What should we call ourselves, if we have Indian heritage and were born In South Africa.
The Terms Indian and South African Indian, may seem inoffensive and of little significance, after all, a rose by any other name still smells as sweet. Well, why then does it actually create a sense of unease; when you are asked to fill in your race in official documents?
Indians in South Africa share a common heritage with Indians in India, and present day Pakistan, and neighbouring countries, some of which did not exist when they arrived in South Africa, and were collectively referred to as Indians. At that particular time, the label had merit, as they were supposedly on foreign soil for a short period of indenture and would presumably live long enough to return to their homelands afterwards.
How do we refer to ourselves, today in South Africa? Do we know who we are? Or do we find our selves in the midst of an identity crisis?
If you fill out an accident report at the South African Polices Services, or most official forms, you would have to choose a racial description for yourself. You would be hard pressed to find Indian or South African Indian or even South African on the form, and the officer on duty would advise you to leave that section blank, or choose the closest race that you think you would belong to, and may even suggest “Asiatic.” You could choose “Other,” which would leave you in a no mans land.
In America, the African American as he is now known, also went through a similar crisis, and was once referred to as a Negro, and later the American Negro. People like Elijah Mohammed, were often quoted as using the term “so called Negroes” in their rhetoric, in obvious dislike or hatred for being referred to collectively as Negroes. Malcolm X showed a preference for being called “Black,” which superseded “coloured,” and was considered a more polite reference for people who showed marked features of having African heritage, or Negroid features.
This redefinition of the preferred language of reference, for people with African roots, was closely associated with the Black Consciousness movement, which challenged the laws both constitutional and otherwise, that relegated this group, to a certain way of life, which they felt was an insult on their dignity as human beings. They essentially were born in America, but were treated as second-class citizens, unlike those who came from Europe and the United Kingdom.
By challenging the way they were referred to, Malcolm X among others aimed to instil not only a sense of pride, in who they were, but create a cohesive resistance against the repressive laws and practices, of the time. His aim being to revolutionise the thinking of Black people, more than just asking them to act and behave, to resist policy. In contrast to Martin Luther King, who was seen as the leader or emancipator of the people, Malcolm X asked every Black person to emancipate his own mind first, and then claim emancipation as a personal birthright, as a human being regardless of skin colour. Each man, in his own way hoping to bring about changes for a group of people who shared characteristics and culture, and found themselves living in oppression beyond slavery.
Columbus, in blissful ignorance, labelled all the people he found inhabiting America as Indians, under the misguided belief that he had landed in the East Indies. Whilst this term of reference was offensive to the many races who lived on American soil and had developed into culturally different groups, they were forced to endure the insult well into the 1960’s. While the term, “Indian” did indeed fall away. Cultural critics, of the time, replaced it, with ” Native American.” Unlike “Negro” which fell away, when “Black” became preferred, the term “Indian” did not fall out of favour with the people it described. In fact a large number of people belonging to this group, objected to the term Native American, preferring to be called “ American Indian” instead.
A Lakota activist from the American Indian Movement, Russel Means, has stated: “I abhor the term Native American.” He goes on the give reasons that they were all grouped with peoples who were culturally different and had their own identities that was starkly different from each other e.g. the Hawaiians in the south and the so called Eskimos, in the north. “I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins.” He adds, “As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity.”
The American Indian and the African American, have rejected being typecast, and accorded a label chosen by some one else. Their names have a historical significance, and a deeper meaning than just a label chosen for political correctness, cultural sensitivity, or convenience of slotting a person into a certain cultural or ethnic group. They have, through their historical background, and challenges faced, demanded recognition, based on what they uniquely favour. This is significant because traditionally names given at birth to any individual, is chosen carefully and usually represents not only the culture and traditions of the people within it, but the aspiration and hopes of the people who name the offspring which will take the culture forward. Likewise, these groups of people have claimed the right to act as parents and wardens, able to make decisions concerning the group and individuals. Denying them the opportunity to choose their name, is paramount to keeping them as dependants, with no authority over something as important as the label by which they are called.
It is not difficult to find others who would describe themselves as Irish American, or American Jews and Italian Americans to differentiate them selves from those of their creed who were born elsewhere.
The indentured Indians and their descendants have actively contributed to the evolution of their adopted lands in spite of many difficulties. The emancipation of slaves in 1833 in the United Kingdom, resulted in numerous liberated Africans, who left their former slave masters. Thus creating a manpower vacuum for owners of sugar-cane plantations in the Caribbean region, and elsewhere including south Africa. The hard work in hot; humid farms required a regular, docile and low-waged labour force. The British looked for cheap labour. Since slavery had been abolished, the British designed a new system of forced labour, which in many ways resembled enslavement, into law. “Slaves” became altered to indentured labourers. This was when Africans where replaced by Indians, on sugarcane plantations across the British empire, as indentured labour.
The Indo-Caribbean culture consists of a synthesis of Indian, Creole, Afro Caribbean (African), and Western European influences from historical colonizing powers. Post WW2, The French jumped on the bandwagon, and negotiated with the British to exploit Indians for indenture on their sugar plantations, too. The majority of the Indians living in the English-speaking Caribbean came from eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, while those brought to Guadeloupe and Martinique were mostly from, but not only, from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. About twenty percent (20%) of the indentured were Tamils and Telugus particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. A minority emigrated from other parts of South Asia, including present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Their story is similar to the that of Indians of South African descent and they face similar identity challenges and despite having assimilated more effectively within their locations, in some instances they are as dominant as the second largest groups in their adopted nation.
In South Africa, the story of the American Indian and the African American , and the Indo-Caribbean stories resonates closely with those, with extractions that can be traced back to India, or by certain physical characteristics which place them plainly in that category.
When I ask myself he question; How do we define ourselves? I come up with various answers : As Indians; as South Africans; as Indian South Africans, or as South African Indians.
I know that being born on South African soil, and having lived here, I have assimilated certain cultural and societal influences, which have made me different from my Indian cousins on the Indian peninsula. I know that having Indenture and apartheid in my personal and cultural history makes me uniquely different from those of Indian descent who have settled elsewhere. I know that my cultural practices, heritage and history and to an extent my physical characteristics, define a difference from my brothers and sisters in South Africa, in a comparable manner that the American Indian and African American are brothers born in the same land but in a world apart, by accident of birth.
When I reflect on the cultural influences, to seek out the balance of constructive or damaging effects, I see no need to eradicate much. My culture and heritage has been preserved, assimilated and spread through me and by me. Rather I feel pride in extending, a large part of that heritage, further along, and brandishing it as a badge of honour. In so doing’ I am asserting my dignity and my cultural birthright.
By the same token, I respect the next person, both within and in other groups, to enjoy and promote their respective cultures, without reserve. As long as my rights do not infringe on theirs, and theirs do nothing to infringe on my own, there is no particular need why we have to challenge each other or try to change what each wishes to preserve and promote.
As a result, I do not wish to be called Asiatic, or Indian or even South African, as I once wished. I have matured and come to terms with political correctness, feeling nationalistic and being ashamed of my culture. Having endured indenture and apartheid, as a group, and being apprehensive and jaded in equal measure; to embrace the Mandela Inspired – rose tinted glasses, and Tutu’s rainbow nation, which is brought out every once in a while to impress foreigners and encourage them to attend events like the soccer world cup.
I want a name, to reflect all the strength of success despite great odds; Of stoicism overcoming grand obstacles; of having taken the high road without falling by the wayside, and of having succumbed to victory without having lost my morality and dignity. I wish to use as my reference those who have had similar paths, in distant lands, and my respect.
I am proudly a South African Indian.