Speech Opening the Exhibit on "Art, Culture and Social Reality" at the Wits Spring Festival, University of Witwatersrand

Johannesburg, 5 September 1991

Mr. Chairman
Prof. Peter Tyson, the Vice-Principal
Professor Ali Mazrui

Please allow me, first of all, to express my great pleasure at being able to visit this great university.

In the many years during which I have followed the situation in South Africa - that is now almost half a century - I have often read of the actions of students, the faculty and the administration of this university in denouncing racist barbarism and defending the rights of all the people of this country - in defiance of threats by those in authority and even violence by the police.

I have had the pleasure of friendship of many WITS alumni. I have admired the courage of many members of this unversity community who joined the liberation struggle, and they have even contributed their share of martyrs.

WITS can indeed boast of a signficiant contribution to the long and difficult struggle of the South African people to bury the legacy of racism and begin to build a new South Africa.

This university has the unique distinction in that the President of the ANC, the founder-President of the PAC and the Secretary-General of the SACP were all associated with it, as well as many other leaders of those and other liberatory organisations.

In the days after the Second World War when Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Ruth First were here - in those glorious days of the Indian passive resistance and the African miners` strike - you had also here J.N. Singh and Ismail Meer, leaders of the Indian resistance; Zainap Asvat, a heroine of that resistance; and Vella Pillai, who was to make a notable contribution to the development of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The friendships formed on this campus, and the earnest discussions which were held, among students of diverse origins and ideologies, have had a tremendous impact on the development of a united and a humane liberation movement in this country.

Since then, there have been many many more - like Duma Nokwe, Mrs. Fatima Meer, the Cachalias, and the Pahads - and I need hardly refer to their contribution to the coming freedom of South Africa.

I would like to take this occasion to pay tribute to the university - and to express the hope that it will soon become a truly national university - not merely a liberal white institution admitting some black students and upholding some cherished values.

This festival on "Cultural Identity in a New South Africa", let me hope, can be a step in that process.


The Festival and the exhibition associated with it, have this year a special focus on Indian South Africans, their culture and their contribution to South Africa.

This country has been built by the sweat and blood and the skills of the indigenous African people, as well as people of diverse origins and ancestry. Its history has made it a microcosm of the world, and hence its efforts to build a non-racial and democratic society are watched by the world with great interest.

For a long time - too long a time - the white rulers have tried to spread the myth that the whites, alone or above all, with a whip in hand perhaps, developed this land and were solely entitled to its riches, except for the crumbs that they might throw to their serfs. The African people were pushed into the reserves, and the Indian and Coloured people into the ghettoes, while nine-tenth of the land was claimed for the white minority.

Even a few years ago, it was hardly possible to hold a multi-racial event of this kind to speak of the contribution of different groups to the culture, civilisation and economy of this country nor to consider their potential in enabling South Africa to make - to quote Chief Lutuli in his Nobel lecture - "a distinctive contribution to human progress and human relationships with a peculiar new African flavour enriched by the diversity of cultures she enjoys."

But there can be no true progress in this country until the contribution of all its people is recognised.

It has recently become a fashion to denounce "ethnicity," without any qualifications, as obnoxious, and that reminds me of the taunts of imperialists many years ago against our nationalism in India, against our desire for independence. Ethnicity, tribalism or nationalism are certainly to be condemned and combatted if they are used to fan conflict or preserve oppression. But there can be nothing wrong in recognising and taking pride in the contribution of various groups to the common culture.

In South Africa, where the process of nation-building had to struggle against rulers imposing separation by force and violence, it is hard to conceive of a national culture except in the context of the process of interaction and the welding together of the cultures of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups despite apartheid.

South African institutions face a major task in preserving the cultural achievements of the diverse black groups which were despised by the authorities in the past, except to the extent that they were curiosities to attract tourists.


Coming from India as I do, I would like to point out that India is one of the stamlands (ancestral homelands) of the people of this country - as much as the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and France, and indeed Guinea, Madagascar and Indonesia. But with one difference. Unlike the West European countries, India - its people and its Government - have always recognised that the interests of the African people of this country are paramount, that the people of Indian origin cannot claim any rights in conflict with those of the African people, and that their destiny is with the African people. That was the firm advice of our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and the firm and consistent policy of the Indian Government ever since independence.

A year after Jan van Riebeeck set up a settlement in the Cape - that is, in 1653 - a woman called Mary from Bengal was brought here as a slave. In 1665, van Riebeeck purchased Angela from Bengal who subsequently married a white, Arnoldus Willemsz Basson; she and her children integrated into the white community. Two marriages between whites and Indians took place in 1666.

Since then, thousands of people from India were brought to the Cape as slaves - some kidnapped, some children as young as eight. They contributed to the development of this country as farmworkers, fishermen and artisans. They suffered all the indignities and cruelties of slavery, and were prominent in resistance.

Inter-racial intercourse was common in those days and many of the Indians married whites.

Numerous Afrikaner families - perhaps as many as ten percent - can trace an Indian among their ancestors.

Scholarly studies suggest that perhaps more Indians - especially from Bengal, Kerala and the Coromandel Coast (that is my region) - were brought to the Cape than Malays, so that even a majority of the Coloured people partly descended from Indians.

