South Africa | Of Gangsters and Golfers

A racist trope about Indians in Africa opens up a debate on otherness

Football supporters at Currie’s Fountain in Durban, which was used as a general sporting ground for Indians through the 1950s. COURTESY THE INDIAN IN DRUM MAGAZINE IN THE 1950’S, © BAHA
01 September, 2011

THE JUDGE AT SCHABIR SHAIK’S TRIAL had described Shaik’s relationship with South African President Jacob Zuma—when Zuma was deputy president (1995-2005)—as “shady”. Other South Africans had just shaken their heads and repeated an old racist trope: “Everyone has their Indian.”

Shaik, a Durban businessman of Indian origin, had linked himself to the African National Congress’s (ANC) power structures through Zuma, the party’s unlikely rising star. Zuma, in the meantime, was covering his business assets using Shaik’s financial advice—until, that is, Shaik was convicted in 2005 of corruption and fraud related to arms deals. While Shaik was reviled for having paid ‘retainers’ (in the form of unspecified loans) to Zuma as investments in the political influence the businessman hoped to wield, Zuma—who had been dismissed from his position two weeks after Shaiks’ conviction, went on to become president in 2009.

The saga of this odd couple shed light on the dubious deals that prospered when ANC members established semi-official relationships with local business tycoons.

But it was also a story that, more significantly, revealed the theatrical puppetry involved in the uneasy marriage between the Zulus and Indians of KwaZulu Natal—it furthered the stereotype of ‘the Indian’ in the South African imagination. So when many South Africans responded to the Zuma-Shaik tangle by saying, “Everyone has their Indian,” it was nothing new. The journalist/historian RW Johnson (the London Review of Books’ go-to guy for all things ‘African’) and certain factions who lost to capable Indian leaders in United Democratic Front (one of the most important non-racial anti-apartheid organisations of the 1980s) had long been fond of using this phrase when they spoke of the impenetrability of the ‘Indian cabal’. “Everyone has their Indian” expresses the fear of, necessity for and, ultimately, the disposability of the Indian; it says that African hustlers, big and small, all have their set-up man, their palm-greaser, their apologist, their go-between. But that ugly phrase also conveys something more: that the man to whom one swore brotherhood in the thick of plotting and hangover would inevitably be disowned and discarded.

When Riason Naidoo, the director of the National Gallery in Cape Town, went to university, he realised that apartheid made people lazy: they simply bought the stereotypes of the four official racial categories (White, Black, Coloured and Indian) wholesale. But Naidoo’s real experiences were a collage of less conventional portraits: he grew up in Chatsworth, an area delegated for those classified as ‘Indian’ and, after school, he spent time in the market on Victoria Street, among the streetfighters and the gangsters. When he was accepted into university, it was the first time he left the cocoon of all-Indian society, segregated as it was during apartheid; he was confronted by white students’ stereotypes of what being ‘Indian’ represented. “And this was completely surprising for me, because it wasn’t my experience,” Naidoo recalls. “My parents weren’t arranged in marriage. They went out to ballroom dance.” In reality, Indians in South Africa were already members of a “Creole culture, and people from the other racial groups didn’t understand that”.

As a child who grew up within southern Africa’s socio-political landscape in the early 1980s, I, too, found no easy, seamless fitting in. Our small Sri Lankan community in Zambia did everything we could to differentiate ourselves from Indians in Africa. But for all practical purposes, no one else on the continent could see any difference. For Africans, India remained a broken nation. And Indians in Africa were the shop-keeping, corner-crisps-shop-running, trader-cum-smuggler-cum-briber, arse-kissing, yes-no-head-lolling-and-“r”-rolling, expel-from-your-African-nation-Asians. Africans thought of Indians in much the same way as, well, much of the world thought of India and Indians back then: dusty, diseased, starved, overpopulated.

When I returned to southern Africa as an adult, almost 20 years after I'd left, the front pages spoke of ArcelorMittal’s takeover of mining interests throughout the region, and of the infamously ostentatious Johannesburg-based Gupta clan, replete with their Bollywood-style getaway-SUVs.

