The DA’s election posters put up in Phoenix, Durban, are mind-numbingly stupid. “The ANC called you racists” followed by “We call you heroes.” The ANC did no such thing nor did the DA hail the members of this predominantly Indian community as heroes.
The reference of course is to the July riots when a group of armed vigilantes in Phoenix manned roadblocks, apparently to protect their lives and homes from marauding looters in the area. The records show that 36 people died in and around Phoenix including three Indians; nationwide, 337 people died.
What makes those posters dangerous is that it fans the flames of racial hatred. There has been some excellent investigatory reporting on what actually happened in Phoenix. We now know that Indian lives and homes were not the targets of the looters.
We know that in Phoenix, surrounded by African townships, the July riots ignited memories of historical feuds (1949, Durban; 1985 Inanda) between the two communities. We know that voice notes were making the rounds in the jittery Indian community that “the Zulus are coming”.
What does the DA do in this tinderbox of racial tensions? It throws a match in it. Our rival party called you racists but to us you are heroes. How callous, how divisive, how pathetic.
The deadly tragedy of Phoenix is, like all things South African, complex. That the vigilantes practised racial profiling on the nights in question is true. That racial fears and brute racism might have fuelled some of these killings is equally clear.
That these armed thugs stepped into a vacuum left by absentee police and security forces is self-evident. That the sharp divisions of mainly working-class Indian homes surrounded by mainly African shack settlements has not been resolved almost three decades since gaining our political freedom, must surely be part of an urgent development conversation.
None of these complexities matter in the cheap politicking of another election season. For the DA the Indians of Phoenix are the good guys and the ANC’s support base, the Africans, the race-baiting bad guys. The hypocrisy of the main opposition party is bottomless.
Nor, by the way, do the inciting posters tell of the many acts of solidarity reported in those deadly confrontations. Such as the Indian man who defied the vigilantes and drove the injured to a nearby hospital. Or the trucks that rolled in with food and water for battered communities.
I was recently invited to write a foreword or shout-out for two stunning new books on the Indian South African community. The one is by the experienced journalist, Joanne Josephs, and is titled Children of Sugarcane; and the other by Bala Mudaly, called Colour-coated Identity.
Joseph’s book is a novel about the life of a young Indian girl fleeing oppressions of caste and gender in rural India only to be trapped as an indentured worker in the colony of Natal.
Mudaly’s book, on the other hand, tells his personal story as an Indian African rejected at home because of his race and eventually settling in Australia where he could practise as the first black clinical psychologist qualified in SA.
What both books show in rich detail is the difficult and depressing histories of the Indian underclasses as they struggled to make their something of their lives in becoming South African. And they did.
By the early 1990s an important study showed that the most efficient education subsystem at the time was that provided by segregated Indian schools.
In other words, even with the relative advantage of resources, the white schools underperformed in relation to their Indian counterparts. What does this mean? Simply that the Indian schools were much more successful in turning resources into results than all the rest.
But what is especially noteworthy in the Mudaly book are the stories of racial separateness told alongside stories of racial solidarity. “There is a little apartheid in all of us,” said the author at his book launch last Sunday.
Yes, there is racism in the Indian community as there is in all the other segments of our society.
It could not be otherwise given 350 years of calculated discrimination imposed on us by colonialism and apartheid. For example, Indian education received relatively more funding that coloured education with African education receiving the smallest allocation of state funding.
But what the Mudaly book also does is to demonstrate the unbroken lines of solidarity between Indians and Africans. How the Zulu man protected the Indian home during the Durban riots.
How his own involvement in Black Consciousness was an expression of solidarity with leaders like Steve Biko. And every South African knows about Indian-African solidarity in the congress movements that stretches back more than a century.
Somebody needs to tell the DA.