Becoming South African Citizens: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

An Exposition of the Formation of Political Identity between the Indian Diaspora

Abstract: This essay analyses the political efforts made by the diasporic Indians for attaining South African citizenship. During a remarkable political journey from the status of indentured workers to citizenship, the diasporic Indians took certain decisions, articulated their positions and incurred risks for the stand-point, which had positive bearing upon their political journey. They identified themselves as colonial patriots and stressed South Africanist identity in the early 2thc for making a case for settling down as free persons. With time, they recognised unity of their interest with other oppressed nationalities, thereby involvement in anti-apartheid struggles and constituting their popular embeddedness in the widest-possible social fabric of South Africa. The overwhelming size of them once again reaffirmed their African embeddedness by defeating the divide and rule policy through boycott of a Tricameral Parliament in 1984. They have refrained from paranoia of BEE and committed to the society as contributors to growth and social business. Thus, our exposition interpolates an under-researched issue of political adaptation undertaken by the Indian diaspora in the diasporic studies. Moving away from the narrative of victimhood, it underscores the contours of their human agency.

@Dhiraj kumar Nite

Early Indian labourers in South Africa

Early Indian labourers in South Africa



This essay discusses the ways in which the Indian diaspora qualified themselves for citizenry right in South Africa. It analyses their political effort and decision which proved historically critical for making their claims for South African citizenship successful under multi-racial democracy which dawned since 1994.

The Indian diaspora forms about three percent of the population (49 millions) in South Africa, and about 6.5 percent of the population in its Kwazulu-Natal province in 2011. Their politics for citizenry right in South Africa marked, it could be said, certain distinction as compared with the politics of the native Blacks and other Coloureds who successfully fought for the same in the 20thc. The distinction had to do with the fact that the Indians migrated to South Africa since 1860; the overwhelming number of them were indentured workers in the British-controlled Natal Colony, one of the regions on Indian ocean-coast of South Africa; and the White-controlled Union of South Africa, formed in 1910, considered them along-side other Coloureds good for only semi-skilled labour against the status of unskilled labour accorded to the native Blacks. The diasporic Indians, the native Blacks and the Coloureds were subject to the rule of racial segregation, which graduated in the regime of apartheid since 1948. Furthermore, their foothold in South Africa came under severe duress under apartheid polity. For the Nationalist Party, the architect of apartheid, came in power with the political slogan: ‘The Kaffer (the native Blacks) in his place and the Coolie (Indians) out of the Country’ (Bhana 2000).

In the face of the circumstantial and political challenges, the historic decision taken by the diasporic Indians to settle down in the country of economic-destination, and their successful fights for citizenry right, it could be said, were remarkable in its own right. They received much more than citizen status under multiracial democracy. The cabinet of Nelson Mandela included six Indians among its 16 odd members. Jay Naidoo headed the politically most important portfolio, called Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). He was the first general secretary of the largest workers organisation – Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) formed in 1985. Currently, Pravin Gordhan has been the Finance Minister in the Zuma-led ANC government. Mac Maharaj has been the advisor and spokesperson of the President Zuma. Both of these South African Indians have been respected anti-apartheid crusaders since the 1970s. Little wonder, the Indian diaspora presently represents what we know in the language of international relations as the soft-power of India in South Africa.

Relevance and hypothesis

Several scholarly works contribute to our understanding of life and experiences of the diasporic Indians. Four approaches are discernible in the literature. First considers the creation of indentured labour in the Indian subcontinent and its impact on life of indentured Indians and their family members at Indian villages. It argues that the colonial authority duped the Indian rural poor for recruiting as indenture labourers on the overseas plantation. According to it, indenture labour was akin to slavery for the period of contract of three to five years between the labourer and the employer. Indenture labour caused moral and social degradation (the loss of family life, religion, indulgence in prostitution, the existence of high death rate) in their life. This approach characterised the nationalist discourse on indentured Indians and informed the nationalist demand for the abolition of indenture system, which came to fruition in 1917-1920 (Kumar 2013; Tinker 1974).

