Ethnicity / Nationalism / Racism and Xenophobia / Southern Africa

“African” or “Indian”? The Treatment of Indians as a Minority Population in Sub-Saharan Africa

A couple of months ago, I celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in my hometown of Harare for the first time in the six years since I had left for college. Thousands of people, not just members of the Indian community, attended the celebrations held at the local community sports club. In recent years, the celebrations have extended beyond a community that is often regarded as insular, calling themselves Zimbabweans but still remaining socially within the confines of the Indian population. Zimbabweans of Indian origin still have a long way to go before being formally accepted as indigenous residents, rather than foreign migrants.

Dancers celebrate the 1860 arrival of Indians in Durban, South Africa. Source: (

Dancers celebrate the 1860 arrival of Indians in Durban, South Africa. Source: (

Africa’s biggest Indian population is located in South Africa. But South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” is hardly a phenomenon of the twentieth century. From the arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century to the migration of slaves, indentured laborers, and merchants from India in the eighteenth century, different races have shared spaces in what would become the Republic of South Africa for hundreds of years. Indian South Africans currently make up only 2.7 per cent of the South African population, and reside primarily in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. They were categorized as “Asians” during the years of formal apartheid, but even as a minority in the country, fought for their rights as citizens and residents as much as the black African majority. Those who were politically conscious increasingly self-identified as “African,” “South African,” and even “Black.”

But during apartheid, relationships between blacks and Indians on a local level were characterized by affinity from facing similar forms of discrimination, but also by resentment as apartheid implemented different levels of discrimination according to ethnicity. Apartheid did not just advantage whites in South Africa, but also created a racial hierarchy that would prevent most Indians in South Africa with fully identifying with the black majority, inhibiting black-Indian alliances. Similarly, the histories of South African Indians and South African blacks have remained largely separate too; with many authors taking for granted the idea of “Indianness” being a distinct identity from “Africanness.” Rather than treating Indian nationalist efforts as part of the general anti-apartheid resistance efforts that took place, most historians, Indian and non-Indian alike, tend to handle the topic as a question of minority rights in South Africa, instead of in a more nuanced way as a subset of broader African racial discourse. Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan of Asian origin, is one of the few African historians whose works transcend this divide.

I am of Indian origin, but I am a third generation Zimbabwean. My maternal grandfather fought in the liberation war against the Smith regime, and was a member of the Zimbabwe Africa People’s Union that was led by Joshua Nkomo. My father fought for land reform in Zimbabwe as the country’s acting attorney general, and is now a Supreme Court judge. At the same time, like many countries in Africa, Zimbabwe is experiencing an indigenization, or Africanization policy. The transfer of land from white minority farmers to black disadvantaged laborers was the first step in this policy. The next step is to “indigenize” all businesses and companies, ensuring that 51 per cent of each is owned by an indigenous Zimbabwean, or someone disadvantaged during the colonial era. The most famous (or infamous) example of an indigenization policy is that of Idi Amin, who expelled Uganda’s Asian population in the 1970s and appropriated their businesses. Most Zimbabweans of Indian origin are required to prove that they have no claim to Indian citizenship, as did I when I turned eighteen, despite the fact that both my parents and my grandfather were born in Zimbabwe.

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not the Indian population counts as “indigenous Africans,” and is one that is common to many non-black minority groups across sub-Saharan Africa. But the continued separation of the histories of “native” Africans and migrant minority communities prevents impactful discourse about the contribution of the latter to African resistance politics. It also inhibits analysis of the way that different ethnicities in African countries have lived together in a more domestic and local sphere. The legacies of colonialism and apartheid linger in contemporary discourse, preventing African historians from thinking outside the issues of race that separated different ethnic communities from one another. But by thinking of Indian communities as African Indians and permanent residents with as much right to citizenship as the black majority, rather than foreign migrants, the conversation about black and Indian interactions can perhaps be better integrated.

8 thoughts on ““African” or “Indian”? The Treatment of Indians as a Minority Population in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. Trishula
    I am sympathetic to your comments but honesty and transparency are essential. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the entire offshore business of Jersey was based on servicing Indians based in East Africa assisting them to syphon their money out of Africa mainly using re-invoicing techniques either to avoid taxation or to circumvent the foreign exchange controls. This was systematic economic sabotage. At the same time they invested this capital in UK property. Could these people be thought of as Africans? I doubt it. On the other hand there were many whites who gave their lives for the African struggle and whom I would not hesitate to call them and their children ‘African’ if they wished to adopt that identity.

    Nationality involves some serious loyalty to the country. I am not sure I care for the term ‘Indian Africans’ or ‘White Africans’ . This smacks of racial identification. In African culture being African is not a racial issue is about culture and identity. Every Black person in the world does not qualify as African particularly if he hates Africa! To be African also means feeling affinity with other Africans … so Africans of Indian original at a French airport should feel affinity to assist another African from say Niger. A British citizen would feel able to call on another British citizen for help in a foreign country and next to that another European ..regardless of colour of their skin. What is unacceptable is a one way bet …We want to be treated as African and have the same rights but not the same obligations. I would say the issue of whether a particular person of Indian origin is African is a specific individual issue ,case by case, not a community issue, in the exactly the same way it would be with US or British citizenship. To have US citizenship has some serious mutual obligations attached.

    • Yes, of course there are some people of Indian origin on the continent who do not feel any loyalty to the countries they live in, but you can’t generalize and insinuate that all members of these communities do not feel attached to their countries. The example you make took place in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot has changed since then. Immigrants from India no longer hold British citizenship as subjects of the British empire, but Zimbabwean or Zambian or South African passports instead. I am third generation Zimbabwean, and my peers and I would not consider ourselves to be Indian citizens. These communities have made sub-Saharan Africa their home, and invest in it both economically and politically. Being African is a racial issue, however, and not all black Africans consider “non-indigenous” minorities to be true citizens. Ethnicity is still a major factor in socio-politics on the continent, and that’s something one can ignore.

