The Indian Origin community in South Africa


1. The major part of the Indian community, which has retained a distinct ethnic sub-identity, came to South Africa between 1860 and 1911 as indentured farm labour to serve as field hands and mill operatives in the sugar and other agricultural plantations of Natal (which was then a British colony). Although they were given the opportunity to return home on completion of their contracts, most preferred to stay on, either as farmers on crown land in Natal or as petty businessmen.

2. Most of the initial migrants were drawn from what is today Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with some from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A second wave of Indians came after 1880. These were the “passenger Indians” – so-called because they paid their fares as passengers on board steamships bound for South Africa. This was the community of traders mainly from Gujarat.


3. The South African Indian origin community currently numbers around 1.15 million and constitutes about 2.5% of South Africa’s total population of 45.45 million. About 80% of the Indian community lives in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, about 15% in the Gauteng (previously Transvaal) area and the remaining 5% in the Cape Town area. In KwaZulu-Natal, the major concentration of the Indian population is in Durban. The largest concentrations of Indian settlement are at Chatsworth, Phoenix, Tongaat and Stanger in the Durban Coastal area, which covers approximately 500,000 of the Indian origin community. Pietermaritzburg – noted for its link with Mahatma Gandhi - has a community of approximately 200,000.

4. Smaller inland towns in KwaZulu Natal such as Ladysmith, Newcastle, Dundee and Glencoe make up the bulk of the remaining Indian population. In the Gauteng area, the Indian community is largely concentrated around Lenasia outside Johannesburg and Laudium and other suburbs outside Pretoria. There are also smaller groups in towns in the Eastern Cape and other provinces. Settlement of Indian origin people in a particular area, as with other South African peoples, came about as a result of the Group Areas Act that forced racial division into particular designated areas.

5. According to the figures provided by the Department of Education and Culture, in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, the linguistic break-up of the Indian community is as follows: Tamil 51%, Hindi 30%, Gujarati 7%, Telugu 6%, Urdu 5% and others 1%.

6. The language issue is of more emotional and cultural significance than a practical one as 98% of the Indian community in South Africa considers English their home language. However, community organisations make some commendable efforts to teach Indian languages to children at school levels and to maintain university level language courses at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Indeed many local Indian origin people speak Afrikaans, having been taught it throughout their schooling and some because of business and other interactions with the local people. The preponderance of English over Indian vernaculars is also as a result of the state education received by Indian origin learners, which precluded languages other than English and Afrikaans.


7. Although Indians came to South Africa in the 1860’s, it was not until over a century later (in 1961), that they were granted the status of full citizens. While their status changed, they were subject to the same discrimination as the rest of the Black people of South Africa. Post-1994, they are treated like any other South African and have afforded most of the benefits reserved for previously disadvantaged people.
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