From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

The South African Institute of Race Relations sponsored a symposium in 1956, the theme of which was 'The Indian as a South African'. Four papers were presented; we reproduce one given by Dr. S. Cooppan and Dr. A. D. Lazarus. Cross-references are also made in it to other papers delivered at the symposium. The authors argued that the Indian South African, then in the fourth and fifth generation, was 'by birth and residence . . . thoroughly South African'. Source: S.A.I.R.R., The Indian as a South African, pp. 55-71.

Five years from now there will have been a hundred years of Indian settlement in Natal. European settlement in the province is about thirty years longer, but political propaganda has endeavoured to make the white electorate believe that the Indian is an alien, inassimilable element in South Africa, a threat to white' civilization. Latterly there has been an attempt to infect the African mind in the same way. It is hardly believable that it could seriously be held that less than 410,000 Indians could endanger the security of 2 and half million Europeans and 8 million Africans!

This manner of thinking has been responsible for periodic waves of agitation demanding the repatriation of the Indians; and various forms of social, political, and economic pressure have been brought to bear upon them to compel them to seek repatriation voluntarily. Strange as it may seem, up to 1911 the demand for the importation of Indians was as strong as that for repatriation; and, though not vociferous, the importers of Indian labour were more determined and consequently importation far exceeded repatriation.

The policy of repatriation, stimulated by a monetary inducement of £40 per adult, has been a failure. The late General Smuts, Mr. Heaton Nicholls, the former Administrator of Natal, and the present Prime Minister, Mr. J. G. Strijdom, have admitted the failure. But the electorate has been left to think along the old lines: i.e. to retain a mental picture of the Indian as a bird of passage, a temporary dweller who does not, and cannot, fit into the South African pattern of life. The people of this country have not been told categorically and with sufficient repetition that repatriation is an unreal and unjust policy in the light of circumstances prevailing to-day. They have not been told dearly that from all points of view the Indian people are a permanent and integral part of the South African nation. Many, therefore, continue to speak as if the Indians were committing a crime by ignoring the monetary inducement and by resisting the economic and social pressures to leave the country; they expect them to depart swiftly as if they were intruders, shiftless parasites.

In the past nine years South Africa has been contending at the United Nations in the dispute with India on the treatment of South African Indians that this was a matter of domestic jurisdiction. Indians were claimed to be South African nationals, and it was argued that their treatment was an internal affair. But at the same time South Africa was prepared to meet India and Pakistan at a round-table conference in the hope of negotiating another repatriation scheme more satisfactory to herself. This is a contradiction in public policy”¦

Advocates of repatriation believe that the policy failed because India did not do enough for the repatriates on the other side. One cannot see what incentive there is for India, or any other country, to care for South African nationals who have already given of their best years to South Africa. India herself is not seeking immigrants. This was the basic weakness of the repatriatory aspects of the Cape Town Agreement.India was more concerned with the positive and uplifting aspects of the Agreement, for she had an historical obligation to see that the original promises to the indentured labourers were carried out. South Africa, on the other hand, wanted to evade that obligation. Morally her stand is indefensible.

Urgent reasons have been set out by some for settling the Indian question by a vigorous policy of repatriation amicably arrived at between the Governments of India and Pakistan on the one hand and the Government of South Africa on the other. India is now an independent nation, her emergence as an Indian Ocean power with influence in Asia and Africa is recognised. It is believed that it would be a wiser course for South Africa, in the long run, to maintain friendly relations with the Asiatic powers. It is argued that India would have no cause to be at loggerheads with South Africa if there were no settled Indian population, unavoidably subjected from the white man's point of view to the same disabilities as the African. The Union's Native policy and Indian policy are reflections of the white man's dilemma ”” a dilemma of his own making ”” when he decided to make his home in a country and a continent inhabited predominantly by non-whites. So far as his relations with the Indians are concerned, he seeks to get out of his dilemma by trying to send them back to the land of their forefathers. The Indian Government has been consistently opposed to the compulsory repatriation of the Indian labourers or their descendants. It was not prepared to be a party to the 'sucked orange' policy of the labour-importing countries. Little sympathy can be expected from independent Asian and African nations for the efforts of white men to retain a position of supremacy in the non-white areas of the world.

