The History of Indian Diaspora in South Africa


Indian men disembarking wooden ships at the harbour, where there are multiple other wooden ships in the distance.
Image Source: Zululand Observer

KwaZulu Natal, the sub-tropical eastern province of South Africa, is home to 1.3 million citizens of Indian descent. The modern Indian population in South Africa are descendants of indentured labourers that journeyed to South Africa for employment. In the 1830s, colonial plantations in Port Natal (KwaZulu Natal) commissioned indentured Indian labourers to replace the slave workforce. In total, the British Empire transported approximately 200 000 indentured Indian labourers to the shores of Port Natal to provide manual labour. However, this foreign presence threatened colonial rule, which resulted in years of racial oppression. The establishment of the Apartheid regime worsened the plight of all non-white citizens residing in South Africa. The Indian community made significant contributions to the struggle for freedom in South Africa. However, to fully understand the influences of the Indian diaspora and culture, we must investigate the source of the Indian migration and its effects. 

The Birth of Indentured Indian Labour

impoverished Indian men in traditional Indian clothing outside a wooden barracks
Image Source: Le Mauricien

Indentured labour was a system of bonded labour in which an individual (an indenture) agreed to provide labour in a foreign country for minimal compensation. In 1833, the British Empire abolished slavery, stripping its colonial plantations of their primary workforce – slaves. Therefore, the British Empire introduced indentured labour to address the mounting demand for low-cost labour. Indentured labour provided colonial plantations with a voluntary workforce to replace the freed slaves.

The implementation of indentured labour required a large, willing and unemployed population. Therefore, India – ‘the jewel in the crown‘- came into focus. India’s exponential population growth, widespread poverty, and rampant unemployment provided the ideal candidates for indentured labour. Indentured Indian labourers signed an indenture contract (known as a ‘girmit’) to work in a foreign country for a maximum of five years. According to the agreement, colonial employers agreed to pay indentured Indian labourers a minimum wage and provide daily rations. However, the contract still authorised the sale, purchase, and trade of indentured labourers by their employers without prior consent.

In 1834, the British Empire dispatched the first load of indentured Indian labourers to Mauritius. On the colonial plantations in Mauritius, the new, indentured labour system successfully replaced slave labour, which proved the superiority of free labour over slavery. After that, the British Empire transported indentured labourers from India to tropical and sub-tropical coloniesthe world (such as Trinidad, St. Lucia, and Granada).

Port Natal’s Sugarcane Industry

Four Indian men in western clothing harvesting sugarcane
Image Source: Mautourco

The warm Indian Ocean borders the sub-tropical eastern province of Port Natal, the busiest seaport in South Africa. In 1856, the British Empire declared Port Natal a crown colony, in which the British monarchy retained all authority over the provincial legislature and administration. However, Port Natal was undeveloped, and the settlement was desperate to establish a profitable industry. The colonial farmers experimented with tea, coffee, and arrowroot crops to secure a productive agricultural sector. The sub-tropical, eastern climate of Port Natal made the soil ideal for sugarcane cultivation. In 1851, Edmund Morewood, a colonial farmer, cultivated the first commercial sugarcane on South African soil. Thereafter, the demand for low-cost labour on Natal’s sugarcane plantations increased. However, Port Natal’s local black population were accustomed to a warrior lifestyle, and the colonial farmers deemed the local inhabitants too ‘economically self-sufficient’ to work for pay.

Given the success of indentured labour in Mauritius and Trinidad, in 1859, colonial farmers in Port Natal lobbied to transport indentured Indian labourers to South Africa. British, Indian, and South African authorities passed complementary laws to enable the immigration of indentured labourers (known as ‘human cargo‘) from India to South Africa.

The Recruitment of Indentured Indian Labourers

four shirtless Indian men with tin signs hung around their necks, depicting four digit numbers (indenture numbers)
Image Source: IOL

The recruitment of Indian citizens for indentured labour on Natal’s sugarcane plantations was no simple task. In Hinduism, crossing the ocean to a foreign country was a breach of the caste system, and not many indentured Indian labourers were willing to sacrifice their societal respectability. Therefore, many Indian recruiters (‘arkatis’) chose to employ deceptive measures to enlist ‘voluntary’ indentured labourers for the colonial plantations.

