In Search of a better life. 157 years later… by Selvan Naidoo

The answers to this eternal human pursuit of a better life requires reflection tomorrow, 16 November 2017, a day which signifies the arrival of indentured Indians to this country some 157 years ago.

The search for a better life and the desire to find comfort, material and spiritual wellbeing is a question that requires introspection to gauge if this ancestry has successfully achieved in this eternal pursuit? The dubious nature of recruitment is well researched by indenture scholars that beg the question as to how voluntary was this search for a better life when leaving India? It is clear as already pointed out by Surendra Bhana and Hugh Tinker’s, New System of Slavery, that recruitment to foreign plantations in the colonies of the British Empire was a painful and deceitful process. The wicked practice of the ‘arkatis’ (local village agents) by which they preyed and pounced on fractured family units to kidnap rural villagers is well highlighted. A Tamil movie called Paradesi (Vagabond) made in 2013 best simulates the dubious practice of indentured recruitment. The movie also posits the dilemma of being stuck in this hopeless vortex of vicious misery in which the search for a better life will forever remain elusive. Hopefully this vicious misery is not the case here in South Africa, a country that is fed on the much-romanticized slogan of the ruling party, “ A Better Life for ALL.” Who exactly has reaped the benefits of this better life is a question we are ALL now grappling with in this young yet robust democracy we ALL call home.

Notwithstanding the concerns raised on voluntary indenture, it must be understood that our ancestry still strove to find that better life post indenture, albeit in harsh conditions. This was made even more difficult with legislative laws that sought to exterminate the ‘Alien Menace’ as evidenced at the turn of the 19th century. Their challenges were inordinate as already pointed out through scholastic endevours by Joy Brain, Bridglal Pachai, Mabel Palmer, Kalpana Hiralal, Jo Beall and more so by Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai in their detailed study called Inside Indenture. One of the most telling studies on sufferance is an essay by Surendra Bhana that explores the psycho-historical circumstances surrounding suicide among Indentured Indians between the years 1875 – 1911. The high incidence of suicide clearly evidenced the horrendous abuse of plantation owners against the indentured who never exited that vortex of misery to find a better life. To this end, there are hundreds of medical and employer reports in the Indian Immigration records in the KwaZulu-Natal Archives on individual cases of suicide. Equally more concerning was a letter penned (1945) by a fellow citizen of the new world (in Durban) expressing her shock at the callous nature of her fellow citizens in ridiculing Indian suicides. This letter is further proof that the search for a better life continued to remain elusive some 72 years ago. Further proof of the evasive search for a better life is highlighted in the much-unknown Lobito Bay scandal. In 1907 due to the harsh economic climate and the £3 tax, 2000 Indians from Natal signed up to work on the Benguela Railway at Lobito Bay, Angola. Life in Angola was horrendous with as many as 500 people dying in working and living conditions that were subhuman.

An Indian Suicide

Maureen Swan’s book on Gandhi, The South African Experience provides insightful observation on the social stratification in the years 1880 to 1913 of various classes within the Indian Community living in South Africa. She classified them into three groupings called the Commercial Elite, The New Elite and the Underclasses. Swan’s observations are similar to Thomas Bloms Hansen’s more recent observations of Chatsworth in book called Melancholy of Freedom. Hansen sees 3 distinct class divisions within the Indian community. What is perturbing to me is the how little has changed from 1913 to 2017 with the exception of an increased working class. It is worth commenting on the nuances of the 3 class divisions that give answers to my question as to who has achieved in this search for a better life!

The Commercial Elite

Once the indentured Indians contracts had expired by the 1880s, they sought means to a better life to sustain a livelihood to remain in South Africa. To this end, a few of the ex-indentured opened trading shops to service the needs of the Indians. This short-term glory for ex-indentured shop owners in finding a better life was decimated when passenger Indians had arrived. Maureen Swan described this class as the original political community. They were referred to as merchants or traders. She argued that this class came here with enough capital to obliterate any hopes of trading prosperity the ex-indentured had hoped for. They maintained a close-knit network by ‘keeping it in the family’ and ‘gradually excluded the ex-indentured from the prominent positions in Indian commerce’. Their entrenched privilege and trading monopoly received legal sanction that resulted in the arrival of Mohandas Gandhi. The dominance of this class came to the fore in 1885 that showed them owning 60 of the 66 stores owned by all Indians in Durban. What was concerning about this was how quickly they dominated the ex-indentured. Today, 2017, this entrenched privilege and closed network of trading dominance continues to exist. The links to Gupta styled hegemony is strikingly similar!


The New Elite

Swan describes this group as those that emerged as the offspring of the indentured or ex-indentured and who saw themselves as ‘young colonials’. These were people who broke that vortex of misery to become trained professionals, lawyers, civil servants and accountants. They were generally economically comfortable and earned substantially more than those that worked in the plantations, railways, hotels or the municipality. This class also maintained a working relationship with the Commercial Elite as an investment in social upgrading to maintain a privileged hierarchical position. Today, 2017, this group has grown, making substantial economic gains in the depressed economy of South Africa. Minorities of them occupy a high, somewhat Kardashian like status with family members being plied with once off luxury cars and hand made Gucci bags in celebrating milestone birthdays. Their ostentatious behavior fuels the stereotype that Indians are ‘lahnees’, a parallel observation of the external gaze as held by Thomas Blom Hansen in his book, Melancholia of Freedom.

