Ela Gandhi: 'We need to change the way we view each other'
Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter speaks out at an academic dialogue about racial tension in KZN
Have those who were once oppressed become the oppressors?
The racial tension between African and Indian people in KwaZulu-Natal can be traced as far as the 1940s, when clashes in Durban ended in mass bloodshed on either side.
And in the quest to maintain peace and uphold the rainbow nation, narrative public conversations around oppression and racial tension within oppressed groups have become taboo.
“There was always this idea of Africa giving the world a more humane face to oppression,” said Lukhona Mnguni, a PhD intern researcher at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Mnguni was part of a four-person panel at a dialogue under the theme “Tensions between Indians and Africans: A Reality OR Perception?”, hosted at UKZN on Wednesday. Other panellists included Professor Paulus Zulu, director of the unit, Dr Lubna Nadvi, an academic researcher at the institution’s school of social sciences, and Brij Maharaj, an academic at the institution’s school of environmental sciences.
The dialogue aimed to engage with the public discourse created around the social and economic relationships between the Indian and African communities. The conversations were sparked by controversial comments by EFF leader Julius Malema about Indian people in June and during the EFF’s fourth birthday celebration in July 2017.
“We were not all oppressed the same. Indians had all sorts of resources Africans didn’t have, coloureds as well. The majority of Indians are racist. I’m not saying all, I’m saying the majority,” said Malema at a Youth Day event in North West in June.
During the dialogue students and members of the public spoke about experiences of ill-treatment in the workplace by Indian employees, and general animosity between the two groups, particularly in KZN, which has the largest Indian population in the country.
“I have experienced bullying and a whole lot of other things from my Indian colleagues. Where do I talk about that? There is no space for us to vent or to talk about the treatment from Indian people in Durban. If you bring this up at the workplace you will either get fired or experience things what won't make you want to talk,” said student Thobeka Ndlovu.
In a heated discussion during the dialogue, the root of this animosity was attributed to a perceived superiority complex Indian people had because they were less oppressed than other people of colour during apartheid.
“Indians were the second beneficiaries of the apartheid regime. They were the ones who were eating the crumbs that fell from the tables of the white people. That is why some of them think they are superior to black people ... the problem started in this country when Indian people ditched themselves from the struggles of our people,” said Thobelani Mtshali, a third-year law student at the university.
Other conversations about “Indian supremacy” centred on Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi as “the architect of Indian supremacy”, and the school of thought that labelled him racist for comments he made about Africans when he first arrived in SA in the 1890s.
His granddaughter, Ela Gandhi, said she was not surprised by these comments because “people always need blame someone”.
“Yes, in his earlier days Gandhi did use this derogatory term, but we need to remember that at the time it was a word commonly used in the country. But he did later on change his views and ideas and that is what we need to do in our own lives – we need to change the way we view and think of each other as South Africans,” she said.
During a question-and-answer session, social activist Ibrahim Shaik called on the Indian community to change their attitudes.
“We need to come home to the truth; we are not going to change anything if we don’t admit that we are the issue. As Indians we need to understand that if we are going to be part and parcel of this South Africa we need to change our attitude towards the black man,” said Shaik.
Zulu said he believed that at the heart of this racial tension were structural hierarchies formed during the apartheid era. Dismantling them was key to defusing the tension.
“The problem with most interracial issues across the board in South Africa arises from the history of contrived identities, where identities carried with them hierarchies of inequalities, so you were not only Indian but that also carried with it a particular location in the hierarchy of South African society,” said Zulu.
“The problem is that all development, even post 1994, has not taken us out of this ... as long as we have not rectified these structural inequalities we are not going to be able to get out of this vicious syndrome,” he added.