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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Indian South Africans - The Struggle to be South African


Indian places racism on the international agenda and imposes Trade Sanctions on South


The Nineteen Forties

The Indian political link, and negotiations between India and South Africa ended in 1946, when General Smuts finally passed the long-threatened Land Act against Indians and refused discussion in the matter through another Round Table Conference as requested by India. South African Indians mounted their third Passive Resistance Campaign, and the Viceroy responded by recalling his High Commissioner and applying trade sanctions against South Africa. In 1947, newly liberated India tabled the treatment of Indians in South Africa before the United Nations Organisation and thereby placed racism as an issue of international concern. This was the beginning of the international sanctions that would follow with mounting pressure from newly liberated African states. Whites held Indians and the local Indian Satyagrahis responsible for the predicament of the white government.

It was thus no co-incidence that in 1949, on the heel of the accession of power of the Nationalist government, Durban became the scene, in the words of one writer, of "one of the most devastating outbreaks of mass violence in time of peace within a state subject to the administration of peoples of Western European origin." [40] In January 1949, 142 persons were killed, 1087 injured, (58 of these died later), one factory, 58 stores and 247 dwellings were destroyed and two factories, 652 stores and 1285 dwellings damaged. Eight months after the riots, 770 refugees were still living in emergency camps. [41] The terror had occurred when a portion of Durban's grossly outraged African community became converted temporarily into a weapon of violence and vengeance on behalf of whites against Indians.

Afro-Indian Tension

Nineteen Forties

Whatever the Africans' perception of the Indian in 1860, included in it must have been the sense, if not, knowledge that he had been brought by the white colonists to replace him and to be used against him in ways that he did not immediately understand.

Hostility must have been one of the components in his approach to the new black stranger. It was in the interest of the white colonist to fan this hostility for any consolidation of interest between the two labour contingents would have been fatal in a situation where the ratio between white and African was in the region of 1:10. If the African bonded with the Indian, the ratio between white and black would rise in the vicinity of 1:20. Apart from this, the African was perceived as an innocent, if not noble savage: the Indian was perceived as conniving, artful, wily. He could not but spoil the African.

Consequently, Indians and Africans were separated from each other, and in separation, projected as dangerous to each other. They were at the same time within "viewing" distance of each other, so that they could be constantly reminded of the strange and different ways of the other. The use of African whipping boys on the sugar estates, the condemnation of a transgressing "Coolie" to the "Kaffir" barracks where he could be terrorised and ridiculed as the master intended: the appointment of an Indian overseer over African mill hands, the use of African police to suppress Indian strikers, were all calculated to keep the two peoples violently divided. Presiding over it all were the stereotypes calculated to present each with an adverse image of the other. The stereotypes were fabricated in the first instance for the peace of mind of the whites themselves, to relieve them of Christian guilt for the humanity they degraded, the inhumanity they perpetrated.

Industrial expansion during World War Two had resulted in a great flow of Africans into the urban areas. In Durban, many of these began leasing and renting, and sometimes just plain sharing accommodation with Indians. In many instances, the emerging relations were that of Indian landlords and African tenants and these were explicit with tensions. But there was a growing neighbourliness which was put to the test when African neighbours shielded Indians during the 1949 violence. The war years, with their scarcities and black-marketeering also corrupted Indian shopkeepers amongst others who overcharged.

On the political front, Indians were undergoing radical change. The conservative approach of the Natal Indian Congress was being replaced by a new militancy. Indian trade union leaders were drawing in African members debarred from trade union rights; evading laws whenever they could, the Non-European United Front had established a common political platform. It was in this climate of emerging political co-operation between Indians and Africans that Indians became victims of African violence, instigated by whites whose resentment against Indians had reached breaking point after the exposure of South African racism at the UNO.

