Changing Family Forms, Patterns and Emerging Challenges within the South African Indian Diaspora

Article excerpt


Calcutta and Madras may be dubbed the "coolie catchment" centers for the British colonial trade in indentured labor destined for the southern tip of Africa. It was a weathered form of slavery based on voluntary contractual labor relationship-a more civilized version of slavery which was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. It took the form of a systematic but brutal coordination of capital accumulation using predominantly the single sex indentured labor system. Commencing in 1860, hordes of male laborers were shipped to the port city of Durban in South Africa to cultivate and process sugar on the coastal belt of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Indentured labor helped set the economic foundation for the processing of raw material for the present day global multibillion rand sugar enterprise on the altar of family life, kinship ties, social networks and relationships. The social, political and economic hardships of indentured laborers were endured beyond the period of early British colonialism and well into the apartheid era. Today in the post-democratic South Africa and particularly in 2010 this group celebrated its 150 years presence in the country reflecting on its hardships, triumphs and accomplishments. As a community in the country, it owes its presence to the early family forms of marriage and family life which ensured its reproduction and hence its continued presence in the country. The early family form helped preserve and promote cultural identity over the hostile political years resulting in a sense of community.

A second stream of immigrants took a free passage to South Africa from around the 1870s onwards in the tracks of their indentured counterparts in pursuit of trading opportunities. They were primarily Hindu and Muslim traders originating from Gujarat who set up retail shops in urban areas in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng (formerly known as the Transvaal) including small towns. They saw themselves not as part of the working class or peasantry in South Africa, but as a commercial bourgeoisie to accumulate capital and return to India where their roots remained. Unlike their indentured laborer counterparts, they maintained their caste divisions and consciousness. They succeeded in maintaining their family structure and identity through close family links in India. Often women and children followed once the men were established in the colony. Men sought their wives in India while daughters were sent to India in marriage. Contact with village and community were close, resulting in close contacts and links with India (Ginwala, 1977). Given that the Indian diaspora has two sets of historical presence in the country comprising different ethnic, religious and class groups, it may be argued that a uniform analysis of the evolution of the family system and family life will differ based on these differences. This is partially true and is aptly captured by Singh (2007) who asserts that on the question of how "the Indian family" reconstituted itself and concomitantly re-established semblances of the regionally based customary norms and practices will remain an ongoing challenge to historians and social scientists for analysis. Its nature, durability and flexibility however, has been shaped by events and circumstances in the context of a hostile social and political condition that pervaded South African society through colonialism and later apartheid. Considering these common experiences for the two streams of Indian immigrants, much resemblance exists on how the family adapted and responded to these social and political conditions. The early analysis by Kuper (1956) on the Indian family life has as much relevance today as it did before. Kuper (1956) asserts that despite the diversity prevalent within the Indian diaspora, the family as a social institution has certain characteristics common to all sections of the diaspora so one can speak without reservation of the "Indian Family. …


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