Sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in our his­tory

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THURS­DAY, Novem­ber 16 marks two sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones in the his­tory of our coun­try – the 157th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the first In­dian in­den­tured labour­ers to South Africa as well as the 100th an­niver­sary of the abo­li­tion of in­den­ture.

Al­though mem­bers of the In­dian com­mu­nity gen­er­ally see them­selves as South Africans first, the “In­dian” part of their iden­tity is quite vis­i­ble and man­i­fests it­self in their cul­tural norms, re­li­gious prac­tices, lan­guages, cloth­ing, food, en­ter­tain­ment and an in­creas­ing in­ter­est by many to trace their an­ces­tral roots in In­dia.

What is how­ever dis­ap­point­ing is that so lit­tle of the early his­tory of In­dian set­tle­ment here is gen­er­ally known in the com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially among the younger gen­er­a­tion – as borne out by re­ports fea­tured in this news­pa­per last week.

Many young peo­ple are not aware of the mis­er­able con­di­tions and cruel pun­ish­ment the in­den­tured labour­ers en­dured on the jour­ney to South Africa; the ex­treme and of­ten hu­mil­i­at­ing con­di­tions they ex­pe­ri­enced un­der colo­nial rule; how they were herded into un­fin­ished bar­racks and or­dered to labour on the cane fields from dawn to sun­set and forced to live in un­hy­gienic and cramped quar­ters not fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion.

As the in­den­tured labour­ers were to dis­cover, in­den­ture it­self was noth­ing more than a soul­less and bind­ing con­tract be­tween the colo­nial farm­ers and their em­ploy­ees who were paid a mere 10 shillings a month, plus ra­tions of dhall and rice, for their labour.

But thanks to the sac­ri­fices and re­silience of suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions who sur­vived and pros­pered against some­times in­sur­mount­able odds, the 1.2 mil­lion-strong In­dian com­mu­nity is now an in­te­gral part of a vi­brant democ­racy and plays a crit­i­cal role in the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment and so­cio-po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion.

Rekin­dling in­ter­est in this im­por­tant chap­ter of South African his­tory must be pro­moted through more read­ing, for­mal aca­demic re­search; en­cour­ag­ing more writ­ing on the theme of in­den­ture and pro­mot­ing our her­itage through the erec­tion of mon­u­ments to com­mem­o­rate the ar­rival of In­di­ans in Dur­ban in 1860.

This raises the burn­ing ques­tion of what has be­come of the planned 1860 In­den­tured Labour Me­mo­rial that was to have been erected on Dur­ban’s beach­front.

Af­ter a se­ries of meet­ings and site in­spec­tions in­volv­ing the prov­ince, mu­nic­i­pal­ity and the 1860 Or­gan­is­ing Com­mit­tee (whose mem­bers are drawn from the In­dian com­mu­nity), the project ap­pears to have been buried un­der a heap of buck-pass­ing, bro­ken prom­ises and bu­reau­cracy.

Let’s not wait for yet an­other an­niver­sary to ar­rive be­fore we see some progress.

Surely our her­itage de­serves bet­ter.

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