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Home > Uncategorised > South Africa : You came here on a fucking boat

South Africa : You came here on a fucking boat

Wednesday 30 November 2022, by siawi3



South Africa

You came here on a fucking boat

By Youlendree Appasamy

Xenophobia and questions of belonging haunt Indian South Africans. What does that mean for solidarity with Black South Africans?

’Said a member of the EFFSC’ (2019) by Minenkulu Ngoyi. Used with permission from the artist.

This post forms part of the work by our 2020-2021 class of AIAC Fellows.

In South Africa, the past is not yet done with us. For two weeks in July 2021, South Africa was on fire. KwaZulu-Natal province and certain parts of Gauteng saw untold damage, food shortages in certain areas and a level of disaster that has left most in the country speechless. The fire was ostensibly triggered by corrupt ex-President Jacob Zuma being sentenced to jail time, but there is never only one reason for collective anger. It was also connected to the measures to curb the deadly COVID-19 and how these exacerbated already fraught socio-economic dynamics in the country. On a micro-level, thinly veiled antagonisms between the rich and the poor, between Black and Indian South Africans have come to the surface, yet again.

My world is in Durban. I live in Johannesburg, but like many KwaZulu-Natal transplants, my family lives in the coastal province, in working class areas that saw gun fights, fires, food shortages and death in mid-July. As family group Whatsapps urgently pinged in—some containing recycled images and footage from previous moments of disaster, others sharing resources about which neighbor or mosque is distributing bread—feelings of precarity have come to the surface for many Indian South Africans in KwaZulu-Natal. The messages have gone from fear and worry over shops, malls and markets looted to fears about petrol bombs being thrown into yards, increased home robberies and strangers with pangas driving through different units shouting “wake up motherfuckers.”

There is video footage of Indian South Africans in working-class towns like Phoenix assaulting and killing Black people.

Sandile Ntuli lives in Phoenix with his aunt and uncle. On July 12, Ntuli and a friend went to find petrol. They knew that with violence and looting would come food and fuel shortages. That evening, they went to the local Total garage (gas station), only to find it closed. A short while later, they met a friend on the road, also in search of fuel. The friends drove in convoy to a Shell garage in the area but the road was barricaded. Ntuli was let through, but his friend in the car behind him was stopped, and the armed Indian vigilantes manning the barricade started assaulting him. Ntuli knew some of the attackers and shouted “Hey, everyone knows us. We all went to school together!” That is when the bullets started flying. Ntuli was shot in the leg as his friend drove them to safety.

On that same evening, another Phoenix resident, 19-year-old aspiring photographer Sanele Mngomezulu, was coming back home after taking part in the widespread looting. The Quantum taxi van he was in was met with a hail of bullets, as an Indian neighborhood watch group opened fire on the vehicle. All the people in the taxi fled but one person was shot and killed in the attack—Mngomezulu. His murderers torched the vehicle and left his body on Trenance Park Road in Phoenix. His mother Thokozani Ntwenhle Mhlongo mourned his death at her birthday in early August, wondering about the exact circumstances of her son’s murder, with justice seeming a far-off prospect. “They keep speaking about property, but my son was looted,” said Mhlongo. “I just want justice for my son.”

Other Black people in Phoenix, Chatsworth and other so-called Indian areas faced similar racial profiling, thuggery and murder at the hands of their Indian neighbors, ex-school friends and employers. Police Commissioner Bheki Cele released an official count of those who were killed in Phoenix. The state noted that 36 people died in and around Phoenix, however, those like Sanele Mngomezulu are not on this official list. In total, the media reports that 342 people across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng died in the unrest.

As the dust settles and the state narrative of “rebuilding” is parroted by ward councillors and residents alike, there are still no coherent narratives about what happened in Phoenix. What we do know is that Black South Africans were killed, many by Indian South Africans. How do we make sense of these acts of violence, motivated by anti-black racism and others whose motivations are still obscured by the event itself?

Indian South Africans occupy a liminal place in South Africa as an early racialized insider-outsider. To understand how they came to attack Black South Africans in 2021, it is important to understand the feelings of physical and existential vulnerability that have shaped Indians’ experiences since their arrival first as slaves in the years after 1652 in the Cape of Good Hope (many from this migration have formed part of creolized communities racialized as Coloured), and then as indentured laborers in the 19th century. While the chaos of July may have felt new to some, the roots of the present-day conflict lie in that history, and most specifically with the events of 1949.


