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Understanding Castes in the South African Indian community

September 23, 2020 6 Comments

I listened to my classmates gossip about the wedding they had all attended over the weekend, everyone discussing some cousin who was repeating an outfit they had been seen in at a previous occasion. I was confused. “Did you all attend the same wedding? Are you all related?” I asked the group of 8 girls who were chatting loudly. They looked at me as if I had sprouted a third arm. “Of course we are all related! We are all MEMON. You wouldn’t understand!” she exclaimed with a huff and a superior tone as they turned away and resumed their discussion about cousin Fatima’s sad choice of dress. What the hell does that even mean?, my 12 year old self wondered as I walked away.

In subsequent years, I learnt about the existence of various sects within the South African Indian community. I was very late to the game because this was never something that was discussed or emphasized within my family. In hindsight, I am grateful to my parents who never emphasized a superiority or inferiority based on castes in South Africa. As a family with two working parents and triplet siblings, we worked on surviving, not fitting in or worrying about others’ opinions.

So all of this was knowledge I acquired as an outsider and not something passed down to me.

In order to understand the hierarchy of castes in the South African Indian community, you first need to understand two things about our history as a community: why our ancestors came to South Africa and where in the Indian subcontinent they came from. These are the biggest factors that link with why people perpetuate the hierarchy that exists.

Why did Indians migrate to South Africa?

As a South African Indian, your ancestors came to South Africa as one of two things- indentured labourers who arrived in South Africa from South and North-East India between 1860 and 1911 to work in Natal’s indentured sugar plantation labour system in the nineteenth-century (Kuper, 1960: 1); or Gujarati ‘passenger’ Indians circulating within long-established Indian Ocean economic networks (Bhana and Brain, 1990).

Image c/o briefly

Indentured labour was a system of contractual labour that was implemented following the outlawing of slavery . Indentured labourers were recruited to work on sugar, cotton and tea plantations, and rail construction projects in British colonies in West Indies, Africa and South East Asia. From 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain had transported about 2 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Ceylon, Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa (Saunders, 2018).

Indentured labourers on their way from India to Fiji.
Image c/o newsgram

The indentured workers (known derogatively as ‘coolies’) were recruited from India, and from the Pacific and signed a contract in their own countries to work abroad for a period of 5 years or more. They were meant to receive wages, a small amount of land and in some cases, promise of a return passage once their contract was over (Tayal, 1977). In reality, this seldom happened, the conditions were harsh and their wages low. You can read more about the harsh realities of indentured labour here & do check out this amazing interactive map outlining the journey of Indians from Madras & Calcutta all the way to Port Natal.

For the vast majority of South African Indians, this was how our ancestors came to South Africa. Moved as pawns by British imperialists lured by the false promises of fair wages and good quality of life.

Image c/o tamilculture

Then there are passenger Indians. These are Indians who became traders; they were from varying religious backgrounds, namely Hindu and Muslims. They were largely from Kathiawar, Gujarat and were later joined by Kokanis from Maharashtra. It’s important to note that these Indians paid for their own fares and many considered themselves as British since they believed they travelled under the protections of British citizenship- which was later rescinded (Naicker, 2018). They had also worked closely with the British authorities in India, trading and doing business with them.

Image c/o

Next, let’s talk about where in the Indian subcontinent you came from (also referred to as your ancestral village)…

Indentured labourers were mostly thought to have originated from the Southern states in India based on the languages they spoke (Tamil & Telegu) but there were many speakers of Hindi specifically the Bhojpuri & Awadhi dialects which led historians to believe that these people came from Uttar Pradesh in the north. A small number of indentured laborers were Muslims who spoke Urdu were believed to have come from the central Indian regions specifically villages near Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune (Mesthrie, 1995).

And in case you were wondering, that small group of people who brought Urdu with them to South Africa as they prepared to toil in the sugarcane fields are my ancestors (great grandparents). My grandparents were termed as ‘Colonial-born’ which referred to children born in Natal to indentured or ex-indentured Indians. They became naturalized citizens in their adulthood in 1961 which was when the government finally offered Indian South Africans citizenship in a country they had helped build. My parents were the first generation of South African Indians to attain South African citizenship as natural citizens by birth.