The primary motive behind migration is to improve one's condition in life, and the inducements must be such as to overcome the deep attachment to the land of one's birth. The bonds are many, strong and subtle. No matter how adverse the conditions in the land of one's birth, there is a natural resistance to being pushed out of it by man or nature. So long as hope resides in the human breast, the tendency of mankind will be to work towards overcoming such adverse conditions.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that events in Africa may bring the same intense pressure to bear upon the white minority to return to Europe. Perhaps the Indian's present reluctance to migrate will then be appreciated. But with a little kindling of our sympathetic imagination now, one need not wait for that unfortunate and distressing day in the future. One may even succeed in forestalling it. It is little realised that the repatriation slogan is easily learnt and is possible of extension from the Indian to the European. Let us drop it: it is a dangerous game! Eventually the European stands to lose more than the Indian.

It is submitted in this paper that in order to reduce Indo-European tension both at the domestic and international levels, the Europeans will have to face up to the fact that South Africa is the fatherland of the Indians too. In the speech made by the Governor-General during the Day of the Covenant celebrations at Pietermaritzburg in 1955, reference was made to the African people t the omission of all reference to the Indian community was conspicuous. On the same occasion the Prime Minister referred to the Coloured population the 'natural ally' of the white man and he, too, had nothing specific to say about the Indian. South Africa should be given the facts that far from being a menace to the security of any other section of the population, the Indian minority is a proved asset to the country, contributing to the economic wealth and spiritual life of the country to the utmost of its present opportunities. By whatever arguments the European advances his claim to permanence, security tenure, and the full rights of citizenship, the Indian people can do the same.

The great majority of South African Indians are descendants of the labour-imported into Natal from 1860 to 1911. The old Natal Government financed the importation. The labourers were brought out in the interests of the white colonists. The migration of Indian labour was permitted only after long negotiations with the Government of India. From the beginning this emigration to Natal (and to other parts of the world) had characteristics of percent colonisation. The earliest negotiators for a supply of Indian labour for Natal even held out the hope that the labourers could settle in the country and eventually achieve the status of petty proprietors. Neither in the Natal laws neither governing indentured immigration nor in the contract signed by the labourers at the time of their recruitment in India was there an obligation on the part of the labourers to return home after the expiry of their contracts.

Indeed, the permanent settlement of these labourers was desired and induced many ways by Natal.It was only from 1895 that the ex-indentured labourer was discouraged from settling, but even then there could be no compulsory repatriation. In permitting the emigration of labourers to these distant lands Government of India took into account the probability of their permanent settlement, and consequently would not countenance compulsory repatriation the other hand, it also protected the immigrant by providing a condition his return at the cost of the importing country, should he so desire.

On the satisfactory completion of the first five-year period of contract the labourer had the option of a free passage back to India or a piece of Crown land in lieu of the passage. The interesting point is that the option could not exercised unless he had spent another five years of 'industrial residence' in Natal. In other words, he had to spend ten years in Natal before he could get free passage or a piece of land.

There is also evidence in the official documents that the authorities had considered the possibility of extending the stay of the labourer beyond the ten year period without his forfeiting the right to a free passage or a piece of land. The Attorney-General found that the law allowed a period of grace up eighteen months within which the option had to be exercised, and that the Lieutenant-Governor had powers of discretion to extend the period of grace another eighteen months.

It is obvious that the intention of Natal was to keep the Indian labourer in country because the growing economy of the young Colony demanded a steady supply of labour. The ex-indentured labourer who preferred to sell his buyers on the free market to the highest bidder found ready buyers. It does not require much imagination to see that a period of ten years of continuous residence in a country is a sufficiently long time for acclimatization and adaptation. The promise under the law that a free passage could be exchanged for land raised the hopes of many labourers of becoming 'petty proprietors', and so they decided to settle in Natal. But only a fortunate few got grants of land the rest of the applicants were kept waiting for years and the law was final rescinded in 1891.