Further research will no doubt disclose the Indian contribution to the economy of South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, and to the language and culture of the Afrikaners and the Coloured people.

I mention this to stress the idiocy of the doctrine of racial purity which has caused enormous suffering in this country, and the stupidity of the claims of Dr. D. F. Malan and his ilk that Indians were an "outlandish" and unassimilable element in South Africa. The time must come when the only outlandish elements in this country are the incorrigible racists.


The programme of this Festival, however, concerns the immigrants from India from the second half of the nineteenth century and their descendants.

The Indian South Africans are a very small community in this country - I would not call them a "minority" - and even a smaller community in the Transvaal (a mere ten or fifteen thousand when immigration from India was stopped ion 1913). But they have made a notable contribution to the development of this country - not least the struggle for human rights, freedom and democracy - and can make an equally significant contribution to its future development as part of the whole South African nation. They have the cultural heritage of many regions of India. And they have developed skills, largely by the community`s own efforts, despite the denial of equal educational opportunities in this country.

It was here in Johannesburg that M.K. Gandhi launched the first satyagraha for the rights of Indian settlers and for the honour of their ancestral homeland - a struggle that soon assumed world historic significance.

What he learned in South Africa not only from the Indian community and the behaviour of the white rulers, but also from the experience of the struggles of the African and Coloured peoples, was to change the political landscape of India. He always claimed that he was as much a South African as an Indian.

The struggle was carried on in later years by Indians born in this country who identified themselves with it fully and saw their future in common with the African majority.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that this Festival is being inaugurated on the birthday of the great son of the Indian South Africans, one whose life in struggle spanned three generations and three continents, one who became the architect of African-Indian unity as the basis for a wider united front, one who came to be recognised as a giant of the South African liberation movement - Dr. Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo.

The Indian people have been privileged, because of various reasons, to make a very signfiicant contribution to the great liberation movement of this country. They have not publicised that contribution, since it was essential to respect and emphasise the African leadership in the struggle of the oppressed people.

They were the pioneers at certain times. The Indian passive resistance movement of 1946-48 was, in a sense, a beginning of organised mass resistance in which already people of all racial origins took part.

The Indian leaders, already in 1947, canvassed for international sanctions against the racist regime, a call that was taken up by the ANC and the international community in 1958.

Dr. Dadoo and Dr. G. M. Naicker called, as early as July 1948, for a united front to fight the Nationalist regime: Dr. Naicker then used the term "united democratic front."

In September that year, the South African Indian Congress called for a National Assembly of the South African People and Dr. Dadoo, in his New Year`s message of 1951, proposed a convention of all the people of South Africa - an idea which became a reality with the Congress of the People in 1955.

The contribution of Indians has been particularly impressive in certain fields - for instance, in building the anti-apartheid and solidarity movement around the world as one of the most powerful international movements of our time. Dr. Dadoo promoted it effectively from 1946. At a later stage, a major role in building this movement was played by Abdul Samad Minty, Kader Asmal, Hanif Bhamjee, and Sam Ramsamy, as well as many other Indian South Africans who worked in the ANC offices like Mosie Moolla and Yusuf Salojee.

I have spoken of the contribution to the liberation movement because that is what I know from personal experience.

But what have the Indian South Africans contributed in other fields? Surely that was not confined to curry and rice, delicious as they may be. Did they keep their music and art to themselves, or were they forced to keep their culture as a private preserve, or was there interaction with the rest of the nation? Did the Group Areas Act and the forced residential segregation make the Indian communities isolated and inward-looking?

Much has been written about the history and the problems of the Indian community - because of the numerous laws and regulations enacted by the regimes to humiliate, rob and even expel the Indian people, and the determined resistance by the people.

Even there the emphasis has been on the so-called elite and their petitions and squabbles. Until recently, there has been little research on the role of Indians in trade unions and other organisations, though they did play a significant role in such organisations as the International Socialist League and ICU.

Little has been published about the other aspects of the life of the community, and much less about its contribution to the common culture of South Africa.

It would be of great interest for us, in India, to learn if and how they were able to preserve the unity of the community, despite differences of religion and language, and to destroy the caste system within the community and the country.

It would be of interest for us to know if their creative artists have developed new forms of music, dance, drama and literature by interaction with the artists of other communities.

Just as the struggle of the Indian people against racism here has been a source of inspiration for us in India, their cultural development as an integral part of the South African nation can have lessons for us.

Communication between India and Indian South Africans was restricted for nearly four decades because of our common opposition to apartheid, and because our concern over the plight of people of Indian origin developed into a sense of close affinity with all the oppressed people of South Africa.

But a time will come soon when a truly national democratic government will emerge in this country, so that sanctions can be ended and the closest relations developed between India and South Africa.

The Government and people of India are proud of what the country was able to do in the past in promoting the united struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa. They would be happy to assist the people of this country as they build a new South Africa.

Indeed, the entire United Nations will watch with the greatest interest the emergence of this new South Africa with its own distinctive culture to which people from many lands have made a contribution.

The exhibits, performances and workshops at this Festival provide a broad view of the heritage and the remarkable accomplishments of the Indian community, which are offered to the New South Africa, and I wish to congratulate the organisers on their imagination and their labours.

The way you cooperate in this country to build a new culture in a new South Africa will be watched by us, and indeed the rest of the world, with great interest.


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