A perspective of the epic journey of the trailblazing 1860 Indian indentured labourers from India to South Africa  By Prince Ishwar Ramlutchman Mabheka Zulu.The sheer beauty and bliss of the mind, body and soul is that as I journey towards a status of middle age, I am truly gifted to enjoy the best of both worlds in my native KwaZulu-Natal. 

I belong to a successive generation of the simple, humble but unbowed indentured labourer, a clutch of intrepid men, women and children who stepped off the SS Truro on 16th November 1860 onto the hot seashore soil of Durban. 

I belong to the warrior-like spirit of Africa’s legendary indigenous nation, the Zulus, who like our Indian counterparts had fought a pitched battle against the oppressive hegemony of the colonial masters, first the British imperialists and then the Afrikaner regime.

But, we have all travelled very far in this journey, but our distant memory of these trials and tribulations are still etched in our minds. Always remember as we navigate towards our hard-earned 30 years of democracy in 2024, and we must treasure and cherish our constitutional right to cast our vote for a government of national unity, social cohesion and non-sexist and non-racial democracy.

History has no blank pages.On this 163rd celebration and commemoration of the brave 342 Indian semi-slaves who toiled from sunrise to sunset to survive all odds and give birth to the largest concentration of Indians outside mainland India, let us salute all 1,4-million Indian South Africans, and express our gratitude to our fellow Zulu-speaking brothers and sisters and all 62-million of our black and white compatriots within this s as the world’s most unique melting pots of people of colour, cultures, religious, cultures, hopes and aspirations.

On this momentous milestone, I am reminded of the profound words of wisdom from my father, the legendary monarch of Africa, His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini Ka-Bheku-Zulu, who sadly left us during the height of the deadly coronavirus pandemic in 2020: 

Our province is at the crossroads of change, prompting the iconic Zulu monarch to comment on the promotion of social cohesion in a divided society, and how racial groups depended on each other: “I always say that the history of the Zulu nation would not be complete without the history of the Indian communities, and the history of the English people, Afrikaners and Germans.

”As we navigate a daunting and challenging future with a myriad of socio-economic and political challenges, I believe that we must not be weighed down by history.

We need draw on our resilience; community-spiritedness and camera die and chart a bright future for all of us – not just Indians only. We need to reach out across the fence and embrace our culturally-diverse neighbours, a carbon copy cultural fusion of how MK Mahatma MK Gandhi reached out to John Langabalele Dube across the fence at the Phoenix Settlement in Inanda in 1900s.

It’s time for Indians and Zulus and the other racial groups to close ranks and establish a coalition of cultures to celebrate all of our national celebrations.I am pleased when a coalition of cultural and socio-religious organisations came together for the first time to collectively celebrate this milestone marking the arrival of indentured labourers in Durban from India, at the historic Shri Mariammen Temple in Mount Edgecombe on Thursday, 16 November. These organisations have joined hands to pay homage to our ancestors who arrived in the city under trying conditions of sheer hardship and uncertainty on this landmark dateline.

Within SA’s Indian-origin citizens out of a broader, culturally-diverse population, the majority of Indian South Africans are the descendants of indentured workers who were brought to Natal by the British colonial regime in India from 1860 until 1911 on five and ten year contracts, totaling more than 200 000 – not excluding Indian traders, merchants and professional people – to have to primarily develop and grow the sugar industry in the Garden Province. 

So, far ahead of the 164th commemoration of the epic journey of the men, women and children who journeyed to Africa to beat British India’s severe drought and abject poverty, we may be collectively disappointed with the ANC-led KwaZulu-Natal Government for having not motivated the eThekwini Municipality strong enough to build a statue on the seafront to memorialise the indentured labourers and their children who landed in on the city’s shores. 

