Writing in the Twentieth-First Century about Indian South Africans: Revisiting Agendas and Reflecting on Foundational Writings by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

Inaugural Surendra Bhana Memorial,

10 November 2018, At the 1860 Heritage Centre, Durban

In 1974 sitting in the L lecture block at the University of Durban-Westville as a first year student while the lecturer before me launched forth about the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia I could not have imagined that forty-four years later years I would be called upon to deliver the inaugural memorial lecture for Professor Surendra Bhana. Nor would it have been possible to foresee that, the lecturer who published his first monograph in 1975, titled the United States and the Development of the Puerto Rican Status Quo would within a decade be a significant part of a revitalisation move towards the writing of the history of Indian South Africans. If one travels back in time even further, few would have predicted that the eight year old boy who left the small village of Sisodra in Gujarat in 1948 to journey with his parents to Johannesburg would make Atlantic crossings to complete a doctorate in History at the University of Kansas. Many years lie in between 1939 and 2016 in a life shaped by Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean crossings and in three continents. Nine books emerged to cement a solid reputation as a leading contributor to the History of Indians in South Africa. In this brief lecture I will try to assess these achievements and then make suggestions for current and future writing.

In a memoir Surendra Bhana penned in 2012 for friends and family titled Klap Hom : Someone Should. It’s Me Suryo and which he gave me permission to use, he presents a carefree experience of village life in Sisodra, of encounters with cobras, playful games with mates, journeys to weddings by bullock cart and of being indulged as the only son at the time in the family. There was also the awareness of caste as he, as a gaanchi, bore the taunts of higher castes in the village. He knew that his father was in Johannesburg operating a tailoring business and that one day he would join his father. `You had no future in India, he used to say to me’, Bhana writes. The memoir details the young boy’s difficulties in Pretoria and Johannesburg where he suffered humiliations at school because he knew no English and was in class with children younger than himself. `I stood out like a polar tree amidst blossoming maples’, he wrote. Reading the newspaper every day and listening to the radio helped develop competency overtime.

Bhana notes that his father did not teach him any tailoring skills although he spent time in the shop. `He believed that I was destined to become something else’. The household was not on firm financial ground and life was difficult. He writes: `My real education came through the Pretoria Indian Boys’ School. … I developed the idea especially in my four High School years that education was important for my future. I had no interest in running a business, although I did not mind helping in my uncle’s shop. I had my father’s example to tell me how precarious it could be’. While many young males left school at standard 6 to 8, Surendra decided to complete his matric and then registered in 1960 under permit at the University of the Witwatersrand for a BA degree having secured a loan bursary. ` I felt special being a student at Wits. It helped to build my confidence. I bragged about being a Wits student. It gave me status, and when I could afford it, I bought myself a Wits blazer. Its zebra-stripes in a screaming blue colour got you noticed.‘ Yet he felt his educational deficiencies hard as he sat with much more privileged white students.

Ambition drove him and while teaching for three years at Lenz High School he studied through Unisa securing an honours degree. He already had a final destination in mind – graduate studies in America. He persevered till he secured a scholarship. It was at the University of Kansas, Lawrence that both he and his wife, Kala Bhana completed their PhDs. His career in the History Department at the University of Durban-Westville began in 1972 and eight years later he became the Head of this Department. After fifteen years at UDW, he quit and took up a lectureship at the University of Kansas. As he says of his decision `We’d never lost our connection to the USA’ and there had been previous attempts to secure a position there.

Microsoft Word - Pictures from 'Klap Hom' (oct2018)
Surendra Bhana, Lenz High School, 1963

These short extracts from his memoirs tell a story of ambition and agency of a young immigrant child who set goals, triumphed over difficult odds and who dreamed of a future beyond the ghettoes that South Africa sought to confine him to. He chose not to reflect much on his academic work in his memoir and I shall try to fill in that aspect with an appreciative but also critical eye. While most of his publications on Indian South Africans emerged after he permanently settled in America, his years at the UDW set the foundation for his interests.

I have identified three main themes which dominate Bhana’s writings: 1) Gandhi in South Africa (he once wrote a review article titled `An Enduring Fascination’ and I think that he remained gripped by this right till the end reading all the latest books and reviewing them). I have never been able to work out his personal feelings about Gandhi. Did he admire him? Was he inspired by him? His writings are almost dispassionate with the air of the stand above things scholar. 2) The early settlement of traders and indentured workers in South Africa – and the period he was most comfortable with was confined to the late nineteenth to about 1910. 3) There is a third smaller theme – Indians and higher education – for which he is less well known but for which I think he wrote a detailed, well-researched article in an edited book that had a small circulation (B. Pachai (ed.), South Africa’s Indians: The Evolution of a Minority, 1979). I will, however, speak mainly to the first two themes in this lecture.

