What Gandhi didn’t see: Indians in South Africa still feel superior to Blacks

Equally oppressed by Apartheid authorities, Indians in South Africa now fare much better than the Blacks

Zainab Priya Dala

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an iconic South African freedom fighter and one of the most candid truth tellers in my country, coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ for South African society post-apartheid. In this term, his aim was to encompass and unify every colour of person under the African sun, and foster a moniker of unity in a country that had only seen inequality based on skin colour. As it played out in the many years since the abolition of apartheid, we all learned basic physics—when you unify all the colours, they become the colour Black, and in this nebulous process, there are different shades of Black. Let me explain.

After Nelson Mandela took his long walk to freedom from the gates of Robben Island, there came an influx of unification strategies, that the African National Congress at the time realised was necessary to prevent a civil war…

Much like the immigrant ethos the world over, the tendency was to keep your head down, be silent, work hard and keep away from the limelight as much as possible. This ethos, a survival guide to being neither Black nor White, served to allow many of us to slip through the system in silence, and move through a country as if this country was just a temporary housing space. Many people of my generation inhabited this island of facelessness with ease. Many did not. Now, in current South Africa in 2018, it is the ones who did not go silently along who have a great deal of animosity towards the ones that did.

Those of us Indians who were born in South Africa owned our citizenship as South Africans, and not citizens of India. Although we had a cultural and linguistic tie to being Indian, we were South African citizens, many of whom had struggled during apartheid and had fought the subjugation of people of colour. We thought of ourselves as Black, we called ourselves Black. Many of our community annoyed us greatly by using the term ‘us Indians’.

But, from 1994 to 2018 is a long time. This time saw the one thing that was a game-changer, and that was economics. Equality morphed into equity, and there was no denying that under the apartheid regime, Indian South Africans had amassed much more equity than Black South Africans. The atrocious living conditions of Black South Africans, their lack of access to fundamental human needs like shelter, clean water, sanitation, employment and education was vastly different to Indian South Africans.

Before the abolition of apartheid, the White regime created a system that clearly divided before it could unify... In the 1980s, the government began to sow seeds of discord by creating a system called the Tricameral System, a term that brings up the gall of many activists. The reason being, this system served to eradicate all the efforts of the freedom fighters who were Indian and Coloured. The Tricameral System, as its name suggests, gave the vote to three population groups. The House of Assembly was for White South Africans. The House of Representatives was for Coloured South Africans, and the House of Delegates was for Indian South Africans. This malicious system now set people against each other.

Rights to education and basic human needs such as housing was given by the White regime to Indians and Coloureds. And the Blacks were lumped into a very separate unit called by the derogatory name ‘Bantu Affairs’. The use of the word Bantu itself arouses the ire of many. It is tantamount to using the N-word in America. It goes without saying that the Blacks did not have the right to vote, until South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, following the release of Nelson Mandela, when the African National Congress was recognised as a political party.

The truth is that people of Indian descent were less oppressed than the Blacks during apartheid. They were sent to live in townships such as Chatsworth or Phoenix, but the delivery of basic services such as sanitation and electricity to these townships was significantly better than that of Black townships such as Soweto or Umlazi. South African Indians also had better access to education and the schools were in significantly better condition.

Even though we were all oppressed, we were not equally oppressed. The result of this inequality again began sowing seeds of anger that Black South Africans feel towards Indian South Africans.

There were many South African Indian people who lapped up all that was on offer, joined the House of Delegates, and pandered to their new master who had thrown them the bone. This particular system saw South African Indians prosper economically under the apartheid regime. Whilst many Indian activists rallied vehemently to boycott the House of ‘Dele-goats’ as we called it, the majority went the safe route, and accepted the benefits without a qualm. And that worked to the relative advantage of Indians, an advantage that still exists today. An advantage that has created animosity between Black South Africans towards Indian South Africans.

