During the latter half of 2010, a series of events commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the first Indian indentured laborers in Natal will take place across South Africa. The preparations have already inspired wide-spread debate; individuals from a variety of communities and political perspectives have raised similar questions: to what extent does celebrating ?Indian contributions? to South African history falsely isolate the lives and struggles of Indian South Africans from other histories? Does celebrating an Indian past homogenize a story divided in many ways?by class, language, religion, caste, political loyalty and province? Who is authorized to speak as and for ?the Indian South African community?? What role will individuals from other groups, particularly Africans, play in organizing these celebrations and discussions? What histories are in danger of being forgotten?
On the whole, the ?150 years? committees in the different provinces appear to have adopted one of three strategies. The first tact?which derives from a persistent sense that existing histories have marginalized Indians?centers on a heroic narrative of 'Indian contributions' to the anti-apartheid struggle and nation building. Concerned with the possibility of an anti-Indian backlash among certain sections of the ruling party, these organizers hope to counter increasing rhetorical attacks against minorities by establishing the centrality of Indians to the struggle for national liberation. The second approach seeks to highlight a political tradition of non-racial unity in order to demonstrate the ways that ?Indian history? is inseparable from a broader legacy of oppression and common social struggle. Suspicious of ghettoizing the events around '150 years', this strategy emphasizes a broader South African rather than an Indian identity by celebrating political leaders, like Dr. M.N. Naicker, who were critical in building the multi-racial Congress Alliance of 1950s. A third outlook largely avoids the question of South African Indian history altogether by shifting the focus to the past and present relations between India and South Africa: a celebratory narrative of bilateralism that risks sidestepping an open discussion on race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. At the same time, this heavy emphasis on India?s contributions to the anti-Apartheid struggle speaks to a broad desire to accentuate connections between India and the diaspora.
Whatever their different strengths, these narratives do not go far enough in confronting the most difficult question facing South Africa's historians: the urgent need to desegregate the past?writing histories that transcend the racial framing of 'African', 'Indian', and 'Coloured' without denying the reality of persistent divisions and differences among those oppressed by colonialism and the Apartheid system. The central problem with the one-sided celebration of 'Indian contributions' is that it rests on the image of a collective, racial heritage, and this assumption often feeds back into different forms of anti-Indian racism. Like with every other 'national group' some individuals gave their lives to end apartheid while others collaborated with the regime; some worked to overcome racial divisions while many enriched themselves by exploiting other sectors of the oppressed; some embraced and others rejected the racial or tribal identities promoted by the Nationalist government. Versions of history that whitewash these intractable realities breed cynicism. They are often interpreted as an effort by members of one group to assert separateness and advance a narrowly self-serving agenda.
A more adequate history would seek to accomplish four things. First, it would do justice to the immense diversity of South Asian cultures and experiences in South Africa. It would include Indian slaves in the Western Cape as well as indentured labor in Natal and 'Passengers' (migrants who came of their own accord) throughout the country, exploring the many convergences and divergences between Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi-speaking and other communities. It would also honestly address prejudices and class hierarchies that existed 'and continue to exist' between different sections of the Indian population, including the situation of post-1994 South Asian migrants who often face tremendous exploitation and hostility in predominantly Indian areas. Second, a more rigorous history would openly discuss the forms of mutual distrust, stereotypes, and even racism that persist throughout South African society. In the context of the '150 years celebration', special attention should be given to the history of African/Indian racial dynamics in Natal. Within the anti-apartheid movement, the issue of racism among the oppressed was either taboo or superficially handled: the assumption was sometimes that, after liberation, the problems of chauvinism and inequality would solve themselves. Under the new dispensation, the question of anti-Indian or anti-African prejudice within black communities has occasionally exploded in public controversy (for example, around Mbongeni Ngema's song amaNdiya), but it has never been fully confronted in a sustained discussion that draws in intellectuals, activists, trade unionists and community members from across the racial divide. Finally, a better history would take a more critical attitude towards past efforts to build social and political unity, exploring their failures as well as celebrating successes.
However, the anxieties around '150 years' are not just about history, but also reflect the rapidly changing political situation, particularly the aggressive assertion of a racialist nationalism by sections of the ANC Youth League and its open attacks against minorities inside and outside the government. While anti-Indian attitudes have a long history in the Youth League stretching back to Anton Lembede, this resurgence has its basis in the rise of an aspirant African bourgeoisie, which remains heavily depended on the state and seeks to weaken constraints on its ability to further accumulate wealth. Hence, it employs racial demagoguery to attack sections of the alliance it perceives as political obstacles, particularly the SACP and COSATU. Unfortunately, the Youth League's fetid soundings ring true to many ears precisely because of the enormous privilege that white, Indian and - to a much lesser extent - coloured South Africans tenaciously maintain as groups. Until very recently, the response to this rhetorical onslaught has been rather muted both within and outside the ANC (besides, of course, from the Afrikaner right). The events organized around '150 years' thus have a substantial opportunity. They should strive to broaden out from a narrowly 'Indian' discussion, draw in the broadest possible range of participants, and use the rich and varied histories of Indians within South Africa to confront the challenge posed by the new anti-minority chauvinism. Otherwise, the '150 years' celebrations run the risk of feeding back into this very phenomenon by once again reiterating sweeping, racial narratives that artificially partition South Africa's complicated and entangled past.