South Africa's Indian heritage

  • 25 May 2015 | Cassidy Parker
South Africa's Indian community originates in KwaZulu-Natal, though communities have since migrated across the country

Indian indentured labourers first arrived on South African shores more than 150 years ago, creating a community that has become the largest non-immigrant Indian population in the world outside of India. People of Indian origin in the United States and the United Kingdom are larger in number, but they are recent immigrants when compared to the many generations of Indians who have lived in South Africa.

The Mahatma Gandhi statue at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, commemorates Gandhi's contribution to South Africa's history

Indians first arrived in South Africa aboard the Truro from Madras and the Belvedere from Calcutta to work on sugar cane fields in present-day KwaZulu-Natal. To this day, much of the country's Indian population remains in this region.

The Indian community was discriminated against not long after arrival in South Africa, being forced to carry passes as early as 1888. When Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Natal as an advisor to a Durban law firm in 1893, he observed and experienced racial slights so acutely that he remained much longer than his intended one-year stay, only leaving the country some 21 years later in 1914.

The two decades served as the foundation for many of Gandhi's political views, ethics and leadership abilities. He formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894. The party first preached passive resistance, but this was reformulated into a philosophy of satyagraha, Sanskrit for 'truth and firmness' when passive resistance proved inadequate. The NIC later allied itself to the African National Congress (ANC). Along with South Africa's black and coloured communities, South African Indians were heavily discriminated against during apartheid, and contributed greatly to the Freedom Struggle.

Other prominent Indian South Africans include the likes of activists Ahmed Kathrada, Kader Asmal and Fatima Meer, cricketer Hashim Amla and comedian Riaad Moosa.

Over the years, Indian culture has also infused South Africa from a culinary perspective, with many traditionally Indian meals being assimilated into the national palate. They include the uniquely South African bunny chow, which consists of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry. 

And it's not just in their food that Indian culture has prevailed. Traditional Indian dress can be seen on many a South African street, and the country's national obsession with cricket regularly puts Indian frenzy to the (cricket) test.

Traditional bunny chow. Image courtesy of Marshini