IN 1860, many of them came off the boat with nothing more than dirt in their pockets. For most of their time in South Africa, they have been stereotyped as owners of corner shops and masters of haggling. Today, they are an integral part of South Africa’s political and economic landscape.
On Tuesday, 16 November, the country celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indians in South Africa. The day was set aside to honour a community that has persevered through some of the most tumultuous episodes in this country’s history, and has made its mark.
People were encouraged to light a candle or lamp in the evening to display in front of their homes as a tribute to the Indians who have helped to make this country great.
The Indian migration to South Africa began in 1860 when two ships from different parts of India set sail for Port Natal. The Belvedere left Calcutta on 4 October and the SS Truro departed Madras on 12 October.
Two groups of Indians came to these shores – one of indentured labourers and the other of tradesmen. Many returned to India, while those who remained chose to do so under unfavourable conditions.
Indians started moving to Buffalo City in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Since it was a port town, it was thought of as a place of opportunity.
According to City councillor Dinesh Vallabh, many of the new migrants were tradesmen and started out humbly. “One of the families, I was told, arrived here and did laundry as a means of trade,” he said.
Vallabh’s family history follows the typical immigrant story: “My grandfather came to Kimberley looking to take advantage of the diamond rush there. He had an Indian takeaway.”
His father later came to East London with a friend looking for business prospects. “He started selling fruit and vegetables from a cart. Then with his savings he started a corner shop.”
The business grew to become Bilimoria Superstore, a wholesaler in the Oriental Plaza.
A family that had made a considerable contribution to Buffalo City was the Harry family. The Harrys arrived in South Africa around the turn of the century, also looking for commercial opportunities. “Lalloo Harry came to East London and opened a business that repaired shoes,” said Karuna Harry, a director at Harry’s Printers.
Her late father-in-law, Mohan Harry, started the printing press as a hobby in 1929. “He started trading in Kimberley Street and grew the business from there,” she said.
Indians settled in the multiracial residential area of North End before they were forcefully relocated to Braelyn under the Group Areas Act. To this day, Braelyn is still predominantly inhabited by Indians.
Indian tradesmen saw South Africa as the land of opportunity as it was the central point along the trade route between Europe and the East. “They were stuck in villages and had no room for growth. So they came here,” explained Harry.
Some of the first Indian migrants to Buffalo City settled in King William’s Town during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. “This was a hub during the conflict. They made saddles for the horses.”
After the war, they moved to North End in East London, where many earned their living as entrepreneurs. “By nature, Indians are very entrepreneurial. They are hardworking, diligent and venturesome,” said Vallabh.
“They have tenacity. They built a community among themselves and helped one another,” Harry added.
These are the traits and values that Vallabh and Harry believe are part of Indian culture.
Many of today’s young Indians have progressed beyond the corner shops, earning their bread as accountants, teachers, doctors and information technology professionals. They acknowledge, however, that their achievements are a testament to the hard work ethic of their forefathers.
Dharmesh Dhaya, an IT specialist at Arcus-Gibb, believes he would not have accomplished much had his great-grandfather not created the platform for future generations to progress. “Indians have cemented their place here. We have helped to make this country unique.”
Sumayya Ismail, a journalist based in Johannesburg, said Indians should look beyond their own customs and embrace a new South African culture. “While it is important to maintain your historical and cultural background, it should not define [your] identity. South Africans must see themselves as South Africans first and not in their ethnic groups. Hopefully, as young Indians, we are making strides towards that.”
Keveshen Chetty, a systems analyst at EC-Asgisa, supported Ismail’s view, saying the future of the Indian would be bright if they could let go of prejudices within the community. He was referring to the division between Indians of northern descent and those of southern descent. “We do have a promising future, as long as we learn to overcome the segregation among Indians. That would be the key to success for the next 150 years.”
Chetty believes Indians fully integrated themselves into the country’s social fabric long before the modern generation considered themselves fully fledged South Africans. He said it occurred the moment some of them took up arms in the Second World War. “My grandfather was a war veteran. He was in the navy and fought off the coast of East Africa.”
Harry was adamant that Indians were here to stay. “We are loyal people who make their mark. We are always giving back. We see ourselves as South Africans first, then as Indian. We will help to grow this country.
“Though Indian culture is rich, we have adopted South African culture and made it our own as well,” she said.
– This article first appeared on the Official Buffalo City Metropolitan Muncipality website on 17 November 2010.