In the late afternoon on January 13, 1949, an Indian store-keeper in the Durban market assaulted an African youth. An altercation involving a number of Indians and Africans followed. Later in his evidence to the Riot Commission, the chief of police reported that "small cliques of three or four or half a dozen natives and a similar number of Indians had chased each other. [42] All was quiet by evening. But at mid-day the next day the police had reports of impis of migrant workers forming in the labour compounds in central Durban, mainly on the docks, "marching in formations of 400 and 900 towards the Indian areas." [43] The police took some action but the gangs told them they had nothing against the Europeans and were only after the Indians, [44] and were allowed to march through the central streets of Durban, picking on the persons and property of Indians as they went along. They reached the Indian residential areas, a distance of six to eight miles from their compounds, and there unleashed terror largely on an impoverished working class population. The arson, looting, raping and killing continued over the week-end and subsided only after the navy intervened. Ominously, the police reported the rioters as saying: "Give us two days, have your ships ready and there won't be an Indian in the country." [45]

This was neither the sentiment, nor the language, nor the solution of the African. It was a statement that had been heard all too often from responsible whites. While there was little evidence of direct white instigation, there were reports that whites watched the assaults in amusement from balconies and pavements and at times spurred on the rioters with such battle cries as "I'm all for the Natives.

Serves the Coolies right" [46] and "Fix up the b.... Coolies. The Government is with you. Don't you see what the police are doing? They are not shooting you." [47]

Indian leaders and a body of independent white observers noted that the police had been slow in responding to the situation, heeding neither the fact that 62 casualties had already occurred during the first day nor the rumours in the city of the impending violence of the night when the compound "Natives" returned from work. The pleas of the Natal Indian Congress for police reinforcements too, fell on deaf ears and so the riots that had begun on a Thursday afternoon grew and reached horrifying proportions over the weekend, and did not subside until the following Monday. [48]

Indians were shocked and taken by surprise as far as they were aware, nothing had happened in their relations with Africans to merit the attacks.

Perfectly in keeping with the white mood, the all-white commission appointed to investigate and report on the causes of the 1949 Durban "Riots", saw it as brought upon the Indians by Indians themselves, due to the "bad precepts and bad examples" set by certain sections of the Indians who had "opposed the government"; "engaged in passive resistance and had not scrupled to invoke overseas assistance." "In the result, the Indians were hoist to their own petard." [49] It emphasised differences in racial characteristics as a major cause: "The Indian has nimbler wit than the Native "who" is inclined to assess merit in terms of physical strength." "The Zulu is by tradition a warrior ...

The Native is hostile to strangers merely because they are different. These racial characteristics ... played an important part in the riots." [50]

Unity in the face of Violence - ANC and NIC Work Together

The violence shocked the Indian and African Congresses and their resolve to accelerate the process of working together. In the Transvaal, Dr Yusuf Dadoo was a key actor in the Anti-Pass Struggle.

Both the president of the ANC, and the ANC Youth League, through its leader, HIE Dhlomo had supported the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign. They now joined hands to boycott the Riot Commission.

The Commission was boycotted by the Indian and African Congresses, yet it used the untested information it gained from individual Africans, "most of them poor, ignorant, ill-clad" to damn the Indians. [51] It recommended the extension of the Immorality Act to cover sexual relations between Indians and Africans. It even attempted to divide Indians among themselves stating "the position in Durban required constant vigilance" on account of the wealthy Indians. "It is not only between Natives and Indians that tension exists ... 70% of the Indians in Natal are desperately poor ... the less privileged Indians ... are talking of lynching those of their race who overcharge or associate with Native women." [52] Their source of information about the talks was not disclosed.

The Commission dismissed allegations of police failure to suppress the outbreak in its initial stage, or of direct white incitement, or of the influence of anti-Indian statements made by white politicians, or that the municipality of Durban had turned a blind eye to the deplorable conditions in which Africans were living. It in fact stated the Africans, particularly those who took part in the violence, were content with their lot, even with the disruption of their family lives for this last was in accordance with their tradition. [53]

The Indian and African Congresses, unchallenged representatives of the two peoples, and with mass memberships, made joint appearances before the Commission set up to investigate the causes of the riots. They testified that "there was no movement afoot of Africans against Indians as a whole", that "Africans as a whole were not hostile against Indians as a whole", that there were Africans who had in fact "sacrificed their lives for Indians" [54] and African neighbours had sheltered and saved many potential Indian victims.

