Indian South Africans

Indian South African is a term which refers to people from India living in South Africa. Most Indians in South Africa migrated from colonial India during late 19th-century through early 20th-century. Therefore, the term “Indian” is also used to refer to people who originally hailed from the countries of South Asia. At other times the aforementioned groups were subsumed in the broader geographical category “Asians”, when it included persons originating in present-day Iran (Parsis or Zoroastrians, other Muslims and the small Chinese community).

There remains a cultural, religious and racial overlap for “Asians” and “Indian South Africans”. During the most intense period of segregation and apartheid, “Indian”, “Asian”, “Coloured”, and “Malay” group identities defined where a classified person was permitted to live under the Group Areas Act.

During ideological apartheid from 1948-1994, Indians were called, and often voluntarily accepted, terms that ranged from “Black” to “Asians” to “Indians.” Some citizens believed that these terms were improvements on the negatively defined identity of “Non-White”, which was their previous status. Politically conscious and nationalistic Indian South Africans wanted to show both their heritage and their local roots. Increasingly they self-identified as “African”, “Black”, “South African” and, when necessary, “Indian South Africans”.

Nonetheless, the spread of democratic elections has sometimes heightened ethnic loyalties. Politicians and groups have looked for means to mobilise power in the competitive parliamentary democracy which South Africa has become since 1994.


1 Culture
2 Languages
3 Media and entertainment
4 History
5 Notable South Africans of Indian descent

The majority of South African Indians are Muslim with large numbers of people who are also Hindu and Christian.
Other religions
Small groups of Parsis or Zoroastrians; there is also a small Buddhist community.

English is the first language of most Indian South Africans. A minority, especially the elders, still speak some Indian languages, such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati as first language. But overall English is the first language they use for communication. South African Indians understand a variety of Indian languages, even if they are second languages.

Many of Generation X Indians understand their ancestors’ native language, which result in the formation of semi-speakers. The Tamil descendant community has promoted a revival in the use of the Tamil language, and created increased language awareness. Hindustani is a koine, spoken amongst all elders.

Significant communities of Pashtuns from British India’s Northwest Frontier settled in South Africa as part of the subcontinental Muslim population. They have been mostly absorbed into the mainstream Indian Muslim community, along with the other ethnicities, most of whom speak Urdu. Pashto is no longer spoken by their descendants.

Media and entertainment
Although Indian languages are seldom spoken or understood by younger Indians, English-subtitled Bollywood films and television programmes remain popular among South African Indians. These are broadcast both by the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s SABC 2 television channel for a few hours each week (Eastern Mosaic on Sundays), and by the DStv satellite television service, which carries Zee TV, B4U, NDTV and a Hindi-language Sony channel. In addition, Tamil-language channels, Sun TV and KTV, were introduced in 2004.

DVD and video versions of Bollywood films are widely available. Large movie theatre chains like Ster-Kinekor increasingly show Bollywood films. Indian culture in South Africa has some similarities to the worldwide Desi subculture, although the term Desi is almost unknown in South Africa.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) also has an Indian-oriented radio service called Lotus FM, launched during the apartheid era. The Sunday Times has a supplement distributed in Indian areas called the Extra, and the Sunday Tribune publishes a similar supplement, called the Herald. A Bollywood section, ‘Bollyworld’ is published by the Daily News on Mondays.

The first batch of Indians came on board the Truro in 1860, such as the Singh and Lalaram families. They were followed by others who were also transported as indentured labourers (many on lifetime contracts) to work on the Sugarcane plantations of Natal. The rest are descended from Indian traders who migrated to South Africa shortly afterwards, many from the Gujarat and Rajasthan areas.

KwaZulu Natal’s largest city, Durban, has the largest Asian population in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa as a whole has one of the largest populations of Indian descent. Future Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi worked as a lawyer in South Africa from 1893 in the then-Colony of Natal, and the Transvaal Republic, where the city of Pretoria is located.

Discriminated against by apartheid legislation, such as the Group Areas Act, applied in 1950, Indians were forcibly moved into Indian townships, and had their movements restricted. They were not allowed to reside in the Orange Free State, and needed special permission to enter that province. They were also, as a matter of state policy, given an inferior education compared to white South Africans. The Asiatic Land Tenure and the Indian Representative Act of 1946 were repealed.

In 1961, the Department of Indian Affairs was established, with a white minister in charge. In 1968, the South African Indian Council came into being, serving as a link between the government and the Indian people.

The University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) was built with a Rand-for-Rand contribution from Indian South Africans and the government in the 1970s. Before that, Indian students had to take a ferry to Salisbury Island’s abandoned prison, which served as their university.

Casual racist expressions were used during the years of apartheid. Indians in South Africa were (and sometimes still are) referred to by the racial epithet ‘coolie’. In cricket, for example, a ball which fails to bounce was called a “coolie creeper”.

In 1983, the Constitution was reformed to allow the Coloured and Indian minorities a limited participation in separate and subordinate Houses of a tricameral Parliament, a development which enjoyed limited support. The Indian house was called the House of Delegates. Some aspects of Indian life were regulated by this house, including education. The theory was that the Indian minority could be allowed limited rights, but the Black majority were to become citizens of independent homelands. These separate arrangements were removed by the negotiations which took place from 1990 on to provide all South Africans with the vote.

Some Indians played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle. A few rose to positions of power after the 1994 elections in South Africa. In post-apartheid South Africa, many Indians, particularly the poor, began to support formerly white parties such as the Democratic Alliance and New National Party, as they felt threatened by the policies of the ruling African National Congress. This trend appeared to have been reversed in the 2004 elections, when most historically Indian areas voted for minority parties aligned to the ANC.

Following the end of apartheid, a new wave of South Asian immigration commenced, paralleling the movement of Africans from the diaspora and neighbouring African countries to the new South Africa. Some of the immigrants were illegal, or obtained their residency by dubious means. Indians are considered black for the purposes of Employment Equity, that is, they are classified as having been disadvantaged under apartheid. They are thus eligible for affirmative action. In today’s environment with a government elected by the black majority, some Indians complain that they are discriminated against for “not being black enough”.

Notable South Africans of Indian descent

  • Frene Ginwala – the first Speaker of the democratic post-apartheid National Assembly of the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa.
  • Haroon Lorgat – Chief Executive of the International Cricket Council.
  • Pravin Gordhan – South African Minister of Finance
  • Ebrahim Patel – South African Minister of Economic Development
  • Fatima Meer – a South African writer, academic and screenwriter, known for her anti-apartheid activism.
  • Ahmed Kathrada – Nelson Mandela’s fellow inmate at Robben Island and close confidante. Kathrada was one of the Rivonia Trial defendants.
  • Hashim Amla – first player of Indian descent to play Test Cricket for South Africa.
  • Navanethem Pillay – United Nation’s human rights commissioner.

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