People of South Asian origin in Kenya and South Africa are united in a shared history of the circulation of commodities, people and ideas across the Indian Ocean. Sketching a profile of the similarities and differences between Kenyan and South African Asian communities is a complex task because of the multitude of caste, class, language, religion and territorial belonging. What is certain is that each country’s unique political and historical context has influenced which of those markers of identity have importance today and which have faded away. Although the Kenyan Asian community have more mobile forms of belonging beyond Kenya than their South African counterparts, both have in common tremendous diversity, on-going struggles over a dialogue with African nationalism and question marks over the future of their communities.
The movement of South Asians to East and South Africa originate to varying degrees in the labour demands of the British Empire. In Kenya, a pre-existing mobile population of merchants from Gujarat (and elsewhere) formed the basis for the expansion of the Indian community under the British. In contrast, there were very few people of Indian origin in South Africa before labour shortages in the sugar plantations of colonial Natal brought cheap indentured labourers under conditions of near-slavery. The first ship brought Tamil and Telugu speaking Hindus and Christians from Madras in 1860, and continued until 1911 with Hindi-speaking arrivals from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The majority stayed to form the foundation of the current community as dukawallahs and civil servants in the colonial government. Along with the discovery of gold and diamonds, this large Indian population proved attractive for ‘free’ or ‘passenger’ Indians (so called as they paid their own passage from India). The majority who arrived were Urdu, Gujarati and Marathi-speaking Muslim merchants from Kathiawar and United Province and along with a few Gujarati-speaking Hindus. Although the ‘passenger’ Indians initially formed only 10% of the Indian population, their descendents now comprise 30%. In Kenya, whilst cheap indentured labour was also required for the construction of the Uganda railway, the majority of the 32,000 labourers returned to India once their period of indenture was over. Instead, it was the non-indentured Indians from Goa, the Punjab, Gujarat and elsewhere attracted by the opportunities opened up by the railway that formed the majority basis of the East African Asian community.
Despite tremendous religious and cultural variations, Indians in both Kenya and South Africa were subject to the restrictions of a tripartite racial system that assigned different rights and privileges to each group. In both the Kenyan and South African three-tiered racial structure, Asians were used as ‘middlemen’, an intermediary buffer group between the white colonizers and the black Africans. Privileges in both countries included a higher standard of education, housing and healthcare, and access to middle management and clerical jobs. Although there were some restrictions on Kenyan Asian ownership of land, particularly in the White Highlands and in agricultural areas, compared to South Africa there were vastly fewer restrictions placed on movement. Kenyan Asians were able to circulate freely within and beyond Kenya and the strong trading links with India and elsewhere in East Africa were beneficial to the colonial economy and actively encouraged. In the aftermath of the exodus following post-independence Africanisation policies Kenyan Asians were able to maintain strong ties, and therefore cultural roots, to family in India, the UK, Canada and the USA. Moreover, the continued circulation of people between these countries has allowed the specific communities that make up the Kenyan Asian population to consolidate and recreate their ethnically exclusive cultures.
In contrast, the entrepreneurial skills exhibited by Gujarati traders and descendents of former indentured labourers worked against the Indian community in South Africa when it came to the triple racial system of Apartheid. The economic competition presented by the Indian community brought them into conflict with the white authorities. This became expressed in racially aggressive policies limiting land ownership, tenure, trading rights and migration. The restrictions of apartheid segregation policies culminated in the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950 which saw the city centre of Durban rezoned exclusively for whites. Indians were uprooted from their settled communities to townships on the outskirts of the city. Moreover, India and other countries severed travel, economic and diplomatic exchange with South Africa between 1946 and 1990. The result of this embargo period was the economic, cultural and political isolation of the South African Indians from India and other overseas Indian communities.
