In­den­tured labour de­serves credit

Post - - Opinion - BRIJ MA­HARAJ

IN THE his­tory of the move­ment of in­den­tured labour, the fol­low­ing dates are sig­nif­i­cant: Fiji, May 14; Mau­ri­tius, Novem­ber 2; Trinidad, May 30; Guyana, May 8; Suri­name, June 5; and Ja­maica, May 10.

Th­ese are the dates of ar­rival of in­den­tured labour­ers at their re­spec­tive des­ti­na­tions.

Th­ese dates are also recog­nised as na­tional holidays in th­ese coun­tries, which is called In­dian Ar­rival Day.

There is some de­bate about what is be­ing cel­e­brated as ex­pressed by Trinida­dian Shas­tri Sookdeo: “I have a clear un­der­stand­ing that my fam­ily comes from In­dia, but the link is ten­u­ous enough that I do not feel a link to In­dia as a coun­try.

“I speak no In­dian lan­guages and un­der­stand lit­tle of life in In­dia. Yet there is a link. It is that link to her­itage that I be­lieve should be cel­e­brated, more than the cel­e­bra­tion of ar­rival.”

On Novem­ber 16, 1860, the Truro ar­rived at the Port of Natal out of Madras with the first batch of 342 in­den­tured labour­ers, fol­lowed by the Belvedere from Cal­cutta 10 days later, th­ese be­ing the ports of de­par­ture from south and north In­dia, re­spec­tively (not sure whether this may ex­plain his­tor­i­cal re­gional and lin­guis­tic ri­val­ries).

Out of the ship’s holds emerged a hu­man cargo of in­den­tured labour­ers. The jour­ney had re­placed their names with num­bers and their fu­ture was to be cogs in the white man’s ma­chine.

Hardly had they landed on terra firma than they were sep­a­rated and bun­dled off to sugar plan­ta­tions to labour un­der con­di­tions of near slav­ery.

As his­to­rian PS Joshi ar­gues, the Bri­tish in­tro­duced the in­den­tured labour sys­tem as a sub­sti­tute for “forced labour and slav­ery. The in­den­tured ‘coolies’ were half slaves, bound body and soul by a hun­dred and one in­hu­man reg­u­la­tions”.

Sub­se­quently, there were 384 trips across the kala paani (“black wa­ters”) be­tween 1860 and 1911. The last in­den­tured cargo ar­rived on the Um­lazi on July 21, 1911.

The re­silience of the in­den­tured in over­com­ing ad­ver­sity was em­pha­sised by se­nior ANC mem­ber Phumelele Stone Sizani in a par­lia­men­tary ad­dress on Novem­ber 16, 2010, the 150th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of in­den­tured labour­ers: “Th­ese In­di­ans, like African slaves and work­ers in Amer­ica, came from di­verse eth­nic and cul­tural back­grounds, but were united by their spir­i­tual tra­di­tions, which nour­ished their self-re­spect, self-worth and self-es­teem, cul­ture of self­help and self-re­liance…

“Thus they con­ducted their lives ac­cord­ing to sound moral and eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples, de­spite the ad­verse con­di­tions in which they lived and worked… so­cial trans­for­ma­tion can­not be achieved with­out spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion. The In­dian com­mu­nity built its own tem­ples, schools, mosques and cul­tural schools, through which they pre­served and prac­tised their di­verse cul­tures, re­li­gions and lan­guages…

“In our work as pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives, com­mu­nity work­ers and lead­ers, we must learn from the In­dian com­mu­nity, the African di­as­pora and the founders of our na­tion that so­cial trans­for­ma­tion can­not be achieved with­out spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion.”

Novem­ber 16 is an in­signif­i­cant day on the South African cal­en­dar, let alone a pub­lic hol­i­day, for sev­eral rea­sons.

There was an ide­al­is­tic be­lief in demo­cratic non-racial­ism, and the ex­pec­ta­tion that the Man­dela mode of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and na­tion-build­ing would en­dure.

Third and fourth gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dants of in­den­tured labour­ers had long lost their um­bil­i­cal con­nec­tions with In­dia, which at best served as some form of ab­stract, dis­tant re­li­gious and cul­tural ref­er­ence point.

Dis­grace­fully, the non-racial dream is rapidly turn­ing into a night­mare as the rul­ing ANC po­lit­i­cal party is torn asun­der by eth­nic­ity, trib­al­ism, racism (and, above all, loot­ing from the pub­lic purse), unimag­in­able when the demo­cratic South Africa’s found­ing doc­u­ment was penned.

Barely a decade into democ­racy, there have been pub­lic comments and mo­bil­i­sa­tion from some sec­tors that South African In­di­ans should con­sider re­turn­ing “home” to In­dia.