Indian traders followed in the wake of the labourers to cater for their needs.

Indians, therefore, could then buy in Natal the condiments, spices, medicines grains, clothing, and trinkets they were accustomed to, and Natal was beginning to look like a second India to them. The immigrants developed family ties in Natal, erected schools and temples, started various societies and associations, and gradually developed a coherent social organisation in the new land. All this made it easier for succeeding batches of immigrants to settle down in Natal. The employers of Indian labour had no cause to be dissatisfied with this development. A permanent pool of labour was built up by the time India prohibited indentured emigration to Natal.

The Indian population began to grow by natural increase, and the emergence of the South African-born Indian gradually changed the character of Indian society. Over 90 per cent of to-day's Indian population is South African-born, and most of them have no idea of conditions in India, except what they read in books and in the press. The Indian community is now in its fourth and fifth generation, and thus by birth and residence the Indians are thoroughly South African.

Owing to restrictions placed upon the movement of Indians, about four-fifths of them are settled in Natal, chiefly in the coastal region and in the main towns. About 40,000 are living in the Transvaal, and 20,000 in the Cape Province. More than three-quarters of the Indian people in the Union live in urban areas. They have become integrated into urban commercial and industrial life.

Since life in the South African towns is patterned after the dominant Western culture, Indians have come under its influence in spite of the segregation of the races. The South African-born Indian knows no other pattern except that provided by his home and the general environment. The twin processes of urbanisation and Westernisation have shaped his mode of living and outlook upon life.

The South African Indian is orientated both to the East and to the West-more to the West than to the East, I think. He is an Easterner, very much at home in the Western milieu. Others may propound the doctrine that he is an alien, inassimilable in the Western cultural milieu, but we say the South African-born Indian does not find the Western patterns of living so alien or unattractive. If the entire mass of Indians has not become more thoroughly westernised than it is now, it is because the European has segregated him and denied him full access to Western forms of living. It is not so much a question of the Indian refusing to adapt himself to Western standards of living, as the refusal of the European to permit him the economic means and social opportunities to do so.

Some Europeans oppose free cultural exchange because they fear it will lead to cultural equality, and from this an undeniable claim for equal political and economic rights and privileges. Cultural exchange would, of course, make meaningless the politically useful slogan that Western civilisation needs protection from the Orientals.

Though the schools are conducted on a segregatory basis, Indian children are instructed through the medium of English or Afrikaans. The curricula and syllabuses are exactly the same for Indian and European children, and they appear for the same examinations. The underlying assumption in education is that the Indian child is being prepared to live in South Africa, in a milieu that is Western in orientation. It is true that educational facilities for Indians are not equal to those provided for European children, but the education provided is on Western lines. The Indian teachers of Natal in regard to religious instruction have taken a significant decision. There had been a demand from some sections of the Indian public for the inclusion of instruction in Hinduism and Islam in the curricula of Indian schools. Christianity was already an optional subject. In a referendum conducted by the Natal Indian Teachers' Society, the Indian teachers voted by an overwhelming majority for teaching ' the basic tenets of all religions in schools in preference to teaching each child his own religion only. The Indian teachers doubtless had in mind the demands of living in a plural society such as ours.

Another instance of the degree to which Indians have become South Africanised and Westernised is the rapidity with which English or Afrikaans is replacing the Indian languages in the home and elsewhere. In an investigation now being carried out among 1,300 pupils in standards VI, VIII, and X in twenty-five different Indian schools in Durban, nearly everypupil stated that he or she could read, write and speak best in English. Most of them could not read or write in their traditional Indian languages, but a few claimed to be able to speak them.

In the two papers byDr. Hilda Kuper and Messrs. B. A. and J. Naidoo, an insight has been given into the changes that have come over Indian family life, caste concepts, and the mode of living under South African conditions. It is not necessary, therefore, to refer to those aspects again to show how the South African Indian is responding to the process of acculturation. It is necessary to emphasise that South African Indians are not nearly so preoccupied with caste as their compatriots in India. On the other hand, they have escaped Indian 'casteism' only to be trapped in the coils of South African racism. It matters not whether one is high-born or twice-born, for all are of a lower caste in relation to the white man.

