Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Synopsis: - The following opinion article presents the South African riots from a racial point of view. It primarily focuses on testimonies of the local people in South Africa and opinions of political actors as well as that of academics. The Indian community has suffered a lot of mental and economic damage during the riots; making it important to analyze the presence of racism associated with the riots.
"They can't even go out to buy food," were the words uttered by Asif Patel when he was asked about his brother's situation in South Africa. Abdul Patel shifted to South Africa's Johannesburg two decades ago to start a business. His business was pretty much destroyed by rioters in South Africa who targeted the local Indian community. However, Abdul was not the only target. Afroz Patel lost his entire business along with his house. Saeed, who hails from Bharuch but has a shop in South Africa, lost about 10 Lakh Rand and is contemplating coming back to India.
This was the condition of the many Indians living in South Africa, specifically in Johannesburg and Durban. The investigations about the riots revealed racial tensions in a few attacks. Although many seem to deny it, the denial is not justifiable. To understand the nature of these attacks and to ascertain whether the attacks were racially motivated or not, I delved deeper into the whole situation.
What is the situation?
A brief background of the whole situation is required to understand the dimensions related to Indians in a foreign country. The unrest, which ultimately led to the riots, started on July 8th when the country's former President, Jacob Zuma, was sentenced to a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court. Zuma has been in trouble for quite some time now. The allegations against him for corruption during his presidential term (2009-2018) were gaining more and more traction. He also had claims of rape, embezzlement of public funds, and other frauds as well. The supporters of Zuma who were unhappy with the decision took to the streets. But how is it all relevant to the Indians in South Africa? The reason is the Gupta Family. The Gupta family is a big business name in South Africa, owning coal mines, newspapers, a media outlet, and a computer manufacturing business. The Guptas have been continuously linked with corruption activities; they were even accused of bribing politicians to profit them and their business. They are charged with fraud amounting to at least 1.8 million US dollars. This fraud is one of the many frauds that angered people, as the money they secured for themselves was meant for rural development and the benefit of the poor people.
How is it all related to Indians?
But, how can the wrongdoings of one family translate to any racial tensions? The answer is not clear. A combination of factors stands responsible for this situation. The first of them is the socio-economic status of the different communities in South Africa. There exists massive inequality in South African society. The top 10% of the earners in the country hold about 65% of the income, while the remaining get a mere 35%. Similar to South Africa's history, most rich people are whites while most blacks continue to suffer. Indians are an ethnic minority, but they are in a much better position than the native blacks of the country. In a report, Indians were observed to have the fastest per capita income growth out of all the groups in South Africa.
Indians own many businesses there and are seen as a capitalist class. At this point, the interview of Edwin Naidu reveals a lot. Two crucial things emerge from his interview. First is the acceptance of racial tensions between Indians and blacks. The second, and more important, was the changed perception of people towards Indians. The damage that the Guptas did to the economy and the people were being seen in the pandemic. The economy was in shambles, and unemployment was the highest in the world at 44.4%. It is also important to mention here that the rioters were not only supporters of Zuma but also ordinary citizens. These common people saw the Guptas as the enemies of the state. The existing inequality and the broken economy, culminated with the works of the Gupta family, directed all the anger towards one community- the Indians.
Naidu's interview can be used to explain how all the anger converged into a single community. The Indians, already being seen as a group alien to South Africa, were also being viewed as an exploitative capitalist class because of the scandals of the Gupta family. Of course, this was not true. But many thought along these lines. It led to the stereotyping of Indians as an exploitative alien group alongside the whites. But based on the history of the relationship between communities in South Africa, this was undoubtedly a new thought. In my opinion, it is better to call this fiasco an isolated incident of racial tensions. But that the violence was racially motivated cannot be denied, based on the various accounts of ordinary people in South Africa.
What could be some other evidence of racial violence against Indians?
Some details from the incident were particularly suspicious. President Cyril Ramaphosa continuously referred to it as a planned and organized attack. Not only that, he claimed that there were pieces of evidence for it. However, none of them seem to have been revealed yet. William Gumede, a renowned economist, and political analyst in South Africa, had the same thing to say. In his words, "there was a strategic destruction of the economy." Not only that, all of this happened in areas where Indians were concentrated (not that there weren't other groups who suffered losses as well). The following map shows the distribution of Indian and Asian South Africans.
Source: South Africa Gateway
At the same time, it was the businesses of Indians that were primarily targeted. Their business and a false stereotyping associated with a capitalist class like the Guptas are specifics that cannot be ignored.
It is difficult to ignore all the details of this incident and say that it was just a political and, to some extent, an economically related issue. The accounts of the victims, actions by the people, and experts' opinions suggest a problem that was not expected- racism against Indians. It is fair to argue that economic and social conditions might have led to anger pertaining to a specific community. Still, the question remains, why a particular community? I do not suggest that other groups were not victims, but the damage done to Indian society is too significant to generalize. I press that it was an isolated case of racism, but it was a case for sure. It becomes essential to acknowledge this to avoid any future conflicts of this sort.
● The South African riots led to massive damages to the Indian community there.
● It was suspected that it might have a racial perspective to it (against Indians)
● Racism can happen against any community; it is not the blacks who are the only victims but they are the biggest victims on a global scale.
● To avoid any conflicts based on racial tensions, it is important to find the root of the problem.