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The history of Indian South Africans begin as early as 1652 with the arrival of Muslim exiles at the Cape under the Dutch East India Company Rule. In Natal, the arrival of the Indentured Indian in 1860 marked the beginnings of an organised scheme whereby approximately 152,184 Indians arrived to seek gainful employment in a fledgling sugar industry. While many worked on the sugar fields, others worked on the wattle and tea plantations and in the coal-mines . Some came as domestic servants as Dhobis, waiters and house-servants and were able to command a respectable salary of 20 shillings per month.
Peculiar to the Indian immigrant was his manner of dressing, his religion and culture which necessitated commodities such as prayer goods, special cooking utensils, spices, items of clothing, religious books and the like to be imported. Hence, the arrival of the indentured Indian was closely followed by the arrival of the Indian trader. The Indian Trader soon flourished .
After indenture the bulk of the population opted to remain in South Africa which was now regarded as a land of opportunity where they could lease land, engage in agriculture, trade and engage in other gainful employment. However, it was only in 1961 that they were regarded as permanent citizens of the Republic of South Africa.
The contribution of the Indian to the "South African way of Life" is evident in a wide range of activities such as politics, education, sport, arts, music, welfare. While their political engagement was determined by the politics of the times , yet their political engagement is evident before the time of Gandhi and during his time gained momentum in the form of the Passive Resistance movement. After Gandhi's departure, the Natal Indian Congress continued its work but remained elitist, not until the arrival of leaders such as Monty Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo who mobilised the people into action against the Ghetto Act in 1946 and later during the Defiance Campaign.
With the formation of the Republic the numerous bannings major political organisations including the African National Congress and the Natal Indian Congress was soon silenced but nevertheless remained underground. The Natal Indian Congress began to play a significant role when the United Democratic Front was formed. It campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and welcomed the democratic elections in 1994. Like all the other resistance political organisations, the Natal Indian Congress kept the flame of resistance alive. It was only in 1994 the Indian became truly South African citizens - in a truly democratic society.
Little could be done in exercising political clout as the Indian was at the mercy of what the White ruling party was prepared to concede to, despite the numerous petitions, delegations, memoranda and protests against the ruling white government. Indians, hence resorted to focus on their social, economic, religious and intellectual development. From indenture they moved to become market gardeners, free-hold owners of business enterprises and today they show a significant measure of success in this regard. Likewise, they did not sit back when the government failed to provide their children with education but built private schools. On a "Rand for Rand " basis they assisted in building government-aided schools.
It can be said that their language, religion and culture is the most strongest force that kept the community together during these trying times. Temples and mosques were established from the earliest days. Vernacular languages were taught at home and after school hours. Similarly, the transmission of music, drama and the arts were sustained. Religious, cultural and social organisations kept communities and groups together and instilled in the people moral, ethical and cultural values ... and today they survive.
The Centre documents the wide spectrum and range of activities engaged by this immigrant population. The numerous activities which are mentioned above and many more are documented at the Centre. Major collections such as the TASA (Teachers Association of South Africa) collection, Bhana, Jithoo and Phyllis Naidoo Collections, the ships registers, newspapers, photographs are some of the documents that may be found at the Centre.
Presently, textual and reference material is being compiled and will be made available on this site on an ongoing basis.