In his publication strategy, Bhana opted for book publications rather than articles. This reflected a more American approach than the South African drive towards articles under a system that until recently rewarded one better with research funds for articles over books. At least five of his books were published in India. Most of us know the difficulties of securing publishers for books and Bhana displayed tenaciousness to get his books out. When Peepal Tree Press was clearly not going to be an able distributor of Essays on Indentured Indians in Natal (1991), he set up Palvih Book Distributors in Lenasia to get the book out to the market. While searching for a publisher for A Fire That Blazed in the Ocean: Gandhi and the Poems of Satyagraha in South Africa, 1909-1911 (2011), he secured the help of his son, Hemant, to set up a website where he posted the poems that featured in the manuscript. The website still has all the poems even those that were not used in the book. There is something to be learnt in these publication strategies – persist till you get your book out and don’t give up.


A further feature of his publications is his collaboration with several co-authors. He first linked up with Bridglal Pachai who was then the best known of the historians on Indian South Africans to produce A Documentary History of Indian South Africans (1984). This book catapulted Bhana into the same orbit as Pachai. I was fortunate that year to also be a co-author with Bhana when we jointly published an article in the South African Historical Journal on `Passive Resistance Amongst Indian South Africans: a Historiographical Survey’. He was certainly ahead of the mentoring game. I was then a young doctoral candidate and while I had already published two articles from my Masters thesis, this article was my first foray into the history of Indians in South Africa. There were mutual advantages – I had the energy to go and find all kinds of books and theses many of which were at the University of Natal and make notes and he had the skill to extract the essence of arguments and structure the article. It was an invaluable learning experience for me in the art of writing and as many of us know from our experience with postgraduate students that reviewing historiography requires particular sharpness of skills. The article was first presented at a conference in 1981 of the South African History Society thus also marking my debut on the conference scene.

Microsoft Word - Surendra Bhana with Bridge Pachai (1970s)
Surendra Bhana with Bridglal Pachai (1970s)

As an aside I should mention that as a mentor Bhana was a hard task master. In 1980, again to stimulate me as a researcher, he asked me to write a 500 word article on my grandfather Manilal Gandhi for a dictionary entry. To write this short piece, I embarked on extensive research conducting a precious interview with my grandmother, corresponding with people who had known Manilal Gandhi and reading Indian Opinion. Putting all this into 500 concise words was difficult and Bhana simply ripped through my words and reflected dissatisfaction with the piece. While I never published that short biography, the exercise was not in vain. My biography of Manilal Gandhi was finally published in 2004 as a 419 page book, the seed being that early exercise twenty-four years earlier and my valuable brown file of collected material. Goolam Vahed and I continued over the years to ask Bhana for comments on our work and he never softened in his critical appraisal. If we wanted praise we were not going to get it – he wished to push us from our comfort zones. As recently as 2013 he penned three pages of comments on what I thought was a lovely paper I wrote on Indians in the Cape and Higher Education. `I’m a little unclear as to what it is you seek to highlight in your paper. There is a focus of sorts but it’s rather amorphous. … you provide some wonderful case histories in the last two sections, but they need a theoretical framework. You need to be more analytic rather than descriptive’ (email 9 January 2013). Tables do turn over time, and the once student became a reviewer for some of the former mentor’s manuscripts and articles. Discerning the origins of what were meant to be anonymous comments, he was gracious: `Your help was invaluable. Many thanks.’(email 8 February 2011).

The above diversion is to indicate two things – the role he played in nurturing a research interest amongst young scholars (Goolam Vahed can provide examples from his own career and life) while building his own reputation and welcoming these scholars as his equal when they established themselves. To return to his other partnerships and co-authorships. In 1985, he organised a conference to mark the 125th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labour in Natal. He teamed up with his brother Arvin, a psychologist who had written a thesis on suicides, to write a paper on the high rate of suicides amongst the indentured in Natal (see chapter in Essays on Indentured Indians, 1991). His partnership with Joy Brain led to a major project on the ships’ lists of the indentured arriving in Natal and a co-authored book that traced the settlement of Indians in South Africa (Setting Down Roots: Indian Migrants in South Africa, 1860-1911, 1990). Being in America, far from the source of archival material, led to productive partnerships with Goolam Vahed with whom he published two books (The Making of a Political Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 ,2005) and Crossing Space and Time in the Indian Ocean: Early Indian traders in Natal : a Biographical Study,2015), the latter being his last book.

