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Peoples and Cultures

Indians of South Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Population:     1,700,000 (2007, field source, community contact)
Religion:        Hindu, Muslim, Christian
Registry of Peoples codes:  Indian, English-speaking:  104017
                                              Indian, Muslim, South African:  114983
Related --                             Malay, Cape:  114855
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  English:  eng

Early in 2007, a friend also living in South Africa consulted with me about the various sub-groups of Indians in South Africa.  The Indians are a population segment of the Republic of South Africa which have been indigenized for about 150 years.  The question was to what extent they still identified themselves by the original languages or geographical areas or castes their ancestors originally came from.

Ethnic Sub-Groups
He had found that in some listings of ethnicities of the world, the Indians of South Africa were listed as one primary people, then segments within that were identified by languages spoken in India, and reported to be spoken as the mother tongue by various different Indian communities of South Africa.

My friend indicated that from what he had observed and what his Indian acquaintances had told him, the Indians of South Africa no longer identify themselves by any language divisions, or indeed even by particular religious divisions.  Muslims do maintain a separate corporate identity to some degree, especially in contrast to the Hindu community.  One question in this regard was the degree to which Muslim or Hindu individuals could relate within the same family, or how these two communities would relate to a convert to Christianity.

My friend and I spent a long time analysing information on these communities, his sources and the census categories, as well as other factors that might assist in clarifying our idea of the Indian entities.

Previous Sources
I had earlier also talked with the another non-Indian acquaintance who lived among the Indian community in Durban, where the large percentage of Indians live in South Africa.  She indicated that the Indians don't think of themselves much in terms of the languages or ethnic communities they originally came from.

In December 2006 I had read a 2006 publication on the cultures of South Africa (Barbara Elion with Mercia Strieman, Clues to Culture, Camps Bay, South Africa: One Life Media, 2006), which was a good but simple cultural survey of the ethnicities and current cultural characteristics of South African people.  This book referred to the various Indian languages and some differences in customs in the different groups.  It left the impression that all these various languages are still spoken in the communities.

I supplemented this with a probe into Internet resources on Indians of South Africa.  I found some sociological and other academic papers addressing these questions.

One source reported on a sociolinguistic study on the status of the Telugu language among the Indians of South Africa.  This extensive report concluded that the Telugu language was only a cultural relic, no longer being spoken as a home language.  A few older individuals still know the language.  Indians of Telugu extraction speak English as a mother tongue.  This also appears to be the case for the Indian community as a whole.

The picture developing from the various sources at that point agreed with the initial local indications that the Indians as a whole consider themselves as one ethnic group and English is their main language (very few still speak an Indian language).  While Wikipedia articles vary in quality, the Wikipedia article on South African Indians confirms other sources that indicate that English is the primary language of those identified as Indians in South Africa:

"Although Indian languages are seldom spoken or understood by younger Indians, English-subtitled Bollywood films and television programmes remain popular among South African Indians."
 It does appear that there is some retention of some artifacts of the cultural heritage of the various "communities" in India.  For instance, there are different kinds of wedding ceremonies and festival practices.  These don't seem to create definitive or exclusive barriers of identity between the families of different original languages or ethnic heritage.

Indian Informant
I had a chance to discuss this question with an Indian informant, whom I knew personally.  He is a convert to Christian faith from a Hindu family.  I asked him whether a Christian convert would be accepted into his original Indian family who remain Hindu or Jain, etc.  He said that in general there is no problem.

He commented on the affect on family relations of conversion to a different faith.  His mother and he had become Christians, but he says his family still accepts them.  This report matches what my aforementioned friend's Indian acquaintances have told him.  In regard to my question about the Muslims being a separate ethnicity, my Indian friend replied that yes, of course, the Muslims are "something else again."

Indian Business People
In observing and talking with Hindu business people in Johannesburg, I have further found that they (at least some) do not observe the Hindu food rules that we knew from our East African Indian communities.  The East African Indians maintained contacts with their respective Indian ethnic and language communities.  They continue speaking and teaching their languages, even sending children for high school and/or university in India.

