After 158 years here, the last thing SA's Indians needed were the Guptas
The family’s pervasive influence has fuelled the divide of distrust between Indians and Africans
The idiom “to curry favour” has nothing to do with Indians or their most prolific dish. Instead it has its origins in a 14th century French poem about a chestnut (yes, brown) horse, Favel, who symbolised cunningness and duplicity. Ironic, then, that the colonised French phrase is the behaviour that garlands brown people living in SA, as oppressively as the cloying humidity that thrives in the sugar cane-rich province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The very province in which 342 Indian immigrants, carrying sacksfull of hope, courage, ambition and their most prized possessions, arrived aboard the SS Truro 158 years ago, on November 16 1860.
In the ensuing years, until 1911, more than 150,000 Indians toiled the fields, enduring intense subjugation and horrendous exploitation all the while creating an obscene wealth for the colonisers.
Religion, grit and a strong family ethos ensured the indentured Indian immigrants were able to adapt, thrive and multiply.
Thus dawned a new generation of South Africans of Indian descent who embraced the culture, heritage and traditions that accompanied them from the subcontinent with pride and wore their African roots with a smidgen of discomfort.
They built schools, community spaces and places of worship, and years later, in the hierarchy of apartheid, Indian privilege outranked coloureds and Africans.
It’s an uncomfortable truth defensively countered by the argument that Indians were a pioneering, hardworking community who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
True story. But the fact that the skewed playing fields were the catalyst to many success stories cannot be ignored.
And because education first was drummed into the psyche with hopes of deviation being met with threats of “shoe hidings” or throwing chilli powder in our eyes, the Indian diaspora – the largest gathering of Indians outside the sub-continent – were able to access economic opportunities and, in the main, flourished.
In the minds of millions of South Africans – coloured by apartheid’s unfortunate barbie – the synonym for Indians could easily be Guptas.
Their insidious ingratiating into almost every sphere of our financial and political landscape is being played out in the me-too support group before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo where ministers, politicians and heads of state-owned enterprises are singing like parrots.
My me-too moment came in 2010 when through a business connector I was invited as the plus-one guest to the Sahara box to witness a historic game between Spain and Germany in the World Cup. After a blue-light police escort ride from Houghton to Soweto. I met host Atul and his family, including matriarch Angoori, while brothers Ajay and Rajesh were on Presidential Suite box duty.
At the time, I wrote about the family’s “significant interests in the IT sector (thanks to a number of government contracts) and mining sector (no doubt thanks to a mutually beneficial relationship with some senior members of the ruling party)”, as well as the launch of their newspaper in September.
But it is only now, as the reach of their tentacles is being exposed, that you quantify not only the financial impact of their efforts to line their pockets, but the equally damaging influence on social cohesion.
While the attitude of perceived superiority and numerous documented examples of ill-treatment at the hands of Indian families regularly threatens to topple the tenuous fault lines of discord between Indians and Africans, it is the Gupta family’s pervasive influence that has served to fuel the divide of distrust.
The Guptas – who could easily have written the Guru Guide on How to Curry Favour and Capture a State – reinforce the stereotypical perception of Indians as being exploitative, greedy and cunning.
It’s not how my forebears and hundreds of thousands of others who arrived 158 years ago should be remembered.
If they hadn’t already left, it would be delicious irony to resurrect the SS Truro and send them packing.