Between 1860 and 1911 over 140,000 indentured labourers were brought from India to South Africa, predominantly to work in the sugar plantations of Natal in conditions that amounted to semi-slavery – an option more economical and manageable to white settlers than the recruitment of Africans engaged in varying forms of resistance to the expropriation of their land.
Though initially mainly Hindi-speakers from north-eastern India, eventually over two-thirds were Tamil- and Telegu-speakers from the south. The great majority were Hindus. A much smaller number of merchants and traders, mostly Gujarati Muslims, also came to South Africa, forming the basis of an Indian commercial class. According to the 2011 census, 2.5 per cent of the population of South Africa self-identifies as Indian.
For a long time the authorities considered the position of Indians in South Africa to be ‘temporary’, with numerous schemes for repatriation to India planned and to some degree implemented. (These policies were formally abandoned in 1962.) Most Indians were restricted from moving outside Natal and none was allowed to live in the Orange Free State. Campaigns against white domination, notably those led by Gandhi, focused mainly on such specific grievances; only much later, from the 1950s, did Indian political leaders generally make common cause with the African majority.
As labourers and increasingly as industrial workers Indians were often in direct competition with Africans, usually receiving comparatively favourable treatment in relation to wages and opportunities, and later benefiting from the right to form trade unions, which was denied to Africans. In the prevailing circumstances of racialized politics and campaigns for Indian repatriation, tensions between Indians and Africans were often considerable. In 1949, 142 Indians lost their lives in riots in Durban.
Under apartheid Indians suffered from the abuses and humiliations heaped upon most South Africans. Large numbers lost homes and businesses as a result of the Group Areas Act which hit small traders particularly hard and served further to increase inequalities among Indians as well as within the wider society.
Many Indians came to identify with broader anti-apartheid and liberation politics, mounting substantial boycotts against the tricameral elections held in 1983 which aimed at the co-option of Indians and coloureds into the ruling elite. Though this did a lot to promote solidarity and improve relations between Indians and Africans, some tensions remained, particularly in Natal, sometimes focused on disputes over land, and frequently exploited by Inkatha, whose anti-Indian bias results not only from Inkatha’s own brand of ethnic politics but from the identification of many Indians with the Congress movement.
In the post-apartheid years, the Indian community has been represented in the ANC governments, and their votes have been split among the ANC, the (now defunct) New National Party, and the Democratic Alliance.
The political, religious, cultural and linguistic rights of South African Indians after apartheid remain well protected legally and constitutionally, as well as by the official ‘non-racial’ ideology. Some Indians feel that affirmative action programs are benefiting blacks at their expense.
Updated March 2018