Significant milestone in our history
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.