January 13, 1949 was a typically humid day in central Durban. The sluggish weather was a precursor to an event with many names—some call it the 1949 Riots, or the Durban Riots. The events were sparked by a fight between a Black news-seller named Madondo and Indian shopkeeper Basnath.

There are contested versions of who did what to whom, yet it is clear that after the young men began brawling, black vendors and commuters came to Madondo’s assistance and Indian shopkeepers and women who lived above the shops where the melee broke out threw missiles from apartment blocks and rooftops. From first-hand accounts, everyone watching took a side and they based their decision largely on race.

The outbreak of violence between Blacks and Indians living and working in this densely packed area of Durban escalated and by nightfall it had spread to other parts of the city. Police sent reinforcements to quell the skirmish but such was the intensity of the fighting that they struggled to control the crowds. Finally, as a thunderstorm blew in close to midnight, the streets quietened.

Over the next few days, the tensions were exacerbated by police and state officials. Just one year after apartheid had been officially adopted as the law of the land, accounts from Black and Indian witnesses attest that white policemen, in blackface, joined in on the looting and actively instigated violence.

What had begun as racial tension was quickly exploited by authorities and turned into a virulently anti-Indian pogrom, as historian Jon Soske names this event. Indeed, just three years earlier, the Ghetto Act had been passed in order to prevent Indian property ownership in white areas. As Ronnie Govender’s much-lauded play, 1949 shows, white people were worried about a so-called Asian Menace. In the play, white employers spread xenophobic sentiments based on their fears of an Indian “takeover.”

Eventually the riots came to an end and the casualties were counted. Apartheid police and individuals involved in the skirmishes had killed 87 Africans and 50 Indians, and left one European dead. 1,087 people were injured and 40,000 Indians were rendered homeless. More than 300 buildings were destroyed and 2,000 structures damaged.

These were numbers reported by the apartheid state, and Black and Indian newspapers of the time contested the numbers of lives lost and causalities, arguing that the toll was far higher. Still, it is evident that the events had a significant effect not just on those who were killed and injured, or whose property was destroyed. There was a long-lasting effect on Black-Indian relations.

To be sure, the riots were a violently xenophobic response to anti-Black racism amongst some in the Indian community. As Black newspapers like Ilanga and Inkundla pointed out at the time, many Black people were frustrated by the racism they experienced from Indian property and business owners. At the same time, the level of violence and its indiscriminate targeting of all Indians—especially those who lived in poor communities and did not necessarily have the power or authority to exploit Blacks in the way that upper class Indians did— reflected broader ideas about all Asian communities being alien in Africa and encroaching on highly contested urban spaces. Furthermore, there was widespread resentment amongst Africans about the fact that Indians occupied a more advantageous position in the newly formalized racial hierarchy.

These tensions served as the backdrop to the riots. And it was these tensions that were exploited by the newly instituted apartheid state, as it sought to cement its power by its divide-and-rule tactics. The tensions were of course fed by a sustained campaign within the media. White newspapers feared the trade and property accumulation of immigrant Asians in Natal, and Black newspapers, whose readers were being increasingly disenfranchised through white rule and pushed out of the city, often responded with a growing anxiety towards Indian communities. Both, although not in unison, espoused the view that Asians in Africa were non-indigenous and, as always, potentially replaceable.

In A History of the Present, academics Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai refer to psychic afterlives of the event through the words of journalist Ranji Nowbath.

Those who have seen their homes destroyed in front of their eyes, those who have seen a lifetime’s savings go up in smoke, those who have seen their children hacked in front of them, and those who helplessly watched their daughters raped, will not, they cannot, forget.

The anti-Indian pogrom serves as an enduring and far too relevant example of the real-world repercussions of political fear mongering. The state’s construction of Indian people in the country was contingent on non-indigeneity, meaning the violence meted on them was a natural result of overstaying their welcome. Indian people were scapegoated, seen as a target for frustrations about socio-economic conditions in the country—a rhetoric that’s often been used against African migrants in post-apartheid South Africa.

The year 1949 is a useful starting point—not in comparison to the events of July, 2021—but as a lesson in how a middleman minority, or a “buffer race” as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, are often most easily accessible targets of economic frustration, due to proximity. This is also influenced by conflations of Indian South African communities as agents of white monopoly capital, without understanding the differential effects of white supremacy and capitalism on these communities. The affectual thread runs from 1949 to today.

Those who came by boat

“Voetsek. Those who came by boat must go back by boat,” the artwork reads. Minenkulu Ngoyi’s aerosol and silkscreened post stamp piece, is titled “Said a member of the EFFSC.” The Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command is the student branch of the South African political party the Economic Freedom Fighters—a party more aligned with “an economic nationalist front” according to writer William Shoki, than a left-wing, radical political party.

When I saw this piece at an art fair in 2019, I tried to reassure myself, to minimize the shame of non-indigeneity in post-apartheid South Africa by insisting that it was intended only for European settlers. Maybe it was, but this question of legitimacy has trailed me my whole life, as it does most Indian South Africans. I have often been seen as a tourist in the town I grew up in. I have been called coolie on a playground. These are quotidian experiences of displacement; everyday reminders of non-belonging.

AmaKula (a derogatory isiZulu slang word for Indian people derived from the word “coolies”) is a popular way to refer to those of South Asian ancestry in South Africa.

Before South Africa’s COVID-19 restrictions kicked in, I was working as a part-time sub-editor in a local newsroom. While we ate our lunches at our desk, the conversation shifted to the word “amakula.” My colleagues, some of whom are friends and mentors, were Black and the conversation circled around whether amaKula is a racial slur as some Black communities simply use the word as a racial descriptor. A few people didn’t know the words’ episteme in “coolie,” and the histories underpinning its usage in colonial and apartheid times. I explained some of these histories through gritted teeth—confused that I had to explain this to people I felt should know that the word is analogous to the k-word in South Africa. The apartheid hierarchy of races was invoked with some wondering how Indian South Africans could be referents of racial slurs or abuse as their position was just below whites and above everyone else.

In response, a colleague said her mother uses amaKula to describe Indian South Africans because these communities are racist, so why should the offer of non-racist speech be extended to those who see Black people as inherently inferior? She quickly added that she’s tried to address it but her mother’s experience of racial profiling and abuse from Indian South Africans was not something she was willing to forgive or reconcile. I acknowledged that her mother should feel what she does and that I am sorry. Feeling tears well up, I went to the bathroom. The hopelessness of Black and Indian South Africans seeing each other as people with differential but intertwining histories of subjugation and living under white supremacy felt too much to bear at that moment.

Tyra Naidoo, a friend and Indian South African artist was told by a Black student during the Rhodes Must Fall protests at University of Cape Town that she should stay out of these politics because: “What do you know? You came on a fucking ship.” The comment stung. Our sense of belonging made contingent; our place in Africa dependent on the mode of transport our ancestors used to get here. Naidoo, in reflection and reclamation created the artwork “You came here on a fucking boat,” a sinking cement-cast boat mirroring those that transported indentured labourers to Durban’s shores.

It is in fact the case that the relatives of all Indian South African people who descended from indentured laborers, and passenger Indians did come on ships. But to create an equivalence between their journeys here, and those of Europeans who came on ships seems disingenuous at best. Surely the weight of history bears down differently on those whose ancestors were coerced here and those who arrived as part of so-called civilizing missions. The first ships carrying indentured laborers landed in 1861 and the last ship arrived in 1911. The indentured laborers they carried were often kidnapped and coerced by British colonists, and their Indian recruiters—the arkatis—in India. Those who chose to leave had often transgressed social or religious norms in India (such as falling pregnant before marriage, loving or marrying across caste or religion), had been cast out of their social networks in India, and felt pressured to leave. .

Personal accounts from indentured laborers show that many of them were tricked—the contracts they thumb-printed were never properly explained to them and most did not know the brutality that awaited them on the sugar plantations, dairy farms, coal mines and railways they were being recruited to work on.

The Europeans who arrived by boat—those descended from the 1652 fleets and those who arrived after 1820, developed a strict hierarchy of belonging. White South Africans have a long history of monopolizing decisions about who belongs in this country, and who doesn’t. If colonial conquest was not enough to demonstrate this, the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was predicated on a pact between Afrikaners and British descendants, whose only similarity was the color of their skins. They had been bitter enemies, until that point, but they came together politically and thereafter economically, in order to build a country in their own image and was governed for their benefit only. In 1948, the apartheid system strengthened the racial pact and codified it in ways both nightmarish and banal. The year 1994 was supposed to present us all with a rupture in these exclusions. The post-apartheid vision was embedded in the first lines of the constitution, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

More recently, in some quarters, belonging has become linked to indigeneity. The EFF and some in the ANC, as well as some who espouse colored identity politics, profess this brand of politics. The question of authenticity is central to how we see the struggles of South Africans of South Asian ancestry in relation to the struggles of people perceived to be African migrants. Both groups have repeatedly been forced to “prove” their allegiance to the country based on ideas of loyalty that have been deeply linked to indigeneity. Ironically, the categories into which both groups have been shoe-horned are inventions; created by colonizers and adhering to colonial logic.