The tropes in the newspapers hadn't changed, but I found that traces of more subtle conversations about what it meant to be simultaneously African and Indian—which had been taking place along the railroads, cane fields, mineshafts and the backrooms of shops during the early part of the 20th century, and which had led to political convergences—were still alive: in the offices of the edgy, Cape Town-based Chimurenga magazine (which did an entire tongue-in-cheek issue titled Everyone Has Their Indian in response to the editorial commentary surrounding the Zuma/Shaik mess), as well as in the annals of high culture coming from South Africa’s universities.

But one book in particular, along with a corresponding exhibit at Naidoo’s National Gallery, succeeded in chronicling a richer story of Indian lives in South Africa: The Indian in DRUM magazine in the 1950s, edited by Riason Naidoo, and featuring a lavish collection of photographs curated from the pages of DRUM. Described by one of its founding writers as a platform for “the new Africans cut adrift from the tribal reserve—urbanized, eager, fast-talking and brash”, DRUM is better known for chronicling the debilitating effects of apartheid policies, along with the vibrancy of people’s private and public lives during the apartheid period. The images splashed across its pages captured the liveliness, intellectual ingenuity and style of the disobedient apartheid-era subject.

The photographs Naidoo chose from DRUM challenge conventional and official portrayals of the South African Indian community. We are treated to a series documenting the feud between ‘The Salots’ and the ‘Crimson League’ gangs, and the swagger of Sheriff Khan (known as ‘South Africa’s Al Capone’), the king of the South African underworld. Khan aggregated power by collaborating with apartheid law enforcement officials and combining various gangs in Johannesburg and Durban to become the mastermind behind illegal gambling establishments.

There are also gentler images of Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum, the self-taught golfer who became a phenomenon for his backhanded grip: Sewgolum had to receive his Natal Open trophy in pelting rain—while the club’s white patrons sat comfortably inside—because South Africa, in 1965, didn’t permit non-whites to enter the Durban Country Club unless they were serving white patrons.

Other images are of Indian footballers, ‘Jazz King’ Pumpy Naidoo, daredevil motorcycle riders, ballroom dance champions and one priceless photograph of ballad singer Sonny Pillay, who was dating Grammy winner Miriam ‘Mama Africa’ Makeba at the time, surrounded by adoring family members: they crowd around a sofa while Miriam sips tea. Other photographs are less glamorous: dire depictions of the living conditions in the ghettoes in Cato Manor illustrate the reality lived by most Indians of Natal.

In Naidoo’s office hangs a painting that captured my attention: it depicts, in Warholian colours and shadows, the faces of indentured labourers whose photographs were taken upon their arrival in Port Natal in the 19th century—much like prisoners’ mugshots. Their displacement and the shock of arrival are captured in their haggard features. When Naidoo began his career in art, he wanted the people in the communities from which he came—people who had no access to conceptual and abstract Western art—to be able to see themselves in the work he produced, rather than in mugshots taken to document their labouring bodies for Empire. “My father and brothers were tough guys, quite serious fighters who could take care of themselves... I was looking for photographs to tell these stories.”

When I left my rural backwater mining town in Zambia for an equally backwater college town in the US, I wanted nothing but to run away from the narrative of expatriate-Asian unbelonging in Africa. I thought I’d never return. These images from DRUM indicate how people had already engaged in the difficult conversations I once found too debilitating to face: they had no place to run away to.

The photographs in Naidoo’s exhibit at the National Gallery are deliberately small—the viewer is compelled to walk towards them, hand outstretched: they invite intimacy, they request a conversation beyond a passing perusal. As I make my way through the gallery, overhearing the conversations of other visitors, I realise that, in 2011, South Africans are still engaged in the daily labour of encountering difference.  In the face of unexpected convergences, I can hear them reinscribing tightly wound patterns of thinking, and fitting themselves and each other into rigid moulds. Perhaps I never was facing this work alone.