‘Indianess’ and identity

2010-11-15 00:00

It’s funny how celebrating a historical landmark can become fraught with anxiety. This could only happen in a country like South Africa where, it appears, nothing is simple.

Then again, we cannot make light of these anxieties as we come from a past of divide and rule and a system that survived on hate and mistrust. Even today what we know of one another is often based on stereotypes and perceptions of what is your “culture” and my “culture”.

There is a tendency to view each race group as a homogenous block. Ironically, if ever there was proof that “Indians” in South Africa are not a homogenous bunch, look at the reactions to the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers. There is a flurry of articles in the media and on the Internet on contested Indian identities.

One such debate is over whether to commemorate the event and if it is celebrated how it should be done.

There are anxieties over the question “who am I?”. A blogger asks, “Am I African or an Indian South African or a South African Indian?” I’m not sure whether she has since found herself.

Some believe the celebration has no meaning for them because they are African and identify fully with Africa. Others express fears that such a celebration feeds into ethnic nationalism.

Then there are those who have embraced the celebrations and their “Indianess” with a renewed enthusiasm to find their roots and connect with the motherland.

The stories of the indentured Indians that have featured in the media usually take the form of rags-to-riches tales, of overcoming adversity and succeeding.

While this is admirable, history shows us that minority communities the world over do attain a certain level of success. This is due to a combination of factors, such as having to work harder because they are the members of a minority and greater cohesion because the group is smaller.

Omar Badsha and Jon Soske, who have written about the anxieties over the commemoration, express concern about the emergence of a narrow chauvinism.

They say such a commemoration can end up turning the focus away from the nation towards a narrow conception of ethnic and religious identity.

This could be because of fears of being sandwiched between the white and African majorities, or feelings of being politically marginalised and being forced to retreat into a cocoon.

When commemoration committees were first set up, there were anxieties that the celebrations would end up being very inward-looking. Individuals who were part of the liberation struggle made an effort to become involved to broaden the focus and make it a South African event.

In the uMgungundlovu District, Mayor Yusuf Bhamjee chairs the committee. At events it is clear he is mindful that a narrow focus could harm the country’s non-racial struggle.

However, at the same time he clearly does not want to alienate a community bent on celebrating a historical legacy. The district has found a way to hold celebrations this week with a march and street festival open to all race groups. The emphasis is on the rainbow nation, unity in diversity and multi-culturalism.

Somehow, although this seems the best way to move forward in the current circumstances, it does seem a shallow and superficial response to the collective suffering of all disenfranchised people who were reduced to slave labour conditions.

In 1860 Africans were still resisting being drawn into the labour force. However, taxes imposed on them soon forced them to go to work on farms and in the coal and gold mines.

This collective exploitation is what drove the non-racial struggles of the past. Somehow in the narrow political nationalism that crept in during President Thabo Mbeki’s era. the non-racial agenda got lost.

Perhaps the best way forward is to think collectively about what we want as South Africans going forward. It is not about Indian identity or African identity or white identity; it is rather about all our identities as South Africans.

We go on through life all holding a couple of identities. I, for one, am a journalist and a mother, and I grew up in a mixed Catholic/Hindu home.

No one identity dominates, but the identity I feel most passionate about is that of being a mother and I identify with mothers the world over.

My children have left home, but I don’t miss them that much because I have delightful young friends at work who are exactly like them; it is sometimes uncanny. They are not Indian, but African. Just as with my own children, we argue, sometimes we cry on one another’s shoulders, we tease each other mercilessly, and beneath all of this is a deep abiding love.

A legacy going forward is to find what we have in common as South Africans rather than emphasise our differences.

The words of Franz Fanon should not resonate in our futures: “I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy. I was told to stay within my bounds, to go back to where I belonged.”

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