Home Book Review Coming to grips with New Rainbow Nation

Coming to grips with New Rainbow Nation


WHAT GANDHI DIDN’T SEE | Zainab Priya Dala | Being Indian in South Africa Speaking Tiger | Pages 148 | Rs. 499 | Hardcover

By Ganesh Saili 

The fault lines run deep. They furrow four generations of South Africans (of Indian descent) still struggling to come to grips in the new Rainbow Nation. From 1684 till the present, the Indian diaspora in South Africa has had a chequered history. But they remain synonymous with three points of identity: indenture, apartheid and Mahatma Gandhi. These essays are written with passion, and are a sincere account of the resilience and strength with which Girmitias or indentured workers overcame their terrible conditions. They are slowly learning to come to terms with the scars that exploitation has embossed upon their souls. They are still trying to live with them. Part biography and part history meet to mingle in a fascinating examination of what it is to be Indian in Africa. Their tale dates back to 1860, where two ships left the ports of Calcutta and Madras, carrying a cargo of human beings. They were the first wave of a many people that would come to South Africa from India to work as indentured labourers on the sugarcane fields. The Agreementwalas had arrived. Their story is the life simple peasants who had to put their thumb impression on agreements they could not read. In their village pidgin, those who ‘signed’ the form was henceforth known as Girmityas or those who had chosen to become indentured labourers. Packed off like fish, they were sent to shores forlorn in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad, Fiji and Guyana; into a future unknown. Though promised a free return passage every five years, they were cheated by the fine print. Many would never see home again. In six sharp essays, Zainab Priya Dala deftly lifts the veil on some of the lesser known facets of South African Indians, starting with the question of how relevant is the Mahatma to them today. It is a question the author answers with searing honesty, as she tackles the questions of the ‘new racism’—between Black Africans and Indians— and the ‘new apartheid’ —money; the tussle between the ‘canefields’ where she grew up, and the ‘Casbah’, or the glittering town of Durban; and what the changing patterns in the names the Indian community chooses for their children. Gandhi wrote: ‘But all my life through, the very insistence on truth has taught me the beauty of compromise.’ And then again he went back to reiterate: ‘Truth is hard as a diamond, and as tender as a blossom.’ But Dala struggles to understand how and why the Mahatma did not pay attention to the enslaved labour on the farms in their daily struggle to survive. Small wonder then to the Indians in South Africa, he became an elitist. In found the last essay is too stilted in favour of Winnie Mandela – painted as a victim – a young mother deprived of her husband. How can one forget her infamous Football Club and its litany of abuse? How can one gloss over acts like the necklacing of apartheid police informers with tyres, a box of matches and petrol? Can we sweep under the carpet the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei? Anyway, you do definitely not need my biometric thumb impression to know that this slim book is a good read. Postscript: Elsewhere I found an anecdote that has Nelson Mandela, along with his security detail, grabbing a quick bite at a restaurant. ‘Why don’t you call that man over to our table?’ the President asks his boys. They approach the quaking man, who comes over to settle down gingerly. When they leave, the guards wonder why the fellow had been so jittery? They discover that the man had been a guard in the Robben Island prison: ‘After the Afrikaners had done torturing me, I’d ask for water. Instead this fellow would urinate on my head,’ said the President. ’That’s why he was quivering – thinking that I shall fix him now that I am President of South Africa. But I’ve forgiven him – our future lies in compassion and reconciliation – that’s the path ahead. Highly recommended to those seeking a dip into the past to find solutions in our own turbulent times.