It seems that in South Africa the religious differences among Indians, like the different sects of Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism, are minimal and not a primary identifying factor for them as an ethnicity.  This differs radically from the situation we lived with for 25 years in Kenya.

Internal Distinctions
As we find with all ethnic communities and lineages, the more local the context, then finer the distinction and self-identity become.  The initial question behind this memo (see paragraph 1) was how a world-level database could best account for the community known as Indians in South Africa.  This entails ethnolinguistic considerations that try to be consistent worldwide.  We note that at every level, it is always possible to make further distinctions down to the nuclear family level.

In this regard, I received an updated perspective by email from Mr Robbie Naidoo, a South African Indian business researcher.  His comments confirm what we expect to find as we drill down to the local level, commented on in other discussions on this resource site.  Mr Naidoo rightly indicates that artificial strictures of apartheid heightened the unitary view of Indians as one broad community.

"Indians generally see themselves as a single unit within a broad SA context - as they have done historically during apartheid - and this is primarily because of apartheid - for no other cultural reason.  They however, do not see themselves as a single unit within their own community.  For instance an Indian will often describe another Indian in conversation as a Muslim, Gujerati or Hindi person.  There are very clear groupings and while there is intermingling, there is still a very clear level of separation on a social level."

In Kenya, where I lived for about 25 years, there was a clear maintenance of home language, caste association, religion or various Hindu religious communities, and very few Christians.  If a family member converted to a different religion, or even a different Hindu sect, they would be rejected and shunned by the family.

I was told, in contrast, by South African Indians of numerous families with members of Muslim, Christian or Hindu groups in the same family, who still accepted one another.  In our email exchange, Robbie Naidoo comments on this in further detail:

"Yes there is a fair level of acceptance but it is not the ideal with most families. The level of acceptance differs per grouping and class.  For instance this is a no go with Muslims and Gujaratis generally stick to their own kind.  Hindi speakers are also fairly conservative but there is a fair amount of intermingling.  There is still a fair amount of animosity between Hindis and South Indians.  But when marriages occur they are accepted but not embraced.  Obviously there are exceptions.  On a class level marriages across languages and even race is fairly acceptable in the middle and lower classes with slightly less acceptance up the ladder.  In South Africa for instance you would find the majority of cross cultural marriages between older white men and younger Indian women who are generally from working class backgrounds.  Cross cultural marriages are generally more acceptable within the educated groups."

Sources differ on the percentage of the Indian community of South Africa who are Muslims.  The picture I got from sources available made it seem that roughly 60% of South African Indians are Muslim.  One or more sources even put the number as high as 80%.  Islam is visible and generally associated with the Indians in the popular mind.  The Cape Malay, though, are also generally Muslims, while uniquely Malay.

By contrast, however, Robbie Naidoo reports a much smaller number from his research of about 2 years.  Mr Naidoo writes:

"Below are the main sub-cultures within the Indian community. I also believe the percentages noted are an accurate split of these groupings.
Tamils and Telegus (60% of total Indian population)
Christians (20%)
Muslims (10%)
Hindi speaking (8%)
Gujeratis Hindus (2%)"

The Wikipedia source also indicates that Muslims are a minority, noting that Hindus constitute the majority of the South African Indian community:

"The majority of South African Indians are Hindu with large numbers of people who are also Muslim and Christian."

Muslims Segments
One question that came up in a discussion of this topic is whether an ethnic list should have one primary ethnic category for Muslim, with various segments as sub-groups.  One obvious additional Muslim community in South Africa is the Cape Malay.

It appears from what I have seen that the Indian Muslims should be considered a separate ethnic entity from the Cape Malay Muslims.  I am not clear on the status of the few Black African Muslim.  I would surmise from what I do know that they would still be counted with their Zulu or other ethnicity.  Some from Mozambique would be of other ethnicities.

Additionally, as a basic taxonomic database approach, however, it does not seem that the term "Muslim" designates an appropriate primary ethnic category.  The other ethnic characteristics seem to define the separate ethnic communities here.

Islam as a Cultural Component
Islam, or any other cultural religion, is definitely a component of any ethnic group's culture, east or west.  It is true that Islam is often the primary distinguishing characteristic between two otherwise similar communities.  However, to describe an ethnicity, the full range of characteristics that comprise what we refer to as "ethnicity" must be taken into account.