It was in the year that he published his book on Puerto Rico, that Bhana first marked his interest in Gandhi for he published an article focussing on Tolstoy Farm and the principles that underpinned this communal settlement (`The Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi’s Experiment in “Co-Operative Commonwealth”’, South African Historical Journal, Nov 1975). In partnership with Gandhian scholar of note, James Hunt, 61 letters of the first editor of Indian Opinion, M.H. Nazar (25 of which were in Gujarati) were published. This book (Gandhi’s Editor: the Letters of M.H. Nazar 1902-1903, 1989) is an indispensable book for anyone interested in the early history of printing presses and journalism in Natal and the editors provided a meticulous introduction and context to each letter. There were other significant partnerships with Kusum Bhoola, a Durban graduate with specialisation in Gujarati (Introducing South Africa: or Dialogue of Two Friends by an Indian, 1911, 2005 ) and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt a lecturer specialising in Gujarati poetry in America (A Fire that Blazed in the Ocean, 2011). What I would like to stress about these partnerships is that they brought Gujarati material to an English audience and Bhana was central in providing the South African context. All these examples of co-authorships and collaborations reflect a serious engagement with his subject matter, an astuteness of purpose and would have been impossible had they been undertaken alone.

The book that I consider to be his best on Gandhi is this last book A Fire that Blazed in the Ocean. In my back-cover endorsement of the book I wrote: `These cultural productions of the early twentieth century are made available for the first time to an English readership. Through the poetry we see how satyagraha stimulated cultural works and how satyagraha itself was solidified by cultural performances. This important new work not only adds a crucial new dimension to understanding satyagraha but brings to light the hidden productions of the poets of the era.’ I think this was a fine book to bow out with. It marked a difficult process of locating 75 poems in Indian Opinion, selecting those that should be published, searching for biographical material on the poets, providing a context to their production and analysing their content. Importantly the Gujarati and English texts are placed alongside each other. To underline Bhana’s contribution to Gandhian literature – it is this focus on the Gujarati material and the hard work of translation and contextualisation that stands out for me.

With regard to his writing on early traders and indentured Indians, in many ways Bhana’s agenda was set by the official archives he encountered – legislation, statistics and lists. His comments on my article on higher education were motivate by a similar pre-occupation with legislation and the role of the state and he could not see how the oral histories I told could be told without this. He wrote a particular type of history which was not a social history from below. Nor did he seek a reading of the archives as social historians are prone to do with a search for voices or agency. The state and its official sources dominate in Bhana’s writings. This is especially reflected in Indentured Indian Emigrants to Natal: A Study Based on Ships’ Lists. The sources led him to produce a quantitative history with no less than 11 graphs and 23 tables detailing how many were born or died on ships, the gender distribution, the caste of the passengers, their ages and height, their place of origin, places of work and so forth. It necessitated faith in a computer system and represented hard work. There is a place for such a quantitative history but it is a different project from that which inspired Desai’s and Vahed’s Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story 1860-1914 (2010) which centres voices from below, biography and agency.

Setting Down Roots is also an indispensable book for statistics and legislation about traders and the indentured workers. It is a book that I use a lot but it is also a book that frustrates. Bhana was not unmindful of the limits of the official sources. He made a foray into oral histories in his chapter titled `Pravasi Perspectives’. An awareness of oral history as an important source for historians is reflected in Bhana’s earliest works such as his article on Tolstoy Farm and also his thoroughly researched chapter on university education. This was at a time when oral history projects were in their infancy and had barely begun to make an impact on South African historiography. He wrote in his memoir about his oral history work for Setting Down Roots: `What I loved most about this project was that I was able to travel some 1500 miles in my yellow Peugeot meeting and interviewing people’. Yet like his previous use of oral histories, the chapter reduced the interviews (all with males) to factual detail about movements and settlement. The actual voices of the interviewees are muted. Oral history in this approach simply provided information that the archives could not.

Setting Down Roots also neglects the movement of women and child migrants, given the prioritisation of traders, workers and professionals. When one writes pioneering first stage books such as these, the way is paved for others to fill in these gaps and my 2014 article work on the movement of women and children from India to the Cape and their histories was stimulated by this serious lacunae in this 1990 publication (see `Split Households: Indian Wives, Cape Town Husbands and Immigration Laws, 1900s to 1940s’, South African Historical Journal, 2014). Ironically, my chapter on child migrants from India begins with Suresh Bhana’s story of his own migration (India-South Africa Mobilities in the First Half of the Twentieth Century: Minors, Immigration Encounters in Cape Town and Becoming South African’ in E Razy and M Rodet (eds): Children on the Move in Africa, 2016). Kalpana Hiralal has similarly done important work on women immigrants arriving in Durban drawing on rich oral histories that prioritise the voices of the women (`”Daughters of Gujarat in the Diaspora”: Immigrant Women, Identity and Agency in Natal’, Journal of Contemporary History, 2013).

