Role of Indian Diaspora in South Africa

South Africa Special Report 2019 By Saurabh Mishra*

Role of Indian Diaspora in South Africa

The end of the apartheid in South Africa offered both opportunities as well as challenges for people of Indian origin in the country.

South Africa in India is primarily identified as the land of the ‘making of Mahatma’ and ‘Madiba’ (Nelson Mandela). Both of them stood against injustice and had ideational meeting points in their approach towards building a multicultural nation. However, the story of Indians in South Africa goes beyond the Mahatma-Madiba bonhomie of ideas. The early Indians arrived mostly as slaves with the Dutch colonists between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. However, they were not conscious, back at home, of their identity as Indian; and gradually integrated with the African society.

The wave of migration responsible for creating significant Indian diaspora in South Africa occurred during the British colonial rule. The first group of 342 ‘indentured’ Indians arrived in South Africa in November 1860. They were bound under an agreement facilitated by the Natal Government to work for their white masters and were used in plantations, mines or household chores. The arrival and conditions of an indentured labourer in South Africa were shaped by a tripartite agreement among the Indian, Natal and the British Government. There was another wave of Indians, mostly of Gujarati Muslims, that arrived seeking entrepreneurial and trade opportunities in South Africa. They were termed as ‘passenger’ Indians as they paid for their journey to South Africa. There was some post-apartheid migration as well, which focused to benefit from the new economic opportunities emerging in South Africa.

The indenture system by the British was a kind of reinvention of slavery. The working conditions and treatment of the ‘indentured labourers’ were dismal and difficult. Labourers primarily came from the Tamil, Telugu (Andhra) Hindi speaking regions (United Province and Bihar) of India; and the port of Madras and Calcutta served as the hubs for their transport. By the end of the indenture system in 1911, there were 149,791 Indians in South Africa out of which 133,000 were concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal province due to the restrictions imposed on their movement by the apartheid government. After the end of the indenture system only about 27 percent of the Indians returned back to India. Those who stayed played an important and inspiring role in the development of South Africa as a nation and society. According to the 2011 census, there were 1.28 million Indians constituting about 2.48 percent of the total population of South Africa. The number of Indians in the country is now estimated to be about 1.5 million and the majority of them are Hindus by religion. There are a significant number of Muslims and a small number of Christian Indians as well. The city of Durban hosts the largest number of Indians settled in the country.

Indian Origin People in South Africa: Post-Apartheid

The end of the apartheid in South Africa offered both opportunities as well as challenges for people of Indian origin in the country. Apartheid hierarchy created by the whites had treated Indians comparatively better than the indigenous black Africans as per the divide and rule policy. Indian trader and labour activism also ensured that they were in a comparatively better situation than the indigenous blacks of the country. Therefore in the post-apartheid era as well, the economic and social conditions of Indian origin people were visibly better than their African brethren. As a group they were better skilled due to their experience in agricultural fields, plantations, mines and trade.

The Indian community in South Africa despite its linguistic and cultural diversity has been able to make a mark as an enterprising and prospering group within the nation. Despite second migrations in the mid-twentieth century due to restrictive laws, the Indian community in South Africa has rebuilt itself in a very short time. The current generation of South African Indians has left its traditional caste consciousness behind and has also adopted English as their language. This has contributed to their success within and outside South Africa. Their keenness to receive any new opportunity in terms of education, employment and productive economic activity has contributed to their distinction as a hard-working community. In fact South African Indians as a group have seen the fastest rate of upward social and economic mobility in the country. They are present in almost all respectable occupations like teaching, medicine, engineering, business, and government. Although there are many Indian origin people in South African politics both at cadre level and high positions, they are comparatively less active than the apartheid era. Turning more to entrepreneurship and skill oriented occupations,they have been appearing in the lists of most prominent people and achievers in the country.

South African Indians have also maintained many of their traditions, cultural forms and festivals. But, they have also adopted the language and culture of Afrikaner, Blacks and others. Hindu temples, Mosques and Indian festivals are great attractions in South Africa. The South Indian festival of Kavadi in the honour of Lord Muruga, the Mariamman festival (commonly known as porridge prayers), Draupadi (known for fire walking) are celebrated by different Indian groups. The Hindu festival of Diwali (the festival of lamps) is the most celebrated Indian festival in Durban and around South Africa. Small Indian origin Muslim group also organise Muharram observations. Unique Indian cuisine, especially South Indian, is quite popular among South Africans. ‘Bunny Chow’, a dish made of bun and curry is another popular Indian invention in South Africa.

South African Indians have adopted their land of migration and consider South Africa as their home. Due to peculiar historical conditions, they have little knowledge about India. They also communicate less in Indian languages. This helps them integrate more with their South African identity. Most of them have adopted English as their first language, and their vernaculars remain the language within their houses. However Bollywood movies with English subtitles are popular among them. These movies maintain their cultural connect with India and make them feel good about identifying with their Indian origins.

The new South African Indian generation is educated, ambitious and enterprising. They are ready to take risks and move forward and go wherever they find better opportunities. They have been migrating both within and outside of Africa in search of business and employment. They are important contributors to the South African growth story providing important skilled labour and services as well as innovation and leadership at various levels. This has happened despite sections of the South African society accusing Indians of carrying a racist attitude and the Indian origin people complaining of discrimination in the implementation of affirmative action policies by the South African Government. However it is important to note that the intelligentsia in Indian diaspora works incessantly against all racist forces while their successes in the South African society, economy and politics subdue the issue of discrimination against them.

New socio-political conditions in South Africa as well as India’s emergence and engagement as a promising economy, make the diaspora more conscious of their roots. The connection between them and their land of origin, as well as their network with Indians in other parts of the world is growing. India,through high-level visits and the activities of its High Commission and Consulate Generals is also making an effort to rejuvenate its cultural and economic ties with the Indian diaspora in the country. It is not just one-way traffic an increasing number of South African Indians want to connect as cultural imagination about their roots never left their minds.


The role of the Indian diaspora in South Africa has been pivotal as well as complex in nature due to historical legacies. The diaspora has participated in building the country both as a nation and economy. They have been high achievers as well as innovators in all spheres. The leaders of South Africa duly acknowledge the contribution of the Indian diaspora in building the soul and body of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. The diaspora is also gradually acquiring a new role in connecting India and South Africa better than ever before. n

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