The stories and images of Indians in South Africa

The National Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa is currently exhibiting photographs published in DRUM magazine, circa 1950. Above, Director Riason Naidoo speaks to me about growing up in Chatsworth, an area delegated for those classified as “Indian”, what got him interested in early photography of colonial subjects, and why he decided to embark on a project looking up and collecting the stories and images of Indians in South Africa.

The exhibit highlights the rich history of the Indian experience as featured in the pages of Drum Magazine:

Indian gangsters (Sheriff Khan, who was known as ‘South Africa’s Al Capone’), golfer Papwa Sewgolum, activists like Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker, Indian footballers, glamour models in pretty bikinis, daredevil motorcycle riders (fantastic shots of the woman stunt rider Amaranee Naidoo on her Harley Davidson, circling the heights or a circular ramp), and ballroom dance champions. There are images of “Jazz King” Pumpy Naidoo, a series documenting the feud between the ‘Salots’ and the ‘Crimson League’ gangs, and one priceless photograph of Sonny Pillay, who was dating Miriam Makeba at the time, surrounded by adoring family members: they crowd around a sofa, looking through what appears to be a photo album, while Miriam sips tea.

Others are of images of child labour on the sugar farms in Natal, and dire depictions of the living conditions in the ghettoes.

Naidoo first collected these photographs the book, The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950’s (Bell-Roberts Publishing, 2009). They were selected from a few hundred thousand uncatalogued negatives, and challenge conventional and ‘official’ portrayals of the South African Indian community, revealing aspects of ‘Indian’ history that have rarely been seen by those outside of it.

Many of the photographs featured in the book are on now at the National Gallery, together with another exhibition profiling the work of Ranjith Kally (b. 1925, Isipingo) who began his career as a photographer while working at a shoe factory in Durban:

…[h]e came upon a Kodak Postcard camera at a jumble sale in 1946, which he bought for six pence. ‘I was consumed by my newly found interest in photography and spent almost all my free time pursuing the art form’, he remembers.

Here’s an example of Kally’s work; Miss Durban 1960 Rita Lazarus.

The exhibition has been on show since 11 May this year and will go until 11 September.



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

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  2. Hi
    Would love to have copies of these photos -living in the UK now ,never took any real interest in my history before ,until moving here and seeing how the English keep their history alive -trying to compile a collection for my two children ,so that the history of the Indian -from India to Durban to the UK is there for their children ,grandchildren ,and so on.
    Such a compilation has become very important to me as I want them to keep their South African history alive.
    Fabulous photos -well done to Raison Naidoo -as an Indian I have never seen photos of us like these before ; I have been blind to my own history ,hopefully I will make up by leaving behind a well -documented history for my children and grandchildren.
    Where can I obtain copies of these photos ,if at all possible or a copy of that Drum magazine,please?

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