Both Congresses walked out of the hearings together when the commissioners refused them the right to cross-examine the witnesses. The truth of the riot thus remained largely uncovered.

The violence brought the two Congresses to a sharp realisation that matters had been left to run an unguided course for too long. Alliances already in the offing, took on a far more meaningful momentum in the fourth passive resistance campaign in the country, that of the Defiance of Unjust Laws. Political co-operation continued through the fifties; in the organisation of the Congress of the People and Indian accused were prominent in the Treason Trial that followed. On the worker front, the South African Congress of Trade Unions - SACTU - came into existence, and in Durban, attracted both Indian and African workers.

1960 saw the banning of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress, following the mass killings of protesters against passes at Sharpeville and the declaration of the State of Emergency. Practically the entire executive of the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses were also banned.

Black Consciousness emerged as the most powerful challenge to white domination in the seventies.

There were few mass demonstrations, and no records of mass memberships, but its effect on consolidating a black political consciousness was significant. Unlike the Congress movement which had worked through "racially" affiliated organisations, the black consciousness bodies, the South African Students Organisation (SASO), the Black People's Convention (BPC), the Black Alliance of Workers (BAW), the Black Community Programme (BCP), accepted Indian and African participation as a new generation of youth declared themselves neither Indian nor African, but black. The movement drew in youth, women, cultural, church, dramatic and community groups. The massive Durban strikes of the 1970s, essentially African, saw fair Indian participation. The government acted and arrested key leaders, both Indian and African.

A mass confrontation was imminent and it happened in Soweto in 1976. The killing of children and the sustained turbulence of African youth forced the Nationalists to institute reforms in the mid-eighties in the form of the tricameral parliament which gave ineffective representation to Indians and Coloureds and ignored the Africans. The vast majority of Indians and Coloureds rejected the "reforms" and boycotted the elections. The Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses that had become dormant were revived and formed strong components of the new liberatory movement, the United Democratic Front.

There were further arrests and a second treason trial in which Indians stood accused alongside their fellow disenfranchised South Africans. The African youth had in the meanwhile taken over the political initiative and made the townships literally ungovernable. Internationally, the Euro-American powers for the first time applied effective sanctions forcing the Nationalists to retreat. Apartheid was declared dead. The banned organisations were unbanned, negotiations were set in place and finally the new non-racial South African democracy installed.

South African Indians participated fully in the drawing up of the new constitution and are today fully fledged citizens of the country. They earned their right to this through their tremendous input into the economic and political life of the country and above all through their moral contribution in laying the basis for a just and humane society. They did not do it alone - they did it together with their anti-racist fellow South Africans.

While throughout the anti-apartheid struggle of the seventies and eighties they saw themselves as part of the disenfranchised majority, now they are more conscious than ever before of their minority status.

As a minority, they suffer misgivings and insecurities. In the final analysis, it is up to them to overcome these, to accept the inevitable process of Africanisation and make an even more meaningful contribution to their own lives and the lives of South Africans in general. Whatever their frustrations, South African Indians have to bear in mind that they are relatively privileged participants in a poor country and they have to join in the struggle to alleviate poverty which continues to be race-bound.

Sixty-one percent of Africans live in poverty as against 5% of Indians and 1% of whites. The unemployment rate runs at about 30-35% of the employable and 93% of these are Africans.

From race prejudice, Indians must now move with the rest of South Africa to race freedom. The constitution empowers them to do so and they must use that constitution meaningfully. The government and the governing party needs to be more sensitive to their perceptions of them and to their needs. The government and the governing party needs to be more sensitive to their perceptions and needs. Indians must and will give serious consideration to negative feelings projected against them because of their great desire to be integrated as a South African people. But there must be an objective basis for the "hate-speaks". Careless, unresearched and baseless accusations by empowered media workers is as racist and as unjust as all the verbal persecutions by white racists recorded up to the 1960s.