Following the abolition of apartheid, one of the systems that was put in place by the African National Congress was Black Economic Empowerment. Here, in an act of levelling the economic playing fields, Black South Africans were given access to mandatory inclusion in companies, universities and programmes in quota systems. Under this system, Indians were now considered Black. This ‘regrouping’ gave them the advantage of being included in the economic structures of benefit meant for the Blacks, and many having come from positions of advantage anyway— like being passenger Indians and not labourers that came from India—and having embraced the Tricameral System benefits, their advantage again saw them placed higher than Black South Africans. Leading economists have debated this since 1994. Most have argued there were no grounds for making Indians beneficiaries of Black Economic Empowerment policies.

Even though we were all oppressed, we were not equally oppressed. The result of this inequality again began sowing seeds of anger that Black South Africans feel towards Indian South Africans.

I do not doubt that post 1994, the Indian population was more advantaged. I see it in my own friends and family. Many of my cousins are medical doctors who were given places in leading medical colleges during the apartheid regime. I look around me and see that the majority of Indian South Africans live in homes that far surpass the squatter camp shacks that Black South Africans still live in. Every single person I know of Indian descent has a domestic helper, including myself. And the domestic help, the maid and the gardener—they are always Black. I once spoke to a beggar at a traffic light, a young able-bodied SA Indian woman, and I asked that instead of me handing money to her, would she consider coming to my house to do some ironing on a regular basis to earn her money. She laughed and told me she would rather beg than do domestic work. Yet, my Black African domestic helper, Sindisiwe, willingly does this work rather than begging. She lives in a shack in a squatter camp. Her children live hundreds of kilometres away in the Eastern Cape. She sees them twice a year, at Easter and at Christmas. I suffer from guilt every time I hand her a pile of clothes to launder. In the spectrum of this rainbow nation, there are different shades of dark. This raises a very dichotomous space in my mind. I know that in providing Sindisiwe with a job, which due to her previous racial disadvantage she does not have the basic education to secure, I am empowering her and her children whose school fees I pay for. But, I also am reliant on her labours as a domestic worker who does the things for me that I am too busy, and too inept to do.

Another example of this class divide that still exists today is transport. If I need to go anywhere, from the supermarket to a dinner date, I am able to immediately climb in my car and drive there. As I drive to my destination, around me there are many mini-bus taxis (a common sight in South Africa, where a mini-van is used as a cheap means of transporting people), and this form

of transport is mainly used by the Black people.

During apartheid, Indians were subjugated by the White regime, but were still considered superior to Coloured and Black people. Although the state of things has supposedly changed, this mindset still exists in SA Indian communities today. The truth is that many SA Indian people still do not accept Black South Africans as equals, and the parallel result of this is that there are instances of hate speech and racial slurs that are meted out in both directions. SA Indians who feel that the Blacks are now benefiting too much from Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action become bitter and angry, as they watch their children lose places at universities in quota systems, or not get jobs despite qualifications. Blacks, on the other hand, look at SA Indians living in relatively better homes and driving good cars, eating out at shopping malls and wearing expensive clothes, and begin to believe that all SA Indians benefited from apartheid.

It seems that once apartheid was abolished, a new line of separation has been drawn. Money. The divide now is between the haves and the have-nots, and skin colour does not enter the party. I have known people of all races and colour who are firm friends and business associates simply by virtue of the Lamborghinis and Benzs parked in their garages, the fine private schools all their kids go to in an Old Boys’ Club-type situation, and the expensive holidays they go on together three times a year. Contrarily, I know people of all races, including White people, who live in low-income flats, struggling with the municipality for garbage collection and sending their children together to the same overcrowded public schools.

The shades of brown and black in contemporary South Africa are now melding together into people who struggle. And the new Struggle is not colour, it is survival.

(This extract has been taken from What Gandhi didn’t see- Being Indian in South Africa by Zainab Priya Dala, with permission from Speaking Tiger)

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