How Indians eked out a living despite increasing racist oppression in apartheid South Africa

Mohamed M Keshavjee

“Into That Heaven of Freedom” by Mohamed M Keshavjee (Mawenzi House Publishers, Toronto, Canada), was launched in Ahmedabad on December 26. A synopsis:

This book, made up of 23 chapters, begins with the author, an overseas Indian, arriving at Bombay airport in the monsoonal season of 1978  with a South African passport  and no Indian visa at a time when  South Africa had no diplomatic relationship with India. Confounding his worst expectation, the Indian immigration authorities treat him with great respect and allow him into the country but refuse to stamp his passport  on the basis that they do not recognize his country. Overwhelmed  by this welcome, the author, while feeling a sense of belonging, also senses an element of distance as India unfolds itself to him  with all its  multifaceted  dimensions.

Sensing the dystopia of an overcrowded metropolis where poverty is rampant and  ubiquitous, the author takes us through the urban sprawl of Bombay, followed by a visit to one of the slums where his wife, a specialist on tuberculosis, examines the living conditions that promote the spread of the disease. Unable to handle the reality of the Indian urban  situation, the author goes to Gujarat, to his ancestral home where he encounters people who knew his family and visits a  water well-constructed by his great grandfather some hundred years earlier. The book provides vignettes of the village. Touring through the Gujarat, he tries to find out what made his family leave India in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and why did they choose Africa. He realizes that the reasons lay in the colonial situation in which India found itself at that time. The author then takes us into the Kathiawar peninsula of the nineteenth century and how people migrated to different parts  of the world to escape from drought and famine.

Against this background, the author describes conditions in another part of the British empire, South Africa, where rivalry was raging between two White groups- the Dutch and the English- for political domination,  but both arrogated to themselves an exclusive right to the bounties of the  country while depriving the non- whites of any rights. It was in this milieu that a young Gujarati lawyer, Mohandas  Karamchand Gandhi arrives in the country in 1893  to help an Indian trader in his legal suit against a cousin. Gandhi, within the first week of his arrival, experiences racial prejudice and is thrown out of a train for travelling in a first class compartment. This brings him to a realization of the plight of the Indians who had settled there for some three decades, some of whom came as indentured laborers and others, later, as “passenger” Indians, mainly for trade.

The author’s forebears, ignorant of this situation, arrive in South Africa a year after Gandhi. While they try to establish themselves in trade,  Gandhi becomes involved in fighting for the rights of the Indian people, primarily on the basis that they are British subjects, and, as such, are  entitled to the same rights and privileges  as all British subjects. In this process, Gandhi experiences a number of vicissitudes and develops his own brand of resistance underpinned by soul force which he calls “satyagraha”. Gandhi’s struggle against anti-Indian legislation in the Transvaal is described together with his activities to help the Satyagrahis. He also started a school for the children of the satyagrahis called Tolstoy Farm.  The author’s  forebears  during this time lay the roots of settlement and establish a community structure in an area called Marabastad, a mile away from Pretoria the administrative capital of South Africa,  to which all Indians are relegated.

south-africaThe book then describes life in this Indian location at the margin of White consciousness in the early days of its evolution  and how Indians eked out a living despite increasing racist oppression implemented by an obstructive  web of bureaucracy imposed by the White government . Over time, racial discrimination increases and Indians throughout the country embark on non -violent  movements  to eradicate racial discrimination. It shows how in 1945, as a response to the extension of racial legislation to Natal to economically strangle the Indian traders, the government of India, under the leadership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru calls upon the newly- formed United Nations Organization   to help put an end to racial discrimination in South Africa – a move that internationalized the problem and eventually led to South Africa becoming a pariah in the eyes of the world. Simultaneously, the Indians in South Africa mounted the Passive Resistance Campaign and the author chronicles the Pretoria Indian contribution to this movement.

The book goes on to describe  how apartheid affected people in their daily lives and its particular impact on the enclave where the author was born and went to school. It portrays  the lives of  ordinary people  who did extraordinary things to mitigate the  deleterious effects of a system that was designed  to subordinate and humiliate  them solely on the basis of the colour of their skin. The book highlights the institutional contribution made by the Ismaili community  towards  the betterment of life in the urban location and the work of various individuals  who gave of their time unstintingly.  It  shows how this one small enclave produced individuals of great moral courage  who gave of themselves to help society withstand the ravages of apartheid – individuals who fought the Group Areas Act  such as the  Gandhian non- violent  resister, Nana Sita, Mrs Thayanayagee Pillay,  daughter of Thambi Naidoo who worked very closely with Mahatma Gandhi and Ismail Mahomed a leading jurist who became multi- racial South Africa’s first non-white chief Justice. The writer describes the 1940s as a decade in which South Africa witnessed a great efflorescence of cultural activities and resilience  among the non-whites.

In the early 1950s the author’s extended family moved to  Kenya. The book covers the Mau Mau insurrection and its aftermath coinciding with the “Wind of Change“ that was blowing across Africa in the 1960s.  Life in  post- independence  Kenya is described and some of the challenges posed by the  changing political circumstances in East Africa, culminating in  the Ugandan Asian expulsion of 1972  and the arrival of refugees in the UK and Canada. His explores his own search for a homeland  with humour and  a sense of  irony which ultimately he has found in Canada and the United Kingdom. He describes his return to South Africa after some 3 decades and the attitudes he encountered on the eve of multiparty democracy. The book then shows how the author develops an affinity with India.

Hearkening back to a search for an identity, he reflects over the original intention of his forebears to emigrate to Africa for a better life, a movement by his larger family to the West to enjoy greater political and economic  security, and his own discovery of who he is, and how he is able to relate more comfortably with India which no longer is an exilic memory, but one that he has come to understand better through a greater connection. The book highlights the diasporic realities which all families undergo, with the author questioning whether that heaven of freedom that Tagore wrote about and which forms the title of this memoir, can ever be reached.


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