I was in Germany recently attending a conference on “Truth, Justice & Memory”, at which participants from many post-conflict societies engaged with the Nazi, post-Nazi, GDR and contemporary German experience. Over dinner one night I asked Ugandan and Cameroonian colleagues how they would feel if people like me (Indian, born in South Africa) said we were African.
They agreed; if you’re born here, you’re African, even if we have different ethnicities. I was sceptical; back home in South Africa identity is being re-examined. And given everything black South Africans endured and still endure, I don’t know how they would feel if even non-black persons of colour, Indians in my case, claimed Africanness.
After everything that has been taken away from black South Africans and that continues to be kept from them, surely we can understand when they draw a boundary around their identity? The one thing that is undeniably, inalienably theirs? Looking back, my question was not about getting approval from an(other?) African. It was an expression of my ongoing examination of my place in SA society.
Which brings me to Julius Malema and his comments about Indian people.
On Youth Day last weekend Malema once again directed his ire at the Indian community, claiming “the majority of Indians are racist”. He noted Indians’ poor treatment of black people, how black people and Indians faced gradations of oppression, and noted how “coloured” people are also different from black people in this way.
Like a few other Indian people in SA, I have written about this before: how Indian people were oppressed under apartheid — and still face discrimination — yet we have many unexamined anti-black prejudices in our community. That Indian privilege is something I believe we need to urgently examine. How the apartheid caste system worked (too well) to internalise for Indians that we may not be as good as whites, but were at least better than black (and coloured).
To put it more bluntly, I have called out Indian anti-blackness before, and like Malema, I acknowledge that there is a problematic way in which black employees in Indian-owned businesses and Indian homes are treated. And that if an Indian son or daughter brings home a black partner, there is sure to be more than a ripple of anti-blackness and prejudice.
Anti-black prejudice and sentiment is something Indian people need to work on in a big way. Definitely. But making broad and baseless claims, as Malema and Shivambu have respectively, is irresponsible at the least, especially when you have a bully pulpit as big as that which EFF leaders have.
Yet somehow Malema’s comments over the weekend, following Shivambu’s attacks on Treasury deputy director-general Ismail Momoniat, took on a different feel. It felt like an escalation. And like a new agenda. On social media, I saw tweets telling Indians to “go back home to the Middle East [sic]“. I’ve seen the death threats Ferial Haffajee got, and though I don’t agree with her apparent stance on “identity politics”, I immediately related, in a way a punch to the gut feels — maybe Indians in South Africa are under attack. How soon before we are unwelcome?
Identity politics is often derided by the left and the right. Identity politics is politics that impacts me, my person, my ethnicity, my gender, my sexual orientation. Directly. What other politics must I focus on, if not that? But politics without the “identity” qualifier is default politics. It is politics that doesn’t acknowledge our differences, and how layers of oppression impact us differently. It is politics of the dominant whiteness ideology.
I can be generous and see Malema trying to say that, and failing miserably in that hate that has been unleashed. Anti-black prejudice and sentiment is something Indian people need to work on in a big way. Definitely. But making broad and baseless claims, as Malema and Shivambu have respectively, is irresponsible at the least, especially when you have a bully pulpit as big as that which EFF leaders have.
Is it a limit of my tolerance for self-critique, and I am now circling the wagons? Is it a truth too uncomfortable even for me?
No, I’m pretty sure it’s not. Because it reeks of a dangerous populism, one that lacks the granular dexterity needed to have conversations about prejudice and anti-blackness from one community to another, all who were oppressed by apartheid (albeit to various degrees). Malema’s continued attack on Indian shopkeepers, long a trope in South African cultural life and its jokes, is starting to feel like a caricature. And you know what the funny thing about caricaturesare? They take away people’s humanity, and pretty soon you’re attacking a shibboleth, not a person.
Maybe I feel this way after seeing what’s going on in the U.S. right now, with kids, children, torn from their parents and sent to “detention facilities”. We all know this is how mass internment and concentration camps start. Blood and soil politics took Trump and the U.S. there — and for me, Malema is playing on the same field, even if he is far away from the goal line: dangerous, tribalist, race-essentialist populism that ultimately, as history shows us, leads to terror and unimaginable hate. He isn’t telling Indians to go back home, but judging by the reactions on social media, that is certainly the message his supporters are walking away with.
Words matter. They have consequences. Responsible leaders, or those who aspire to be, need to know that in a deep, unshakable way.
The history of South African black and Indian relations is not always a positive one. Indeed, violent clashes, abuses and tribalism were common. And trust me, some of us Indians are also tired of the usual comeback of “but what about Kathrada and Dullah Omar and….?”, as if to prove our struggle credentials, how we “fought alongside black people”.
But we cannot go to a place where dehumanisation becomes the norm, where people take a leaders’ words to unleash hate and death threats. That is not good. It is not moral. And it is incumbent on Malema to be more circumspect despite his marketing as SA’s firebrand.
I am not claiming Africanness as an ethnicity, Rachel Dolezal-style. I cannot, out of respect for my fellow South Africans, nor because I simply cannot claim black as an ethnicity. But I am claiming that I am an Indian South African. And Indian South Africans know no other home. During the struggle, and for people like Haffajee, everyone who was politically conscious and anti-apartheid generally identified as black, even if they were Indian or “coloured”.
It was a political statement of identity as well as solidarity. And though I came of age in 1994 and as a young matriculant would also automatically answer ‘black’, I have now come to think otherwise. It is where I differ from the generation that came before me. Not in an attempt at “wokeness”, but out of a deeper understanding of all the strands that make up cultural and political South African life — and of how apartheid impacted all of those oppressed differently, quantitatively and qualitatively.
One of the overriding characteristics of demagogues and despots everywhere, from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa to Stalinist Russia to Putin’s Russia to Trumpists, is an essential framing of the “nation” (defined on identity du jour) as victims. It always starts from a core truth, an inarguable truth, as in the South African case. But when it gets subverted for populism and tribe, it can become another thing altogether. It can become about blood and soil.
Words matter. They have consequences. Responsible leaders, or those who aspire to be, need to know that in a deep, unshakable way. Your utterances cannot and must not go unchecked. Horrors don’t start with armed men one day showing up and threatening a certain group. They first start with words: words that other, then marginalise, then demonise and dehumanise.