Monday, February 17, 2020

In Durban, stroll through Little India, where the largest Indian diaspora in the world lives

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South Africans, Indian and non-Indian, parade in sari every year for an afternoon on the streets of Durban to celebrate Indian culture, the Durban Sari Stroll. RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP

Yusuf-Dadoo Avenue, Friday noon. The call to prayer echoes in downtown Durban. The faithful close their stalls, drop their tools and converge on the Juma mosque. "The largest in the Southern Hemisphere! " confidently launches its rector AV Mohamed. Just over 4,000 Muslims came to listen to the preaching in English that Friday. Faithful from different horizons: Malawians, Nigerians and Somalis. The vast majority, however, have been "from here" in Durban for three, four or five generations.

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"We are the" South African Indians "", exclaims AV Mohamed, watching his fellow believers practice their ablutions. "In reality, we are the result of the fusion of our Indian ancestors into what we call the Zulu nation. " The Juma Mosque is one example. Founded in 1881 by a few Gujarat immigrants who came to work in South Africa, still a British colony for thirty years. Like them, at the end of the XIXe, more than 150,000 coolies (Indian name at the time) made the trip from India to Natal to supplant black workers in the mines and fields.

"They arrived in Durban under a contract called indenture, specifies Satish Duphelia, historian of the city and great-grandson of Gandhi. After the abolition of slavery, the British were looking for foreigners to replace the blacks who refused to work in the fields from which they had been expropriated. " This is where the great exodus of the Indians begins. The conditions of the indenture yet are miserable; a contract asking them to put their freedom aside during the few years of toil in Africa.

Community apart

Today, more than 800,000 descendants of coolies still live there. "The British government realized that the Indians were staying and buying plots of land, recalls Satish Duphelia. London then introduced a tax to discourage them from settling. " In vain. "This is why we have more than 2.5 million South Africans of Indian origin today. "

Durban and its 3.5 million inhabitants by the Indian Ocean is the third largest city in South Africa, which hosts the largest Indian diaspora in the world with a quarter of its inhabitants of Gujarati, Tamil or Marathi.

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Indian influence is everywhere in the city, yet a stronghold of Zulu identity. Names of streets, temples, mosques, shops, museums, food. When lunch time strikes, residents scramble to get their bunny chow, a typical Indian sandwich… invented in Durban. "It doesn’t exist in India, assures Dipul who runs the Surat Vegetarian Delights restaurant. The bunny chow every practical and inexpensive, 1 euro for curry in half a half-sliced ​​bread. " A response to the needs of Indian workers in the sugar cane fields and mines who had found a way to bring their curry to the workplace. Today the tradition continues and unites blacks and Indians in Patel or Little Gujarat restaurants.

However, if the fusion is very real, the South African Indians have always formed a community apart in South Africa. "In its evil project, apartheid did everything to divide communities between them, says Satish Dhupelia. And the Whites treated the Indians better than the Blacks to distance us from each other. " So in Durban there are several 100% Indian townships like Chatsworth and Phoenix.

Gandhi before the Mahatma

It is in fact in Phoenix that the most famous of them settled: Mahatma Gandhi. Landed from Bombay as a young lawyer, he developed there his doctrine of civil disobedience, the satyagraha. His activism was born on that day in 1893 when he was thrown from the first class of a train reserved for whites.

The South African heritage of Mahatma will be challenged later, its image of unifier damaged, even if Nelson Mandela forgave him "His prejudices", which he considered the fruit " circumstances ". In 1904, when blacks were allowed to roam the streets of his neighborhood, he asked himself in writing, " Why of all the places, was the Indian quarter chosen to dump all the Negroes in the city? "A sentence that his great-grandson Satish Dhupelia wishes to place in the context of the time, "Where there was no way to communicate between races, he justifies. Everyone defended their community, without knowing what the others were doing. "

Every year, in the streets of Durban, South Africans of Indian origin, dressed in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi, commemorate the Salt March: 386 km on foot traveled from March 12 to April 6, 1930 by the cantor of the Indian nonviolence and its followers to demand the independence of their country from the British Crown.
Every year, in the streets of Durban, South Africans of Indian origin, dressed in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi, commemorate the Salt March: 386 km on foot traveled from March 12 to April 6, 1930 by the cantor of the Indian nonviolence and its followers to demand the independence of their country from the British Crown. Rogan Ward / REUTERS

So should we call them Indians, South African Indians or South Africans simply? The identity crisis is real for some. "We are above all citizens of this country, in which we were born "Insists Satish Dhupelia, before specifying that he also has a special relationship with India. Many also travel to the provinces of Gujarat or Maharastra to find the land of their ancestors.

However, attacks against the Indians are still common in today's political discourse. Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) got angry in 2018, ensuring that "The majority of Indians hate Africans. The majority of Indians are racist, and we should never be afraid to say they are racist ".

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