The boundary lines of the South African state were dictated by the British who also decided on the borders of Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria—countries whose citizens have been targeted in xenophobic attacks since 1994, when many blue-collar workers from neighboring African states moved to South Africa.

Prior to the arrival of indentured laborers, “until the beginning of the twentieth century in South Africa all people that were not considered to be “European” or “Black” were regarded as “colored.”,” academic Kathryn Pillay notes. “The South African state,” she argues, “between 1948 and 1994, set limits to the identity choices of ‘Indians’.” Anti-Indian legislation started as early as 1885, with any of the “native races of Asia” being disbarred from “burgher rights” (citizenship) in the then-Transvaal. This was swiftly followed by other acts and ordinances which restricted Indian movement within and out of the country and payments of taxes and penalties for contravening sanitation or trade laws.

The term “coolies” was not the only one applied to racial groups invented by colonizers, of course. They invented the very notion of Africans, who until the arrival of colonizers were distinct ethnic groups with different languages, cultures and histories. When white people placed themselves as the center of human identity, with all other racialized peoples defined in relation to them, they began the process of arbitrarily inventing racial categories—including their own racial category of ‘white’. Then there were communities racialized as a colored, whose complex and generational creolization put them in a situation of conditional indigeneity. They were a racial invention too, a product of relations that could not be named given the racial boundaries white settlers had created to maintain racial “purity.” The fact that these groups were a complex socially inscribed fiction required their boundary lines to be heavily policed. Hence apartheid laws like the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act had to be enforced with violence.

The racial hierarchy then influenced who was seen as foreign and who belonged. White people—as the inventors of the system of apartheid—occupied the center. They belonged here without question. They conceded that some Black people belonged also, albeit in prescribed areas that were in line with racist ideas about tribe and ethnicity. Indians on the other hand, had another home (India) to go to. As the National Party election manifesto states:

The party holds the view that Indians are a foreign and outlandish element which is unassimilable. They can never become part of the country and must therefore be treated as an immigrant community.

Indian population groups are the recognizable other. The Mercury editorial, the settler newspaper of the time, noted the group as a “very Oriental-looking crowd.” The British colonial regime, the Union of South African and the apartheid government made it clear through anti-Indian and immigration legislation specifically directed at Asian communities, that South Africa was not our home, and through colonial and apartheid-era media and political discourse, this became the narrative of South African “Indianness.”


In many ways, the events of July demonstrate the racial politics of being a middleman minority. White communities, although also protected by neighborhood watches and patrols, have not experienced the level of destruction seen in racialized communities. There were Indian areas, communities racialized as colored and white neighborhoods that denied Black people entrance to shops, roads and residential areas because of fear predicated on racism. But, the vitriol directed against Indian people as a whole during this time elides many modes of being in Phoenix and areas like it.

Shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo surface some of these erasures, citing the work of the Phoenix Residents’ Association, the strong links between Africans of Indian descent with the work of Abahlali and in earlier housing struggles around Durban in the early 2000s. Importantly, they highlighted the local level politics of private security companies and wealthy Indian drug lords and gangsters, who are often involved in evictions, killings and assaults in the area and who Indian and Black residents alike live in fear of.

The events in Phoenix did not transpire out of thin air, and this was not the first time Indian vigilantes policed the borders of the settlement Gandhi created. “The battle lines formed between Phoenix and Inanda, with Indian vigilantes arming themselves in preparation for an attack on Phoenix,” writes sociologist Ashwin Desai about the protests and riots of 1985. The resemblances to 2021 are eerie. The events of Inanda, 1985, are etched into the minds of many Indian South Africans who live on KwaZulu Natal’s North Coast—for many of the same reasons 1949 is.

On August 1, 1985, Victoria Mxenge was assassinated by government death squads outside her home in Umlazi. She was a well-loved and respected comrade, fighting apartheid injustices over decades. In response to her murder, a schools strike and boycott, organized by Umlazi youth, spread quickly through Black townships in KwaZulu-Natal. KwaMashu, Lamontville and Inanda all saw protests against the apartheid government.