It is not to be concluded from what has been stated above that one cannot discern certain features of their life which are distinctly Indian. For instance, the mode of dress of Indian women, the kind of jewellery worn by them, and their hair-do's are conspicuously different from the other groups. Unmarried girls, however, have taken to Western frocks with great enthusiasm. The Indian has changed least in regard to religion. Although hundreds are converted annually to Christianity, 70 per cent are still Hindu and 20 per cent Muslim. With increasing sophistication certain of the religious practices have been dropped and there is a trend towards the higher, mystical, and less ritualistic features of their traditional religion. In matters spiritual the Indian is very definitely proud of his heritage, and suffers from no inferiority complex in this regard. Since among the Indians religion is so closely bound up with music, they keep alive their traditional forms of music. Yet again, the Indian people are fairly easily identifiable by their abhorrence of aggressiveness and physical violence in interpersonal relations. Perhaps this is sometimes carried to the point of helpless passivity in situations requiring a more vigorous physical response.

These characteristic features of Indian society do not by any means justify the denial of their claim to permanence and security of tenure and full citizenship rights. Though the dominant pattern of living is Western, it is open to question whether cultural diversity should be, or can be, eliminated altogether in a plural society. It is even more open to question whether continued affiliation to such highly developed cultures as that inherited by the Hindus and the Muslims can be regarded as disqualification for the enjoyment of full political and economic rights. It will be shown later that cultural diversity has certainly not been regarded as an obstacle to the employment of Indian labour in European-controlled commerce and industry. It is submitted that Hindu and Islamic spiritual culture and artistic expression enrich the national life of South Africa. Indians have not hesitated to borrow from the West, and have enriched their personalities and social life as a result of that. The European and the African also stand to benefit by making a closer study of Indian life and religion.

To turn to another aspect, the integration of the Indian into the economy of the country has been taking place from 1860. There can be no denying the contribution he has made, and is still making, to the economic welfare of the country. It is on record that the prosperity of Natal, of its sugar industry in particular, was built on the sweat and toil of Indian labour. Indians were brought in at a critical time in the history of Natal and helped to turn the tide of fortune in favour of the white colonists. Anti-Indian agitators have not realised how their own livelihood depended, directly and indirectly, upon the wealth produced by Indian labour. The Clayton Commission of 1909 warned the advocates of repatriation of the boomerang effect it might have on the Europeans themselves. This conviction has grown rather than diminished in the succeeding decades. In 1944, the Natal Post-War Works and Reconstruction Committee had this to say about the Indian people in its ninth interim report:

'The Indian of the labouring, peasant, and employee class is serving a useful purpose, but the Indian of the more affluent classes is a menace to European civilization in Natal. ...'

The distribution and composition of the labour force of the major industries of Natal as at the 1946 population census is set out in Tables I and II [omitted]. Natal has been selected because its European and Indian populations are almost equal, and an interesting study might be made of the relative roles of the two communities in the economy. The total Indian labour force is lower than that of the European, firstly because the Indian population has a smaller number of working-age, and secondly because fewer Indian women seek employment outside the home.It is, however, worth noting from the 1949-50 figures of the census of industrial establishments that there were 19,154 Indian industrial employees as against 21,964 Europeans in Natal. Taking into account that there are nearly twice as many Indians as Europeans under the age of 15, it seems that the employment of Indian labour in secondary industry is greater in proportion to the population of working-age.

Indian labour, at one time engaged in the heavy manual occupation of agriculture, has gradually been replaced by African labour over the years, but not entirely; and some Indian labour has moved into the semi-skilled occupations in secondary industry left vacant by the movement of European labour to supervisory positions or to other attractive forms of employment. (See Indian Life and Labour in Natal, edited by Professor H. R. Burrows, S. A. Institute of Race Relations, 1952.) Of every three Indians gainfully employed, one is in industry. A recent publication by the University of Natal makes the statement that the availability of Indian industrial labour 'has been a major contributing factor in the establishment of secondary industry’. Without a great influx of white immigrants no similar body of industrial labour could have come from European sources. Nor could such a regular supply of labour have been recruited from African reserves. As a result, European industrial enterprise has been able to count on a stable, efficient labour force and the Indian community has found an outlet for its new population growth.’ (The Indian Community of Natal, by C. A. Woods, Natal Regional Survey, IX, 1954).

