A Perspective On Caste And Casteism In South Africa

South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past has bequeathed deep cleavages of race, class, tribalism and ethnicity. Although apartheid formally ended over a quarter of century ago, these divisions persist today and threaten social cohesion and the project of nation building.  The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which I have the privilege to lead as Executive Director, has as one its mandates the building of a non-racial society.  We coordinate the national Anti-Racism Network comprising a range of civil society formations aimed at challenging and remedying discrimination, prejudice and structural racism.

When I was approached to write a piece on race, class and caste, I was challenged to think about and address the issue of caste and casteism in South Africa today.  It is not an issue that is part of the anti-racism discourse in our country because its prevalence predominates in India and the Indian diaspora across the globe.  Perhaps more pertinently, casteism here has not been a source of extreme discrimination that exists in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, I believe that this is an important issue to unpack in the South African context.  I will take a deliberately personal perspective, as a South African of Indian origin; and I need to emphasise that this short piece constitutes some of my initial, and somewhat speculative, thoughts on the subject.

In the recent past, some friends and family members have mentioned strange conversations that they have had with Indian nationals who have settled in South Africa after 1994, where they would invariably be asked: ‘What caste are you?’  Almost all of them expressed revulsion at the question and would respond that such identity markers did not exist among Indian South Africans, who have been living here for 160 years.

The influence of growing links with India and other parts of the South Asian subcontinent has made me wary that caste could re-emerge as part of the sub-culture of life among Indian South Africans. The growing cultural and religious links as well as the huge influence of Bollywood cannot be discounted either. The growth of right-wing Hindu fundamentalism which denies that the notion of caste is inherently oppressive and fundamentally discriminatory has raised renewed interest in this subject as well.

A brief look at the history of Indians in South Africa however will reveal that aspects of caste have remained embedded among Indians over the past 160 years. This might not take the rigid social stratification that exists in India but its continuity in terms of caste consciousness still carries on.

Indentured Indians were primarily from southern, eastern and north-eastern India and it can reasonably be assumed that they were of so called lower castes. The passenger Indians on the other hand were mainly from Gujarat and did not have to go through the experience of indenture and many began engaging in commercial activity almost immediately upon their arrival. The continuity of this division between descendants of indentured and non-indentured Indians plays itself out in the class disparities among them today. Many of the indentured Indians went on to become part of the working class population in South Africa as mine workers, waiters and artisans. They were and are mainly Hindu and Christian. (Hindu in its broadest sense but mainly Tamil-speaking.)

The struggle against colonial rule and apartheid brought a semblance of unity among the different religions and classes of Indians since anti-Indian legislation which was immense and affected all Indians irrespective of class or caste. (There is a view that the struggle was led by the merchant class and as such avoided the struggles of working class Indians but this is a subject that still requires considerable research and deliberation.) This ensured that many of the strict divisions of caste were rendered invisible. In this period the establishment of religious and educational institutions also led to a diminishing of caste stratifications.

In 1961 the South African Government finally passed legislation which enabled Indians to become citizens of the country, albeit second class ones. This after having campaigned for their repatriation in the 1948 election and in which the Indian question was a major campaign issue.

The passing of legislation such as the Group Areas Act, separate education and amenities etc. reinforced an Indian identity which also acted to reduce caste identities to a large extent. The provision of housing, education and other opportunities however enabled Indians to slowly change much of their class status. English also became the dominant language which helped to facilitate an upward mobility. Investment in education and self-employment meant that this upward mobility would lay the basis for Indians to become major beneficiaries of the change that followed in the post-apartheid period.  

The changing nature of caste consciousness morphed into strict religious separation. According to my mother, when asked about the prevalence of caste during her youth (she is 83); she remarked that they did not know about it but heard about it when issues of marriage were being discussed. Many potential suitors were rejected because they were considered to be ‘chamars’ or low caste. This she said slowly changed to marriage being only accepted if the proposed partner was from the same religion and also from the same geographical location in India – i.e. the same village! 

Aspects of the caste identifications were refocused on attitudes towards the indigenous African majority. They were to become the new untouchables in many Indian homes. Separate eating utensils, meals and general disdain were the order of the day in many, though not all, Indian homes. African people were referred to in derogatory terms as ‘kariyas’ – literally Black person in Gujarati. This supplanting of caste terms on those who now were considered to be lower than others and who were deemed ‘untouchable’ could explain the difficulties in getting working class Indians to identify with working class African struggles in a sustainable way and thereby discarding their racial identities for a class identity. This, as indicated is speculative on my part but is a dimension that the various readings done for the article would certainly seem to indicate to.

My own family path to progress is indicative of the changing class structure of the Indian community. While I am not certain where my forbears came from and the story of the anglicised surname is one for another day, it is certain that they were indentured Indians. My paternal grandfather was a miner and my father was a waiter. The family attended the Sanathan Ved Dharma temple which is a smaller subsect of the Hindu South African Indian community in the Johannesburg area. My parents were part of the group of people who were affected by the introduction of the Group Areas Act and the resultant forced removals in the 1950s. Though falling within a broadly working class category, the income from my father’s waiter-ing job was sufficient to provide a fairly middle class life for his family. The children today can list as their professions a judge, a doctor, a teacher, a speech and audiology specialist and a bank/financial sector worker. My siblings and I have 10 children and among them are two chartered accountants. All families have also moved out of the former Indian group areas to former white residential areas. This story is also the story of many thousands of others who have moved beyond the ‘caste’ stations that their forbears might have arrived with.

The acceptance and identification with the racial category of Indian, is also something that is today not as readily acceptable as it was during and perhaps during the transition to democracy. The identification with religious identity and a broad sense of being South African is how many in this community self-identify.  This however fluctuates and the affinity towards an Indian identity emerges during times when anti-Indian rhetoric is used by movements and political parties or when there is a perceived sense of group grievance such as the implementation of affirmative action or black economic empowerment policies (even though Indians are included in the broad category of who is Black).

The struggle for an inclusive national identity is ongoing in South Africa and more so for ‘minority’ communities. The continued affinity and connection with organisations established on the basis of linkages to places of ancestral birth and the waning notions of an Indian identity (which has become narrowed in some instances to a Hindu identity) will always require that the continued persistence of caste thinking and practices are checked and rooted out. There can be no way for South African Indians to be fully integrated into a new South African national identity without them shedding the old and new variants of caste thinking and practices within  and that which is directed to African people by some within the Indian community.

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  • The Executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation since its inception in 2008. He has been a community and political activist for the past 35 years involved in teacher unionism, civic organising, youth activism and formal and underground ANC activism.

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