From bondage to freedom - The 160th anniversary of the arrival of Indian workers in South Africa 

The feature on Indian South Africans forms part of our larger feature on the People of South Africa. It is a long term project to build a comprehensive overview of the rich diversity of peoples, traditions and culture that address the question, 'Who are South Africans?' This year, 2020, is the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the Indian indentured labourers and the birth of this community in South Africa. We are using this to launch and major project to build a comprehensive social and political history of this African community.


South Africans of Indian origin comprise a heterogeneous community distinguished by different origins, languages, and religious beliefs. The first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era, as slaves, in 1684. A conservative calculation based strictly on records shows over 16 300 slaves from the Indian subcontinent having been brought to the Cape. In the decades 1690 to 1725 over 80% of the slaves were Indians. This practice continued until the end of slavery in 1838. They made up the majority of slaves that came from the Far East and were by the 1880s totally integrated into the Cape White and Coloured communities.

In the second half if the 19th Century, Indians came to South Africa in two categories, namely as indentured workers in 1860 and later as 'free' or 'passenger' Indians. The former came as a result of a triangular pact among three governments, which stated that the indentured Indians were to work for the Natal colonial government on Natal's sugar plantations. The 'free' Indians came to South Africa mainly as traders alert to new opportunities abroad. These 'free Indians' came at their own expense from India, Mauritius, and other places. However, emigration was stopped in 1914.

Between November 1860 and 1911 (when the system of indentured labour was stopped) nearly 152 184 indentured labourers from across India arrived in Natal. After serving their indentures, the first category of Indians were free to remain in South Africa or to return to India. By 1910, nearly 26.85% indentured men returned to India, but most chose to stay and thus constituted the forbearers of the majority of present-day South African Indians.

With 1994 and the advent of a democratic constitution, immigration policy restrictions, imposed by the apartheid regime, were scrapped. People from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, arrived in South Africa as new immigrants. However, there is a major cultural division between these new groups and Indian South Africans.

A key factor that helped forge a common South African "Indian" identity was the political struggles waged against harsh discriminatory laws enacted against Indians and the other Black oppressed groups in the country. As a consequence, the Indian community established a number of political formations, the most prominent being the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) established by Gandhi in 1894, and the Transvaal and Cape Indian Congresses in the early part of the 20th century. Members of the Indian Congress, together with socialist activists in the Communist Party of South Africa were instrumental, from the 1930s, in building cross racial alliances. The small Indian, Coloured and White progressive sectors joined with progressive African activists and together, they conducted a common non-racial struggle for Freedom and Equality.

Language, culture and beliefs:

English is spoken as a first language by most Indian South Africans, although a minority of the Indian South African population, especially the elders, still speak some Indian languages. These languages include Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati. Indian South Africans are predominantly Hindu, but Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs also came to South Africa from India from as early as 1860.

Hindu, the most prominent religion in India, originated 5000 years ago. The Hindu religion prescribes a three fold approach to serving God. This approach includes knowledge, or the studying of the Bhagavad-Gita and other sacred texts; yoga, to connect both body and mind, and devotion or bhakti, which promotes serving God through prayer and benevolent acts. Notable Hindu festivals include Diwali/Deepavali, the festival of lights, and the Tamil Thai Poosam Kavady annual festival.

Islamic influence began in South Africa with the arrival of indentured workers from the west and south coast of India. As only 7- 10% of these workers were Muslim, Sheikh Ahmad, the founding father of Islam in Natal, and later Soofie Saheb ensured that impoverished Muslim Indians were not drawn to Hinduism. Therefore, a concerted effort was made to retain their religious heritage, through the demarcation of Islamic festivals and the establishment of Muslim schools or madrasahs.

The Islamic community continues to thrive in South Africa, in both Natal and the Western Cape - where indentured labourers moved with their families after the completion of their contracts. Followers of the Muslim faith are committed to praying at least five times a day, and are not permitted to drink alcohol. Notable Muslim celebrations include Eid and Ramadan.

The Sikh faith forms a slender portion of the local population, and is a religion influenced by both Hindu and Islam. The Sikh religion is concerned with a belief in One Immortal Being and ten gurus. Many Sikhs wear an iron or steel bracelet as a symbol of their devotion to their religion. Originating in the Punjab region, prominent Sikh celebrations include Parkash Utsav, which celebrates 'Divine Light' or 'Divine Knowledge'.

The diverse Indian population in South Africa is concentrated in Kwa-Zulu Natal's largest city, Durban, which has the most substantial Indian population in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa as a whole also has a substantial Indian population, with over 1 million people of Indian descent. Therefore, Indian influences have contributed to the multi-cultural diversity of South Africa. The local culinary landscape has been infused with a diverse array of Oriental flavour - most notably in the Natal region. Popular dishes include curry, and an intrinsic Durban dish called 'bunny chow', which is half a loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with curry.

South African Indians retain a sense of cultural and social connection to India, and a concept of primary local and secondary ancestral identity is prevalent among people of Indian descent.

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