Second studies the conditions of work and social life of the indentured Indians on the sugar plantations. It reaffirms the argument that indenture labour was a new form of slavery. It argues that the indentured Indians were subject to gruelling long working hours, confinement within the plantation premises, inadequate payments for availing of a healthy life, and corporal punishment for failing to complete assignments and infringement of plantation regulations. They received little opportunity for a regular family life because of crowded ‘cooly’ barracks and highly unequal gender ratio (29 percent female of the indentured Indians). Therefore, they indulged in the instances of wife murder, suicide, prostitution, heavy drinking and consumption of other narcotics (Beall 1988; Tayal 1977; Tinker 1974; Mohapatra 2007, 1995).

The third approach deals with the experiences and adaptation pattern of the indentured Indians. It moves beyond the narrative of victimhood and unmitigated suffering of those wo/men who were caught in the coils of indenture. It argues that the Indian poor frequently made considerate choice in favour of migration to the overseas destination; many of them decided to settle down because of comparative advantages found there. According to it, these wo/men carved out their niche overseas and, in the long-run, seized opportunities of betterment (Lal 2000; Freund 1995; Brain 1985; Bhana and Pachai 1984; Tayal 1983; Swan 1984; Bujis 1986). And, fourth engages with the social, cultural, educational and political practices of the Indian diaspora. It suggests that the diasporic Indians did not simply carry over the Indian custom to the destination-economies. Indeed, they selectively attached to the old custom and, over time, transformed it in a way that suited best to the social economy and labour regime which they were part of (Hiralal 2013; Naidoo 2010; Mohapatra 2007; Bujis 1986; Freund 1985).

My discussion below pursues the thread of the above-mentioned last two approaches, and fills a gap related to the political adaptation. The latter included, I suggest, not only some landmark events and activity which fell upon them; but, more importantly, the discursive articulation of the stand point and risks incurred for one’s political conviction to have bearing upon the course of social change. There were four crucial conjunctures, I propose to highlight, in the early 20thc (the moment of South Africanism or Colonial Patriotism), the mid 20thc (Unity of the Oppressed), the 1980s (Rejection of Divide and Rule), and the 2000s (Refraining from Paranoia of BEE).

Moment of South Africanism

The early Indian diaspora in South Africa were the Indentured workers. Between 1860 and 1911, 152,184 indentured Indians recruited under the 1837 regulations of indenture labour were shipped to Natal sugar plantations – approximately 1/3rd out of Calcutta port, and the rest out of Madras port (Swan 1984: 241). It stopped in 1911 at the request of the government of Union of South Africa established in 1910. Only 52 percent of these migrant workers took historic decision of settling down in Natal after their term of indenture expired. From there, several thousand drifted north to the Transvaal region which developed gold mining. Most of them remained in Natal and gradually moved on to the works at the sugar mills and other occupations, and gave way to the local Zulus on the plantation by 1930.

The free persons, after completing their tenure of indenture (three to five years or 10 years under the pressure of re-indenture owing to tax of pound three imposed on free Indians since 1895), seized numerous opportunities in petty enterprises in agriculture, fishing, market gardening, fruit and vegetable hawking. They decided to settle down despite the burden of an annual three pound tax. The tax was introduced by the first parliamentary session of the responsible government and was part of a package which sought to control Indians who were not of direct and immediate use to the White planters and farmers who dominated the legislature (Swan 1984: 241). The tax was a mechanism to push Indians either back to India or back under indenture. The escape route to this tax was migration to the Transvaal goldmines. The British administration started clamping down on these immigrants in Transvaal in 1903-04. It imposed the law of registration of trade and population on them.

The diasporic Indians felt aggrieved of the poll tax and other restrictions. The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) was formed by the Indian merchants (migrants as free passenger) and Gandhi in 1894 for specific purpose. But, it was failing to represent other diasporic Indians. In order to pursue a solution to their grievances and articulate their embedded reality in South Africa, the young Indian colonials formed the Natal Indian Patriotic Union (NIPU) in 1908, the Colonial Born Indian Association (CBIA), and the South African Indian Committee (SAIC). They unified themselves and expressed new locally-embedded identity under the ideology called South Africanism or Young Patriotic Colonials. It distinguished them from the foreign-born commercial class and laid claim for formal equality with other residents and settlers. They demanded the repeal of poll tax, annulment of the law of registration of population, and recognition of customary Hindu and Muslim marriages.

