South Africa: Our Endings and Beginnings

indentured labour south africa

Apartheid played a vital role in shaping the lives of people in this part of the world. I often reflect on the impact of life back then and the ways that apartheid still influences us today in modern day South Africa.

Many Tamil South Africans grew up in Indian communities in Durban. The Group Areas Act, which was passed as an apartheid law, meant that we were allocated areas that were race specific. Our schools were 100% Indian before 1994. I can safely say that at that time, my peers and I had no inkling of the lives of the less (and more) fortunate because of our limited exposure to how the rest of the world lived. This was the objective of apartheid and also a reflection of how far we have come in this country since then.


whites only

My parents and grandparents have shared their stories of how they were subjected to public spaces designated for ‘whites only’.  They were simply not afforded the same economic opportunities, especially when it came to employment. I can not recall a single conversation in my peer group in relation to country faced sanctions because apartheid was a blind spot in our daily lives.  Looking back, I wonder if perhaps this was a coping mechanism.


Our struggles were very real and always heightened when bills needed to be paid, groceries purchased, and education costs came flooding in. Survival meant that you had to adapt to the limited opportunities available. Our school infrastructure was also limited to what the governments allocated and in many respects, this meant that culture took a back seat. Of course, emphasis was always paid to mathematics and science.  As a result, the Indian community produced a plethora of brilliant minds.


A number of my uncles and aunts had to leave school early to find employment in order to support their families. Every family in South Africa has that one elderly family member who supported the entire family with a meagre salary.  This individual was often viewed as a martyr during those dark days of economic depression. Many aunties would sell sweets or bhor pickles in little plastic packets to school children as a way of supplementing the household income.


Informal markets were set up under tents on a street corner, and everyone remembers the van that would make it’s way one day a week, selling jam tomatoes or gravy-soaking potatoes. Fresh herbs (known as khire by Tamils), brinjals, green bananas and gadra beans were also sold this way – and today these Indian/Tamil staples are sold in some of the major retailers across the country. There are even sections dedicated to the vegetables that our forefathers from four generations ago ate daily.


As apartheid fell, I saw Mr Nelson Mandela more and more in the local and international news. It really was an awakening because South Africans finally started to take notice of the gross human rights violations that were taking place all around us. Many of us read ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ and it expanded our consciousness about what was right and wrong in the history of this amazing country. Prior to 1994, the media portrayal of the country’s reality was either intended to incite violence or skew the truth. The end of apartheid also meant that economic opportunities finally opened up for all citizens.



As jobs opportunities presented more options, many moved from the comfort of Indian-Durban to the cosmopolitan cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Johannesburg is known as the ‘New York of Africa’ because it has become a melting pot of cultures.  This city is the powerhouse of the continent and a place where everyone learns about one anothers’ traditions.


Globalization has the power to create conflict when it challenges traditions such as the food we eat, or the music we listen to. Western influences are strong throughout the world and in some respects, this loggerheads with ancient practices and rituals. There comes a time when one chooses a Tamil song over the latest house track, and when the deep thuds of the thabla resonate with our spirits. Even though many South Africans from my generation do not speak Tamil, we are still connected to the rhythm of the language because there is a strong realization that we can have the best of BOTH worlds. We can truly enjoy the luxuries of being African and still appreciate our Tamil-ness. It’s been 157 years since the first ship arrived on the shores of South Africa. Our hearts are will be connected to this sharply misunderstood continent we call home for many generations.


Related articles:

The Porridge People of South Africa

The Great South African Ayas

My Clan Name Is Pillay

Our Slurring Mother Tongue

Back To Tamil Class

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



Editor's Note

Thank's so much for being a TC Reader! To continue bringing you more of the stories you love for free, our team needs your help. Will you make a small contribution? Every bit helps!

Give $15 Give Another Amount


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.

Read More Stores From Nirvani Pillay...

15 thoughts on “South Africa: Our Endings and Beginnings

  1. Seems like a puff piece. Many of us here distance ourselves from tamil because of it’s archaic portrayal. Culture here is extremely corrupt, political and nepotistic. It also doesn’t have a proper identity outside of religion. We have come far but if you take all the 20 and 30 something Moodley’s, Naidoo’s etc and put them in a room, most would be bound to talk about Game of Thrones rather than Rajnikanth and his lecher of son-in law.

  2. Interesting comments Thrineshen. This is exactly the point of globalization and being part of the diaspora. But we really must debate it. Remember that no one is wrong here…we’re all paced differently and it’s good to debate it in a healthy forum!

  3. Good read. Thank you Nirvani…Apartheid did not give us a choice to indulge in our “Tamilness”. Instead we had Afrikaans forced down our throats and force fed the life and times of Jan Van Riebeck…although I must add that there were attempts by certain individuals and organizations that did make an attempt educate us in our mother tongue of Tamil, but it was rather limited to weekends and not well supported… I am now, at age 52, making an attempt to learn about my Tamil Culture.

  4. That’s great Charles. It’s never too late. Glad you liked the piece too. Yeah, those history books we were given was shocking!

  5. Nirvani Pillay there is no need to debate anything. I assume that you have grown up in the tamil circles of this country and hence your views on certain issues are a bit skew. Circles that are not willing to change their outlook or perspective on things.
    People have to be so far outside of themselves to considered Tamil in our country that it is no wonder people distance themselves. And these degrees of “Tamilness” are set by these circles of businessmen, politicians and their lackeys. It is as if Tamil is some absolute that people have to try to strive to become. This is just my experiences with the various Tamil groups in this country. They are cliquey, judgemental and controlling.
    However, is actually a nice platform with fresh ideas and topics that need addressing in today’s society. You can just tell it is not run by South African-Tamils.

  6. I’d love to understand the skew you refer to. Different perspectives are interesting and I hope you know that my feeds are not aligned with religion and based on my own experiences as a fourth generation South African. We can inbox this discussion if you’d prefer?

  7. When it comes to Tamil culture you have the Tamil Christian and the Tamil hindus.The Hindus stick to their culture more than Christian.People are westernized now and that played a part.If I’m wrong please correct me.

Leave a Reply

More In Life