India’s widespread poverty and famine made Indian citizens in rural areas more susceptible to exploitation by arkatis and local authorities. Recruiters targeted illiterate individuals or those that could not speak English. Tall tales of local employment, high salaries, and Port Natal’s prosperous economy deceived many Indian citizens into signing indenture contracts.

The Journey to South Africa

Many Indian labourers (men and women) seated on the floor of the deck of a wooden ship, dressed in traditional indian attire.
Image Source: IOL

In October 1860, 342 indentured Indian labourers boarded the SS Turo in Madras, and the SS Belvedere followed with 310 passengers from Calcutta.  Unlike the wind-driven ships of slavery, the new steam-powered vessels accelerated the transportation of indentured labourers to colonial farms. However, the sea voyage from India to Port Natal was arduous, and many passengers did not survive the journey.

Although the voyage conditions were superior to the conditions of slave transport, shared living spaces still propagated diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, amongst the travellers. Death and disease were rife on these ocean vessels. However, accurate records of the births and deaths that occurred onboard are not available. On the 16th and the 26th of November 1860, the SS Turo and the SS Belvedere docked at Port Natal harbour, respectively. Written accounts show that the existing South African population, black and white, showed hostility towards the new migrants upon their arrival. The derogatory term ‘coolie’ was created to refer to indentured Indian labourers.

The Conditions of Indentured Indian Labour

Indian indentured labourers pushing wheelbarrows in a queue, with piles of tree trunks in the background and several rural buildings.
Image Source: South African History Online

The British Empire established indentured labour as a band-aid for the abolition of slavery. However, the conditions of indentured labour were abysmal. Upon arrival, authorities dispatched the indentured labourers to sugarcane plantations across the province. The South African colonial farmers sought strong, healthy men who would work tirelessly to transform virgin, subtropical soil into productive, arable land. Therefore, employers shipped the sick, disabled, and elderly back to India as they were unfit for manual labour.

The plantations lacked barracks and suitable accommodation, so the labourers constructed make-shift shacks. Furthermore, South Africa’s staple carbohydrate, maise meal, was ill-suited to Indian preferences of rice and flatbread (‘roti’). The persistent lack of sanitation and appropriate living conditions led to further disease, illness, and death amongst the indentured labourers. According to the indenture contract, the indenture period lasted a maximum of five years. The daily work of an indentured labourer included planting, fertilising, weeding, tending the growing crops, harvesting, loading, transporting, milling, packing, and levelling roads, as well as building dams factories, and houses.

The rates of suicide and attempted escapes amongst the indentured labourers were significant because of the low wages, long working hours, back-bending physical tasks, and inhospitable living conditions. The existing population of South Africa regarded the indentured Indian labourers as an unwanted presence in Natal. Written reports of racial oppression, physical abuse, and prejudice by white employers are abundant.

Mahatma Gandhi and The Natal Indian Congress

Brass statue of Mahathma Gandhi with spectacles, and a robe draped over his body and his hands clasped infront of him.
Image Source: The Economic Times

Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian lawyer and human rights activist, sympathised with the plight of the indentured Indian labourers after a racist attack at a South African train station. In 1893, Gandhi visited Natal to work as a lawyer under a one-year contract. However, Gandhi’s concern for the oppressed indentured labourers prolonged his stay. Natal’s authorities were planning to disenfranchise the Indian population of Natal, a gross violation of the labourer’s human rights.

In 1894, Gandhi formed the first Indian congress, the National Indian Congress (NIC), to fight against the oppression and racism experienced by the Indian South Africans. Mahatma Gandhi promoted his philosophy of passive resistance (‘satyagraha‘) and his methods of non-violent struggle to the budding Indian community in Natal. Today,  Indian communities boast various landmarks, buildings, and local events across Natal to commemorate Gandhi’s life and teachings.