1. 1980 Population Census by Home Language, Report No: 02/80/10 and 1980 Population Census by Religion, Report No: 02/80/60

2. Boesekin. A.J. Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape, 1658-1700, Tafelberg Publishers (Ltd), 28 Wale Street, Cape Town, 1977, pp. 30 - 31.

Evidence of magistrate of Imbabane Location before the Natal Natives Affairs Commission, 1852-4, Proceedings IV, p.6

(a) "On the farm he", (the Native) "does almost everything - he herds the cattle, milks the cows, churns the butter, loads it on the wagons, the oxen of which he inspans and leads. He cuts wood, and thatch, digs sluits and makes bricks and reaps the harvest, and in the house, invariably cooks. There is little that I ever saw a farmer do, but ride about the country. In the town, there are some familiar cases in which kaffir labour is employed to a ridiculous extent: for in what quarter of the globe would male adults be found performing the offices of nurses to infants and children or as laundresses of female apparel."

The magistrate went on to confirm that there was no shortage of labour and questioned the industry of the white colonists:

"I do not hesitate to question the fact of there being any real difficulty in obtaining native labour, except in individual cases. I believe that any amount of native labour may be procured at five shillings per month, by rational treatment of the natives. But I very much question the ability of the white population to employ, profitably to themselves, an amount of native labour commensurate with the annual value of even one-fourth of the native tax: say to the extent of 2,000 pounds per annum."

The Lt. Governor, writing to the Earl of Kimberly in 1871 observed:

"The natives are apt to offer their labour on terms and conditions more suitable to themselves than to the colonists who employ them. The latter want to secure long terms of service at small wages, the former prefer short periods terminable almost at their own discretion, with wages on a more liberal scale, though still remarkably small as compared with the rate of wages in most other countries." [Government Gazette, No 88, 1871]

3. The cost of importing a "Coolie" male varied slightly from time to time but worked out to about £17. The planters paid two-thirds of the cost, the government one-third. LM Thompson, Indian Immigration into Natal 1860-1872, Unpublished Masters thesis, University of South Africa, 1938.

4. From the records in the Colonial Secretary's Office 2260/1865, Shepstone to Colonial Secretary of Natal as reported in LM Thompson, ibid, p.104

The Commission of Inquiry into the treatment of Indian Labour instituted in Natal in 1872 at the instance of the Indian Government reported a case where a Coolie entitled to £4.18s at the end of a year actually owed his employer £17.11s.6d though he had given half a years service.

5. Coolie Commission Report, 1872, P. Davis and Sons, Government Printers, Pietermaritzburg, 1872. The Commission held:

"The present law is wholly inadequate ... as while it offers itself great protection to the Coolie, it is insufficient for that of the masters ... The present system of prison appears rather to encourage than to prevent insubordination and it is not an infrequent occurrence for the Coolies to defy their masters on being threatened with imprisonment stating that the hours of work in the jail are less than those on the estate, the work generally lighter and the food the same, the only real punishment being the loss of a few days wages for the moral conviction of the Coolie is so low that he is little if at all affected by the disgrace of being placed in jail."

6. Bishop, CJ, Ferguson-Davie, The Early History of Indians in Natal, p.5

7. Rev. W. Holden, Early History of the Colony of Natal, pp. 170-178

8. Thompson LM., op cit, p.95

9. op cit, p.126

10. This differs from the report in the "Natal Mercury", November 22, 1860.

"Most of the spectators who were present had been led to expect a lot of dried up, vapid, and sleepy looking anatomies. They were agreeably disappointed. They were a lively and animated people, the women with flashy eyes, long disheveled pitch hair, with their half covered well-formed figures, and children with intelligent, cute and humorous countenance."

11. op cit, p.110

12. Thompson LM., op cit. The ships chartered by the colony were smaller than stipulated by regulations.

13. Of the 1 431 who came between 1860-1861, 131 died in the first 10 years, 43 were returned to India as sick and incompetent for work, 96 obtained licences to leave Natal for the diamonds fields, 413 returned to India after 10 years, and 739 postponed their departure.