A glance at Table III [omitted] will show the extent to which certain classes of the manufacturing industry employ Indian labour in Natal. This ranges from a quarter to a little over a half of the total labour force of all races in some classes of industry. For example, Indian labour forms 42 per cent to 51 percent of all employees in the furniture, bedding, upholstery, leather, clothing, and textile industries; and from 25 per cent to 33 per cent in the surgical, dental, scientific instruments, printing, books, papers, food, drinks, condiment, and tobacco industries.

In the present shortage of manpower in public and private industry there is a ready supply of lab our in the Indian community, if institutional barriers such as the Government's 'white labour' policy, the opposition of white trade unions, and prejudices of some white employers could be removed. Effective use is not being made of the educated manpower that is being turned out by the Indian schools.

Elements that oppose the movement of Indian labour to higher categories of jobs and more remunerative employment cannot see that the increased purchasing power of the Indian will be spent in the country and so stimulate commerce and industry. That this is actually happening has been shown to some extent in the paper by Messrs. B. A. Naidoo and Jack Naidoo on the changing mode of living of Indians, and also by the efforts of European commerce to attract the custom of the Indian population. There is a tremendous shortage of housing for Indians. The satisfaction of this demand on the individual-ownership basis could keep the building industry busy for some years. But apart from the delays caused by the Group Areas Act, the low earnings of Indians act as a deterrent to home-ownership.

While it is readily conceded that the employee class of Indian is a 'useful' element in South African society, yet the same recognition is not given to the services rendered by the so-called 'affluent' commercial class of Indian. As in East Africa, the Indian trader pioneered into the remote, undeveloped areas of the country and brought commercial distributive services to the European farmer and the African peasantry. These Indian traders were largely retail businessmen. The chain of Indian stores depended mainly upon European wholesalers and importers for its goods. Thus, another economic link has been established of mutual benefit to European, African, and Indian.

Indian entrepreneurs developed cheap transport services for the Non-European public, which the local authorities were unwilling or unable to provide. Bus and lorry transport services have grown into big business, but even here the European has come in for a big share as supplier of transport equipment. In a similar manner Indian investors have erected houses and shops rented by various racial groups. Apart from the social service aspect of this activity, once again European artisans, hardware merchants, and household furnishers have come in for their share. The Indian trader, building contractor, and transport operator purchase their requirements in the open market in which the European holds an entrenched position. Most of the properties in Indian ownership are mortgaged with European financiers. The Indian people are thus an integral part of the economy of the country, as producers and consumers. Indian business and finance are linked with European business and finance.

But the stress of competition, business rivalry, fear of unemployment, and the thrust of new groups hitherto not attracted by commerce into the sphere of commerce have been responsible for a lot of anti-Indianism. The European has not hesitated to oust his business rival by using the power of his vote, from the exercise of which the Indian has been excluded by legislation. The latest threat of economic strangulation of the Indian business class is the Group Areas Act of 1950. It is claimed for this piece of legislation that it would bring about a reduction in the friction between the races by the application of the policy of apartheid. Yet it follows closely the Class Areas Reservation Bills of 1924 and 1925, and the views of the Natal Post-War Works and Reconstruction Committee of 1944. In introducing the 1925 Bill, Dr. Malan was frank enough to state then that the intention of residential and commercial segregation was to bring social and economic pressure upon the Indian to leave the country. To deal with the 'menace' of the 'Indian of the more affluent classes', the Natal Post-War Reconstruction Committee urged that 'large racial zones should be set aside in which Indians can live, carry on their businesses and occupations, and pursue all the daily activities and avocations of a normal human life;

This policy is now to be carried out by the expropriatory provisions of the Group Areas Act to make room for the emergent Afrikaner trader and other late-comers in the field, who wield more political power than the Indian minority. It would seem that the present set-up of South African society tends to encourage the expression of elemental passions, however much these may be disguised in the refined and complex language of the law.