      • Trishula
        you seem determined not to read what I said. I have members of my extended family who look completely white but consider themselves Nigerian and feel insulted when not treated as such. I know a person of Lebanese origin who declares himself ‘Nigerian and proud of it..’ History may make some African people sceptical about the commitment of some people whose communities’ past attitudes were undesirable. Even so, Black people in the US had to go through some pain before they were accepted as fully American… Being African has never been a racial issue ..if you think so you have not really understood your home country.. to be Yoruba or Hausa is not a matter of the colour of your skin! Scars may take time to heal but you too should not take some hesitation by some Africans as a reflection of principle or the attitude of all Africans. The current President of Zambia is a person of White ancestry ..who is to say he is not African!!!
        No country in the world gives or accepts citizenship on a ‘community’ basis rather than an individual basis individually make a commitment not your community. Because a ‘White’ person is President of Zambia does not make me willing to accept every passing White person as a fellow African. So withdraw that slander that to be African is a racial issue. Ask any Zambian.

      • I actually did take the time to read your comment very carefully, which is why I took the time to respond. That may be the case in Nigeria or Zambia, but not necessarily for all countries. I was also looking at this from an academic point of view from someone who has researched the way that Indian communities in Africa are written about in historical analyses. I was not attempting to “slander,” and simply trying to bring about an intellectual conversation about what being African means, and how race plays into that.

  2. You use terms such as ‘academia’ as if they were neutral in this debate. I remember attending a conference at University College London when JWN Watkins, professor of philosophy at LSE no less, said that no European could ever understand the mind of an African..when he noticed my presence among the scholars he left in embarassment. The Western academic discourse about Africans is not neutral territory nor can you hold Africans responsible for its nature. In past Western academic discourse ‘African’ was a racial terminology with strong implications of primitive if not partially sub-human. Even in 1990’s I attended a conference at SOAS where a speaker referred to that ‘primitive African tribe – the Yorubas’.
    If you want to be treated as African it would help if you abandon speaking to us through these alien discourses and terminologies. I personally do not accept the concept of ‘race’ and there is a lot of biology/genetics to determine that the concept is more social than real.
    If Pushkin, Dumas , Beethoven et al all had African ancestry what does it mean to talk of European culture in ‘racial’ terms? But let me assure you that speaking academically will not help the issue you are raising – which is fundamentally political. That issue is one between human beings not academic ideas. As a gesture of goodwill I let go some clear errors in your text..but as you wish to get academic lets proceed:
    You wrote: ‘not all black Africans consider “non-indigenous” minorities to be true citizens’ …citizen refers to an individual not a class so it would be formally absurd for anyone to consider a community to be good citizens rather than the individuals who make up that community. If you were to be judged on the basis of your ‘Asian community’ you would be unfairly why would you wish to be treated not as Trishula but as just one of an Indian community? Your elision is a surreptitious attempt to obtain citizenship for an entire community without any individual commitment – I don’t buy that. I cannot see any reason for this not to be dealt with individual by individual as any other country would. The British offered local citizenship to the Asian population. They largely turned it down ..but this was done on a person by person basis and many notable exceptions chose local citizenship on a personal basis. The British did not declare the whole community to be British or say Ugandan!

    In legal terms you could address this issue as one of presumption. Someone whose father was German is presumed to have a commitment to Germany and German culture …UNLESS he disclaims it. It is hard for many Africans to say honestly that they could comfortable ‘presume’ that an Indian who lived in East Africa or South Africa was more committed to Africa than India. I could not make that presumption. I could however be easily persuaded otherwise. You would have no difficulty.

    You also write: ‘thinking of Indian communities as African Indians and permanent residents with as much right to citizenship as the black majority’ ..this is absurd. The Asians who Amin expelled were not citizens. Nowhere in the world does an immigrant population have ‘equal rights’ to citizenship as a native population! A son of German father has no questions to answer but the son of a Turkish father may need to answer some questions to establish his German citizenship. No one suggest that that alone is injustice.
    Many countries do not accept dual citizenship and for a long period Nigeria did not accept dual citizenship so that if there was any suggestion that you had another passport you could loose your Nigerian citizenship. You make the situation sound as if it only applied to to the Asian community and was solely directed at them.Not so.

    You don’t address the core issue : I do not accept the idea of African Indians. You are either African or not, and there is no category called ‘African Indian’. We have many minorities in Africa , e.g. Ijaw , Efik etc, all are Africans.

  3. Well my comments are in lighter vein,once an Ambassador told me that ‘Desis’ Indians believe in ‘Tan Man Dhan’ or body,heart and wealth.The Tan or body is in Africa,Man or heart is in ‘Desh’ India and ‘Dhan’ the wealth is in England.Most of Indians were camp followers,into business and adept in betting both the horses in the electoral derby.Few were in politics in Africa and fewer were corrupt from Anglophone Africa to Portuguese Africa.

    • Mana
      puzzled ..are you being wilfully blind? Tax evasion is corruption. The whole industry of Jersey in 1960’s was based on helping Indians syphon their money illegally out of East Africa. This is corruption on a massive scale. They were not in politics because most of them had no commitment to the country of residence. There were always admirable exceptions… but face the truth.
      Despite Trishula statement … Ghandi always thought of himself as Indian NOT African . I am not sure who she was kiddding when she suggested otherwise.

      • Thank all of you for the intellectual debate. I’ve enjoyed reading it. It’s miles above typical insults when opposing views collide. Sincerely thank you.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s