Today many of the newer works on Indian South Africans utilise oral history sources and they are rich: through these we have colour added to history, we get a sense of experience and the subjectivities of the interviewees are evident and there is a history from below where marginalised voices are heard. Yet the use of oral history has to go some steps further with historians needing to grapple with the nature of memory, the structure of the narrative (how stories are told, what is not spoken about, how knowledge is produced in the context of the interview, and the influences of the present on the recalling of the past). There is still a tendency for the oral to be utilised simply for information.

Bhana’s central contribution in the 1980s and 1990s was to highlight the movement of Indian traders and indentured workers but It would be a mistake to see his entire ouevre as belonging to an older tradition. In recent years he was very much part of new directions. South African historiography has been drawn into wider Indian Ocean studies mainly by the work of Isabel Hofmeyr and the impact on the writing of the history of Indian South Africans has been considerable. Rather than being cast as a minority of history of Indians in South Africa, newer work locates the movements of people from the Indian sub-continent to South Africa within broader movements taking place across the Indian Ocean. The book with Vahed on Indian traders in Natal (Crossing Space and Time in the Indian Ocean, 2015) locates this movement within Indian Ocean studies. It begins with a chapter on `Traders in the Indian Ocean Corridor’.

In recent years there has also been a shift from class to culture and religion. This is seen in Bhana and Vahed’s book Gandhi:The Political Reformer, where there is a focus on the religious and cultural organisations of early settlers and how this impacted on Gandhi’s support base and struggle. There is a proliferation of studies on the micro-identities of Indians. I am here thinking of my own work on Gujarati shoemakers; Vahed’s work on Surtis,   Memons, Muslims, the Hindu Maha Sabha; Hiralal’s work on Rajputs and Rajend Mesthrie’s work on Koknis in Cape Town. There are many reasons for this, one of them being the resurgence of these narrower identities. Vahed’s Surti Muslim and Hiralal’s Rajput background stimulated some of their research. Scholars in England and Europe have long had a writing tradition of focussing on particular regions for practical reasons such as manageability and language.

Bhana and Kusum Bhoola ‘s article fell within this new trend in their study of the Kathiawad Hindu Seva Samaj (Journal of South Asian Diaspora, Vol.3, 2011, 1). He wrote to me: `My purpose was to highlight the role of such cultural bodies. I hope others will make a deeper study of such organisations’ (email, 8 February 2011) Thus even in these last few years of his writing life he was charting new directions.

This newer focus has produced much understanding of the shifting constitution and production of identities and split open the whole identity question. They unveil the heterogeneity of Indians in South Africa which the colonial and apartheid governments refused to recognise. They peel off layers and layers of subjectivities. Yet they can have some dangers like fuelling and boosting divisions amongst Indians along religious, regional and caste lines. Here the historian has to tread with some cautiousness. Academic writing should not provide affirmation to these assertions of distinctiveness and difference. Gandhi the astute politician recognised both the value of these micro-identities and the necessity of a broader Indian identity and played on both in his campaigns. The historian can provide new insights and ask questions so what is the different experience of the Surti Muslim from Surti Hindu? Is the experience as a migrant of the Kokni Muslim in Cape Town different from the Gujarati Muslim or Hindu? Let us understand these differences and commonalties.

My one other caution about the writing about Indians in South Africa is that there is a tendency to write with a lens that is Kwa-Zulu Natal focussed. There are many articles and books have in their title Indians in South Africa but they are in fact about this region only and, in many instances too, Durban stands for the whole of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Goolam Vahed’s recent biography on Pietermaritzburg-based Chota Motala has shown the importance of recognising other local and regional histories and this is a rich new direction and the interest in local histories is evident from the public. If a book is about Kwa-Zulu Natal do not make claims to be a history of all Indians in South Africa for beyond Kwa-Zulu Natal there is also Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. It is important to recognise the diverse experiences in other regions. Cape Town may be a port like Durban but the nature of Indian immigrant experience there was different and the demographics different. For instance, while Vahed paints a picture of lonely Indian male traders leading puritan lives while separated from spouses, my research on early Indian male migrants shows how they found companionship amongst white, Malay and coloured women. When apartheid hit hard in the 1950s, many Indians in Cape Town preferred taking a Malay or coloured identity as this meant greater access to more residential neighbourhoods and businesses than an Indian identity would have allowed. Descendants of marriages between Indian males and coloured or Malay or white women, inevitably took on their mother’s identities. Thus while in Natal, a central feature of Indian experience seems to be an almost inescapable identity as Indians, in Cape Town for some Not Being Indian became part of their historical experience, and this is an important part of my own research. I focus on those who avoided an Indian identity and who found themselves as coloureds on the Cape Flats with surnames like Singh and I focus on a few coloured women who to all intents and purposes became Indian when they moved to Rylands. This opens up the question of coloured identity and Indian identity (often never put together in scholarly writings) and points to the way in which the oppressed navigated the state’s ascription of identities.