After 1875, the passenger Indians began to trickle in. They came from north of Bombay (Mumbai), from India’s west coast (Klein, 1986). The largest groups came from Porbandar & Kathiawar in Gujarat, before they migrated to South Africa as traders and businessmen. Hindus retained the title of “Gujjis” coming from the word Gujarat. The Gujarati-speaking Muslims in Natal comprised two groups, mainly the Memons and Khojas. Memons were not only active in Natal but were economically active in Mauritius, East Africa and the Far East. Prominent In Natal were Muslim migrants who originated from Surat; they were referred to as ‘Surti Bohras’ or just ‘Surti’s’. Prominent amongst them were the Lockhat Brothers, the Paruks and the Motalas. They established business ventures not only in KwaZulu-Natal but nationally and internationally (Hiralal, 2008).

Indian traders in German East Africa. Image c/o

Now I have given you all of the historical information. Let’s discuss what prejudices exist today and how it all links up to the castes in the South African Indian community.

ancestry- Passenger Indians versus Indentured labourers

As you have already guessed, one of the most prevalent divisions among castes in the South African Indian community, is that there is a discrimination from those whose ancestors came as passenger Indians who regard themselves as superior to those whose ancestors came as indentured labourers. Wait- lets all take a moment to roll our eyes before we continue reading.

Despite centuries of education, collective struggles against Apartheid and the fact that everyone has the same South African passport (affectionately known as the Green Mamba), many of the people whose ancestors moved to South Africa as part of the merchant class consider themselves above those whose ancestors came over as indentured laborers. These self important attitudes are passed down from generation to generation and manifest themselves when choosing suitable partners for marriage because- you can only marry within the caste.

In many cases, this means marrying a family member who may even be your cousin just to ‘keep the bloodlines pure’. I have heard this phrase before, no joke!

Another term that sticks out to me is ‘Hedroo”. As derogatory as the word ‘coolie’, it is used to speak of the class of Muslims whom the Surti community look upon as low class and poor. Inter-marriages between Surtis and Hedroos are still frowned upon. Gujjis usually only marry other Gujjis. And you would be hard pressed to find a Memon who was open to marrying outside of the caste.

Those who descend from ‘passenger Indians’ would be termed as ‘old money’ in the Western World. Keeping the bloodlines pure is very much a strategy to keep the money within the caste. I must also point out that this money was very much made off the backs of exploited black people in South Africa both before, during and after Apartheid. Indians as a whole have benefited more from empowerment policies than black people such that while the focus is on the black economic elite, there are far more Indians (14%) making up the 46,800 millionaires in South Africa. These Indians are significantly well off as a minority (3%) against the backdrop of mass poverty of black people in their own land.

I could go on and on with stories of these castes rejecting other Indians (both those from India and from South Africa) based on the fact that their ancestry wasn’t tied to indentured labour; but I would bore you to the death because there’s too many to share. These communities are known for being endogamous.

North versus South

The reason I brought up the point about how the geographical location of your ancestors is because it plays a huge role in how some people are treated particularly- but not limited to- those Indians who practise Hinduism. In South Africa this has largely been divided into two main groups namely people from the North are referred to as ‘Hindi’ & people from the South are called “Tamil”. Indentured laborers did speak other languages but those groups of people are so small that it was not enough to sustain beyond a generation. Hindi & Tamil became the largest linguistic groups of Indian South Africans pre-Apartheid (Meshtrie, 1995). Colloquially the two groups are known as ‘bread’ and ‘porridge’ (if anyone would like to enlighten me on why these nicknames were chosen, leave a comment!).

Now while Hindi and Tamil are two languages that originated in India, the linguistic aspect is less important in South Africa as all South African Indians communicate in English and not their ancestral mother tongue. So for the purpose of this post, do understand that when I say ‘Hindi” I mean people whose ancestry comes from the North of India and ‘Tamil’ refers to people whose ancestry originates from the south. I am not referring to the languages. (But if you want to read more about the ancestral languages & how we shifted to English, start with this paper & this article).

Image c/o Jovita George

Now for many reasons, some Hindi people seem to view themselves as being superior to those whose ancestors are from the South which perpetuates the ideas of castes in the South African Indian community. Hindi music, Hindi movies and certain surnames are coveted and celebrated within the South African Indian community whereas South Indian movies, songs and cultures are looked down upon. I feel that a huge part of this is because of Bollywood- a huge industry in South Africa and one that fuels the beliefs and ideologies of many South African Indians. The mainstream narratives of the films represent the taste and values of the social elites and visibly neglect the life stories of those who aren’t wealthy, fair skinned or originate from the Southern states of India. This is another topic on its own so I won’t elaborate, but here is a post if you want further reading.