The developments in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) prompted them to fashion a unifying ideology. The post-war brought to them depression, salary cuts, the introduction of a new form of taxation, and an attempt by the new White-controlled state to debar Indians from the civil service. These developments made it increasingly difficult for the western educated Indians to maintain existing standards (Swan 1984: 245). To note, they established contact with Gandhi over these matters and joined Satyagrah between 1911 and 1914. Thambi Naidoo was one of their leaders. Naidoo was also popular president of the Johannesburg Tamil Benefit Society. Indian colliery and plantation workers went on strike in 1913 in this resistance. The state and employers brutally intervened in the matter to bring the workers back to work. Violent treatment meted out to strikers drew public criticism in India and London. The government announced the appointment of a commission. Its findings in April 1914 recommended the abolition of the poll tax and long sought settlement over the immigration law. The outcome was able temporarily to resist full proletarianisation of Indians by securing the abolition of the poll tax. No change in the immigration law came. Conditions of these workers were often no better by the World War II than those which had produced the groundswell of militancy in 1913 strike a success (Swan 1984: 256-66).

Unity of the Oppressed

In the early 1940s, a new generation of Indian radicals set in motion the large scale Indian labour organisation underpinned by the ideology of class struggle. The NIC was transformed into an organisation defending the rights of all Indian people. It occurred under the leadership of Dr GM Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo, who argued that ‘the political rights of the Indian community could not be divorced from those of African and Coloured people’ (Naidoo 2010: 44), who were equally suppressed under the rule of segregation and the subsequent regime of apartheid. They called for a multiracial front and a relationship with the African National Congress (ANC), which became evident in the Doctor’s Pact in 1947 – on the eve of election that ushered the apartheid ruler (the Nationalist Party) in power. In 1952, Mandela was appointed by the joint planning committee as Volunteer in Chief and Ismael Cachalia of Indian descent as his deputy to execute three stages of disobedience in the Defiance Campaign against the pass law, the group areas act and the suppression of communism act. The pact recognised the all-encompassing identity of Black, including the native Africans, settled Indians and Coloureds, as oppressed and as against White’s injustice. An identity was built against injustice of the apartheid regime (Naidoo 2010: 45). To note, such momentous politico-social regrouping came in force despite the infamous Indian – Zulu riot which occurred in Durban in 1949. The anti-apartheid Indians now maintained duel or triple membership – NIC, ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). As participants in the defiance campaign they faced prison, house arrests, deportation to the Robben Islands, armed struggle, exile, and underground community work.

The diasporic Indians were increasingly educated and urban dwellers. In 1985, they numbered some 900,000. In 1975, over 50 percent of them were under the age of 19. They had the falling birth rate. They had initially benefitted from schools run by the Christian Missionary between them. Subsequently, they coaxed the government to provide affordable schools to their children in the 1930s and 1940s (Bujis 1986: 230). Like the White settlers, they were passionate about schooling of the children. Gender differentiation was at work here only at the higher education level, and that too was withering away. They were adopting ‘an African attitude’ toward equal education of daughters (Bujis 1986: 231, 242). They aspired for white collar jobs. Now husbands felt elated over wives’ educational attainment. The Tamil and Telgu speakers were switching over to English language. There were 23 percent Christian converts. Their South African General Mission focused on modern subjects in education and other social matter and outlook. Other practicing Hinds thought caste as a system of discrimination in many ways similar to apartheid and one which was irrelevant in the modern world. Until recently caste was an important factor only in marriage negotiation (Bujis 1986: 233). They made efforts to restore family and maintain an extended family, which proved wherewithal of social progress. In a way, it marked a reversal from the tyranny of nuclear family to joint and extended family (Bujis 1986: 235). These participants in social upliftment drive expressed their anger against apartheid constraints by establishing new unity with other South African oppressed and investing in Freedom Charter adopted in 1955. It resolved to have multiracial democracy and the recognition of the birth-right.

Rejection of Divide and Rule

The apartheid government launched a new Tricameral Parliament with an Indian, Coloured and White chamber (the largest by far being the white chamber which also had the veto power). It attempted to co-opt the minorities into a conservative alliance in face of the mass revolts since 1976, and a new spate of trade restriction imposed on South Africa by the western countries in the 1980s.

