Academic journal article Journal of Global South Studies

"The Coolies Here" Exploring the Construction of an Indian "Race" in South Africa

Academic journal article Journal of Global South Studies

"The Coolies Here" Exploring the Construction of an Indian "Race" in South Africa

Article excerpt

The aim of this article is to reveal how a category of people that did not exist before in South Africa was created when the first group of indentured Indians arrived on the shores of Natal. In so doing, it examines how significant social and political role players contributed to the shaping of an Indian identity and in turn the perceptions of Indians in South Africa. Through data obtained primarily from The Mercury from the period 1860-1910, this article exposes the role of the state and the media in shaping the identity of the initial Indian immigrants and thereafter their descendants. The forms of "othering" of these initial immigrants and their descendants within this period, as well as how notions of foreignness pervaded the discourse around "Indians" are also presented and discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Indians came to southern Africa to fulfill a labor shortage in the colony of Natal. Slavery had been abolished and planters were left with a labor challenge as African people in the colony refused to engage in the arduous physical labor that working in the plantations entailed, especially for the pay that was offered. (1) In describing indenture in the colony of Natal, Calpin states that "It was the cheapest labor, short of slavery, in the world." (2) The arrival of these indentured laborers signaled a new era of racialization in southern Africa, as until the beginning of the twentieth century in South Africa all people that were not considered to be "European" or "black" were regarded as "colored." (3)

The aim of this article is to reveal how a category of people that did not exist before in South Africa was created when the first group of indentured Indians arrived on the shores of Natal. In so doing, it examines how significant social and political role players contributed to the shaping of an Indian identity and in turn the perceptions of Indians in South Africa. Through data obtained primarily from the newspaper The Mercury for the period 1860-1910, this article exposes the role of the state and the media in shaping the identity of the initial Indian immigrants and thereafter their descendants. The forms of "othering" of these initial immigrants and their descendants within this period, as well as how notions of foreignness pervaded the discourse around "Indians," are also presented and discussed.

It is important to examine the creation of the racial category "Indian," as it has allowed South Africans of Indian descent in contemporary South African society to be viewed as foreign, and raises questions of "belonging," which can be viewed as being inextricably connected to notions of "us" and "them," of inclusivity and exclusivity, entitlement and ineligibility, and of the existence of "citizens" and "foreigners/outsiders," and the implications of this in a so-called nonracial South African society.

While extracts from The Mercury have been analysed, it should be noted that the newspaper itself is not recognized as a legitimate source to "retell" the history of the relationships between different groups of people, but it is used instead to reveal the role of discourse in shaping the perceptions held of South Africans of Indian descent, and to investigate the ideological construction of the category "Indian" through analyzing the discourse around the early Indian immigrants and their descendants in this newspaper. In this study, discourse is understood as:

a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories,
statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular
version of events. It refers to a particular picture that is painted of
an event (or person or class of persons), a particular way of
representing it or them in a certain light. (4)

Similarly for Foucault, a "constructionist" concerned with how knowledge and meaning were produced, discourse meant, as Hall summarizes, "a group of statements which provide a language for talking about--a way of representing the knowledge about--a particular topic at a particular historical moment. …

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