An interesting feature of the history of the Indian commercial class is that whereas they were once unpopular because of their alleged habit of transferring profits to India, they are now being restricted precisely because they have sunk all their profits and savings in this country in profitable investments. The fact that Indians have invested millions of pounds (the exact amount is only guess-work) in real estate in South Africa is an indication of the extent to which this class, too, has come to regard South Africa as its permanent home. This class has given its full support to the erection of Indian schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

To turn now to the political side, the Indian Government expected the labourers who settled permanently in Natal to enjoy the same political rights as other citizens. As a matter of fact, both the ex-indentured labourer and the free immigrant were eligible for the parliamentary franchise in Natal, until they were deprived of this privilege in 1896. Then in 1924 they were deprived of the municipal franchise. It is clear that the Indian people were an integral part of the political structure for many decades before they were excluded.

General Smuts enacted legislation in 1946 providing for indirect communal representation of the Indian in the Union Parliament and direct communal representation in the Natal Provincial Council. The Indian people rejected the indirect and communal form of representation. The present Government rescinded this piece of legislation. The iniquity of taxation without representation can hardly be defended in this age, but the practice continues.

One cannot, however, wish away a problem, especially when it is a matter concerning basic human rights. The Indians are de facto and de jure an integral part of South African society. It remains to translate this fact into full political and economic integration in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, to which South Africa is signatory.

The Indian has neither the aspiration nor the hope of ever ruling over the African or European peoples. Once the provincial barriers to their inter-provincial migration are thrown open, they will be so spread out that there will be no concentration of Indians in any strength to cause a sense of insecurity in anybody. Though they are a tiny minority, Indians have not feared their neighbours on the grounds of religion, race, culture, or numbers. Nor are they intolerant of other people's customs and manners. Left alone they are sure of achieving a higher synthesis of living in this plural society. No Christian, Muslim, or pagan has needed to fear the religion of the Hindus, for Hinduism is not a militant, proselytising religion. Marriage taboos are still strong enough to prevent miscegenation on a wide scale. The sanction of the Mixed Marriages Act is not as strong as the traditional taboos. Indians are, of course, conscious of their cultural heritage ”” a heritage that has made contributions to world civilisation. Their adherence to some aspects of their ancient heritage is not incompatible with their participation in government or in the full exercise of their skills in the economic sphere. From Dr. Hilda Kuper's account of their family life, and from the account of their mode of living, there seems no reason why Europeans should take any exception to the Indian way of life in South Africa. They are frank admirers of the achievements of the West and have not hesitated to borrow elements of Western culture. They are also acknowledged to be an industrious, peace-loving people.

The argument of this paper has been that in spite of certain observable differences in appearance and cultural practices, the Indian people are by birth, length of residence, acclimatization, kinship associations, education, acculturation, and economic pursuits an integral part of South African society. They enrich South African culture by their very differences. A broad South Africanism does not imply the obliteration of all national characteristics. South Africa is not populated by a homogeneous group of people. The only goal for such a nation is to achieve unity in diversity. On the other hand the setting up of rigidly defined enclaves for different nationalities will neither lead to the growth of a common patriotism and common nationhood nor ensure the perpetual dominance of the white group, which some seek to achieve. In truth, loyalty to a broad South Africanism just does not exist in our country to-day. The Europeans are primarily concerned with building up a South African nation composed only of the Afrikaners and the English-speaking peoples. Their loyalty is to the concept of race supremacy. The place of the non-whites in such a nation will not be different from that of colonial subjects. There is also growing up a form of African nationalism which treads the same path of seeking to subordinate all non-Africans.

The only way out for us is to build a common nationhood in which every national element is regarded as an integral and indispensable element, to work towards an inclusive, in-drawing social framework in which the fruits of peace and prosperity, and the anxieties and sacrifices of danger, are shared together.