Not all South African Indians are the ancestors of indentured labourers. In 1869 the first “passenger Indians” arrived and worked as craftsmen, artisans, teachers and traders who paid their own way to the Natal colony and travelled as British subjects. Before long, Indians became subject to discriminatory laws, with the South African Republic (Transvaal) passing Law No. 3 of 1885 just 25 years after Indian labourers first arrived. The discriminatory law applied to “any of the native races of Asia” and provided for, among other things, the assignment of Indians to specific living areas and the registration of those intending to set up trade.

In the following five decades almost 150 000 Indians arrived in South Africa, both as indentured labourers and as “passenger Indians”. As early as 1899, the Indian population in the South African Republic numbered 17 000, and by 1904 Indians outnumbered whites in Natal.

Fast-forward almost 155 years and Indians have a different identity in South Africa today. While the reasons for immigration differ, with oral tales being passed down through the generations, a recurring tale tells of the British promising young Indian men gold growing on the chilli trees of South Africa. Today, young Indians could be between the fifth and seventh generation of Indians in South Africa and have developed their own language style, culture, identity and stereotypes.

The South African Indian identity of today is a far cry from the history of labourers toiling in the sugar cane fields. Instead, South African Indians are stereotypically associated with rims, gold teeth, and always looking for a bargain. McDonald’s recently aired an advert featuring Indian comedians Simmi Areff, Karou Charou (known only as Karou in the ad) and Jai’prakash Sewram. The advert played on Indian stereotypes, such as the exaggerated nasal accent of Durban Indians, the fear of Indian mothers and the love of modified cars. McDonald’s marketed their new McFeast Spicy as “hot like a twin turbo”. The advert perpetuates the bulk of Indian stereotypes and serves as a representation of the perception of Indian identity within the diverse spectrum that is the South African population.

Perdeby asked accomplished classical South Indian Bharatnatyam dancer Kumari Deepika Naidoo what she thought about Indian culture and heritage in South Africa. She replied that South African Indians are moving toward a more universal South African identity and that a person’s heritage should not be seen as a barrier to who or what they identify as. Times columnist Nikita Ramkisoon stated in an opinion column that while South Africans of Indian descent may be officially known as Indian, they are in fact South African.

Some UP students of Indian descent seem to share the idea that the South African Indian youth are moving toward a more South African identity, as opposed to a more Indian identity. According to second-year LLB student Akshay Keshav, the Indian youth have moved toward a very individual type of identity in the South African society, but at the same time have kept their roots and heritage. Courtney Steven Isaiah, a second-year BA Law student, said that Indian South Africans are stereotyped and misunderstood because they are categorised according to the perceived stereotypical Indian image and behaviour of having gold teeth and being obsessed with car engines and mag wheels.

South Africans of Indian descent feature prominently in South African history and the country we live in today. They constitute anti-apartheid activists such as Ahmed Kathrada, as well as the late Fatima Meer and Kader Asmal. South African test cricket captain Hashim Amla is also of Indian descent, as is famous former ANC spokesperson Sathyandranath “Mac” Maharaj and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Pravin Gordhan to name a few.

With social media becoming accessible at an exponential rate and popular culture, mannerisms and fashion being adopted by South African youth of all races and cultural orientations, South African youth of Indian descent appear to be adopting a more South African culture. While the Indian community may have their own slang, mannerisms and stereotypes, South African Indian youth are seeming to identify with the youth of South Africa as a whole, and are moving toward a national, instead of a cultural, identity.


Photo: Shen Scott

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