A colourful community

2009-01-08 00:00

This week local Indians are building bridges at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Global Indian Diaspora) Convention in Chennai, India, an occasion that provides an opportunity to examine the perennial identity crisis facing the Indian community in South Africa who will celebrate 150 years in South Africa in 2010.

This time next year the Indian community will celebrate a plethora of projects marking their 150-year co-existence in Africa, a far cry from the country they refer to as the motherland or Thai Nadu.

While older generations are emotional and sentimental about traditional and historical ties with Mother India, the younger generations seek jobs and lifestyles in Western democracies, leaving behind the baggage of the past.

On the flipside, the hybrid of labourers and traders has the capacity to fuse this milestone into a continental psyche that will herald the first kick-off of the 2010 Soccer World Cup and throw Africa into a euphoric explosion of football frenzy. Their culture contributes to our cosmopolitan society.

A community with a history and heritage can offer much more to a country with the complexities and challenges of economic empowerment, nation-building, poverty, crime and corruption.

During the reign of the British Raj, agriculturally skilled Indians were shipped to South Africa and other colonial outposts to turn sugar cane plantations into new economies for the imperial industrialists, hence the term “green gold”. Peasants, faced with grinding poverty, were lured via the colonial expansion to work on the railways, mines, agriculture and domestic services.

After the SS Truro dropped anchor in Durban Bay on November 16, 1860 with the first batch, shiploads of semi-skilled slaves, professionals and merchants were ferried in droves. The economic migration ended 50 years later. The pioneers gave birth to a new generation, the largest outside India.

While the stoical semi-slaves transformed the green fields into gold for sugar barons, traders and craftsmen gave Indians an economic and capitalist face on this edge of the Indian Ocean rim.

It took a visionary, M. K. Gandhi, to change the complexion of how the business and the underclass Indians would map out their survival strategy and destiny in the face of discrimination that was also meted out to indigenous people.

In an Indian diaspora of 20 million, the local community stands out for a variety of reasons, with political resistance and an enterprising spirit ranking high.

The “uniqueness” comes from the work culture that they inherited from their forebears, always resilient in the face of adversity. Credibility came by siding with the oppressed masses. With this al-liance, they got rid of the colonial-apartheid leg irons.

Staving off repatriation, they sacrificed so much for so many people to enjoy freedom, social justice and human rights, making them a cut above the rest in the global village.

On the other side of the coin, the grass is no longer greener for working-class Indians, now in a similar position to poorer black workers.

Although Indians today are a formidable presence, enjoying social cohesion and economic advantage, and continue to influence business and politics, the legacy of the 1860 descendants has been left behind by change.

Or did the winds of an epoch-making transformation push

Indians onto the margins of the economically empowered black mainstream, in sharp contrast to the role they played in the resistance to apartheid?

With 800 000 Indians in KwaZulu-Natal, 2010 still provides an excellent exhibition to showcase their 150 years.

Politically, the Indian swing vote is important to the national ballot, being split between the African National Congress and its dissident Congress of the People formation, and a variety of opposition parties.

Conservative by nature, Indians blow hot and cold. Always apolitical, they are cautious and put “place bets” on the political roulette wheel. They need to assimilate themselves into the nation’s heartbeat.

Yet of 1,3 million Asians, two percent of South Africa’s population of 47 million, Indians are in the majority.

When they arrived from colonial India, they were termed Indian South Africans. At the Global People of Indian Origin gathering, they were called South Africans of Indian origin. They have evolved via political resistance to Indian-African or African-Indian.

Notwithstanding the sentimental journey, emotional bloodlines and poignant history, culminating in the triumphal spirit of humanity, the identity crisis is a post-apartheid challenge. This is further complilcated by a strong identification with Bollywood, heart-throbbing ethnic music, spicy cuisines, sweetmeats and saris, demonstrating that the umbilical cord with Mother India is still intact.

That’s why a contingent of Indians is lobbying at the Chennai Convention, hoping to sharpen their profiles, forge business opportunities and explore their ancestry. Significantly, Chennai is the port where mainly Tamil and Telugu-speaking labourers from the Madras presidency sailed for the “bay by the water”, and began to push into Africa.

Today, a legacy lives in the hearts and minds of a people whose forebears toiled from dawn to dusk under the African sun.

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