14. Pietermaritzburg and Durban, Wragg Commission report 1885, pp.268, 145

15. In February 1948 the "Leader", an Indian weekly, commented editorially on the "relish" with which a white Sunday newspaper had reported that the "nauseating" and "sordid details of the assault and manhandling of an Indian by eight courageous" Europeans on allegations of sexual relations with a white woman. In another editorial comment, May 22, 1947, it wrote: "As election tempo increases, the Indians become more and more the victim on whose back many Nationalists hope to ride into Parliament ... violence of propaganda has increased ... extreme racialism has taken charge, ... election manifesto of a number of candidates is nothing more than a drive of racial hatred against Indians". "For the three months in 1944, August, September and October, the Indian community in Natal was subjected to public attacks in the Press, on the public platform and in the city and provincial councils of Natal on a scale which is unparalleled in the history of Natal. [Sir Shafa el Ahmed Khan, The Indian in South Africa, Kitabistan, Allahabad, p.472.]

16. Mr Young, Hansard Colony of Natal Legislature, 24:11:1886, p.315

17. Mr Omeru, op cit

18. Captain Leslie Blackwell, MLA at 1919 Conference of the South Africa League to control evil, see Joshe, PS, The Tyranny of Colour, EP and Commercial Printing Co. Ltd., Smith Street, Durban, p.99

19. HH Kemp, Municipal Councillor, at a meeting held to discuss Asiatics, 1919 - See Joshe, PS, ibid., p.119

20. R. Moore, retiring President of the Springs and District Chamber of Commerce, 1926, - see Joshe, PS., ibid., p.169

21. An immigrant candidate for the United Party seat in Natal in 1948

22. The Parliament, in 1948, in moving the second reading of the Asiatic Laws Amendment Act, at a National party Conference.

23. The South African High Commission in London, July 13, 1951

24. Pretoria News, November 15, 1912

25. MK Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1928, p.91

26. Letter to the "Transvaal Leader", by Old Colonialist, Durban, October, 1912

27. Letter to "The Times of Natal", signed JB, November 1912

28. "Eastern Province Herald", November 16, 1912

29. "Eastern Province Herald", November 16, 1912

30. Assembly, April 11, 1960, Hansard 13, Col. 5285

31. Mr WA Maree, The Indian in the Republic of South Africa, Policy Statement, 1962, Government Printer, Private Bag X 152, Pretoria

32. M. Horrell, A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa, 1969, p.95

33. Laws 21 and 22 of 1872

34. Acts 14 and 15 of Natal and 33 of the Government of India [1859]

35. GK Gokhale, member of the Imperial Legislative Council of Indian during a state visit to South Africa at a reception on October 30, 1912 in Johannesburg

36. GK Gokhale, October 1912, South Africa

37. Statement of the Natal Indian Congress protesting against their segregation at the Durban Turf Club in 1940.

38. MK Gandhi, Natal Advertiser, January 13, 1897

39. George Lichtheim, Imperialism, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, p.73

40. Kenneth Kirkwood in M. Webb and K. Kirkwood, The Durban Riots and After, SA Institute of Race Relations, P.O. Box 97, Johannesburg, p.20

41. ibid, p.4

42. Riot Commission Report, Durban, 1949, Volume 1, p.47

43. ibid, p.45

44. ibid, p.35

45. ibid, p.35

46. Kenneth Kirkwood in M. Webb and K. Kirkwood, The Durban Riots and After, SA Institute of Race Relations, P.O. Box 97, Johannesburg, p.2

47. A white woman jumping out of a two seater car, as reported in "inKundla Ya Bantu", January 29, 1949

48. Riot Commission Report, p.3

49. Ibid, p.3

50. Ibid, p.16

51. Ibid, p.7

52. Ibid, p.19

53. Ibid, p.15

54. Ibid, p.5

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.