South African Government

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Premier Sihle Zikalala: Arrival of Indian indentured workers in South Africa

16 Nov 2020

Premier remarks during event marking the arrival of Indians in South Africa in 1860 held in Durban on 16 November 2020

Programme Director;
The High Commissioner of India to South Africa;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen!

Programme Director, today we commemorate 16 November 1860, the historic day on which the first Indians landed in Durban aboard the SS Truro from Madras, here to work in the sugar cane plantation of the then Port-Natal.

These 152184 indentured labours were not free men and women. They were indentured labourers, here on a promise of a slave wage and free voyage to then Natal.

As you are aware some returned to India at the end of their term, but a significant number stayed behind. Those that stayed, quickly established themselves as Industrial and railway workers, cooks, clerks and interpreters. As a result, today it is said that the City of Durban here in KwaZulu-Natal has the highest population of Indian people outside of India.

Upon arrival, the Indians were subjected to all forms of discrimination including being denied full citizenship of their new country. One of the first such discriminatory legislation aimed at Indians was passed in 1885 and prohibited Indians from full citizenship, owning property and limited them to walking in separate pavements from so-called Europeans.

Writing in the Sunday Independent edition of 15 November 2020, award-winning journalist Latashia Naidoo paints a vivid picture of the challenges that the indentured Indians faced in South Africa. While many died on board the ships transporting them on that long journey, many committed suicide by various means, including by throwing themselves on railway lines to be run over by trains.

Naidoo says and I quote: “The passage itself was often perilous and foreboding as captain’s logs depict. The story of the Belvedere’s arrival just 10days after the Truro’s, reflects this. Captain WB Atkinson reported that 29 migrants died onboard from cholera, dysentery and a number of other illnesses precipitated by the longer journey. A further 10 died on shore….23 more died in the wooden lazarreto and stuffy tents in which they awaited recovery and removal”.

According to Dr Hermant Nowbath a Durban psychologist quoted in the article the Indians were subject to many forms of discrimination with negative effects: “Separated from homeland and family, he experienced a sense of isolation. Themes of loss, loss of self-esteem, social connections, dignity relationships, financial stability and finally loss of hope”.

The influence of Mahatma Gandhi on our society

The history of Indian people in South Africa is incomplete without Mahatma Ghandi, one of the central figures in the struggle for human rights globally. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in 1893 as a lawyer and played an integral role in South Africa’s political transformation and was part of the formation of a unified Indian identity in South Africa. Ghandi formed South Africa’s first Indian political organisation the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).

Like Africans, Indians were considered non-whites during apartheid, stripped of their rights to citizenship and felt the effects of stringent rules put in place against all black persons. Like Africans, Indians were forced into racially segregated Indian townships, they could not enter certain stores, use particular beaches, marry outside their race and even walk on some roads.

It is therefore no surprise that the Indian community found common cause with the struggling masses of South Africa who were largely African. It is this history of colonialism and apartheid which defined the resistance movement. Those who were oppressed together, joined forces against our common enemy leading to our eventual freedom in 1994.

As history records in great detail, since the late 18th century, the Indian people took part in every aspect of our struggle. The ANC defined the "Four Pillars" of struggle as being Mass Mobilisation, Armed Operations, Underground Organisation and International Solidarity work. The people of Indian origin took leadership in all of them.

Gandhi introduced the Satyagraha philosophy of passive resistance in 1906. This meant non-cooperative, non-violent action and sacrifice which had a major influence on the peaceful resistance movement in South Africa. By the time Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, the ANC had been formed based on a peaceful resistance to apartheid to apartheid no doubt influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy. Later the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was founded in 1923 based on the principles of Gandhi to become a bulwark of resistance against growing segregationist tendencies in South Africa.

The Three Doctors’ Pact

It was in 1945, on the back of the Second World War, that Dr Yusuf Dadoo took over the leadership of the Indian Congress in the Transvaal and Dr G.M. Naicker became the leader in what was then Natal. The two doctors sought to unite Indian political organisations with other African organisations into a common front. This led to the signing in 1947 of the historic pact the Xuma-Naicker-Dadoo Pact, signed between the leaders of the two Indian Congress movements and the African National Congress (ANC).

Here we see a significant development in the history of our struggle that would later build a united and unbroken resistance to apartheid. This unity among the oppressed including Indians, Coloureds and Africans supported by progressive White people eventually toppled the apartheid regime, and led to the final push that gave birth to the democratic government in 1994.