A massive boycott campaign confronted the election schedule in September 1984. To utter surprise to government, an overwhelming majority of Indians and Coloureds preferred to support the boycott campaign (Naidoo 2010: 89). They saw the Tricameral system as a ploy to perpetuate White domination. However, a minority of Indians took part in the elections for the House of Delegates – the Indian Chamber. These Indians – largely commercial persons who came to South Africa as free passangers – did benefit materially under the model of separate development. Other Indians saw the lack of a chamber for Blacks was to prove a stumbling block for the system. The ANC and SACP intensified the political struggle. Jay Naidoo, as general secretary, led the largest mass front – the COSATU. African workers sang: ‘this is our coolie, he is our leader’. ‘In all my years in the labour movement and our struggle against apartheid, I was never once made to feel my ‘Indian-ness’’, writes Naidoo (Naidoo 2010: 100). Mac Maharaj, an ANC member in-exile from the 1970s, intruded South Africa and acted to rebuild mass base for the ANC. De Klerk became the State President in 1989 and took the purposeful decision to retract the ban on the ANC and all other political organisations in exile.

Refraining from paranoia of BEE

The anti-apartheid struggle succeeded to actualise the political content of Freedom Charter through setting up new multiracial democracy in 1994. The latter began de-racialisng the institution and inclusive economy. Frene Ginwala, a seasoned activist and a woman Indian South African, saw such social progression as the first speaker of the new parliament. Jay Naidoo supervised the redistribution programme – RDP. Some professional Whites found these changes demoralising and looked out for greener pasture abroad.

The government moved on to the neo-liberal policy called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GER) in 1997-98 – the last year of Mandela’s ministry. Mabeki, Mandela’s successor, initiated the scheme of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The latter meant an affirmative action for the Blacks. The company, the employer and educational institution showing accommodative approach toward the Blacks, received financial favour of the government. Equally, the demand for proportional access to resources and equity in development surfaced under Mabeki’s slogan of South Africanism and African Renaissance. Jay Naidoo experienced that his Indian ancestry was now used against him to oust him from the seat of RDP (Naidoo 2010: 293). Other diasporic Indians shared reservations in a meeting with Mandela in May 2000 over new South Africanism centred on BEE. They received reassurance and reposed pride in South African identity (Bhana 2000). They have been poised to seize newer opportunities. White capital, management know-how, and professional skills have been leaving the country. Unlike them, the South African Indians have been filling up the vacuum. Under White rule, the Group Areas Act dictated that the Indians could operate only in areas demarcated for use by the Indian community. In their own areas there were limited facilities for trading and minimal facilities for manufacturing. Several enterprising Indians used White nominees or formed companies with White shareholders to set up manufacturing operations in the main industrial regions of the country. Under ANC rule, the Indians have been getting into the mainstream manufacturing and service industries. Their educational attainment has yielded them a comparative advantage.

The promising and reassuring field of progress informs the following opinion of Jay Naidoo: ‘a sense of accomplishment became possible because his great-grandmother, Angamma decided to abandon her life in her [wretched Indian] village and travel across an ocean to a new land’ (Naidoo 2010: 248). It is not an irony that Naidoo opines so against the backdrop of his ousting from Mbeki’s ministry in favour of social equity in development.


The diasporic Indians had a remarkable political journey from the status of indentured workers to citizenship. They took critical decisions, articulated their positions and incurred risks for the stand-point, which had momentous bearing upon their political fate. They identified themselves as colonial patriots and stressed South Africanist identity in the early 20thc for making a case for settling down as free persons. In a short span of time, they recognised unity of their interest with other oppressed nationalities, thereby involvement in anti-apartheid struggles and constituting their popular embeddedness in the widest-possible social fabric of South Africa. The overwhelming size of them once again reaffirmed their African embeddedness by defeating the divide and rule policy through boycotting the Tricameral Parliament in 1984. They have refrained from paranoia of BEE and committed to South Africa as contributors to growth and social business. Thus, our exposition interpolates the issue of political adaptation undertaken by the Indian diaspora in the studies of the subject at issue. Instead of reinforcing a narrative of victimhood, it highlights the nature of their human agency responsible for shaping their political journey.

Dhiraj k Nite

Dhiraj K Nite, A Social Scientist,  University of Johannesburg, Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi. You can contact him through



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Photo Courtesy: The Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa


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2 thoughts on “Becoming South African Citizens: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

  1. rana (ron) on said:

    Awesome sir, I loved your writings

  2. debojyoti on said:

    interesting write up

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