A few days after the assassination, two homes owned by Indian people living in Inanda were burned down. This led to an exodus of Indian shopkeepers and residents who either lived through 1949, or knew those who did. The displaced people went to their closest neighborhood—Phoenix—for safety. Phoenix and Inanda share a porous boundary. Families and working relationships often cross this boundary and the demarcations were largely predicated on race. A week after the two homes were burned down, 42 shops and homes owned by Indians were destroyed. Two thousand Indian people were displaced, and sought shelter in Phoenix. Black homes and businesses in Inanda were left untouched.

Inanda’s violence, as Desai explains, needs to be understood in the context of the general political turbulence of 1980s KwaZulu Natal. In other townships, African-owned businesses and homes were targeted and destroyed. But in Inanda the tone veered towards anti-Indian rhetoric. This is due a complicated network of Inkatha-aligned fighters (the Zulu nationalist group clandestinely funded by the apartheid state at the time) getting involved to quell the UDF-aligned unrest, and having vested interests in expanding their influence in Inanda. The violence in Inanda was multi-causal and although expressed in some anti-Indian ways, it cannot wholly be described as such because of the youth’s push back of Inkatha forces who they viewed as “surrogates of the South African state.” There were anti-apartheid elements of the violence, as well as anti-Indian and opportunistic elements. Writes Desai,

Why would an indigenous majority strike out at a disenfranchised minority rather than at a white ruling class which, after all, set the rules of the game? This has much to do with the structural location of the middleman minority, with an immediate relation to the indigenous population as buyer and seller, renter and landlord, client and professional.

The events of 1985, like 1949, placed Indian South Africans in a precarious position—with the memories of the earlier event compounding feelings of insecurity and displacement. The logics of xenophobia—profiling Indians as stealing land, jobs and opportunities from indigenous populations, Indian shopkeepers as symbolic of privilege, easily expendable and expelled—work hand-in-hand with the tribalism espoused by Inkatha at the time. As with 1949, White South Africans remained above the system, untouched by the violence their ancestors authored.

Many lives were lost on both sides of these riots, and for Indians, it became an abiding memory of fear and sense of vulnerability. The 1985 riots, while not leading to the same violence, immediately raised the spectre of 1949. As in 1949 and 1985, it is a time in which the great expectations of democracy in 1994 have not materialised for the vast majority of South Africans. An insular Indian community meets a resurgent racial nationalism with tribal overtones. It is in this context that the middleman thesis of scapegoating and vulnerability has great resonance.

In constructing Indians as outsiders to African racial nationalism, the hierarchies and dynamics remain intact. A sense of Indian South African racial superiority, built on apartheid logics and class position is one of the reasons this continues. Another, and arguably more potent force, is the insularity Indian communities have actively fostered over time: a secret society with religious, cultural and social dynamics most other racial groups are deliberately not privy to. While closing off can be read as a reaction to the dangerous and violent underlying discourses of otherness and alienness surrounding Indian communities since their indentured arrival, it also undermines the efforts of Black and Indian anti-apartheid and grassroots community activism to heal the ruptures between these two groups.

In the aftermath of 1949, the Black political class in the African National Congress and South African Indian Congress sought to forge better relationships with each other and to struggle together, although this was often in conflict with both constituencies feeling unheard by their political parties, as Jon Soske has noted in his study of non-racialism as politics in South Africa.

Indian South African solidarity with Black South Africans has a long and storied history in the country—anti-apartheid stalwarts such as Yusuf Dadoo, Fatima Meer, Pregs Govender and Ahmed Kathrada come to mind. But I find the work of contemporary community activists, such as the Phoenix Residents Association, Abahlali baseMjondolo and even the 1860 Heritage Center, more important to this post-July moment and the forging of true cross-racial solidarity.

After the July unrest, the 1860 Heritage Museum, which is dedicated to the history of Indian indentureship in South Africa, started a conversational Zulu course. More initiatives like this need to happen. Conversation and language are key elements of dismantling the festering racial hierarchies between Black and Indian South Africans; of both seeing each other as people. One way of wading through this quagmire of anti-Blackness and ethno-nationalism is through honest and uncomfortable dialogue. In this space, conversations between Black and Indian South Africans that are both rigorous and informal, sustained and anecdotal. Cross-racial solidarity must be an on-going process that is not dictated by political elites. As academic and poet Vivek Narayanan urges us in his reflections on 1949, “we must begin to make better use of our multiple positions, and to transgress spaces and silences—carefully —if we want to build and imagine a truly cross-cultural [and cross-racial] world.”

Youlendree Appasamy is part of the inaugural class of Africa Is a Country Fellows.