The funds were budgeted 12 years ago, at the cost of R10-million but we need to revisit this symbolic project to inquire why this project has been stalled?It’s a test of time, if government-initiated projects to erect a memorial statue along theshoreline in memory of the risk-taking labourers, plus the Belvedere’s 340 batch, who collectively had spawned the largest population of Indians outside mainland India and the global diaspora of 25-million, will see the light of day.Lest we forget, Indians arrived by boat as semi-slaves in Durban more than a century and a half ago. They were ferried from colonial India by the British Raj to toil in the sugar cane plantations from dawn to dusk for the expatriate sugar barons, documenting one of the most horrendous labour camps systems.Throughout this poignant past, from colonialism to apartheid and constitutional democracy,Indians have been central to the legacy of a culturally-diverse, politically-conscientised andnon-racial nation.In the 2020s, Indians who are divided into half-dozen religious-cultural sub-groups, continue to celebrate and commemorate our epic history since stepping on the African soil. 

Predictably, given past tensions, this unique bloc of people of Indian origin may be divided on the planning, protocol and funding of this milestone. Leaders tend to jockey for garlands, often currying favour to be recognized by the ruling political leadership, and to be publicised with thepolitical royalty.We must change course, change our attitudes, become less prejudicial, and shift the paradigms and protocols by genuinely moving forward out of our socio-religious laagers and join the mainstream of society to build a better South Africa. We need to lift KwaZulu-Natal out of the doldrums of poverty, unemployment, social strife, drug and alcohol abuse and fraud and corruption practices in the private and public sectors.

During this journey, Indians have not had it easy. Most Indians have struggled to be wherethey are today in politics, business, academia, education, trade, industry, commerce.From the dark years of ideological apartheid from 1948 to 1994, and before thatcolonialism, Indians were racially tagged as ’Indians’ or Asians – and either way – they weredisparagingly labelled as ‘non-whites’ and lumped with the indigenous people along withthird-class coloureds and Chinese.In the meantime, we must revive memories, trials and tribulations, and failures and achievements of the community. This dateline of 16 November 1860 is the most important day for South Africans of Indian heritage and origin. Let’s have a community discussion and chart a way forward for mutual co-existence and unity in a changing world order. 

Today, we the descendants of Girmitiyas are continuing the struggle for a just, equal and non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous country.As the president of the World Sivananda Peace Foundation, we must ensure that the launch of the Global Girmitiya Centre South Africa gains momentum and outreach across our country and continent.The legacy and legend of the 200 000 labourers and economic migrants who undertook the journey into the darkness of the Indian Ocean into the light of our province between 1860 and  1911 mist be fittingly preserved and this poignant history and heritage must be jealously guarded and protected and of course shared with the rest of the world.

The 1860 Commemoration Council platform must steadfastly promote intra-racial unity and social cohesion among Indians and Africans first and with our fellow compatriots across the country.We must extend invitations to people between the age group of 90 to 100 years to acknowledge their stories and this generation of stoical people must be acknowledged and honoured.It is therefore paramount for the children and grandchildren of our descendants of the original manifest of the indentured labourers and slaves who arrived on dozens of ships to tell their stories in community discussions and discourses. Always remember to pay homage to our forebears. 

Call out their names in your prayers, be proud of who you are and teach your children of this proud history.South Africa is tragically tearing apart with deeper divisions, the stubbornness of our people not to forgive, but let us not forget, and to progressively work with harmony by respecting our brothers and sisters – regardless of colour, culture, creed or social and economic status – we are, after all, equal people living and working in an egalitarian society.I am no friend of ego, selfishness or self-serving brinkmanship.Therefore, I take the view; however, all is not doom and gloom on the south of the border or the global south. Indians, a resourceful and resilient people. 

We or they need to reinvent themselves. We need to embrace a patriotic vision, share your cultural heritage and skills with indigenous compatriots. We need to make small businesses into big ones. We need to kick-start cottage industries. We need to roll up your our sleeves in the true blue fashion of traditional work ethos.

We must always remember that Indians are not a homogenous bloc, so we just have to get on with it. Africa is home, after all. KwaZulu-Natal is the heartbeat of our home. On this historic day we Salute and Pay tribute to our forefathers for their commitment and dedication in promoting culture, education and in various other sectors . Finally, it’s time to sail into new charted waters across the horizon into the bright light of hope, courage and perseverance.

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