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Publication Details

Reference
Gandhi, Ela
 (2010) Indian indentured workers and their political legacy
Eye on Civil Society : -.

Summary
In the last few months we have been exposed to a number of speeches,
articles and books focusing on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of
Indian indentured workers.

Until 1994, propagandist education emphasised our differences rather
than similarities, interpreting history as the religiously‑ordained
superior entitlement of the white race. I remember learning about the
“Indian problem” and “the native incursions”, reflecting the subordinate
position of other race groups in the country. This resulted in a
vertical stratification of South African community in terms of class,
and a systematic break up of family life experienced, as the devastating
effects of poverty began to emerge.

Resistance is also our common heritage, and the slogan “apartheid
divides, UDF unites”, coined in the turbulent 1980’s, was the key to our
unity and nation‑building processes.

As we consider the 150th anniversary, there are two very significant
features. The first is indentured labour. Historically, white settlers
who annexed huge tracts of land would not have been able to run their
huge farms without slave labour. Indentured workers from rural areas of
India were persuaded to sell all their belongings and come to a new
country where they were told that they could build a better life for
themselves and their families.

Arriving in South Africa they were rudely shocked to find that they were
all treated as commodities, scrutinized by the buyers and paid for and
bought to work on a five year contract. With a few exceptions, wives and
children were also forced to work. There was no limit on the working
hours, no days off, pregnant women had to work to the very last day and
even nursing mothers had to often leave their babies unattended, to
attend to the needs of their employers, and these needs sometimes
included sexual favours.

Other systems included the imposition of a hut tax on rural independent
African communities. This forced African men and women to seek work.
Because they were desperate, they would work for low wages and face
difficult conditions of work. It was this law that Chief Bambatha
rebelled against.

Later, pass laws were imposed and those arrested were sometimes sent to
the farms as prison labourers. This system was exposed by Ruth First in
her investigation of the Bethal farms in the late 1940’s and early
1950’s leading to the potato boycott.

Today we have sweatshops. The common thread through all these different
strategies is exploitation of one human being by another. So for me the
relevance of the 150th anniversary is to once again be horrified by the
atrocities of the indenture system and pledge to work to ensure that
nothing even remotely akin to it is allowed to exist in the world again.

The second point on difference and unity relates to the 1972‑73 revival
of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). There were very intense debates on
the efficacy of this move, culminating in a poster demonstration at the
inaugural meeting which was held to seek a mandate from the public for
the revival. The posters clearly stated, “THINK BLACK NOT INDIAN.”

Notwithstanding differences of opinion, the NIC was revived as a
predominantly Indian political organisation, working for a united
liberated South Africa. While there are many views on this subject, my
personal view is based on one example: the trade union movement.

We see that the unions’ strength lies in mobilising sectors and then
uniting them into a general trade union. Those who try to mobilise the
workers on a general basis remain small and ineffective. Sectors are
organised more effectively because of three factors, they have common
constraints and issues around which they readily come together; they
have a common employer base; and they have common wage and conditions of
work constraints.

Leaders such as Monty Naicker, Yusuf Dadoo, Billy Nair, Moses Mabida,
A.B. Xuma, Duma Nokwe and others ensured that they built unity among the
different race groups. .

Dr Naicker, whose 100th birth anniversary we celebrate this year, is
remembered by many to be a medical practitioner who attended to the
poorest of the poor ailing patients and he gave immediate treatment
before checking whether the patient had money to pay the fees. One
person recalled that Naicker not only waived the fee because he did not
have any money, but after treating him, Naicker gave him money to get a
bus back home, and buy some bread.

I believe that this spirit is of extreme importance as we move into the
21st century, a time of environmental degradation, climate change and
other disasters which make our planet fragile. Moreover, millions of
people have no access to safe drinking water, shelter, education and
health care. We face the huge divide between the few billionaires of our
times and billions of poverty‑stricken people. How does one deal with
this situation?

We have to change our thinking from highly individualistic attitudes to
communal selfless attitudes, from a highly consumerist society to a
conservationist society. Such a society will not lend itself to
corruption or to amassing of wealth. This is the legacy left to us by
our leaders who struggled against tremendous odds but stood tall through
it all.

A people who will wait for miracles to happen will continue to wait. We
can build an egalitarian society ourselves through changing our own
attitudes. The capitalists will be forced to stop producing in excess
when we stop buying excessively. For me, then, the relevance of the
150th anniversary lies in halting exploitation and changing attitudes.

Through our struggle we spoke about the triple oppression: because we
are black, because we are poor and on the basis of gender. We still have
a cause to fight for today..


Ela Gandhi, chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, delivered
the Harold Wolpe Lecture at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society last
Thursday. The next Wolpe Lecture features Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed
on November 16; contact 260 3195 for details..

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