As specific ties to homes, families, businesses and villages faded during the Apartheid years, so did Indians’ ability to speak an Indian language. In contrast to Kenya where language remains an important means of communication in homes and workplaces, in South Africa a recent piece of research revealed that only 5% of Indian people spoke an Indian language at home. Even amongst the Gujarati business community, business is done in English, Urdu and increasingly Arabic. The only exposure to Indian languages for younger people is the world of Bollywood, Tamil cinema and contemporary Indian dance music emanating from London, Toronto and New York. Even as Indian languages themselves have almost disappeared, languages continue to be used in South Africa to define people’s identities. Unlike in Kenya where a specific region of origin in India is a more important marker of a Kenyan-Asian’s identity than language, in South Africa language is important to the definition of specific Indian communities (Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi). Although people’s identification with and ties to specific geographic areas in India may have eroded, the language of Indian South African’s ancestors mark, in the main, religion, general geographical origin and by association socio-economic background.
In the contemporary period although most of the original class borders between indentured and passenger Indians’ descendants have disappeared there remains a socio-economic hierarchy inside the South African Indian community. At the top is an elite group of business-orientated Indians, many of whom acquired large amounts of wealth and social standing during Apartheid based on exploitative relationships with other Indians as well as Africans. This was supported by the apartheid regime, which was keen to create a conservative Indian political elite as a buffer for the anxieties of the rest of the Indian community. As in Kenya, politically conservative and accommodating Indian business owners became the collective stereotype for Indians in general as responsible for the exploitation and domination of Africans.
Notwithstanding the activities of a small group of lawyers and trade unionists, the Kenyan-Asian community on the whole remained politically conservative and insular in the pre-independence struggle. This contrasts with South Africa, where the conservative politics of the South African Indian merchant class jarred with the emergence of a radical group of Indian intellectuals, businesspeople and manufacturers alongside disaffected working class Indians. There was a radical shift in Indian politics from the 1970s to a more aggressive and allied front with other non-Europeans. Many South African Indians actively participated in the ANC’s antiapartheid movement, others in antigovernment uprisings and many industrialists helped set up African-run factories. The desire to cut across racial boundaries to form a united alliance against apartheid meant articulating an alternative identity for the community not as simply Indian but as black, Coloured, and above all, as African.
Although the historical presence of Asians in Kenya goes back further than in South Africa, the collective commitment of Kenyan-Asians to the post-colonial nation remains, in general, somewhat hesitant. In post-independence Kenya, as in post-apartheid South Africa, Asians were affected by various discriminatory employment, property and trading laws targeting the disproportionate concentration of wealth that resulted, in part, from their relatively privileged position in the colonial economy. Kenyan-Asians also continued to maintain close family ties with Indians from their respective communities in India and Britain throughout the colonial period. With a tempting offer of citizenship from Britain the majority of Kenyan Asians chose to leave for the UK and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. The influx of new Indian entrepreneurs from independent India and the rest of East Africa have also expanded the opportunities for the Kenyan Asian community to retain fluid and mobile connections to family in multiple places at once. As a lack of effective leadership, representation in the media and will to engage in politics continues to hamper political representation, Kenyan Asians will continue to be reluctant to stake their future fully in Kenya.
The Indian commitment to South Africa remains in post-apartheid times despite the legacy of mutual suspicion that also informs their dialogue with African nationalism. Although economic divides exist within the South African Indian community the visible economic wealth of Asians in South Africa, particularly in the exclusive gated residences in formerly white areas, has not dispelled the perception of their cushioned position in South Africa’s economy. On the other hand, South African Indians face declining welfare grants, increasing crime rates, job losses and lack of university places from the restructuring of labour laws to empower the African majority. Despite these similarities in the realities of post-independence and post-apartheid citizenship, Indians have cultivated a permanent bond with South Africa, a country they helped –and continue to help- author. Though South African Indians are keen to assert their individual Indian identity and culture, India itself is mostly a dreamed-about place of ancestor’s memories, Bollywood movies and nostalgic traditions: In the everyday realities of South African existence, Indians actively engage across racial divides in political, civic, economic and social life. As the boundaries of the diverse Indian culture and identity blur and a small but increasing number of especially young South-African Indians seek a life in the UK and Australasia, questions remain as to how national and community life will continue to balance.
Dr Jen Dickinson is a development geographer at the University of Leicester, who examines the spatial politics and historical transformation of social and economic life in post-colonial contexts.