November 16th 2020 marked 160 years since the first indentured labourers were brought to Port Natal from Madras on the SS Truro. The British Government sent the 342 passengers to South Africa to work on the sugar plantations in Natal. Most of the labourers hailed from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, and had hopes of a better future. However, the reality of their experience was far from hopeful, with many enduring ill-treatment and abuse. By 1911, the Indian government prohibited indentured labour to Natal because of the terrible treatment many labourers endured.
Pervasive Exploitation and Abuse of Indentured Labourers
The indentured labourer system emerged soon after the abolishment of slavery in 1834 and was a pivotal part of Britain’s Colonial reign in India, the West Indies, Africa, and South East Asia. Due to widespread poverty and famine, many Indians left their families and life as they knew it, under the assumption that prosperity lay ahead of them. Freedom was promised after five years, however, this period was often extended to 10 years.
While the history of indentured Indian labours in Durban has often been “sugar-coated“, harrowing accounts of severe abuse are emerging. The lives of labourers, much like those of slaves generations before, were often marred by injustice and unimaginable exploitation. These histories, while key to Durban and KwaZulu-Natals’ history, have often been neglected in South African history books. It is for this reason that we need to bring them to light, writes Latashia Naidoo:
“Its exclusion from the history textbooks is telling; an omission of a chapter of the country’s turbulent colonial past that’s been relegated to living memories and oral histories. It’s in repositioning the stories of indenture in the public consciousness that we can attempt to reconcile our traumatic colonial past.”
Living Memorials Vs Static Monuments
In light of the 160th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers to South Africa, conversations and debates about memorialisation were once again brought to the fore. We need to engage with the past in order to remember it and to ensure that we do not repeat the human rights violations and abuses that occurred. However, a myriad questions remain. What is the best way to honour these lives and remember such a significant part of Durban and KZN’s history? Is a static statue, celebrating a particular moment, person or group appropriate? If not, how do we mesh diverse, lived experiences together to reflect the collective and complex history of a people and place? How do we best represent multiple voices? How do we honour those no longer with us, and empower their lineage to honour and remember them?
Some agree that a “living monument” might just be the answer. Living monuments are spaces that aim to honour the past while promoting democracy and interconnectedness in the present. The We Woke the World organisation define the “living monument” as a concept that:
“represents a new paradigm in how we memorialise the past. Traditionally, we memorialise history with monolithic, rigid objects that isolate history and take it out of context. These mammoth objects try, unsuccessfully, to make the person or event immortal and unchanging. The living monument flips this around. Living monuments evolve and consider the wider context of interrelated connections that make up history. Living monuments also focus on how history can be made alive, immediate and relevant to people.”
Creating a living memorial in the heart of a bustling metropolis is one such way to honour the past but, in Durban, where might it be created? Brij Maharaj believes the perfect spot already exists within the city – The Grey Street–Warwick–Curries Complex. These sites boast a rich, multi-cultural history and Maharaj shared that “since the 1870s, this area has been a living monument dedicated to non-racialism and defiance against apartheid.” The Curries Fountain was a “battlefield for many non-racial sporting competitions, as well as a community site for mass protests and resistance in the struggle against apartheid” while the greater Grey Street boasts a diverse collection of mosques, churches, educational institutions, and temples. The Markets of Warwick Junction complex was also of great significance to indentured labourers who sought to set up their own businesses once they were granted a semblance of freedom.
Nonetheless, this area managed to largely resist apartheid removals and segregation and remained largely multi-cultural. As such, the area transcends singular histories and is a place that has relevance to all who dwell there. It might, therefore, be the perfect place to honour those who endured the brutality of the indentured labour system while paying tribute to all those who struggled under the hardship of colonialism and apartheid.
Memorialisation and the Promotion of Democracy
These living memorials have been called “sites of conscience” and have been linked to the strengthening of democracy. The International Center for Transitional Justice highlights why these places are imperative to building more inclusive societies, sharing:
“Sites of Conscience seek to tap the power and potential of memorialisation for democracy by serving as forums for citizen engagement in human rights and social welfare. Using deliberate strategies, public memorials can contribute to building broader cultures of democracy over the long term by generating conversations among differing communities or engaging new generations in the lessons of the past.”
In bringing the stories of South Africa’s oftentimes forgotten indentured labourers into everyday spaces, we can honour their legacies and ensure that the past is not repeated. We can also build broader cultures of democracy by starting conversations between diverse communities. By bearing witness to their lives and remembering who they were, we choose not to exclude them from history and can ignite new forms of dialogue.