“He comes from a lineage of people who were lashed and killed for speaking out. It is no wonder he has settled into silence.”

From 1684 till the present, the Indian diaspora in South Africa has had a long history. But in the country of their origin, they remain synonymous with three points of identity: indenture, apartheid and Mahatma Gandhi. Through What Gandhi Didn't See: Being Indian in South Africa, Zainab Priya Dala deftly lifts the veil on some of the many other facets of South African Indians, starting with the question: How relevant is Gandhi to them today?

In a series of essays, she explores the new democratic South Africa that took birth long after Gandhi returned to the subcontinent, and the fight against apartheid was fought and won. The following is an extract from the chapter, "The Safety of Silence: Why I Am An Activist". 

It is March 2017 and I am a grown woman, having a raging argument with my father. Like a petulant teenager, I shout at this man of almost seventy, ‘You just don’t get it, you just don’t get me. You never have and you never will.’

I slam the car door, remembering the number of times I had raised my voice to say the same words to him over the years, and slammed bedroom doors in his face. But, his stubbornness runs in my veins too, and it seems the gaping maw between us has never healed. We have sustained a fragile circling of each other over the years, but some wounds can never be healed. Simply because they are too veiled in silence. Maybe I should just resign myself to the horrible fact that he will always disapprove of the choices I am now making. But, maybe, there is some hope in me that one day, the answers can be found. Until then, slammed doors and weeks of silence pervades our relationship.

I drive away from my childhood home on a sugarcane farm in rural KwaZulu Natal, a town called Tongaat, which draws its fame from being the home of the colonial Hulett Sugar Company, and one of the first places that  began to grow sugarcane and mill sugar. My mouth is sour-tasting. In this town, where my father and his father were born, many people have never tasted sweetness. My childhood was blissfully sweet but as I have grown up I see now in retrospect that the older people that lived in the farm have suffered a great deal of bitter hardships.

In my rear-view mirror I can see him now, his thick old cardigan that he refuses to throw away, and that halo of grey hair, the colour makes me feel twinges of guilt as I see him turn around in his shuffling towelling slippers.

I drive through canefields. The rage sweeps through me on undulating stalks, bright green, moving like a sine wave. Memories will not fade. This latest argument will probably get shelved with all the others. Our arguments have always been about politics. Specifically, about my insistence on being involved in the politics of South Africa, and his almost terrified bullying of me to stay away as far from it as possible. Today, he raged at me for writing an opinion piece in a newspaper about the numerous civil marches that are razing through our country.

A week ago, the President of the African National Congress, and the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, fired our finance minister Pravin Gordhan, in an unexpected cabinet reshuffle that saw the nation gape in horror as we immediately were downgraded to junk status, and the nation feared for the looming threat of State Capture by a group of businessmen from India. A band of brothers who seemingly had the President’s ear and filled his pockets. Pravin Gordhan had been protecting the state coffers from corrupt business dealings and looting, and now he was fired. The country went into a state of mayhem. Marches were organised across the land, and I was determined to join the people in raising my fist in the air and marching, writing about it and exposing my politics on the frontline. My father was deeply distressed. He regarded my opinion piece with distaste. Or was it fear? He forbade me to march. I ignored him. I was not a teenager anymore.

*   *   *

I still recall the moment when I became politically aware. It was the mid-80s, and I was thirteen years old, attending a sporting event. Apartheid was at its peak, riots and arrests were the common order. My best friend’s was being watched by the Apartheid Special Branch for being an inciter against the White Apartheid Rule. At this sports event, I recall the loudspeakers suddenly squealing and we all blocked our ears. The announcements about long jump and relays stopped abruptly and we saw a scuffle in the announcement’s tent. A group of boys, probably all in high school and early university, had grabbed the microphone and began playing Pink Floyd’s Brick in the Wall. Then the voice of my friend’s brother came booming out, loud and clear.

‘Free Mandela. End Apartheid!’

His words spread like a chant. I felt my entire body react, I jumped up with the rest of the teenagers in the crowd, and hundreds of us took up the chant. I will never forget the power I felt in that moment, the strains of Roger Water’s lyrics being modified to ‘We don’t no White Apartheid.’

My friend’s brother was arrested that day. No one, not even her, spoke of him after that. Such was the silence of my small town. He was just a stupid rebel. Stupid for raising his voice.

But I became obsessed. In the absence of all political literature, which was banned, and radio and television only showing us Afrikaans-dubbed versions of Little House on the Prairie, I secretly began to meet with a group of high school and university students behind the old Town Library. We discussed, we debated, and we became inflamed with all the knowledge of the facts we were denied. Taking home little pamphlets called ‘Frank Talk’ written by the late Steve Biko, and even braving some Communist literature distributed by the banned ANC, I would hide them inside fashion magazines or Archie comics. My parents suspected nothing. Our group began to plan a large school boycott in solidarity with the countrywide marches and boycotts to free Nelson Mandela, who was then known as a dangerous terrorist. The boycott was to be our swansong. If the police took us, then so be it.

My father found out about what I had been doing the day before the planned boycott, and all my precious literature and ordering my mother to burn the pamphlets near the old water tap. Burn them till they were ashes, and then wash the ashes down the drain. I ran through the house, screaming my head off, grabbing at pages from his arms, but coming up with just torn fragments of words that have fuelled my secret nightly reading. Everything was burnt. And now that I had been found out, not by an Apartheid Special Branch Police, but by my own father, he pieced the jigsaw puzzle together and forbade me to go to the march the next day. I was tearful, curious, betrayed by my own father. Couldn’t he see that this was the most alive I had ever felt, that this was my moment, my time to fight for my freedom and my future interrogation. He could see none of it. He just locked me in my room till the day was over. I missed the boycott and my heart was broken.