The Abolition of Indentured Labour

An Indian family of 7 adults, 3 children, and two horses in front of a thatch-roof house.
Image Source: Wellcome Collection

As indenture contracts expired, colonial farmers offered indentured Indian labourers two options: a return trip to India or a plot of land on South African soil. The indentured Indian labourers that returned to India returned to an unrecognisable homeland. Indian locals stigmatised the returning labourers for crossing the ocean and interacting with ‘untouchables’ (lower castes) during their indenture. With the perilous poverty and global recession, the returning labourers still faced the same challenges, and the trip to South Africa appeared feeble. However, the returning labourers informed the Indian authorities about the plight of the indentured labourers in Port Natal.

Therefore, in 1911, India prohibited indentured labour to Natal, and in 1917, the British government abolished indentured labour. After the abolition of indentured labour, the migration of ‘passenger‘ Indians to South Africa consisted of traders that travelled as British citizens. These passenger Indians settled in the Transvaal, Natal, and Orange Free State areas. The displacement of small white-owned businesses by Indian passengers added to the rising racial tensions in the country.

Repatriation & The Durban Riots

Crowds disperse during the 1949 race riots between Indians and Zulu impis in Durban.
Image Source: IOL

The indentured labourers that opted to stay in South Africa multiplied the Indian population in Natal. The increase in non-white citizens threatened the power of the white government. Therefore, South African authorities pressured Indian South Africans to repatriate with financial incentives, a poll tax of £3, and discriminatory treatment. In December 1926 and January 1927, the South African government and Indian authorities attended two Round Table Conferences to discuss the growing Indian population in Natal. India acceded to launching a repatriation initiative for South African Indians. In turn, the South African government agreed to work on the upliftment of the remaining Indian population in South Africa. However, only very few Indian South Africans decided to repatriate, and racial tensions in South Africa continued to simmer into the 1940s.

Prejudice and xenophobia toward the new setters rose amongst the native Zulu population in Natal. In January 1949, Natal’s Zulu locals held violent protests against the Indian population. The ‘Durban Riots’ resulted in the death of 142 people and 1087 injured citizens. The growing population of non-white citizens prompted the national enforcement of the Apartheid regime.

The Apartheid Regime and Racial Oppression

Apartheid-era notice board demarcating a 'White-Only' Area.
Image Source: IOL

In the late 1940s, the South African government enforced the Apartheid regime, a system of institutionalised racial segregation. The growing non-white population outnumbered the white population and threatened white rule. Therefore, the white government feared a coalition among non-white citizens.

Apartheid legislation separated and restricted South African citizens according to their racial classifications to prevent interracial interactions. In 1950, the Population Registration Act No. 30 dictated that all South African citizens be identified and registered as one of the four distinct race groups: White, Coloured, Bantu (black African), and Other. During Apartheid, the government classified Indian South Africans as ‘Coloured’ (non-white).

Following the Population Registration Act No. 30, South Africa implemented the Group Areas Act in the same year. The Group Areas Act confined South African citizens to areas designated for their classified race group. The state uprooted Indian South Africans from their homes across Natal and relocated the Indian population 20-30 kilometres away to official Indian-only townships (‘Coolie’ locations).

Over the years, the South African government rolled out masses of legislation to restrict the movement, employment, education, and rights of the non-white population. The Apartheid regime prohibited Indian South Africans, specifically, from living and working in the mining industry, which dominated the Orange Free State and Transvaal areas (White-Only Areas). Furthermore, non-white South Africans were denied the right to vote, own land, and run informal businesses. 

In towns and cities, blatant public signage demarcated the sidewalks and public toilets assigned to non-white individuals. The Apartheid regime forced non-white citizens to carry a ‘dompas’ and abide by a 9 pm curfew. Additionally, the state provided non-white individuals with an inferior education compared to white South Africans. Salisbury Island’s abandoned prison served as a university for Indian South Africans during Apartheid.

