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THE SOUTH AFRICAN INDIAN WITH REFERENCE TO THE TAMILS
The indentured Indians arrived in South Africa in 1860 onwards from all parts of southern and eastern India and various factors motivated them. For most it was a case of escaping from conditions of extreme poverty and its resultant misery and disease, while others were spurred by ambition or a sense of adventure. Coming as they did from all parts of India different languages and cultures were present among the immigrants. There were a few Christians and a small number of Muslims, but the majority were Hindus belonging to different caste systems.
The indentured or immigrant Indians were followed by other groups known as passenger Indians ( as they paid their own passage ) mainly to live and conduct their commercial activities. The majority of passenger Indians were Muslims and spoke Gujerati and Urdu, while the indentured Indians spoke Tamil, Telegu and Hindi. Some of the Gujerati- speaking passenger Indians was of the Hindu faith.
The descendants of indentured workers in the sugarcane fields of Natal and of the passenger Indians are now part of South Africa’s heterogeneous population. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it was still necessary, for obvious reasons, to differentiate between passenger and indentured Indians. But the remarkable progress of the community as a whole in economic and educational spheres has made this differentiation unnecessary and in 1963 the Government was able to introduce legislation that placed all Indians in South Africa on an equal footing.
The Indian immigrants brought with them to South Africa the heritage of an ancient caste system. Each caste was a distinct, exclusive social entity that bound a member from birth to death. The caste system was characterised by a strict hierarchy and contact between the different castes brought unforgivable disgrace. That those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy emigrated as indentured labourers is understandable; that any one of elevated position should choose to do so, despite this involving social contact with those of low caste, even sharing amenities, is remarkable and indicates how compelling the economic and other factors were. It also reflects a degree of adaptability, particularly when seen in the traditional Indian context.
The adaptability, the capacity to accept the realities of life, is characteristic of South African Indians. They found that the caste system did not work in south Africa and from the beginning adapted themselves to the differing circumstances. A few isolated attempts were made to institute a village caste system, but these were soon abandoned when the young people left for urban areas to seek employment and were influenced by Western cultural and economic concepts. Now-a-days the caste system is virtually non-existent with the exception of a few Hindu communities that continue to practise endogamy.
It is reasonable to assume that the Indians, because they rejected the caste system in favour of a Western way of life, would also tend to reject their faith. But this is not so. The Hindu religion has more than 75% of the Indians as adherents, while the remainder, more than 20% are of the Islamic faith and the rest Christians and other faiths, the Indian community has thus retained its essentially Oriental character in many vital respects, despite western cultural influences.
Many Indians speak English as it enables them to overcome language barriers in their business dealings with those who speak other Indian languages and with members of the other national groups. English has in fact also become the language of social communication within the Indian community and many young Indians hardly speak their mother tongue at all. English also dominates the field of education, so that were not for the efforts of certain cultural groups, the survival of the Indian languages would be jeapardised. However, the Indians in South Africa have always been able to retain vital contact with the age-old traditions and customs of their own culture.The Indians are a compassionate people and they are always ready to make financial sacrifices. This is part of their cultural and religious background. With sanguine enthusiasm and robust faith the early Indians taxed their own scanty means to promote and nurture the Tamil culture and language not only for their children but also for the generations to follow. The majority of the Indian immigrants of the nineteenth century arrived in South Africa with little else but the clothes they wore. Today, because of the economic opportunities open to them, their position is in no way comparable with that of their forebears or of their compatriots in other countries. Well -paid respectable positions have been open to all and many have their own commercial enterprises, while several have become millionaires. In addition to the continued general support given by the Indian community the Indian commercial community has been generous and donations from Indian trading enterprises assist the cultural, religious and educational progress of the community. Individual traders and commercial enterprises also make contributions towards erecting and maintaining mosques, temples and schools.
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