The new elite

 The Underclass

During the years 1860 to 1911, of the 152 184 people that arrived from India on 384 ships, the underclass made up the majority of the total Indian population in South Africa. According to Swan, 52 percent remained in Natal with some moving to Transvaal after their contracts had expired. The majority of this class took to market gardening, railway work and service orientated positions as a means of moderate survival. The merchant class as reflected through various examples always exploited this class. One example was made evident in the high rate of rental space levied by merchant class against the struggling market gardeners. The other example was based on a usury relationship between the underclass and the merchant class. The high interest rates charged to the poor for taking loans to alter their vortex of misery, kept the underclass in a static position with no hope for that better life. Historically, their misery culminated in the 1913 mass mobilization victory against oppressive laws with Gandhi as their leader. Could it be that the cult image of Gandhi would be less heroic had it not been for this newly conscientized underclass? Could it be that India’s road to democracy would have be much longer had it not been for this underclass? These questions rouse up passionate debate with the role of the underclass never being acknowledged!

beggar 1906
A beggar in Durban, 1906

The emergence of a fourth class, sandwiched between the underclass and the new elite class is a new working class of the 20th century. Statistics S.A reveal that Indians have made significant inroads into breaking the poverty cycle. In 2015, fewer people of Indian descent were living below the poverty line. This success in finding that cherished better life is due to the tenacity of this working class. This grown working class owes its being to the hard work put in from 1960 to 2000 that saw many families breaking that vortex of misery with a regimented tenacity to make a better life against all odds. Many families had sustainable income being provided by clothing, shoe and metal fabrication factories.

Many children from this generation were able to proudly graduate from tertiary institutes due to their parents sacrificing their own happiness to see their children end that vortex of misery. Today however, its doubtable if this class can sustain its growth in view of the lack of regulations by the government in controlling importation of goods from foreign countries. All the factories have all but perished amid the gains of globalization. This, combined with the economic attractiveness of South Africa to foreign nationals is showing signs of a rapid decline in opportunities for this working class. A midday drive around places like Chatsworth, Phoenix, Verulam and Tongaat reveals a frighteningly growing army of unemployed males between the ages of 20 to 35. This group have become restless and taken to the scourge of cheap drugs much like the indentured of the 1880s who took to ‘dagga’ to drown out their pain.


Notwithstanding this gloom of hopelessness, I must draw your attention to heroes of our history who systematical sough to end that vortex of misery and thereby provide a better life for our future generations. In 1927, the Cape Town Agreement threatened Indian people without educational qualifications, with repatriation. The need to educate KwaZulu-Natal’s Indian community by 1929 became a priority to break the cycle of poverty and also to remain in the country. Enter Hajee Malukmahomed Lappa Sultan who came to South Africa in 1880 to find a better life, firstly working as a porter and then becoming a successful farmer.

ml sultan
Hajee Malukmahomed Lappa Sultan

In seeing the lack of training opportunities for black people, Sultan donated funds for the building of a technical college in Durban in 1941. Sadly he passed away by the time the Technikon was finally opened in 1956. Today this college has become D.U.T that services the needs of all races in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition to ML Sultan, the building of schools had to be subvented by members of the community. Schooling for Indians was in a parlous state with a few state aided schools, offering up to standard 6 (grade 9) passes. This lack of educational facilities that were solely needed to dismantle the vortex of misery resulted in the community raising funds to build the famous Sastri College in Durban. This school produced many professionals that have richly contributed to the history and success of our democracy. Perhaps the rich patrons and civic communities of today ought use the examples of Sultan and the ex-indentured communities of 1920s by building new tertiary institutes that aid government and also provide fresh hope in the face of limited places for minority communities at tertiary institutes.

The other heroes I must mention bears testimony to the need to activate civic and social responsibility. The Durban Indian Child Welfare Society formed in 1927 is worth mentioning. Mrs. S. Moodaly, the first chairwoman of the society, followed by Gadija Christopher (who hailed from a wealthy family) and her army of female volunteers provided love and hope to the sea of poverty stricken people from 1927 to 1952.

Mrs S. Moodaly
Ma Luthuli and Gadija Christopher
Nokukhanya (MaBhengu) Luthuli & Gadija Christopher

They developed clinics giving free medical treatment and medicines to poor families. They also provided child welfare and social services to the needs of people from the famed Magazine Barracks, Mayville, Umgeni and Cato Manor. The sterling work they provide in the 1940s and 1950s in setting up the Milk Club at the Railway Barracks and sewing clubs in Cato Manor cannot go with mention. It is this activism and social responsibility that we need to revive across ALL South African communities that will bridge this dangerous divide in a very unequal society that we now live in. This divide is made even more pronounced with South Africa being rated the 5th country in the world with the biggest pay gap where the CEOs are paid averagely 140 times more than the ordinary workers. Scary indeed!

bag ladies midwifes
Ayah’s or Midwives who were trained to deliver babies in the 1930s
Brook Street Clinic 1930
Magazine Barracks Clinic
Milk Club at the Railway Barracks

In closing, I must point out that the eternal pursuit of finding happiness is no easy road. Success in dismantling the vortex of misery remains a challenge for a growing majority. I should also remind you of the words of Nelson Mandela in a speech he made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign on the 13 June 1996, Durban, Friends: “Our work is never done. We continue until we breathe our last. What Doctors Naicker and Dadoo left unfulfilled, it is our duty to accomplish. So the struggle must continue, for development, for the elimination of poverty, for job creation, for a better life for all.” Going forward let us always remind ourselves of the aspirations of our ancestry and our civic responsibility to make this country a proud and prosperous country that provides that better life for all its citizens regardless of how much is going wrong. Our will, our destiny in search of better life!

Written by Selvan Naidoo,

selvan naidoo Curator


Curator of the permanent exhibition at the 1860 Heritage Centre called “ The Story of Indenture 1860 – 1911”footer


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