At university, I was frequently told that I was very pretty and there was an assumption that I was Hindi (I’m not). From this I can only deduce that Tamil girls were considered less attractive? Although in reality, this is highly untrue and quite a redundant way of viewing women. For Hindi and Tamil people to marry can be a drama as many families will not accept a son/daughter in law from the ‘other side’ even though both parties may be of the same religion and nationality! I know of many people who were forced to denounce their families or break up with their partners because the families didn’t approve for this very reason. It’s crazy to me but also a harsh reality for many in 2020!


It always comes back to the colour of our skin doesn’t it?! For South African Indians, fairer skin has always been celebrated and darker skin is shunned & ridiculed. This article explains it in more detail. Also- lets all take another moment to collectively roll our eyes.

White is a reminder of our colonisers, black the colour of slaves; white is the dominant colour of today’s superpowers, black we associate with a poverty-stricken wilderness; white is linked to wealthy people i.e. those who work in the shade, black to lower castes i.e. those who work under the sun. It’s complicated and convoluted.

It’s also meaningless.

Image c/o

If you take the above information from point 1 and point 2, one of the things that the castes who consider themselves superior is that the majority of their people have very pale skin. This is a source of pride for them and I have heard many remarks from the women of these groups saying “I can’t be out in the sun in case I get too dark” and the men saying “I wouldn’t date her, she’s so dark compared to me!”.

At university I learnt of guys who were forced to break off relationships with dark-skinned girls as it was an embarrassment to their families. And when babies are born- no matter which sect you belong to- a common question is: “Is the baby fair?”

Racial prejudice is not uncommon among and between persons of colour. A colonialist legacy and white supremacy oppresses all our minds. Yet when we acknowledge the ways in which we all discriminate, the ways we are all complicit in some form or another, it should motivate us to try understanding each other in more empathetic and compassionate ways.

Skin lightening products have been banned in South Africa since 1992 by the way. Still I’ve watched people around me buy crazy products off the black market (usually they would collect them from a flat in Overport) and watch their skin transform into unnatural shades of transparency. The lighter they got, the happier they seemed. Many girls lightened their skin in order to ‘marry’ into what they considered a higher caste. Lighter skinned has always meant a higher class thus perpetuating castes in the South African Indian community.

Image c/o 5pillarsuk

I never understood the desire to be lighter than my skin tone. I also never understood why lighter=better. If I had to give up going to the beach and reading outdoors in order to attract a certain class of man, the relationship was doomed for me anyway. Thank goodness for parents who never emphasized skin tones or made me stay indoors to preserve my complexion for a suitable marriage.

Castes from India

Authors, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their famous book, ‘Inside Indenture, A South African Story 1860 – 1914’, mentioned the indentured labourers who discarded their caste into the Indian Ocean as they made their way to Southern Africa on the Truro or Belvedere. They emphasized that as an Indian traveling on the ship, you ate and slept alongside all other Indians regardless of how you had been classified in India. Other studies reflect that caste played no part in their life anymore and they were ‘born again’ (Landy et. al., 2004, Ebr-Valley, 2001)

Image c/o iol

However, for many South African Indians, they brought with them their castes from India and have desperately clung onto it with both hands. The Indian caste system is vast and complex. You can read a brief overview of it here.

The Brahmin class is considered the highest caste in the hierarchy and in South Africa we identify those people by their surnames- usually Singh or Maharaj. Of course, they are usually fair-skinned too.

While they came over on the same ships as the indentured labourers, many of them still sought to seperate themselves from the lower castes (Yengde, 2015:68). I know of many people who aspire to marry into a family with such a surname. Conversely, families with those surnames are less than enthusiastic about letting non-Brahmins marry into their families. Another aspect that contributes to the existence of castes in the South African Indian community


It’s been many years since I was a confused 12 year old feeling excluded and isolated from people who looked like me but considered themselves superior to me. But I am grateful that they exposed me to the craziness and pointlessness of castes in the South African Indian community.

It sent me on a journey of learning about my history, my heritage and how being human is more important than the village your forefathers came from.

As South African Indians, we have a complex identity struggle. South African Indians are perceived not to be considered ‘African’ enough owing to their mercantile and indentured colonial migratory histories, and indeed, continuing diasporic identifications with another country. But Fatima Meer-renowned South African Indian anti-apartheid activist-, in a speech at the 2003 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, contested the idea that Indians in South Africa should feel part of a larger Indian diaspora: “[Diaspora] is a word I abhor … We, Indian South Africans, have had to struggle hard to claim our South Africanness and that is something that we jealously guard. We are not a diaspora of India in South Africa because we claimed South Africa for our own”. With all of this internal conflict to consider, why do we make life more complicated for ourselves by perpetrating archaic notions of caste?