The Struggle for Democracy and Racial Equality

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada walking beside each other.
Image Source: Daily Maverick

In 1961, the first inklings of rebellion against the Apartheid regime were beginning to take root, and Indian South Africans became recognised as a permanent part of the South African population. In turn, a Department of Indian Affairs, governed by a white minister, was established. The South African government formed the South African Indian Council (1968) to mediate between the Indian population and the South African government. Thereafter, constitutional reform in 1983 granted Indian and Coloured individuals limited participation in separate and subordinate parliamentary houses.

The Indian parliamentary house was named the House of Delegates, headed by Amichand Rajbansi. Parliamentary powers and opted to uplift the Indian population, once again, because of fear of coalition among the non-whites. The white government decidedly handed the Indian and Coloured population more power to formulate superiority and hostility among the non-white citizens. The scars of this injustice are visible in current instances of racism between Indian, Coloured, and Black citizens.

The long, arduous struggle for equality in South Africa is littered with determined, passionate Indian freedom fighters. Indian politicians, such as Ahmed Kathrada and Dr Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, took their place alongside renounced human rights activists such as Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. South African authorities imprisoned many Indian activists in Old Fort, Durban Central, Ixopo Prison, and Robben Island during the fight for freedom. The struggle for racial equality eventually ended in 1994, when the first democratic election took place. 

South African Indians Today

South African black woman in Indian attire at an Indian festival, surrounded by Indian woman in colourful sarees.
Image Source: Scroll. in

The end of indentured labour, racial oppression, and apartheid has given the Indo-South African community the freedom to grow and thrive. KwaZulu Natal, previously Port Natal, has the highest concentration of Indians outside India, and South Africa supports the largest population of Indians in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the warm, eastern shores that welcomed the ‘human cargo’ has evolved into one of the largest seaports in Africa. South Africa’s Indian population is concentrated in the heart of KwaZulu Natal, Durban City.  

Language and Religion

Today, Indian South Africans occupy various jobs, and the standard of living amongst the Indian population is diverse. Modern Indo-South Africans speak English as a native language. However, a limited proportion of the elderly community still speaks native Indian languages (Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarathi). KwaZulu Natal’s provincial government has included the native eastern languages as a third-language option in local schools. 

Hinduism remains the dominant religion amongst the South African Indian population. However, surveys show a decline in Hindu devotees. Many Indo-South Africans are converting to Christianity through the influence of missionaries and outreach programs. Western clothing is most prominent in the Indian community. However, traditional dress is adorned for sacred festivities and special occasions. 

Food and Entertainment

South Africa’s culinary landscape has been infused with the spicy, hearty flavours of Indian cuisine. The unique spice blend used in Indian curries cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Popular Indian-inspired dishes include the ‘bunny chow’, an indigenous Durban dish consisting of a halved and hollowed loaf of bread filled with curry. 

South African broadcasting and entertainment mediums have adopted Indian media to promote inclusivity and diversity. The satellite television service, DSTV, broadcasts Indian channels such as Zee TV, B4U, NDTV. Furthermore, DSTV introduced Tamil-medium channels, such as Sun TV and KTV, in 2004. Local Indian news services, such as Indian Spice, focus on current events and topics relevant to the Indian community. Community radio stations, such as Hindivani and Lotus FM, provide a daily dose of Bollywood music. Cinema chains, such as Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro, have shown national inclusion by screening Bollywood movies since the 2000s. Other examples of national inclusion include the Bollywood supplements published by the Sunday Tribune, Herald, and Daily News. 

Conclusion: Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Three young indian children playing in the sand on a beach in KwaZulu Natal.
Image Source: Kruger Park

Through all faces of South Africa’s colonial rule, oppression, and segregation, the Indian presence has persevered and triumphed. Indian influence is weaved into every aspect of South Africa’s rich, vibrant cultural landscape. However, South Africa’s diverse society has, in many ways, stripped away the native customs and traditions of the Indian community. The variety of Western, African, and Asian influences have forged a South African Indian culture that is unique and indigenous. The woes of the caste system, colonial rule, and widespread poverty are no longer insurmountable obstacles for the modern generation of Indians in South Africa. It is comforting to know that the travels of the indentured labourers, all those years ago, were not in vain.


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