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From bondage to freedom - The 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian workers in South Africa

This feature on Indian South Africans forms part of a larger feature on the People of South Africa. It is a long term project to build a comprehensive overview of the rich diversity of peoples, traditions and cultures that address the question, ‘Who are South Africans?’ This year, 2010, is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Indian indentured workers and the birth of what is the Indian South African community in South Africa. SAHO is using this feature to launch a major project to build a comprehensive social and political history of this African community.


South Africans of Indian origin comprise a heterogeneous community distinguished by different languages, religions, caste and regional origins. The first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era, as slaves, in 1684.

South Africans of Indian origin comprise a heterogeneous community distinguished by different languages, religions, caste and regional origins. The first Indians arrived during the Dutch colonial era, as slaves, in 1684.

A conservative calculation, based on records, shows that over 16 300 slaves from the Indian subcontinent were brought to the Cape In fact, between 1690 and 1725 over 80% of the slaves being brought to the Cape were Indian. This practice continued until the abolition of slavery in 1838 and by the 1880s Indians were totally integrated into the local  Cape White, Black and what came to be known as the Cape Coloured communities.

In the second half of the 19th Century, a second wave of people from the Indian subcontinent came to Natal. It was made up of indentured workers who came  in November 1860 and from the 1870 onwards as 'free' or 'passenger' Indians.

The decision to import indentured labourers to work for the Natal Colonial Government on Natal’s sugar plantations came as a result of a triangular pact among the Governments of Natal, Britain and India. The ‘free’ or ‘Passenger Indians’, those who paid their own passage and came as immigrants, from India, Mauritius, and other sugar colonies, were mainly small traders and their retinue of servants, plus young men in search of work, hawkers and workers.. However, all new immigrations, other than entry of wives and families of the ‘Passenger Indians’ was stopped in 1914 in terms of the Gandhi – Smuts Agreement.

Indentured women working in the fields of Natal (Kearsney Estate)

Between November 1860 and 1911(when the system of indenture was stopped) nearly 152 184 indentured workers from across India arrived in Natal. After serving their indenture, the first category of Indians were free to remain in South Africa or to return to India. By 1910, nearly 26.85% indentured men returned to India, but most chose to stay.  This group plus the free Indians became the forbearers of the majority of present-day South African Indians.

A key factor that helped forge a common South African ‘Indian’ identity was the common struggle waged by the indentured and the passenger Indians against their conditions of service and restrictions on trading, residential and other basic rights.

The Indian community established a number of political formations, the most prominent being the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) established by Gandhi in 1894, and the subsequent Transvaal and Cape Indian Congresses in the early part of the 20th century. From the late 1930s onwards, members of the Indian Congresses, together with socialist activists from the Communist Party of South Africa and other smaller socialists groups, were instrumental, in building cross racial alliances. Small Indian, Coloured and White progressive activists (formations) joined progressive African activists (formations) and together, they conducted a common non-racial struggle for Freedom and Equality.

While the forging of a common political struggle built inter-racial solidarity in bodies like the Congress Alliance, the Non-European United Front and the Non-European Unity Movements, it did not mean that the differences that a racial society engendered between various black communities disappeared. The anti-Indian pogroms that took place in the then Natal province (now KwaZulu-Natal), in 1949 and in the 1980s respectively, remind us that the forging of a truly non racial society is one of the most important tasks facing the New Democracy.

Over the past 150 years the South African Indian Identity has undergone many changes. While language, religion, place of origin and indentured and passenger status were the primary markers that defined the  Indian South African’s community then,  today, the primary divisions among Indian South Africans are along lines of class and religion.

While Indian South African do retain a sense of cultural and social connection to India, the fact that the majority of South African Indians cannot read, write and converse in any of the Indian languages creates a barrier to maintaining this connection.

In 1994, with the formation of the new South African democracy and the removal of racial  immigration policies and restrictions, the number of new immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh increased. However, there is a major cultural and linguistic division between these new groups and the older Indian South African communities. In addition more and more young educated Indian South Africans are choosing to work and living abroad. These developments, along with the active promotion of a diasporic identity, will bring in its wake new challenges and the creation of new identities.  

This feature on the social and political evolution of the Indian South Africa will be updated weekly and we welcome comments and contributions.