'BEE works against Indians'

2004-04-26 15:58
Durban - South Africa's million-plus people of Indian origin complain that a controversial scheme to uplift people marginalised under apartheid is working against them.

The bone of contention for this relatively small but economically and politically important group is the Black Economic Empowerment programme, which they say is leading to a new form of discrimination, ten years after the end of apartheid.

Ironically, many whites also say the same thing.

Fatima Meer, a leading anti-apartheid activist and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, said that "Indians have never been more secure in this country", since the first multi-racial elections in 1994.

However, BEE "discriminates against non-Africans," she said.

"All other things being equal, if there is an Indian candidate and an African candidate for a job or a seat in university, even if the Indian is better qualified, the African candidate is chosen," Meer said.

The vast majority of Indians are descendants of indentured labourers brought in to work on sugar farms. Later traders from India came paying their own passage, earning the appellation "passenger Indians."

The Indians have a rich history leading anti-racial movements.

India's independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, who worked as a lawyer in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, successfully campaigned against racist laws and forged his famous campaign of non-violent resistance here, which he used to end British rule in his homeland in 1947.

The community, which forms about 2.5% of the population, generally had better education facilities than the blacks, setting up their own schools - which under the new laws are now open to all.

Amichand Rajbansi, 62, the leader of the tiny Minority Front party which has a predominantly Indian following, made BEE one of his party's main issues in the runup to the April 14 elections.

"Indians were divided during apartheid. But now we are united because of the unfair application of affirmative action and due to issues like crime and safety," he said.

The Minority Front won two seats in the 400-member national parliament and bagged 2.61% of the vote in eastern KwaZulu-Natal, where about 90% of Indians live.

Meer however explained that the BEE was necessary as Africans were more oppressed than Indians under apartheid and were at the lowest rung as far as any facilities were concerned.

The dilemma for Indians, who denounce the scheme, is that nobody has a solution as to how the programme could be revamped to their satisfaction. They rule out quotas for racial groups, saying that was tried during apartheid but was not fair.

There are some other grouses that the community voices.

Eshana Harichand, a 25-year-old executive at Chatsworth said the state-run broadcaster SABC ignored the needs of the Indian community.

"SABC television has news bulletins in African languages and in Afrikaans. There are also daily programmes. But for us there is only Eastern Mosaic," she said.

"Our culture is being ignored," Harichand said.

State-run radio also has a 24-hour station called Lotus FM which plays Indian songs and carries news and items, also in English, about India and Indians.

Under apartheid, Indians were deported to areas outside the main cities and towns and their businesses often confiscated with little, if any, compensation paid.

Loganayagee Naidoo, an ageing vendor on Durban's beachfront, said things had got worse for her in the past ten years.

"Okay, I couldn't sell my things here earlier because this was a whites-only area," she said, speaking at the city's bustling North Beach.

"But I have been robbed twice, and once I lost goods worth R50 000," she said.

"There is no safety now, and the police don't do anything to catch the criminals. Prices are also very expensive," she said.

Although Indians and Africans joined hands in the anti-apartheid struggle, there were bloody race riots in 1949 in Durban.

Tensions between the two communities resurfaced in 2002 over a controversial song called "Amandiya," which means Indians.

In that song the lyricist, Zulu musician Mbongeni Ngema, said Indians owned businesses and oppressed black people and still "keep coming" to South Africa.

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