Indentured Indian labourers and their struggle for citizenship in South Africa

By Brij Maharaj

15 Nov 2023

Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

16 November 2023, marks the 163rd anniversary of the arrival in South Africa of indentured labourers from India. From the start, the economic progress of the immigrants and their ability to overcome almost impossible odds generated envy, bitterness and anti-Indian sentiment from whites.

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The origin of South African Indians can be traced back to the demand for indentured labourers in colonial Natal in the mid-19th century. As Indians completed their period of indenture and ventured into other sectors of the economy, they were perceived to be a threat to European interests.

By the end of the 19th century, three classes of Indians could be identified in Natal: i) indentured labourers; ii) those who had completed their indenture and worked as free Indians; and iii) traders, or passenger Indians, who emigrated to Natal at their own cost. For a century since their arrival, the government policy was that Indians should be repatriated to India.

Indians played an important role in the economy of Natal. In 1877 the Protector of Indian Immigrants reported: “All the fishing and nearly all the market gardening and hawking of fruit and vegetables are in the hands of Indians.”

Little or no capital was required for such petty enterprises. At the turn of the century, they were also engaged in skilled and semi-skilled activities in industry and commerce, and all sectors of the economy of Natal were dependent to some extent on Indian labour.

In 1901 the Protector remarked: “There is no getting away from the fact that, if, by any reason, Indians were unhappily withdrawn from the colony, or even their introduction discontinued for a short time, the whole of the industries of the country would at once be simply paralysed. Not only would this be the case in regard to any private enterprise, but every public institution in the colony would suffer more or less.”

In July 1903, Sir Liege Hulett, former Prime Minister of Natal, paid tribute to indentured Indians:

“The condition of the colony before the importation of Indian labour was one of gloom… and it was only by the government assisting the importation of labour that the colony began at once to revive. They could not find in the whole of the Cape and the Transvaal what could be found on the coast of Natal — 10,000 acres of land in one plot and in one crop — and that was entirely due to the importation of Indians… Durban was absolutely built up by the Indian population.”

Discrimination and repatriation

The general economic progress of the immigrant group and their ability to overcome almost impossible odds generated a great deal of envy, bitterness and anti-Indian sentiment from whites. In 1876 the Natal Witness, which represented white interests, argued that “Indians were not in need of protection. It is rather the European community that requires protection against the heathen coolie”.

Anti-Indian agitation culminated in a three-fold legislative programme which was chiefly conceived to curb the economic and political force of the Indians, and ultimately to promote their repatriation to India.

The first part of the programme was an attempt to disenfranchise Indians in terms of the Franchise Act of 1896. Interestingly, only three Africans and 251 Indians had the vote in Natal.

Secondly, in terms of Law 17 of 1895, an annual poll tax of £3 was imposed on all Indian heads of households who did not re-indenture or return to India. Failure to pay the tax could result in deportation or imprisonment. In 1900 this tax was extended to all members of the family.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lest we forget: Indian indentured labourers of 1860 paved the way for the youth of 2020

Finally, in terms of the Dealers’ Licences Act No 18 of 1897, local authorities could refuse trading licences to Indians without fear of them having recourse to the courts.

The “Indian question” was a key political issue in the first 60 years of the 20th century in South Africa, and it became an international issue when it was raised repeatedly in the United Nations’ General Assembly from 1946.

A consistent policy of all governments during this period was the view that all Indians should ultimately be repatriated to India. In 1914 Mahatma Gandhi responded that “compulsory repatriation is a physical and political impossibility; voluntary repatriation by way of granting free passages and similar inducements will not, as my experience teaches me, be availed of to any appreciable extent. The only effective strategy for a great state to adopt is to face responsibility fairly and squarely, to do away with the remains of the system of indenture and to level up this part of the population and make use of it for the general welfare of the Union.”

In 1925, DF Malan, the Nationalist Minister of the Interior, stated that Indians were aliens in South Africa and called for “a very considerable reduction of the Indian population in this country”.

Rejection and alienation

On 14 January 1926, the Cape Times contended that: “The supposed social ‘menace’ arising from the presence of the Indian in Natal is the subject of even greater exaggeration… It would be difficult to get one per cent of the European population of Durban to testify to specific instances of detriment, inconvenience or even annoyance caused by Indians… the real cause of the annoyance is clearly race prejudice.”

A small number who chose voluntary repatriation faced serious challenges in India. In 1931 a report by Bhawani Dayal Sannyasi, a repatriate born in South Africa himself, and Benarsidas Chaturvedi, highlighted the difficulties experienced by those who returned:

“These repatriates were scattered throughout the district crowded in bustees (shacks), malaria-ridden, without work, nourishment or medical relief… Many of them on their return… had been driven from their villages because they could not fit in with the social structure of the village; some, unable to find work, had drifted down to Calcutta in the hope of securing employment. All of them, disillusioned on their return to India, had come to the riverside with the vague hope that a ship might somehow and sometime take them back to the colony they had left.”

In his presidential address to the conference of the Natal Indian Congress on 1 June 1947, Dr Monty Naicker emphasised:

“We are citizens of this country. We are taxed in the usual way. All we ask is to be given in return those rights which belong to all citizens in a democratic state. We are not foreigners. We are South Africans of Indian descent, in the same way as others are South Africans of English, European or African descent. Nearly all of us were born in this country. Our fathers came here in the 1860s and after at the express desire of the then Government of Natal on the promise of rights ‘not a whit inferior’ to those of the white man…”.

The repatriation of Indians was a key issue in the National Party election manifesto in 1948:

“The party holds the view that Indians are a foreign and outlandish element which is unassimilable. They can never become part of the country and therefore must be treated as an immigrant community. The party accepts as a basis of its policy the

repatriation of as many Indians as possible… No Indian immigrant will be allowed to enter the country. So long as there are still Indians in the country, a definite policy of separation will be applied.”

In a presentation at a symposium organised by the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1956 on the theme “The Indian as a South African”, Dr S Cooppan and Dr AD Lazarus argued “that in spite of certain observable differences in appearance and cultural practices, the Indian people are by birth, length of residence, acclimatisation, kinship associations, education, acculturation, and economic pursuits an integral part of South African society. They enrich South African culture by their very differences… South Africa is not populated by an homogeneous group of people. The only goal for such a nation is to achieve unity in diversity.”

On 16 May 1961, the government finally accepted that Indians were a permanent part of the South African population: “In the past, the Asiatics were justified in feeling they were being regarded as a foreign group and do not belong here… But gradually people came to realise… that the Indians in this country were our permanent responsibility.

“They are here and the vast majority of them are going to remain here, and although the repatriation scheme is used on a very small scale, the vast majority of them are South African citizens and as such they are also entitled to the necessary attention and the necessary assistance.” DM

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