Image c/o

I hope that you reading this don’t feel shame if you are descended from indentured labourers. I hope you can see that these were gutsy, resilient people who braved the odds and took the ultimate of risks in order for you to exist today.

Imagine embarking on a ship not knowing whether you would survive the perilous months-long journey, with no idea what to expect when you landed on the other side of the world.

They endured turmoil, trauma and an existence in a world that treated their lives as disposable. Their courage should be admired; be proud of your family history.

Lets discuss these topics openly and put them on a public platform so we can learn about them and evaluate whether these boundaries are really necessary as a community. My hope is that by having these kinds of conversations and discussing issues that have long since been considered taboo, we can start to shed these pointless and meaningless ways of thinking.

I am extremely thankful that my ancestors were brave enough to move halfway across the world not knowing what would meet them at the end of a treacherous voyage. I believe I am continuing their legacy every time I move countries and make life changes.

People of all races wearing Indian traditional wear in Durban’s annual sari walk.
Image c/o iol

I am relieved that a lot of the younger generations of Indians in South Africa do not seem to share their parents’ and grandparents’ prejudices towards other castes in the South African Indian community and that things are slowly evolving. Some of these young people didn’t even know it exists! There is hope for our future.

Please note: This was a largely opinion & observation based piece asked for and contributed to from my readership. While every effort was made to link back to historical sources & supporting articles, a wealth of information was from oral sources and personal experiences which are often subjective.

For more discussions on topics related to Indian culture, read my captions on Instagram using the hashtag, #pandaquestionsculture.

If you enjoyed this post, please pin it using the pin below:

If you are a South African Indian looking to trace your ancestry, you may be interested in this program offered by the Indian government or the Indian Passenger and Ships List 1860-1911, by K. Chetty which includes ship listings and downloadable excel files of names of indentured labourers sent from India.

If you’d like to read more from my site about race, culture & identity, please click here.


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  • winteroseca September 23, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting to read about this 🙂

    • expatpanda September 29, 2020 at 7:00 pm

      So glad you enjoyed and thank you for reading 🙂

      • winteroseca September 29, 2020 at 8:35 pm

        You’re welcome! Things definitely change in subcultures in other countries. I grew up n London and I learned a lot about that with the different subcultures I grew up among

  • josypheen September 23, 2020 at 10:27 pm

    This is really interesting Panda!

    My dad is doing research about our family tree, and he found one of my ancestors was one of the first people in South Africa to go to jail for marrying outside her race (she was originally from India, and her husband descended from Dutch immigrants.) I already thought she sounds awesome, but now this makes me want to find out more about her. I wonder if she was an indentured labourer or a passenger!?

    It is pretty sad that people still cling to these hierarchies now…so I am glad to hear it is slightly less for the younger generation. It makes me wonder how long it will take for us (as a world) to outgrow this and any kind of racism. I mean, the world is so, sooo much better than it used to be, but we still have sooooo far to go.

    • expatpanda September 29, 2020 at 7:02 pm

      Yes we are making progress in the world but its not as fast as it should be sadly! Would be so interested to learn more about your ancestor if you track down more information. It will forever be crazy that it was illegal to marry someone outside of your race when I consider how liberal South Africa is now!!

  • Velu Nachiyar February 13, 2023 at 1:29 am

    I grew up in South Africa and lived on sugar plantations for most of my life until I was 17. My great grandparents were sugar farm laborers, my grandfather a sugar cane truck driver and my father a motor mechanic on a sugarcane farm. I was the first to complete high school, earn a degree & eventually emigrate. I have never heard of the caste system being spoken of by my family, ever. I know there was colorism, the Tamil versus Hindi divide. As a Tamil, I was quite aware that we were considered inferior by Hindi speaking people. There was also economic class divisions, Durban Indians versus farm Indians like myself, I was teased about this my entire university life. Then there were the “Vellekari Indians”, the ones who spoke with white accents & wanted proximity to whiteness versus those of us who retained our Indian accents & then the Hindu versus Muslim divide. On top of everything was apartheid but that’s a conversation for another day. Caste was never discussed, ever. Not at school and certainly not in my family. I can’t even tell you what caste I belong to. I was doing research for a book I’m writing when I came across your article. Just wanted to give my option based on my experience growing up Indian in South Africa. I don’t believe there is a prolific caste system in the South African Indian community. There are some nuances as I pointed out above but not a caste system as envisaged by Lord Risley (look him up).

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