously retreat into their religious and cultural cocoons. Some pray that subliminal connections with India become stronger.
Retired Judge Thumba Pillay expressed outrage “that there is an almost deafening silence from the high-profile leadership within the Indian community; those who enjoy the confidence of, and pay homage to, the ruling party”.
A major problem has been a dearth of credible leadership in the community, who can represent the working class and the poor. Largely because of a lack of astute leadership, Indians face the possibility of being politically marginalised.
The various deprecatory comments and racial slurs made over the past decade may well be an appropriate warning to the South African Indian community to awake and arise from their apathetic slumber.
For a worst-case scenario, google “Idi Amin and the Asian expulsion”.
A silent question is whether it is possible to build a democratic, progressive platform from the grassroots level for constructive engagement with the government of the day that could articulate the problems and challenges facing the South African Indian community, without becoming the surrogate of any political party.
(Extract from a paper to be presented at the 100-year Commemoration Symposium of the Formal Abolition of Indenture on Saturday at the 1860 Heritage Centre in Derby Street, Durban).