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A cross-generational study of the perception and construction of South Africans of Indian descent as foreigners by fellow citizens.

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This thesis examined how the perceptions of South Africans of Indian descent as foreign, by fellow South African citizens, have changed or the extent to which they have remained the same from the time of the first arrival of indentured labourers from India in 1860 to the present. In so doing the study also revealed how those classified as ‘Indian’ in South Africa have constructed their identities in relation to, and because of, differing social, political and economic contexts. In order to achieve the aims of this research, the study was periodised based on the key political transitions over the last 150 years. As a result, the constructions and perceptions of ‘Indians’ by others were explored from the period of indenture under colonialism (1860-1910), through to the formation of Union (1910-1948), into apartheid (1948-1994) and ultimately through to democracy (1994-present). The data collection methods included documentary sources, oral histories, and semi-structured interviews. The main documentary sources collected included articles from The Mercury and Ilanga newspapers, spanning 150 years but taken from the key periods as discussed above. In addition it was deemed equally important to conduct in-depth interviews with South African families of Indian descent. The trajectories of five such families, and of the individuals within these family units, were explored, covering the period from the arrival of the first immigrant from India to South Africa, to the present day. The findings reveal that the perceptions of ‘Indians’ as foreign have endured more than it has altered in the psyche of fellow South Africans through each of the political dispensations and because the dominant racial discourse has persisted throughout the various periods albeit through varying mechanisms and diverse narratives justifying it at different times. Although democracy brought with it hope for a more inclusive South Africa with the African National Congress-dominated parliament adopting a constitution based on shared citizenship, the basis of the policies that followed however represent the antithesis of inclusion by entrenching existing notions of difference through the perpetuation of ‘race’ categories that were previously reproduced and legitimised by the repealed apartheid-era Population Registration Act. Blatant xenophobic discourse against South Africans of Indian descent are indeed still apparent, with the latest expressions centering around notions of autochthony which imply that ‘Indians’ are not indigenes of South Africa and hence should have no claim to its resources.


Ph.D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2014.


Indentured servants--South Africa., South Africa--Indians--Social conditions., South Africa--Indians--Economic conditions., South Africa--Indians--History., Theses--Sociology.