(Of course, the adopted In­dian prince may pro­vide suc­cour for some and es­pe­cially the con­so­la­tion that the Zulu King has not yet been cap­tured, un­like the rul­ing elite in the ANC.)

In 2010, on the 150th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of in­den­tured labour­ers, the KZN gov­ern­ment and eThek­wini Mu­nic­i­pal­ity made a com­mit­ment to build a R4.8 mil­lion mon­u­ment to hon­our the in­den­tured.


In an ed­i­to­rial com­ment on Novem­ber 2, 2016, POST ex­pressed con­cern about the de­lays in hon­our­ing this com­mit­ment: “What is par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing is that the erec­tion of this mon­u­ment is not just an ini­tia­tive by the In­dian com­mu­nity. It was meant to be an in­clu­sive project em­brac­ing all South Africans – one that would serve to bring peo­ple from dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties to­gether and unify them.

“A clear mes­sage needs to be sent out to the or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee, that th­ese end­less de­lays and ex­cuses can­not be tol­er­ated any fur­ther. If there is ap­a­thy or a lack of po­lit­i­cal will within your ranks, get rid of the dead wood im­me­di­ately.

“If there is hint of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence be­hind the de­lays, let’s bring this out into the open. If you need guid­ance from ex­perts in the choos­ing of a suit­able sculp­ture, just say so.

“Mon­u­ments like the 1860 project are im­por­tant to South Africans want­ing to cel­e­brate a shared his­tory, so get your house in or­der.”

Per­haps re­spond­ing to this call, on Novem­ber 15, 2016, KZN Pre­mier Willies Mchunu, to­gether with the lead­er­ship of eThek­wini Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, par­tic­i­pated in a sod-turn­ing cer­e­mony at Ad­ding­ton Beach for the erec­tion of a mon­u­ment to the in­den­tured there.

Mchunu re­as­sured SA In­di­ans: “We re­main in­debted to the In­dian in­den­tured labour­ers for their con­tri­bu­tion, es­pe­cially in terms of es­tab­lish­ing the agri­cul­tural po­ten­tial of KwaZulu-Natal mak­ing it the world-renowned re­gion of the sugar in­dus­try.

“By work­ing to­wards the erec­tion of the mon­u­ment, we are ex­press­ing our deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion to our fel­low brothers and sis­ters from In­dia, who un­equiv­o­cally de­clared South Africa, and KwaZulu-Natal in par­tic­u­lar, their pre­ferred place to live in.”

Sadly, as sub­se­quent events re­veal, the real KZN ANC boss, Sihle Zikalala, had other ideas about SA In­di­ans.

In­evitably, there is spec­u­la­tion about whether this is why the trail of the pro­posed mon­u­ment sud­denly got cold.

There was ap­par­ently a pub­lic call for de­sign pro­pos­als that would re­flect the “as­pi­ra­tions and sen­ti­ments” of In­dian South Africans. The mon­u­ment would not only be “com­mem­o­rat­ing the ar­rival of the 1860 in­den­tured labour­ers, but cre­at­ing a land­mark tourist des­ti­na­tion for the city. The me­mo­rial must also act as a cat­a­lyst for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment along the prom­e­nade”.

A project of this na­ture will re­quire pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion, but there is no ev­i­dence that this has taken place.

It was left to aca­demics to ini­ti­ate de­bate on this is­sue, led by in­den­ture spe­cial­ist Pro­fes­sor Ash­win De­sai: “How does one do jus­tice in rec­ol­lect­ing, and hon­our­ing, the jour­ney through one-and-a-half cen­turies of an In­dian com­mu­nity, who has been viewed, for the great­est part of that pe­riod, as a mi­nor­ity and as in­signif­i­cant to the coun­try they’ve adopted as home – a coun­try far re­moved from their mother­land, and alien to their cul­ture, re­li­gion and ways of life?

“How does one not only com­mem­o­rate but also em­power the mem­ory of such a peo­ple, and ad­dress their unique con­tri­bu­tion to such a coun­try, in the most so­lic­i­tous and wor­thy of terms?”

Pro­fes­sor Goolam Va­hed warned that hon­our­ing the past should not “lead to ghet­toi­sa­tion and iso­la­tion from his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ships with other ‘racial’ groups in post-apartheid South Africa”.

As de­lays and pro­cras­ti­na­tions take their toll, and pub­lic funds are trans­ferred to du­bi­ous Dubai, one won­ders whether the mon­u­ment to the in­den­tured will ever see the light of day, or re­main in the fig­ment of the imag­i­na­tions their de­scen­dants.

Brij Ma­haraj is a ge­og­ra­phy pro­fes­sor at UKZN. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

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