The South Asian Histories Hidden in South Africa


Content warning: use of racial slur as used in the title of a recommended source for further reading.



On the 16th November 1860 a ship from India called Truro docked in what is now known as Kwa Zulu Natal, with a group of mainly men who were brought to the South African shores by the British, termed as ‘free migrants’ though they in fact arrived under an indentured slavery system. These men were put to work in the sugarcane fields for many years before they could claim their ‘freedom’. 

At that time South Africa had been claimed as one of the British colonies, and the abolition of slavery in 1834 meant that new immoral approaches were being taken to keep up the productivity on sugarcane plantations as the newly freed enslaved people were refusing to work for the pitiful wages on offer and it was creating economic chaos for the British and European plantation owners. They needed a new, reliable and crucially – cheap workforce. This led to the introduction of ‘indentured labourers’: the practice of indentured labour was a form of contract labour in which transport to a colony and several years’ room and board were exchanged for work. This was actually a form of indentured slavery. Many agreed to become indentured people in order to escape the widespread poverty and famine in India in the 19th century. 

The Truro docked in South Africa from India 160 years ago. Source

Today, South Africa is home to the largest population of people of Indian descent (1.3 million as of 2015) on the continent, and South African ‘Indians’ have a strong sense of their Indian heritage. We have managed over the past 4-5 generations to maintain a lot of tradition and religious beliefs, however, many of us have very little or no records of who or where our ancestors had come from. Some families over the years have been able to trace some sort of ancestry through various documents, however, this is never an easy feat. When our ancestors were brought over, many had no formal paperwork or identification, and when their details were taken as they disembarked, a lot of  the information was incorrectly inputted, and names were misspelt or often changed in order for them to be ‘easily’ understood or pronounced. This incorrect information has made it challenging for  generations of South African Indians to trace their roots.

For many of us, our roots, heritage and where we have come from is extremely important. It gives us a sense of belonging, an understanding of culture and tradition and is also really important when it comes to genetics for research, treatments and cures for many illnesses and diseases.  

Documentation of the arrivals into South Africa was often incorrect. Source Getty Images

Having an uncertainty of our background also opens the door to many issues with regards to racial and generational trauma. Many of our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ have found it difficult to talk about past trauma that they had encountered during the many years of British colonialism. The mistreatment and blatant disregard to people and their culture has had a huge impact on family life. Many have suffered from severe mental health implications due to this treatment, they have struggled for many years – and continue to do so – to access help in so many sectors. This has created a domino effect for many families as we all search for a sense of belonging and a need to find our roots; so that we can better understand the people we come from and the people we, and our children, intend to be.

I am one of many South Africans who come from a very mixed and complicated heritage. My ancestors arrived in SA from India and Afghanistan, as aforementioned, with very little or no paperwork. My immediate family is about 4th generation Indian (maternal) and 2nd generation Afghani (paternal). In south Africa we were automatically categorised as Indian during the apartheid regime. It didn’t matter where your family originated from, that was the label you were given if you were brown. Yes, I have Indian heritage, and at first glance people assume I am from India or Pakistan, particularly now that I live in the UK. Although I am incredibly proud of my brown skin and my Indian traditions that have been passed down, I have never set foot in either country. 

Zainab’s Paternal Grandparents

I was born in South African to parents that were born in South Africa, I am a child of Africa, I am African. This concept is very confusing to a lot of people here in the UK. 

I don’t look like your stereotypical South African, but then again, what does a South African look like? I am always asked the dreaded question, ‘but where are you really from?’ or ‘ you don’t look South African’. It’s interesting that many wouldn’t question a White person’s South African heritage, but they do question mine. Do colonisers belong there more than me? 

For people that are first and second generation Indian, who question my authenticity on looking ‘Indian’, I am definitely not Indian. So who am I? What answer will suit you? 

Are you still with me? Confusing right! Can any of you who are not Black or Brown, even consider this level of questioning or the need for validation?

The concept of colonialism is the policy and practice of acquiring control of another country, occupying it, and exploiting it economically. The impact of colonialism for me and many South African ‘Indians’ is that we were given this label, but haven’t been able to own it. 

We were brought to Africa, but we were not African, we were born in Africa, but don’t fit the ‘mould’ of an African.  We look Indian and have strong Indian traditions, but we are not from India.

For me, growing up, my Dad instilled in us the importance of speaking ‘The Queens English”, as according to him and his experience living in a space that was dominated by the white man, it was  one of the few ways to be heard.

Zainab’s Father Syed on the left, with his twin brother Omar on the right. The twins were both registered with different surnames to each other as their Mother (Zainab’s Grandmother) was too afraid to correct the person registering them!

If you had an ”accent” you would not be deemed ‘educated’ enough. It was a foot in the door for whatever our future held. When I tell this story, it’s very misunderstood here in the UK.

It is assumed that we wanted to sound more British, which does have some truth in it, but actually it was due to our family being colonised and then going through the apartheid regime that my dad felt this importance. Ironically, most South Africans who have English as their first language do sound like they are from the South of England, as that is what we were taught at school. Again, very confusing for many British, to see a Brown skinned South African woman who speaks very clear English. 

On the subject of school, most of the history that is taught in South African schools is British history, and a lot of the schools’ approaches and ethos have been Anglified and White centric for many years. However this is slowly changing to be suitable to reflect a more authentic history of the country.

My journey in the discovery of my roots is ongoing. I have many questions and there are family members from both my maternal and paternal side that are on the quest to find answers. Living here in the UK has also increased my appetite to find out more about my heritage: I have two mixed heritage, dual national sons and it is so important to me that they know where they come from.

For some of you, having such a diverse heritage may sound incredibly exciting, and it is, I am extremely proud of all the different parts of me that make me into a whole person. 

The world is filled with people that are made up of so many different parts, which is what makes it so beautiful, however many of us are unable to trace back and look at our past in a way that so many people take for granted. Many of you will have stories, letters, photos; you have your history passed down to you,  you can visit ancestral graves and birthplaces; you have the privilege of knowing your roots.

Zainab (far right) with her Siblings and Mum

I don’t know what my ancestors were promised when they had to leave India, a better life with more opportunities for the future perhaps?

But that didn’t happen for them, and it has taken many generations to try and break the cycle of the inequalities and racial injustices that they faced.

It is a constant battle and in a way these last few years have reminded us all that battle is far from over, but what we will do is continue to fight and continue to break the barriers that colonisation has imposed on us through the years.






If you would like to learn more about the history and  impact of colonialism we recommend the following resources as a good place to start:

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor 

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur 

Culture & Imperialism by Edward W Said 

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamavada Gopal 

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala