The afterlives of indenture

South Africa's history of indentured labor leaves behind a legacy of violence against women among the country's South Asian population.

'The look you gave me made flowers grow in my ...' (2020) Alka Dass.

The first time I remember seeing Muruganlakshmi was at the Shree Siva Subramaniar Alayam in Verulam, a town outside the bustling city of Durban. The Drift temple, as the locals call it, is my family’s temple of choice. Our Kavady festivals and weddings take place close to the Umdhloti riverbank. When I was younger the temple was quiet, with the smell of agarbathi filtering onto the street but now, a highway runs right by the temple—and the priest’s invocations fight with long-haul truck horns and aircrafts at the nearby King Shaka airport.

That day, Muruganlakshmi, whose name I have changed to protect her identity, would have sat in the front of the congregation where she was always stationed. She had a long salt and pepper plait and her signature look for Sunday prayer service was a teal chiffon sari. She sang tevarams loudly, teasing out the notes in each ancient praise song from the harmonium at her feet. For more than thirty years, she was Verulam’s go-to harmonium player, making music for at least six different prayer groups well into her 80s.

I grew up in White River, a town almost eight hours away by car, but would often visit Verulam to see family. I enrolled in a masters program in political studies in 2017, and when it was time to pick a thesis topic, I thought back to my childhood.  My project was on domestic violence and spirituality, and I had heard that Muruganlakshmi had some stories to tell.

When we first sat down for our interview in her kitchen, Muruganlakshmi was forthright and direct with me. I was young enough to be her grand-daughter and she told me:

You know my uncle was in a band? He liked my singing so when he used to go to functions, he called me to sing. My uncle used to play the harmonium but he didn’t teach me. No, nobody taught me. You match it, you match the singing when you play it now. My notes—I will just know. That’s what I am doing in the temple. I look in front. The guru is doing the prayer but I will be playing away for them. I can play without looking. I think of it as a special gift, but yet I had such a terrible, dramatic marriage.

Pumla Gqola, the author of Rape: A South African Nightmare, has argued that South Africans often feign horror when it comes to rape and sexual violence.  She wonders what it means to be horrified by violence against women when it is in the headlines, as opposed to accepting the reality that women in South Africa are subjected to violence every day. Gqola asks us to think about the quotidian affectual undercurrents of sexual violence and forces us to think about how we care and are careless with each other. She insists that we reckon with memory.

South African Indian families are deeply invested in the avoidance of shame, or as Gqola would put it, in feigning horror. There are things we don’t talk about, memories we would rather bury than speak out loud. But memories don’t die, they rise like specters and haunt the living.

‘Blue sari’ (2020) Alka Dass.

Muruganlakshmi’s story answered questions I had not allowed myself to ask. When I began speaking to her in 2017, it became obvious that as I was also the descendant of indentured laborers, I was shaped by the afterlives of this system in ways I cannot yet name. Indeed, in the absence of collective naming, it has been impossible to address our problems.

Patriarchal violence is spoken of in whispers across kitchen tables and normalized as part of a woman’s burden. KwaZulu-Natal’s Premier, Sihle Zikalala, announced last year that the province is one of the country’s epicenters of gender-based violence. Verulam consistently places in sexual crime hotspots in City of Ethekwini statistics. Last year’s South African Police Service crime statistics showed that Phoenix—an area also shaped through displaced South Asian workers and adjacent to Verulam, was a national hotspot for sexual offences (namely sexual assault). Trauma is carried from one generation to the next and women’s memories of assault—and Muruganlakshmi’s in particular—can help my community to navigate contemporary violence.

Muruganlakshmi was born in 1937 in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, an area known for its dairy farming. Her father’s family were farm workers. It was common practice for indentured laborers to receive a plot of land for subsistence farming, once their indentured contracts were up.

Her family had been part of a great forced migration from South Asia to Africa, part of the history of Colonial Natal, which prospered on sugarcane and used, primarily, Indian labor to cultivate the land. European farmers dispossessed local Zulu people of arable land but believed that they were self-sufficient and unreliable in the fields.

They decided to recruit a migrant worker population they could control, and whose only function was to serve the interests of the burgeoning sugar industry. An important subtext to indentured labor was the absence of family or kinship connections—the ability of a labor force to work without the physical entanglements of home and community was a key selling point.

A small group of European sugarcane planters decided to apply to the British government to bring Indian laborers to make the sugar industry in Colonial Natal. There was some disapproval of the move by the settlers, as they feared being even more outnumbered by “natives and coolies”—but the capital incentive was too enticing, and the British and Indian governments entered into an agreement which saw waves of indentured laborers coming to South Africa from 1860 to 1911.

Gender imbalances were stark in the beginning of the indentured labor migration—more men than women boarded the ships as men were valued more as plantation laborers. Men received rations, and over time women began to receive half rations, but to colonial officials, Indian women were collateral to the indenture system.

When Muruganlakshmi was 17, she got married.  Her husband was abusive. In the early 1960s, Muruganlakshmi remembers jumping from her window—two stories up—onto a flight of stairs and fracturing her hip.  She was escaping her husband at the time, who threatened to burn her with their paraffin stove.

He was a notorious alcoholic but “when he was sober, he was very good, generous and caring for people,” Muruganlakshmi said. “Except for me,” she added.

Muruganlakshmi may not have known the story of Muni, which dates back to 1883. Muni’s husband Ramsamy attacked her, leaving pieces of her vulva on the floor and inducing a miscarriage. When medical assistance arrived two days later, she was alive, barely, and had scorch marks on the bulk of her torso. Her husband was a medical officer himself, and ran away from the scene.

Ten years later in 1893, another Indian woman in Natal, Votti Veeramah Somayya, fought to be moved from her indentureship position in Charlie Nulliah’s estate. Nulliah “made indecent overtures” towards Votti, the Indian Protectors’ records show. When she refused his advances, he assaulted her. Even after pleading her case with the Protector, asking for “another master”, she was told to go back to Nulliah. She refused, and was sent to prison for approximately seven months.

As documented in the Coolie and Wragg Commissions into the conditions of indentured labor in Colonial Natal, Hindu women were thought to be sexually promiscuous and the “dregs” of society. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed explain this in their book, Inside Indian Indenture. They note that while Indian women in India were regarded as “victims” of tradition, in South Africa, Indian indentured women were seen as sexually promiscuous—as disorderly troublemakers whose sexuality was difficult to control.

The unique circumstances of indenture meant that indentured women commonly engaged in sex work. The plantation compounds in which they lived were seldom safe—there were very few social safeguards because there were a dearth of laws governing indentured populations marriages and little by the way of cultural support systems in cases of divorce or childcare.

Muruganlakshmi felt this in her own life. Her husband believed she was sleeping with other men. As she was jumping out the window, she remembers her husband saying she was “jumping to meet another fella,” and her financial independence was a threat to him. He didn’t want her to make money independently of him. Muruganlakshmi recounted:

I was a dressmaker. And one day he came home, saw the clothing. I wasn’t at home at     that time. He took all my customers’ clothing—I’m getting goosebumps now—eh, he cut up everything with the scissors. Cut up! The measurements, the clothing I finished [working on]. When I walked into the house, I was practically walking on clothing that was already cut up. My clothes. Customer’s clothes. I was shocked. That time, I got a breakdown.”

The plantation compounds that indentured women lived in long before Muruganlakshmi’s time were rarely stable spaces for family, and “was a dangerous site for rupturing the patriarchal order,” note Desai and Vahed. “Over time, the story would be of legislation to re-inscribe the gendered patriarchal order, or approximations of it, and re-institute the ‘stable’ family.”

Hindu women were seen to be ungovernable—both by indentured men, and colonial officials—and legislation in the early 1900s sought to legalize patriarchal kinship to give indentured men a legal framework to create and maintain control in domestic spaces.

“While official explanations viewed violence against women in “cultural” and racist terms, the result of Indian men’s contempt for women and their ‘possessiveness’, the reasons for violence were complex,” writes Goolam Vahed in African Masculinities.

‘Nothing moves, but the shifting tides of salt in your body’ (2020) Alka Dass.

Once indenture formally ended in South Africa in 1911, white officials didn’t want the descendants of indentured labor to consider that South Africa might become their permanent home. In the 1920 and 1930s, analogous to legislation that dispossessed Africans of land, voting rights, freedom of movement and more, there was anti-Asiatic legislation that withdrew citizenship, trading and freedom of movement rights from the descendants of indentured labor, as well as Indian traders and shopkeepers.

By the time apartheid was officially instituted in 1948, descendants of indentured labor had already been corralled in segregated communities like Clairwood and Magazine Barracks in Durban, and around sugarcane plantations on the North Coast. As Indian ghettos grew, women’s roles in the community grew both more precarious and more stable. No longer ghosts living in compounds, women were closer to others in community. Still, the shame of indentureship hung over them.

After Muruganlakshmi’s escape, she went to the hospital. After receiving medical care, she returned to her husband, and never reported being abused to the police or social services. She didn’t upset the balance of her relationship as her children grew up, remaining married until his death in the 1970s. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Muruganlakshmi stayed silent.

She was proud of herself and also honest about what she had been through. That combination struck me as profound. Muruganlakshmi wasn’t ashamed of herself.  Like Votti, who had spoken up in self-defense, and Muni, who fought for herself and her unborn child, Muruganlakshmi’s voice was strong.

The violence that marked each woman’s life was deeply interwoven with the notion that they were transplants. Shorn of connections, living in a lacunae of the law and culture, South African Indian women’s lives echo with the aftershocks of indenture.

Today, although there are promising policies to address gender-based violence on a national level, the everydayness of intimate partner violence needs to be discussed. In my research I turned to the temple as a potentially caring institution—only to discover that it cares for those it deems deserving, which does not include victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Muruganlakshmi lived with very little support from her community, or even acknowledgement of her struggles. Despite her prominent position in the temple as a harmonium player, the temple congregation only reached out sporadically to her—offering commiseration rather than direct action. When we spoke, I asked if she went to a social worker or any organization that helps abused women. Muruganlakshmi said no. “I made do with self-made support,” she replied with a dry laugh.

The last time I saw Muruganlakshmi was at my grandfather’s funeral in 2018. At 82, she was unwell, forgetting where and who she was with for a few minutes at a time. Still, she had managed to show up to support another family.

Muruganlakshmi passed away in April 2020 at the beginning of South Africa’s protracted COVID-19 lockdown. We couldn’t say goodbye to her in the usual ways. Following Hindu funeral rites, her body was cremated, and we said farewells from inside our separate homes and the light of our own God lamps.

Further Reading

Like family

An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.