FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Indian Givers

by JAMES McENTEER

South Africans of Indian descent are commemorating the arrival of the first indentured Indian workers here one hundred fifty years ago. In November 1860, two ships brought nearly 700 laborers from India to Durban. By 1911 more than 150,000 indentured Indian workers had landed in South Africa. Most came to what is now the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where more than half of them worked in the sugar cane fields.

Today about 1.5 million Indians live in South Africa, a small but influential minority comprising about three percent of the country’s population. Indian South Africans have distinguished themselves in many professions, including medicine, academia and commerce. Some have risen to Cabinet level government positions. Navanethem Pillay, a South African lawyer, university professor and judge of Indian descent has served since 2008 as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Before the British abolished slavery in 1833, some Indians had been sold into slavery along with Malays and Africans, primarily to work harvesting sugar cane in Britain’s tropical colonies. The British had become addicted to the sugar that went so well with the tea from India they had adopted as a comfort ritual on their cold island, a bit of cultural colonial blowback.

Workers contracted to work for five years for whatever employer they were assigned. After five years they could re-indenture or look elsewhere for work. Workers who spent ten years in the colony had the right to a free passage back to India, or to remain as citizens in the colony.

The British tried to regulate the conditions of indenture, but workers often lived and worked in primitive, brutal circumstances, like slaves. Isolated from legal oversight, employers abused their indentured laborers with impunity. Workers returning to India complained of the overwork, malnourishment and squalid living conditions they had to endure. A Coolie Commission was appointed in 1872 to protect Indian immigrants, but failed to prevent abuses.

The overtly racist government and society of the time dictated where Indians could live and how they could travel within the country. Despite this discrimination and the limitations on their freedom, more than half of the indentured laborers elected to remain in South Africa. Besides the cane fields of Natal, Indians worked at the port of Durban, in hospitals, in the coal mines, or helping to build the railroads.

A momentous event for the future of Indians in South Africa, and for the future transformation of the entire nation, was the arrival in the country of a young, newly-minted Indian lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, in 1893. Gandhi had come to represent an Indian firm on a one-year contract. Less than a week into his stay, on a train from Durban to Pretoria to attend court, Gandhi was ordered out of his first-class compartment. When he refused to leave he was ejected from the train at Pietermaritzberg and forced to spend a cold night on a station bench.

In his Autobiography Gandhi describes his conflicting emotions during that long night and his temptation to return immediately to India. Instead he elected to stay, despite being barred from hotels and suffering other acts of discrimination daily, including violence. Gandhi extended his stay to oppose a bill denying Indians the right to vote. He helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and survived the attack of a white mob in Durban in 1897. When the government passed a law requiring registration of the Indian population in 1906, Gandhi led a mass protest, adopting non-violent resistance for the first time.

That struggle continued for seven years. Thousands of Indians were jailed, including Gandhi. Others were flogged and even shot for striking, refusing to register or burning their registration cards. The public outcry at the government’s harsh methods of repressing the peaceful Indian protesters eventually forced South African officials to compromise with Gandhi.
Inspired by the success of this Indian movement, Black African leaders formed the African National Congress in 1912 to mount a similar resistance against racist oppression of their own kind. ANC efforts against apartheid, modeled on Gandhi’s non-violent principle of satyagraha, or “the force of truth,” encouraged massive peaceful disobedience of repressive laws.Ultimately, South Africa’s apartheid government yielded to ANC pressure and world sanctions without the massive bloodshed many feared was inevitable.

For these reasons and others, Indian descendants of indentured laborers have the right to be proud of their forebears. ANC political leaders owe Ghandi and other Indian activists thanks for being the catalysts of their own peaceful revolution. All South Africans, regardless of race, should be grateful for the Indian contributions to their current prosperity and cultural panache.

JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

 

 

James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

Weekend Edition
April 29-31, 2016
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail