Book review – Indians in SA: from prejudice to pride

2011-04-02 14:51

Apicture is worth a thousand words, and none more so than the 700 or so photographs contained in this beautiful coffee-table book that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa as indentured workers to Natal’s sugar plantations in 1860.

Compiled by Goolam Vahed, Ashwin Desai and Thembisa Waetjen, Many Lives: 150 years of Being Indian in South Africa has a wide selection of rarely seen photographs sourced from personal collections and archives.

Many Lives is thematically and periodically arranged and the photos connect the old with the new, tracing the history of the Indian community and its changing face over the years.

The book captures the many lives and voices of this community; ranging from the institutions of family, education and sport, to political struggles and religion.

It celebrates the famous and the ordinary, and the changing place of women from seclusion to holding key positions in present-day South Africa.

When it comes to cultural expression the book looks at food, particularly the bunny chow, and how it has broken borders. It also looks at fashion and the creative circle of writer Imraan Coovadia, and Imraan Vagar of Eastern Mosaic.

There are photos of urbanisation and the changing urban geography, which created Indian residential areas such as Lenasia, Fietas, Cato Manor, Tin Town, Phoenix and Chatsworth.

Then there are the present-day popular struggles against eviction, with Chatsworth’s feisty Girlie Amod exclaiming: “We’re not Indians, we are the poors.”

It is a delight to connect faces to names, like archivist K Chetty of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre; lawyer Hassim Seedat, known for his Gandhi memorabilia; historian Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie; and Fatima Meer handing over her tome, The South African Gandhi: An Abstract of the Speeches and Writings of MK Gandhi, 1893-1914.

Fatima Meer is seen addressing a rally and she appears again with the released Nelson Mandela in 1990.

Professor Ismail Mohamed, a lecturer in mathematics at Wits University who played a key anti-apartheid role, is seen climbing off a Putco bus dressed as an ordinary worker.

Indian-African marriages were few in the 50s and the photo of singer Miriam Makeba and her piano-playing husband Lionel Pillay brings back memories.

GR Naidoo captures the mood of the 50s in the February 1958 issue of Drum Magazine: “Meet Durban’s Miss Modern – she swings down West Street Durban, Natal, lithe as a panther. They don’t mince their words, these young misses.”

Sport is well represented with a 1913 photo of black cricketers participating for the first time in a non-racial tournament in Kimberley.

There is also the Sam China soccer cup (1903 to 1973), and the sporting struggles of the 80s and 90s that tried to unify and transform soccer and cricket.

Pictures of soccer and cricket administrators – such as soccer’s Solomon Morewa and Ashwin Trikamjee, and cricket’s Hassan Howa of Sacos, Krish Mackerdhuj, Cassim Docrat, and Hashim Amla and Trisha Chetty representing South Africa in cricket – are splashed across the pages.

Let’s not forget the famous Curries Fountain sports ground, where thousands came to celebrate golfing great Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum.

Indian political struggles are well represented, with photos of Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha campaign, the role of India on the “Indian question” at the UNO, the 1946 passive resistance campaign photos, and Mewa Ramgobin casting his vote in the first democratic 1994 election.

Indian medical doctors played an active anti-apartheid role and there are photos of “Monty” Naicker, Yusuf Dadoo and Chota Motala marching with political stalwarts such as Moses Mabhida, Archie Gumede and Robert Resha.

Photos of lawyers – such as Ismail Meer and advocate Hassan Mall, who became the first black judge to be appointed to the South African bench and chair of the amnesty committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – also appear.

Among those capturing these photos are Ranjith Kally, who photographed for the Golden City Post, Drum and The Leader; ENT specialist GH Vawda; GR Naidoo; Omar Badsha; and Priscilla Moodley.

The print media also played an important role in capturing events surrounding the Indian community with newspapers such as Indian Opinion (1903), Indian Views (1914), Dhanee Bramdaw’s The Leader of the 40s, and a photo of attorney Pat Poovalingam who wrote for five decades for the Graphic (1950) and The Post.

Present-day editors such as Dennis Pather, the editor of the Daily News; Brijlall Ramguthee, the editor of Post; and Ferial Haffajee, the first woman editor of a major South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, and currently the editor of City Press.

The 1860 Legacy Foundation commemorated the Indian community in November last year with the unveiling of more than 200 indentured names on the Wall of Names at Freedom Park, outside Pretoria.

This pictorial-social history of the Indian community with its easy-to-follow text will appeal to students and readers from all walks of life.

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