Related to the above is my urging that historians need to grapple with family histories. Memoirs such as those of Fatima Meer. Amina Cachalia and Zarina Maharaj shed light on white and coloured women who became Indian by conversion to Islam. Amina’s grandmother was a Dutch woman Katrina de Bruin who became Naseera Essack after marrying Mohammed Essack (When Hope and History Rhyme: An Autobiography, 2013). Fatima Meer’s mother was Rachel Farrel who became Amina after marrying Moosa Meer thus beginning what Meer writes as her mother’s `Indianisation’ (Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle, 2017). Zarina’s parents were Amod Abdul Carim and Jo Medell. The latter like Meer’s mother adopted her husband’s culture and religion. Zarina’s youth involved Johannesburg (where they were forced to live in Lenasia) and Cape Town (the latter being her mother’s place of origin). She writes: `So we straddled cultures and religions, and, although both sides of the family claimed us their own – when it suited them – we were not quite comfortable with either, especially as we got older. We did not fit into one particular box …’ (Z. Maharaj, Dancing to Different Rhythm: A Memoir, 2006). The narratives of those who cannot be confined to that `box’ have not attracted the attention of historians more fixed on evident identities and yet they point to how the lives of Indian families are much more complicated than historians have been able to show.

There are other exciting possibilities for a writing about Indians that sees a departure from narrow ethnic histories. Omar Badsha has shown new ways of seeing in his visual portraits of the Grey Street complex (Imperial Ghetto, 2001). Phyliss Naidoo’s biographical sketches of those who inhabited or frequented Grey Street produces a new history inspired by a non-racial vision (Footprints in Grey Street 2002). Antoinette Burton’s explains `her history is expansive, and she’s unfazed by the territorial limits of Indian Durban proper … it is clarion call for South African history to desegregate’ (Brown Over Black, 2012).

This example can be applied in many ways to other themes and subjects for exploration. Immigration histories, for instance, in South Africa have been heavily segregated. We need to ask what is unique about the immigration experience of Indian South Africans and what are the many commonalities. My Masters student who is of Maderian descent has found it useful to compare Madeirans in Cape Town with Indians in Cape Town and has made a small step towards desegregation.

Nafisa Essop Sheik’s doctoral work narrowed the focus to marriage and law and this allowed her to explore similarities and differences in how African, Indian and white were affected (Colonial Rites: Custom, Marriage, Law and the Making of Difference in Natal, 1839s-c1910. Phd, University of Michigan,2012 ). Jon Soske placed African and Indian encounters and African and Indian nationalisms at the centre of his work thus making these rather than the state and each group the focus (Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth Century South Africa, 2017). These are exciting new trends.

Bhana urged us that when one looks at the movement of indentured Indians to Natal, we must also see the wider context of the movement to other places such as Mauritius, Reunion, West Indies and Fiji. He read the works of and communicated with historians of Trinidad and Fiji. Even in the 1970s he was writing to historians at universities in India to establish what interest there was in indentured labour email, 8 February 2006). He envisaged his own readership to be broader than a South African readership. From his example we may conclude that it is important to write in the 21st century not as a historian of a minority group in South Africa whose readership will be small but to write by drawing on broader literatures, by embracing comparative histories and finding co-authors who will bring something new to one’s own work.

My own recent work locates Indian permits within a global literature on documents of identity, surveillance histories and paper regimes. In partnership with Margaret Allen of Australia we have produced a comparison of Australian and South African immigration documentation (see Dhupelia-Mesthrie and M. Allen, `Controlling Transnational Asian Mobilities: a Comparison of Documentary Systems in Australia and South Africa, 1890s to 1940s’, forthcoming 2019). Such comparisons take one beyond the uniqueness of South African history and allows one to see imperial or world patterns. My lecture has pointed to how the state and its archive can determine how one writes. To this one can add the influence of our subjects of inquiry, our geographical location and our own subjectivities. The challenge is to break the traps that the state, the archive, our subjects, our geographical locations and our self produce and to write histories that expand our horizons and become boundary free.

Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie,

Department of History, University of the Western Cape


Surendra Bhana Lecture.jpg


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