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.
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.