The Guptas and racism among Indian people

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Claims of racism at the Gupta wedding has reminded us of our racial baggage, but we’re ahead in dealing with our division, writes Verashni Pillay.

The dust is starting to settle around the Gupta jet-landing scandal earlier this month but an ugly issue remains, needling us like an old wound.

It was the claims of racism that occurred during the wedding: Indian guests allegedly preferring white staff over black, and insulting black staff at Sun City by asking them to clean themselves, implying that they were dirty.

In post-apartheid South Africa we hurt easily where race is concerned. And when that racism is nostalgic of earlier systemic hurts infringed by one group upon another, it's all the worse. 

The treatment black workers were said to have been subjected to is reminiscent of the allegations of racism that have long stalked the Indian community, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

One person let rip at Indian South Africans on Twitter, following the incident with the Guptas. 

"Reality Check: You were never part of the struggle & you never worked hard. The British gave you all that you have!" tweeted a scornful Phumlani Mfeka.

A sore point has been the treatment of domestic workers, gardeners and other staff working for Indian families and businesses. While white-on-black racism, or its reverse, usually dominates the conversation in South Africa, Indian-on-black prejudice is an issue that has come to the forefront at various times in our democratic history.

There is no denying these things happen. I grew up in Pretoria where it was perhaps less obvious, but I remember once visiting a friend in Durban and considering leaving the house late at night after her newly-introduced husband repeatedly referred to his black colleagues as "them". (I eventually settled for stating my disdain and his error very clearly and leaving the table.)

The issue was the subject of Mbongeni Ngema's AmaNdiya song in 2002, where Ngema tapped into the discontent of black South Africans living in Durban where Indian people are a sizeable part of the population. 

"Oh brothers, oh my fellow brothers. We need strong and brave men to confront Indians. This situation is very difficult, Indians do not want to change, whites were far better than Indians. Even Mandela has failed to convince them to change," went the lyrics of the song, albeit translated from isiZulu. 

But that was 11 years ago. The majority of Indian South Africans today consider themselves just that: people of Indian descent who call South Africa home, some for as many as seven generations. The ANC is often the first to defend the country's population, pointing out their role in the struggle – even if some critics have questioned that role, and Nelson Mandela asked Ngema to apologise for the song. 

While some Indian people enjoyed the special treatment meted out by the apartheid government in an attempt to "divide and rule", a sizeable and influential group rebelled and joined forces with the ANC to lead the country to liberation. Of course old prejudices clung in some quarters, but these days most Indian South Africans – particularly young, urban-dwelling ones – would sooner challenge someone on their racism towards black South Africans than be part of it themselves. 

Ultimately, Indian South Africans are like any other South Africans, and indeed human beings. Some are open-minded, some are not, some have fought against racism with all their might while some are racist themselves. There is not a particularly higher incidence of racism among the Indian community, I would imagine, even if one were to try to measure something like that. 

Indeed, the Reconciliation Barometer of 2012 (page 44 of this PDF) found that Indian South Africans were the most likely to socialise across the racial divide, and scored the highest on every question where racial integration was concerned.

And of course most urban South Africans have long been sensitised to race politics in our fractious national landscape – as well as the hurts around gender and class. Even if some South Africans do harbour thoughts of prejudice, they would be careful about expressing it after any amount of time of living in South Africa. One could see this in the carefully worded statement the Guptas released following the allegations of racism, where they trumpeted their role in championing the cause of black South Africans, while including a caveat about risking sounding "patronising" for having to say so.

A separate problem however is the attitude of people from India towards African people, and indeed how incredibly divided its own society is. I suspect the Guptas, who have been living in Africa for a decade now, probably forgot how bad racism is among people from India. The problem is a notorious one and in 2011 there was a minor outcry when some black students were barred from bars in the country.

On a recent holiday in India, I cringed when people stared at my black travelling companion – a subject that many have written about.

On other trips to India, I've always been very aware that I am usually the darkest person in any group: anyone who looks like me is likely to be serving us. Colour is an issue on the great subcontinent, in all its shades including racism towards black people who are subconsciously slotted among the lowest-ranking castes and ethnicities.

I wish I could say that the Gupta saga would force Indian people to take a look at their own racism, but the fact is that the story hardly caused a ripple over there. It seems that the Guptas may be big fry here but in India they don't register on the national agenda. It is a conversation that Indian people in India need to have themselves, and it is a conversation that is still in its infancy as India's about one billion people still battle to deal with their own intra-race problems. 

And it's that thought that oddly leaves me feeling proud: the fact is that South Africans of Indian descent have been talking and sensitising themselves to these issues for generations – ever since the first indentured labourers were brought over in tumultuous ships that threw different castes against each other and forced them to eat together, rendering the strict divisions of Indian society redundant and indeed, absurd. 

We are far ahead in our conversation about unity as South Africans. And for that I'm grateful.

Written by: Verashni Pillay

Picture credit: Mail & Guardian

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. This article was published on Mail & Guardian.