The Porridge People of South Africa


Whenever I meet someone from another part of the world and they ask me where I am from, I tell them I’m South African.  I am always slightly amused at the reaction of confusion in their eyes with the question that always follows, “So when did you move there?”

I then launch into a series of explanations about how I, and another 1.5 million of my kind ended up on the southern tip of the great African continent through indenture because India was once a British colony and so was Natal, in South Africa. Cheap labour was found in much of South India for people to work on the sugar cane plantations in Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal). And so a large population of South Africans of Indian origin are Tamil. I go on to explain that I am fourth generation and born into the height of apartheid South Africa.


Owing to apartheid (a political system to keep the races in South Africa separate), Indian communities in South Africa were placed in certain ‘townships’.  The most common being Phoenix and Chatsworth in Durban, which is in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal. Indians were then allocated areas specific only to the Indian community.  This meant that people from south and north India were basically living as neighbours.


A colloquial term given to people of Tamil heritage, ‘porridge ous’ – ‘porridge’ in relation to the annual prayer offering to Mariamman and ‘ous’ referring to the Dutch-derivative Afrikaans language slang for guy.  Those of North Indian heritage were known as ‘bread ous’ – bread in reference to the rotis that North Indian people were famous for making with ghee. The Muslim community were known as ‘slum ous’ – in reference to the salaams used in greetings. None of it was intended to be derogatory, but more so intended as playful banter between those from differing backgrounds. Today the terms are used mildly – and Tamils proudly call ourselves ‘Porridge’ as a casual reference to being Tamil South African.


And so begins the series of the Tamil (Porridge) People of South Africa; those of Tamil origin who are both Indian and African. There are many layers of complexity which we will explore through various narratives and picture essays– taking a look at the history of Tamils and flow into the issues that face modern-day South Africans.  This is a country where there are thriving businessmen and women whom strive to hold on to their cultural identity as much as they are able to, considering the implications of generational change.


To share your Tamil South African story please contact Nirvani Pillay on

Related articles:

The Great South African Ayas

My Clan Name Is Pillay

Our Slurring Mother Tongue

Back To Tamil Class

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Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani was born in South Africa; a fourth generation of Tamil origin. She moved from Durban to Johannesburg as a young adult and joined an eco-tourism company where she now works as the PR manager. She has a BBA degree in marketing from the Institute of Marketing Management, and is currently completing her Honours in Marketing Management. She has travelled extensively throughout southern Africa, including some parts of Europe and Asia. Nirvani’s interests include wildlife conservation, Anglo-Indian literature and art. She feels that nothing compares to watching a great African sunset with a glass of fine wine in hand.

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17 thoughts on “The Porridge People of South Africa

  1. I’m proudly porridge, always have been, always will be! The article sums up our story pretty nicelyU0001f60a

  2. Interesting to note a lot of South African Tamils keep their last names that’s used in villages and towns near Thanjavur. For eg. Padyatchi, Vandayar, etc.

  3. Hi Nirvani Pillay – check out Legends of the Tide by Neelan Govender and Viroshen Chetty (Rebel Rabble, 2014) – there’s an interesting bit on surnames

  4. Thanks Nireshnee, will do. Look out for the next post and I’d love feedback as to what kinds of stories you guys want to be shared too. It’s our collective history U0001f642

  5. How about the languages Nirvani? Do the North and the South Indian still speak their mother tongues or have they been incorporated into SA languages?
    Two of my maternal aunts and their families lived there for about 4 decades or so but they have since moved to England and Canada.

  6. Hi Dhanya – Yes, language will also be covered because it forms such an integral part of culture and cultural evolution of a diaspora. Unfortunately traditional language has declined over the years but you will glean some idea of these in the pieces that will follow. Thanks for your interest.

  7. Thats a dum way to describe tamilians….porridge tamilians who r indian n african?

  8. My maternal Grandfather was born in Pondecherry, India, he also came with his Parents as indentured labourers and they were Tamil Singhs and the Tamil Singhs are continuing with that unique surname to this day

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