Indentured Indian labourers
Indentured Indian labourers were robbed of identity and caste - they were simply a number.

Anton Burggraaf

November 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured Indian labourers in South Africa. It’s a month that is being honoured with festivities and reflection in the Indian community.

What is perhaps not well known is that South Africans of Indian origin are the world’s largest non-immigrant Indian population outside of India: people of Indian origin in the US and UK may be bigger in number but they are recent immigrants. A hundred and fifty years is a considerable milestone.

A new documentary commemorates this incredible history. African Indian Odyssey recently wrapped shooting in Johannesburg and premieres on 13 November on Saffron TV open time (DStv channel 456), with further screenings in the month of November.

The documentary brings together leading South African intellectual, political and cultural figures to tell the kaleidoscopic story of Indians in South Africa. It’s an anthology of dreams and sacrifices that started in the cane fields of Natal and went on to touch the heart and soul of the country’s anti-apartheid movement. The result is a powerful portrait of a South African minority, one that overturns stereotypes and gives fresh insight into what it means to be South African.

“We wanted to make a film during the 150th anniversary that would contribute to the story of contemporary South African history,” says Stan Joseph, executive producer of the film and head of Ochre Moving Pictures. “We don’t see this as something just for the Indian community; it’s a part of all of our history. We hope it will contribute to the ongoing struggle to respect diversity in South Africa.”

The film is an erudite exploration of forgotten histories and goes some way to identifying subject matter to future documenters of an African Indian past. Shot on the streets of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, African Indian Odyssey combines location, archive material and interviews with ordinary people, historians and social commentators.

So who were the early indentured labourers? Why did they leave their homeland for the south east coast of Africa? And what would the future hold for them on shores so vastly different from everything they knew? These are some of the pressing questions that the documentary attempts to answer through interweaving the personal journeys of four narrator-presenters: Amrita Gandhi, an Indian television personality and the great-granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, artist Riason Naidoo, author Achmat Dangor and historian William Gumede.

The notion of home is inextricably linked to identity and so the histories of immigrant populations provide a fascinating view of how human beings create communities and forge relationships with their host countries. It is a complex question compounded for the Indian community by their diverse origins and ethnicity, indentured or “passenger” status and the evolving sociopolitical climate of the last century and a half.

Watch a promo of the film:

Academic Uma Dhupelia-Masthrie sketches the background: “The first Indians to South Africa were actually slaves. They arrived from the 17th century to the 18th century ... were captured or sold in bondage, and made there way to Cape Town on the Dutch ships.” Many came from Bengal, Bihar and the Malabar or Coromandel Coasts. But no record remains of these people because they were soon absorbed into the Malay community of the Cape Colony.

By 1860, indentured labour took the place of slavery. Now labour was tied by contract to an employer for fixed duration (usually five years), in return for wages and the cost of passage. It was a pernicious system – slavery by another name. A little known fact is that Indian labour was designed to fill a gap resulting from the refusal of a proud Zulu nation to be co-opted into the labour economy of the time.

Ashwin Desai, sociologist and political analyst, maintains it was akin to scab labour. He points out that it was only after the sacking of Ulundi and the subjugation of the Zulu kingdom by the British that Indian labour was replaced by a local black workforce. This was when Indians started leaving farms for the cities. The trend continued so that by the end of the 19th century there were over 20 000 Indians in the Cape and Transvaal, lured by the diamond and gold economies of the hinterland.

Desai also debunks the myth that the indentured labourers were all of lower caste, “thugs and criminals ... In fact [they] cut a huge swathe through Indian society.” He points to evidence of this in the first people to disembark from the SS Truro – the first ship to arrive in South Africa from India, in November 1860. All creeds were represented, including Christians and Muslims. What is also fascinating is that language divisions, rather than caste, were the defining feature of indentured society. Religion and culture was maintained throughout and places of worship became the meeting ground for resistance to colonial oppression.

By the 1890s, indentured Indian labour gave way to “passenger” immigrants, workers of all kinds who came to find formal employment. In the 1920s, even more established merchant families found there way to South Africa on the immigrant trail.

The film details the amazing story of Mahatma Ghandi and his attempt to unite the Indian groupings, culminating in the 1913 strike. This little-publicised event – and under-reported part of South African history – saw cane fields burned and labourers leave their employ en masse. The strike led to a unification of Indians above caste, culture and creed, and was a step toward creating a mass movement against oppression.

There are memorable interviews with playwright Ronnie Govender on growing up in Cato Manor and a guided tour through the Fordsburg area by Fietas festival director, Feizal Mamdoo. Interestingly, Fietas was the name given to the area in Johannesburg now known as Pageview and is another example of a forgotten part of the colourful history of South Africa’s multicultural communities – such as the better-documented Sophiatown. Fietas disappeared with the monstrous forced removals of the 1950s. As Desai says, it was only after 1952 and during the Defiance Campaign that one sees the start of a common political identity in nonracialism.

The film unpacks the uneasy relationship between the African National Congress and the Indian political groupings at the time when Mandela first joined the ANC youth league. This fact is frequently glossed over in popular discourse, which often chooses to see struggle history through rose-tinted glasses. This tension continues into the present, and historian Goolam Vahed issues a warning: historians should not glorify the Indian-African relationship; it is still something that needs to be resolved.

African Indian Odyssey is a fascinating interrogation of identity, origin and sociopolitical consciousness. The film is by no means a definitive account of the community or the history but it offers previously untold insights into a people that have carved themselves a home during a tumultuous time in modern South African history.

The film is directed by Hina Saiyada and written by Jon Soske. The Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits University (Cisa) contributed the academic research to give the documentary a credible and entertaining account of the stories.

The film premieres on Saffron TV on Saturday 13 November at 16h30 (DStv open time, channel 456). The Johannesburg premiere is hosted by Cisa and Saffron TV and is on Thursday 18 November at Wits University. The Durban premiere is screened in association with the Avalon Group at the Supernova Theatre at the Suncoast Casino on 24 November. To reserve a seat at the opening night screenings, space permitting, contact Mary Smith on 011 639 0050 or email mary@ochre.co.za

Other transmissions of African Indian Odyssey on Saffron TV:

  • Sunday 14 November at 07h30, 13h00 (open time) and 20h00
  • Monday 15 November at 08h00 and 16h30
  • Thursday 18 November at 20h00 and 00h00
  • Friday 19 November at 08h30, 12h30 and 16h30