Celebrating Indian Indenture

Indentured migrants photographed on arrival in Natal. Unlike other colonies, migrants to Natal were not photographed and these are rare portraits. SA Historical Museum

After 1994 the divisions in S.A necessitated national reconciliation. It exposed the deep divisions and conflicts between and within the different groups and the incomprehensible contradictions in our society. On Madiba’s return from Robben Island, there was strife, killings and mayhem alongside celebrations for democracy, human rights and the best constitution in the world. Today, things do not seem to have changed much.

How do we now understand the paradoxical character of our newly liberated nation? Are cultural dynamics and the National Question not driving the different communities into their respective cocoons and ghettos?

Presently, the Indian community is gearing up for celebrations around 160 years of Indenture. To date, these occasions have been dominated by communitarian cultural displays, monuments cast in stone, museums with artefacts showcasing life experiences of suffering, victimisation, achievements and contributions, and writings and collection of history, as that of a ‘tribe’ in a vacuum.

However, these celebrations can inform and shape our thoughts and ideas for dealing with the present paradoxes for the sake of the future. To transcend the racial, political and intellectual realities imposed on us by colonialism and apartheid. Extending the discourse from Indian Indenture, to embrace the migratory and diasporic issues of ALL THE PEOPLE, will give us a better insight into working towards a common SOUTH AFRICAN identity and nation building.

Migration and forced displacement have overwhelmingly shaped the history of all Black people. Capitalism and Apartheid took the form of massive male labour migrations to the mines and factories. This massive human movement still continues today. “Men were forced to wander away from home, and their fate is the product of one of the most momentous social transformations in world history” (Njabulo Ndebele).

There is also the experience of millions of victims of forced removals, of people who built homes and communities and then watched them demolished by apartheid’s bulldozers. People moved to strange new places. Each of these travellers have their own story to tell. These are the stories that create the opportunities for all of us to narrate together, and to compare and contrast in the hope that they can unite us as South Africans. Intellectual history privileges the written text only.

And while there are also stories of united action, where families lost their men as refugees or detainees of the political struggle, there are stories of complicity and betrayal to the Apartheid and colonial regimes, which have to be told.

These are the different untold aspects of South African diasporic consciousness, that have a common factor of sustained, unbearable psychological turbulence, the interpretations of which can create empathy. The empathy that Franz Fanon says is a prerequisite for racial harmony and a deep solidarity between human beings. One that is built on the understanding that, had I truly been in your situation, I would have done as you did. Empathy is the capacity to ‘step into another’s shoes’, and get a sense of how things look and feel from their perspective. It is an integral part of what makes us human. Radical empathy is “wishing for others, what one postulates for oneself.”

Involving ourselves in this extended way, jointly, will lead to self-realization of the issues – that we need to transcend. In this way, by being exposed to different definitions and theories of identity and experiences, there is a possibility of developing what Fanon called a politics of recognition, and solidarity with communities, beyond one’s own immediate experience. This can disrupt the politics of difference – whether it is based on race, class, gender or culture among other identities. It creates the opportunity to simply touch the other, feel the other, discover each other? It is a commitment to alternate forms of identification and solidarity, in order to transcend difference. It is a complementary strategy against the dehumanisation imposed by racism and colonialism. It is actional, rather than written, through direct engagement with anticolonial struggle.

The idea is not to celebrate our past in conventional fashion, but to use our joint histories and joint memories to determine the essence of our contradictions and paradoxes and to make all the effort to overcome the obstacles to transformation and nation building.


Dr.Dilly Naidoo is a Social activist and Primary Health Care Advocate. He writes in personal capacity.