Programme Director, we must also recognize the role played by people of Indian origin during major campaigns against apartheid such as the following:

  • Passive Resistance Campaigns from 1946 – 1948 including the right to occupy or own land, the Defiance Campaign of 1952 which mobilized against apartheid laws under the leadership of the ANC and the SAIC;
  • Played a leading role in the Congress of the People in June 1955 which adopted the Freedom Charter. The People’s Congress consisted of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, and the Congress of Democrats;
  • In the 1956 Treason Trial prominent Indian leaders were among the accused and were Dr Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the SAIC and Dr Monty Naicker, leader of the Natal Indian Congress who were tried and not found guilty;
  • As stated before, many Indians joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress and were prepared to pay the ultimate price for their liberation and the freedom of all. The famous Rivonia Trial took place between 1963 and 1964 in which 10 leaders of the African National Congress were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system. Two people of Indian origin in that group were Ahmed Kathrada and Billy Nair who were later imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island;
  • Indians have played a major role in the spread of Islam in South Africa. In fact the first mosque in Cape Town was established in the early 19th century by Imam Frans and Imam Achmat, both from Bengal; This was the first Islamic Mosque in the country;
  • Today we say without hesitation that Indians have played a major role in the socio-economic development of South Africa creating sustainable businesses over generations and providing jobs for population;
  • The Indian population as a whole and through prominent individuals have been central in the struggle that brought about our liberation in 1994. We can some of them including Mac Maharaj, Dullar Omar, Fatima Meer, Raheema Moosa, Ahmed Kathrada and many, many others of subsequent generations. However we will not be able to fully detail their many sacrifices and contributions.

It has been said that Tata Nelson Mandela drew heavily on Gandhi. Madiba is said to have been highly influenced by Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience. In fact hanging on the walls of his home in Houghton was a picture of Gandhi among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.

Recalling the role of the Indians in the early days of the struggle against restrictions where they could live, trade or acquire property Madiba had this to say: “The Indian community conducted a mass campaign that impressed us with its organisation and dedication. The Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the Youth League were calling for. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could,” he said.

Every generation must find its mission

Programme Director, we have moved far from 1860 and the challenges of indenture, colonialism and apartheid. As Frantz Fanon declared correctly: “Every generation must out of necessity find its mission, fulfil it or betray it”.

The people of Indian origin together with the rest of society today face the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality. In addition to the history of apartheid which sought to separate one from the other on the basis of race, these triple challenges pose a real threat to the project of nation-building after apartheid.

In our State of the Province address we identified the war against fraud and corruption as another battle front in the rebuilding of the country that we inherited from the ruins of apartheid. In KwaZulu Natal we have defined corruption as a social ill that cuts across all sectors of society.

As government we are also right in emphasizing the problem of corruption in the organs of the state and in society more broadly. We think the corruption that exists in tender rigging, fraud, bribery and nepotism in all state institutions is a function of moral degeneration that we could not find in the generation that gave us our liberation.

The building of an ethical society depends on all of us by participating in the monitoring and evaluation of government performance including the introduction of lifestyle audits to fight corruption.

I wish to challenge all of you today and beyond, to play a leading role in the movement for moral regeneration and social cohesion of our society which includes all the religious, community and traditional leaders.

The challenge of building a single nation remains with many of us still preferring to remain in the confines of the artificial confines that were built by apartheid. It is this generation that must end overall crime, including Gender-Based Violence and Femicide which is a scourge afflicting every member of our community.

A ‘whole of society’ approach recognises the fact that we cannot win the war of building one nation unless we involve every member of the community. With respect to fraud and corruption our challenge is to mobilise communities and cultivate the culture of exposing corruption and rewarding whistle blowers.

Regarding crime, we cannot allow our communities to be overrun by criminal elements in our society. The criminals of sorts live among us. It is us who must uproot them and ensure that crimes are stopped before they are committed by employing community mobilisation of the past generations to engage every person against this scourge.

I also wish to call on the people of Indian origin to use their skills gathered through centuries in the national and provincial effort to address the challenges that we face today some of which we have identified today.

The Madiba generation delivered political freedom. We must employ that freedom to deliver on all the other challenges we face today. Let us together continue to grow a KwaZulu Natal towards the achievement of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa. On behalf of the government and people of KwaZulu Natal we wish you well as you celebrate this historic milestone.

I thank you!