In most geopolitical situations "Muslim" is not an ethnic indicator.  The term is used this way in Bosnia, where all peoples are of the same ethnolinguistic origin, but differ only by religion.  The designation "Muslim" there is an alternative for "Bozniak," meaning Bosnian.  Unfortunately this term is not adequate either, since that is just the word for "Bosnian," and also means a citizen of Bosnia, without regard to religion.  I think there are a few other local situations in which the term "Muslim" might have ethnic connotations.  Normally "Muslim" by itself is not an ethnic category, just as "Christian" would not be.

Indian Caste Context
In India itself, the various ethnic-caste communities are designated by religious sub-divisions, with separate entities for Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Sikh, etc.  This is due to the unique situation there in which religion is almost exclusively an ethnic trait.

This seems to be somewhat the characteristic in South African Indians, but without the caste-language complications.  Because they do not identify with the language or home state origins so much now, it appears the Muslim are an identifiably distinct community within the Indians of South Africa.  But even there, we observe some intermarrying.

Real-World Accounting
The real-world self-identities are the primary reference point in trying to account for the ethnicities of the world.  A balance of various factors is taken into account in determining which seem to be weighed more heavily within each ethnic group.  Technical considerations determine taxonomies and categories also.

Factors related to linguistic principles, literacy requirements and geographical considerations need to be looked at.  Sometimes, we find even political considerations become important to maintain  the proper balance of internal group self-identity and formal standards of analysis.

An attempt is made to be consistent, using a standard approach to keep entries as comparable as possible, while attempting to represent the unique self-identities.  We want to faithfully represent group self-identity while maintaining consistency in formal standards of analysis and reporting.

Concluding Observations
1.  The general picture is that Indians of South Africa comprise one general ethnic category; the former language and ethnic history categories are only artifacts.  It seems to me that is similar to the usage among former immigrant communities in the US, such as Irish, Scottish, Polish, etc.  There seems to be no barrier between Indian Christians and Indian Hindus in the same family and home or in general social interaction.

2.  The traditional language community distinctions seem not to be a component in the self-identity of the Indians of South Africa.

3.  The Indians of South Africa should be classified as a separate ethnic entity from any South Asian ethnic group in the Indian sub-continent.  The Registry of Peoples (ROP) recognizes this by providing a unique identification code for the Indians of South Africa.

4.  Muslim identity among Indians seems to be more distinctive.  For ethnic classification purposes, it seems that Indian Muslims should be considered as a separate ethnic entity from other South African Indians.  Alternatively, Indian Muslims of South Africa could be classified as a distinct sub-group of a broader primary ethnicity of South African Indians.

The ROP provides a separate unique code for the Indian Muslims in South Africa.  This separate ethnic classification is indicated by contacts in the community and by the use of such classifications in various ethnic databases that consider this Muslim religious identity a significant enough distinction to require a separate ethnic identity.

I discovered that there are a number of instances of Muslims married to Hindus.  While it does not appear that these individuals are banned or shunned by their Muslim families, the children of such marriages seem invariably to be considered Muslim and are given Muslim names.  This seems to indicate a definite separate ethnic identity.  This is an area to watch for further indications of the degree of interaction between Indian Muslims and Indian non-Muslims.

For a database of ethnicity, I suggest that subdivisions of language for Indians of South Africa be removed.  It would be valid to have two primary entries:  Indians, Muslim; Indians, Other.  An alternative solution is two subdivisions under one primary entity of Indians in South Africa.

Also related:
Coloureds of Southern Africa
Multi-Cultural Ethnic Groups: A Communication Strategy Ethnic Group Identification and Communication Strategy Approaches for Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural or International People Segments
Multi-Level Ethnicity: Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group

Related on the Internet:
Mitochondrial DNA studies in the South African Indian population
South African Indian Culture
South African Indians – Wikipedia
Telugu Diaspora


First notes written 22 August 2007
Final article posted on Thoughts and Resources 20 September 2007
Revised 31 August 2010
Last edited 20 August 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2007, 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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