The Asian population of Africa is a small but significant minority. Whereas there have been Asians, primarily merchants, who lived on the east coast of Africa for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, a great influx of Asians came to Africa during the British colonial period. Asians in Africa are primarily from the Indian subcontinent, although there is a small proportion, perhaps 2 percent, who are from China.
A combination of famines in India and plentiful opportunities for work in Africa prompted thousands of Indians to immigrate to east, central, and southern Africa before the end of the nineteenth century. It was the British colonial interests that provided the opportunities for Indian immigration, particularly the building of the Uganda Railway. Local African labor was considered unreliable, so the British government brought in about 32,000 indentured laborers from India. The majority either died from diseases such as blackwater fever or returned to India, but 7,000 settled in East Africa. During the construction of the railway, some Indians began to come in as merchants and to establish dukas (shops), which initially catered to fellow Indians. After the end of the railway construction, merchant immigration from India continued until the 1920s, by which time the entire retail trade of East Africa was monopolized by Indians.
During the colonial period, Asians (Indians) in East and Central Africa came to occupy the middle rung of a three-tiered hierarchial system. Europeans, particularly the British, occupied the top level of the social, political, and economic pyramid, and Africans occupied the bottom level. Social apartheid in some countries, such as Kenya, was nearly as rigid as it was in South Africa. Although some Asians were able to compete with Europeans in the professions, by far the greatest numbers were retail traders who had shops in small towns, or were artisans, clerks, or bureaucrats on limited salaries. They couldn't compete seriously with Europeans, but in African eyes, Indians always seemed to occupy all the positions to which ambitious Africans with a little education might aspire.
The Asians were a very visible minority. Their skin color, in the mid-range of the colonial scale of color prejudice, set them off from both Europeans and Africans. Likewise, their distinctive style of dress, the smell of their cooking, the sound of their language and music, the architecture of their churches—and, generally speaking, their entire culture—were very distinct from both African and European cultures.
Rural Indian shopkeepers became somewhat Africanized and urban Indians became somewhat Anglicized, but, for the most part, Indians lived among themselves and felt culturally superior to Africans. The Indians as a group were fairly homogeneous; they came mostly from Gujarat and the Punjab, but they represented a microcosm of the diverse Indian culture, with its multiple religious, linguistic, and caste divisions. These internal differences, particularly religious and caste distinctions, tended to divide the Indian minority. The same caste or religious group maintained closer ties with their small group in other parts of Africa, or back in India, than they did with their Indian neighbors from different castes or religions.
Political independence for the countries where Indians were living brought new problems for the Indians. First, Asians were pushed out of rural areas, then, more gradually, out of the urban areas. Their exodus from the cities was slower because Asians occupied 30 to 40 percent of all key managerial, clerical, technical, professional, and skilled manual jobs. They were not easily replaceable, but there was clear political pressure, created by years of resentment against Asians, to force them out of trade and middle-echelon jobs.
In Kenya and Tanzania, to avoid economic disruptions, Asians were forced out gradually; in Uganda, however, they were expelled more quickly and dramatically. When Idi Amin took over Uganda in 1971, he simply ordered all Asians out of the country, forcing 80,000 of them to leave without their assets. In 1968 there were 345,000 Asians residents in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, and Uganda. By 1984, according to the Minority Rights Group (1990), their numbers had fallen to about 85,000, which included 40,000 in Kenya, 20,000 in Tanzania, 3,000 in Zambia, 1,000 in Malawi, and 1,000 in Uganda. Although these numbers may be overestimates (Grimes 1988; Thobani 1984), it seems clear that many Asians left East and Central African countries after those countries achieved political independence.
The situation of Asians in South Africa was in many ways very similar that of Asians in East and Central Africa, with some important distinctions, primarily the government-sanctioned policy of apartheid, which subsumed Asians in a category like "Coloureds." Unlike the East and Central African Asians, the South African Asians are primarily (90 percent) descendants of indentured laborers, who are now fifth- and sixth-generation South Africans. Like East and Central African Asians, traders followed the indentured Indians to South Africa, established businesses, and attracted other merchant Indians. Also, in a similar way, South African Asians found themselves in the middle of a basically three-tiered hierarchy, with Whites (Europeans) at the top and Blacks (Africans) at the bottom.
Today about 90 percent of Indians are urban, and 85 percent live in Natal. Regional, religious, and caste distinctions have not had a great significance among South African Indians, and as a group they are more cohesive than East and Central African Indians. In the past, distinctions based on mode of entry (indentured versus merchant or passenger Indians) were very divisive, but today the main obstacles to Indian solidarity are variations in wealth. A small number are very wealthy, a larger number are well-off (upper-middle class), and the greatest portion have incomes derived from small-scale trading, low-level clerical occupations, or blue-collar work.
There were about 800,000 Asians in South Africa in 1980 (including about 10,000 Chinese). Despite the stresses of apartheid, South African Indians have not left South Africa in large numbers. With the late twentieth-century dismantling of apartheid, it remains to be seen whether or not they will be squeezed out of their relatively higher economic positions by the predominant African population.
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