Indians in South Africa

Asians in South Africa constitute two per cent of South Africa's population, and most are of Indian origin, although there is also a small Chinese community (sometimes classified as Coloured (mixed race) or White under Apartheid) . Traditionally the group does not include the "Cape Malays", descended (at least in part) from South East Asians, who were classified as "Coloured" under apartheid. The term Asian is usually regarded as synonymous with Indian in South Africa. South Africa is home to the largest population of people of Indian descent of 1,000,003 Indians a 17.07% of total population


Main Article: Indian South Africans

Indians in South Africa are descended from indentured laborers who were brought by the British from India in the 19th century, mostly to work in sugar plantations or mines (especially, coal) in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and later also from trades men who emigrated to South Africa. Indian South Africans form the largest group in the world of people of Indian descent born outside India, ie:born in South Africa, not having migrated there. This contrasts with the position in the U.S where, although there is a large population of Indians, most were not born in the U.S but migrated from India.

Culture and Religion

Major Religions

Indian South Africans are predominantly Hindu but Muslims and Christians were important from the beginning of the big wave of immigration in 1860.

Other Religions

Small groups of Parsis or Zoroasterians, descendants of the Persians who fled to India when Islam entered Iran/Persia, as well as Buddhists are found among Indian South Africans. There are Arab and Lebanese Muslims and Christians too, although those of lighter skin were considered white, while others accepted "Asian" as designations during the apartheid era.


English is the first-language of most Indian South Africans,although a small minority of them especially the elders still speak some Indian languages such as Hindi,Tamil,Telugu, Urdu and Gujarati as first language.But in overall English is still the first language they use for communication.

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, as well as Sun TV and KTV, both Tamil language channels, introduced in 2004. DVD and video versions of Bollywood films are widely available, and 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.



Nov. 16, 1860, a ship carrying 342 indentured Indians arrived in South Africa, marking the beginning of a long and painful period in the history of the Indian diaspora in the region.

The first batch of Indians came on board the Truro in 1860. They were followed by others who were also imported as indentured laborers 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 area. KZN's largest city, Durban, has the largest Asian population in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa as a whole has got the largest population of people of Indian descent born outside of India.Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi worked from 1893 as a lawyer in South Africa in the then Colony of Natal, and the Transvaal Republic, where the city of Pretoria is located.


Discriminated against by Apartheid legislation like the Group Areas Act, 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 University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) was built with a dollar-for-dollar or Rand-for-Rand contribution from Indians and the government in the 1970s, so that Indian students would not have to brave the waters by taking a ferry to Salisbury Island's abandoned prison that served as their university until then.
Indians in South Africa were (and sometimes still are) referred to by the racial epithet coolie by racists.

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 to provide all South Africans with the vote.


Indians played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and a few rose to positions of power after the 1994 elections in South Africa. After the end of apartheid, it seemed like many Indians, particularly the poor, had begun 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, with most historically Indian areas voting for the ANC.

Following the end of apartheid, a new wave of South Asian immigration commenced, paralleling the movement of Africans from the diaspora and neighboring African countries to the New South Africa, some of whom are illegal, or obtain their residency by dubious means.

Indians are considered black for the purposes of Employment Equity, and are thus eligible for affirmative action,although some of them feel discriminated against for "not being black enough".

Some important points about Indians in South Africa

  • Between 1860 and 1911 some 140 000 Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured laborers. The majority of them were Hindus from Madras, Travancore, Orissa and Bengal. Today, there are almost a million Indians living in South Africa - the largest group outside of India and Pakistan

  • The first ship to arrive in South Africa (with Indians) was the SS TRURO. There were 348 laborers on-board. They were categorized as 2 % Brahmins, 9 % Kshatriyas, 21 % Vaishyas and 31 % Sudras, 27% Scheduled Castes, 3 % Christians and 4 % Muslims.

  • In 1860, of the indentured laborers who arrived in South Africa, 35% were women. The number was later raised to 50%.

  • The first Indians who came to South Africa did not work only on the sugar cane plantations; they also worked on the railways, dockyards, municipal services, the coalmines of Northern Natal and in domestic service.
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