by Jon Soske, PhD Thesis
My dissertation combines a critical history of the Indian diaspora’s political and intellectual impact on the development of African nationalism in South Africa with an analysis of African/Indian racial dynamics in Natal. Beginning in the 1940s, tumultuous debates among black intellectuals over the place of the Indian diaspora in Africa played a central role in the emergence of new and antagonistic conceptualizations of a South African nation. The writings of Indian political figures (particularly Gandhi and Nehru) and the Indian independence struggle had enormous influence on a generation of African nationalists, but this impact was mediated in complex ways by the race and class dynamics of Natal. During the 1930s and 40s, rapid and large-scale urbanization generated a series of racially-mixed shantytowns surrounding Durban in which a largely Gujarati and Hindi merchant and landlord class provided the ersatz urban infrastructure utilized by both Tamil-speaking workers and Zulu migrants. In Indian-owned buses, stores, and movie theatres, a racial hierarchy of Indian over African developed based on the social grammars of property, relationship with land, family structure, and different gender roles. In such circumstances, practices integral to maintaining diasporic identities — such as religious festivals, marriage, caste (jati), language, and even dress and food—became signifiers of ranked status and perceived exclusion. Despite the destruction of this urban landscape by forced removals beginning in the late 1950s, these social relationships powerfully shaped African and Indian identities in Natal, the popular memory of different communities, and the later politics of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Although a few recent publications have attempted to break down the bifurcation that characterizes Natal’s historiography, the majority of academic writing on the province employs a race-based framework that focuses on either Indians or Zulu-speaking Africans. As a result, Natal’s African/Indian racial dynamic plays, at most, a secondary role in most scholarship on the region. In turn, Natal itself generally appears in histories of the anti-apartheid struggle as either an exception or a momentary interruption to a “national” narrative overwhelmingly centered on events, organizations, and individuals in the Transvaal. Rejecting a “race relations” approach that hypostatizes coherent racial groups, my dissertation examines how segregationist policies, African and Indian political organizations, and everyday social practices continuously reproduced an “African/Indian divide” despite both the enormous heterogeneity of each group and the quotidian intimacies of urban life. At the same time, it explores the ways in which this division shaped the development of the anti-apartheid struggle in Natal and the consequences of Natal’s politics for South Africa as a whole.
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