South Africa entered its post-apartheid phase in 1994 with much goodwill following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 from his 27-year imprisonment by De Klerk. Just six months before, at the launch of GOPIO in August 1989, as the co-Chair of the panel of “Political Participation”, I had participated in some heated debates on South Africa’s future. Even though it had the largest population of People of Indian Origin (PIOs) – now 1.4 million – they were just 2.5% of South Africa’s 55 million population; caught between the 76% Black majority and the larger 9.4% White and 9% Coloured minorities. As with the PIOs from the Caribbean and elsewhere, 140,000 of them had been sent to work on the sugar plantations of Natal as indentured servants, and many of the same dynamics that operated in other “indentured” colonies were precipitated. They were joined by some independent Gujarati merchants who would become quite wealthy.
South Africa’s Indentureship ended in 1910 – seven years ahead of the rest – because of the advocacy of Gandhi (he lived there between 1893 and 1914) to the Indian National Congress. Even during Indentureship, there had been a determined movement by Whites for all the Indians to be repatriated to India, and this sentiment was adopted by the majority Blacks – especially the Zulus of Natal. These efforts ceased only in 1962, but the view of Indians as transitory and not “real” South Africans have continued to be perpetuated. Their progress even during the apartheid years from 1948 to 1994 exacerbated those sentiments: “Why should the Indians do better than we?”. In 1949, 142 Indians were killed in anti-Indian violence in Natal, where they are concentrated.
At the GOPIO gathering, I discovered, however, that from the 1950s, several Indian leaders had decided to wage a common struggle with the Blacks in the ANC. Many were from the trade unions that had been permitted for Indians, but not Africans. During the GOPIO debates, several trade unionists argued fervently that the ANC would be able to govern the country equitably for all groups. The African ANC executive who later addressed the GOPIO plenary session affirmed this position.
Some other members of their delegation were not so sanguine, having experienced violent attacks on their community (600 deaths) just four years before. They had been caught between rival Zulu factions on one side and the White government on the other. The latter had offered voting rights to Indians and Coloureds, but not to Blacks in a divide-and-rule ploy. Indian support for the ANC unfortunately worked against them, since both Zulu parties opposed the ANC. Mandela duly announced a “Government of National Unity” after the 1994 elections, and promised a new constitution with the widest input. The new, very advanced constitution, which proposed majority rule after the next elections, was ratified in December 1996. That same year, a ground-breaking “Peace and Reconciliation Commission”, under the leadership of Bishop Tutu, started conducting hearings.
These initiatives all helped to fuel South Africa’s growth as Africa’s most vibrant economy, to earn a position as one of the BRICS in 2010 on the 150th anniversary of the Arrival of Indians to South Africa. But as the new ANC Government instituted affirmative action programmes to improve the lives of poverty-stricken Blacks, new tensions were created in the Indian community. A new Black upper class – starting with the venerable Mandela and all his successors: Mbeki, Zuma and Ramphosa – came out of the ANC. This created tensions and rivalries within the party, which are presently playing out between Zuma and Ramphosa.
The Indians, already resented by Blacks for their modest upward mobility during apartheid, are now resentful that merit has been discarded by the imposed quotas that now favour the latter – especially as labourers and industrial workers. What has exacerbated the anti-Indian sentiment recently has been the post-1994 arrival of about 20,000 Indians and Pakistanis, who have joined the Gujarati merchant class, aggressively entered the commercial sector, and courted ANC leaders. The infamous Gupta brothers who were involved with the Zuma scandals are from this group. More opprobrium was poured on “Indians”.
Behind the present violence – with the loss of 212 lives and billions of dollars through arson and looting – supposedly sparked by Zuma’s arrest, lies the Zulu anti-Indian sentiment that has once again seen that community targeted. The Indian is always seen as a soft target.