I didn’t let up easily, and neither did he. Our relationship was broken by that moment… I relented. For peace, as I prepare to finish high school and inter university, I simply gave in. I learnt to play lawn tennis and to sit with my ankle neatly crossed while discussing the latest episode Knight Rider, that mechanical voice of the talking car dubbed into incongruous Afrikaans.

‘Good,’ my father said, watching my reticence. ‘Good. We must always be quiet, because it is safer that way’. I hated his reticence with bitter gall.

*   *   *

I was in my first year of university when Nelson Mandela was released. One of the first towns he decided to visit was my hometown. A huge red carpet event was planned for Mandela, where he was to be given the key to the town. Just a few years ago, most people in this town thought him a terrorist. I was insistent in going. My father kept an inexpungible silence. I was to be married that same year. What would people say? That his daughter focused less on cooking skills and more on politics? He forbade me.

It was my mother who finally broke her silence.

She defied him, and agreed to take me to the Town Hall. Both of us were in tears as this tall, beautiful man spoke with such dignity and grace, and thanked the Tongaat family that had bid him under the guise of a petrol attendant at their gas station. He enveloped the old sari-clad mother of the family in a huge bear hug, saying that it was her tasty curries that fortified him in those dark days when he hid in tin shacks near our farm.

But, for me it was not only Nelson Mandela’s presence that made my heart squeeze into an emotional ball. It was the look on my mother’s face. She looked like a woman whose butterfly wings were opening wide and strong. I asked her about it afterwards. She approached sensitive topics that had been hidden for years in her way of explanation.

My mother told me of how my great grandfather had come to South Africa from India as an indentured labourer with nothing to his name but a promise of a new life. He had laboured and struggled in dangerous conditions but had never been able to buy his passage back to India because of a fraudulent document called a ‘girmit’.

Strange name, I muttered to her.

‘Well, the document that promised Indians a free passage back to the motherland, India, was called an agreement, which almost all of them could not read. Simply placing their thumbprint on it made it a watertight if not sinister deal. They later learnt that the document had many small print clauses, and they would never be able to gain their free passage back to India after paying innumerable taxes, fines and penalties heaped upon them for things as ridiculous as singing out loud in the fields. In distaste and rage they cursed this agreement, and slowly the word morphed into their own heady mix of Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil and the local African language, Zulu, into a swear word…Girmit. This word then became a title for those that laboured in the fields. They were called “Girmitiyas”.’


Despite this explanation, I still did not understand my father’s vehemence against my political involvements. I argued, and my mother told me to be patient and listen.

'Your father was ten years old, and he had found a tattered copy of a novel at one of the construction sites that he would tag along to. One day, waiting for your grandfather to finish his work, Daddy was sitting on the floor reading his book, when suddenly a Special Branch policeman grabbed him by the ear and tore the book from him. The book was called Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, a book about a sleek black horse and nothing else.

‘The policeman began to beat your Daddy for reading a book that it was rumoured the apartheid President Verwoed had banned in South Africa because he believed the words Black and Beauty did not belong together, and that it would incite Black people into feeling superior. Your Dada came running to where his son was being beaten and begged the policeman to beat him instead of the child. The policeman turned on Dada, and although Dada was a strong, tall man who had been brought up on hard labour, he curled up into a ball, allowing the young White policeman to demean and beat him. The greatest injuries your Dada sustained were the humiliation of seeing his young son watch him get beaten without daring to fight back, repeating “Sorry Baas (Boss in Afrikaans), sorry Baas” repeatedly.’

My mother ended her tale. We were sitting in the car outside the Town Hall, the lavish function now over. She looked at me and she had tears in her eyes.

‘Do you know the fear we had for the Apartheid Police? You will never know. My brother was almost jailed because he had kept a few pamphlets of ANC literature in our house, and we had to race through the house at midnight and hide them when we heard the Special Branch was coming. Your father is not cruel, nor is he ignorant of politics. He is simply afraid of losing you. He could see you had this fire in you from a young age and he was afraid of you. Now do you understand?

I did understand better. But I knew that Mandela had been released and there were no longer threats from the Apartheid Police. But, sadly, threats to any woman in politics and those who were openly vocal about any injustice, came anyway, subversively. Society did not look well upon women and girls, especially from the Indian diaspora who became politicised or sociologically critical. I ended up marrying, forgetting my dreams of studying political science, and settling into domesticity. Many years later, I did enter university, older than the eighteen-year-olds who carried books clutched to their chests and had no interest in the subject other than its pass-mark at examinations. I gained a degree, I wrote articles, and now I write books. My father still fears for me, this girl-woman writing such inciteful, dangerous words. At first I thought he was a chauvinist and did not approve of a woman who stepped out of that confined world of kitchen-bedroom-kitchen. But now I realise he is far from being a chauvinist. He is a father to a girl who refuses to be quiet, and with that comes deep fear only a parent will know. He comes from a lineage of people who were lashed and killed for speaking out. It is no wonder he has settled into silence.

Although I know now about my father’s fears, our relationship has not healed. I am now a parent too, of children who will grow up as South Africans of Indian descent. This too is a nebulous and frightening world that they will have to inhabit. They will have to forge an identity out of nothing much, but a mixed-up idea of who and what they are. I am a mother of both a boy and a girl. Often I wonder what I will do if either of them decide to enter into social and political worlds. Will it be better if my son decides to become politically active, rather than my daughter? Do I persist in teaching them Urdu and Gujarati (our home languages), knowing that they will only ever speak those languages behind doors and curtains, and will be judged for not learning African languages? Will they one day endure a beating because they admired a book? These will be worlds that I can never reach down and save them from. My answers are never clear enough to convince me that I would do otherwise from what my father did to me.