“Am I An Indian Or South African?” Asks A South African Youth of Indian-Origin

Posted on September 16, 2011 in Specials

By Deshnee Naidoo:

One hundred and fifty one years.

To billions of people the world over, it may be just another random number but not for the nearly 2 million South Africans of Indian descent. This number marks the time we have spent on the southern tip of Africa since our forefathers first arrived here as indentured labourers. Or rather, for that era, the politically correct term for slaves.

After a century and a half, many descendants of the labourers are still grappling with the concept of their identity. There are countless books and articles published which asks the question: “Are we first Indians or South Africans?” This is often asked by people who never seen or never will see India.

Then there are the politically correct terms of Indian South African and South African Indian, depending on what you see yourself as.

I am rather simple about this issue.

I am South African and that’s the end of it. Yes, I am a descendent of the indentured labourers but my forefathers chose to not return to India. Some of their family members did and that may mean I still have family there in India but I do not know them nor do they know me. South Africa has nurtured me, educated me and shaped my ideas and philosophies on the world and it is to South Africa that I pledge my loyalty and support through any venture, be it sport, politics or the arts.

I acknowledge and celebrate my cultural Indian identity but it does not make me who I am. I may look Indian and have Indian ancestry, even dress Indian sometimes but honestly?

I know nothing of the true culture of India and I cannot pretend to understand the issues affecting Indians of India. I do not speak any of the sub-continent’s languages (an unfortunate circumstance of our forefathers wanting us to succeed in a foreign world), nor do I understand the various cultural nuances.

However, I do understand some of the cultural, economic, political and social issues faced by South African Indians but I am still trying to wrap my head around it.

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Deshnee, I was searching for a blog post with the exact same title. Its something I’ve begun asking myself, as I’ve been living abroad and come into contact with so many Indian nationals- who ask me if I’m Indian… I tell them genetically yes,about 5 +generations later.
Living out of South Africa does more for identity confusion…In South Africa, you will not be mistaken for anything but Indian… but abroad,
I get angry unintelligible remarks from Sri Lankans who, I suppose assume I am Sri Lankan, and think I am ignoring them.
On transit at Doha airport,where many Indians work, I once again get people talking to me in my ancestral mother tongue,and looking at me like I’m snubbing them when I don’t reply- not because I don’t want to,but because I can’t.
When travelling abroad and meeting other Indians in the same tour group, we rarely acknowledge each other…

However,if I meet South Africans, we inevitably end up chatting :) and happily so,regardless of colour.

We are Indian, it is our heritage and our race, we can’t escape that-but it is not our nationality- just as not all blacks are African, not all whites are European, not all Indians are Indian.
I am a South African PIO (person of Indian origin)- but that may not be the end of it. I’m also a citizen in an increasingly postmodern world- where borders and boundaries are blurred, where nothing is absolute,and everything is relative.


Hi KC,

Yes, that’s exactly it.
It saddens me when some people absolutely deny their South African-ness and everything that this country has given them yet when asked if they’ll ever move to India, their answer is a firm NO!

How does that work? What do they want?

I may not see myself as Indian in the literal sense of the word but I do not deny that the Indian culture has contributed significantly in making me who I am.

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