What role does religion play in preserving the values of a migrant society? Discuss with reference to a particular religious tradition and migrant group.

Diaspora faced by the South African Indian community has shaped much of their culture. However, strong religious ties have influenced the community in becoming one of the largest Indian populations outside of India. Whilst local South African traditions and an ethnic language breakdown have penetrated the community, South African Indians still remain closely attached to traditional Indian culture due to religious affiliation. Having faced political upheaval since leaving India in the late nineteenth century, South African Indians have held on to their roots due to major religious influence within the community. This paper will draw on the socio-political difficulties faced by the community and the role that both Hinduism and Islam have played in shaping and preserving Indian identity within the South African Indian context.

In the late nineteenth century, thousands of Indians flocked to South African shores as laborers and business owners. May intended to return to their native land eventually, however political upheaval, lead by South Africa’s apartheid government, saw the South African Indian community face permanent isolation from their motherland, India. Particularly challenging to the community was the Indian led boycott against the South African government and Indian Prime Minister Nehru declaring in 1947 that “India was an independent nation-state part and parcel of the nonaligned movement and that Indians in the diaspora belonged to the countries where they lived. That was home.” This led to the South African Indian community feeling segregated since many Indians found themselves in a place where they were neither apart of one community or the other. However, links to ethnic tradition remained strong amongst South African Indians as religion formed the basis through which many still remained tied to their Indian identity.

The family structure

For the South African Indian community, “ the early family form helped preserve and promote cultural identity over the hostile political years resulting in a sense of community (Khan, p.133).” Within the population, “strong attempts were made to preserve religious and cultural identities making marriages across religion and language lines almost taboo (Desai and Vahed, 2007 as cited in Khan, p.137).” Preservation of religious and cultural identities were seen to be so important that stringent attempts were made to keep the divisions within communities as they remained in India. For instance, inter-marriage between Memon and Gujarati Muslims were highly discouraged despite the fact that both sub-communities belonged to the same religion (Khan, p.137). Marriage between North and South Indian Muslims were further ostracized, with many dispossessed or banished from extended family networks (Khan, p.137).  The Hindu community has also faced such extreme forms of religious binding. However, the breakdown of the caste system has led to more acceptance of inter-religious marriage, although caste it still plays “a largely surreptitious role in family life and while it is sometimes considered a factor of importance, developing trends accentuate other aspects of religious life for the majority of Hindus in South Africa (Naidoo, p.129).”


The break down of the caste system within the Hindu community in South Africa has played a large role in preserving the religion within the country. Whilst much of the Hinduism practiced by early populations of Indians in South Africa was of an informal nature, “the arrival of Brahmins – Hindu priests – in Natal changed this (Chetty, 2013, p.54).” In order to provide Hindus in South Africa with an understanding of the Hindu scriptures, priests were required to claim a lower caste status to be granted permission to entre the colony as well as travel to different plantations, where most of the Indian population worked as indentured labourers (Chetty, 2013, p.54). The biggest repercussion of this was the break down of isolation and alienation that Hindu indentured laborers faced since they now had a religious community to turn to (Chetty, 2013, p.54). This included community corporation such as temple construction, which “itself required a co-operative effort on the part of these Indians in terms of raising funds as well as the actual building process itself (Chetty, 2013, p.54).” Suryakanthie Chetty (2013, p.55-57) further suggests that the architecture of the temples also helped in preserve Indian identity since most temples were modeled around Indian designs (although influenced by local constraints within South Africa, including land space and available building tools). In line with South African Hindu temples attempting to “emulate as closely as possible those on the subcontinent, came the desire for religious practice, itself, to do the same (Chetty, 2013, p.57).” With the entrance of Brahmin priests to the colony of Natal, “bringing with them the knowledge of Hindu customs and practices derived from the scriptures”, many saw this as adding an “official” element to the rituals practiced by indentured labourers, “and gave them a sense of maintaining a connection with their “homeland” (Chetty, 2013, p.57).”


The earliest arrival of Muslims in South Africa “can be traced to the Dutch colonial presence in the Cape and consisted mainly of the descendents of slaves and political prisoners from, Indonesia, Bengal, and part of India (p. 534).” Whilst the Muslim population in South Africa is diverse in ethnic identity, “under apartheid, Indian Muslims lived in predominantly Indian areas (Vahed, p.12).” This racial segregation has led to “minimal contact between Indian and non-Indian Muslims (Vahed, p.28).”

Since many of the first Indians to arrive in South Africa were apart of the Hindu community, the preservation of Islam became a priority within the Muslim Indian community during early settlement in South Africa. Sheikh Ahman, the founding father of Islam in Natal (and later Soofie Saheb) were particularly concerned with impoverished Muslims turning to Hinduism. Concerted efforts were therefore made to “retain religious heritage, through the demarcation of Islamic festivals and the establishement of Muslim schools or madrasahs.

Ties between Hindus and Muslims

Whilst this most of this essay has separated Hindu and Muslim identity in order to demonstrate the unique influence that both religions have played in maintaining Indian cultural identity amongst their followers in South Africa, it is paramount to note the role of the synergy between the two religions in influencing South African Indian identity.

For one, the arrival of Mohandas K. Gandhi to South Africa in 1893 “and the formation of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894 to champion the political rights

of Indians helped to solidify a common space for interaction and dialogue across religious groupings (Khan, 2013, p.152).”  Working together, Hindu and Muslim philanthropists jointly ventured a myriad of projects including child welfare societies and state aided schools (Khan, 2013, p.152).

Forced removals and resettlements of Indian communities during the apartheid era further tied together the Indian community at large. Paricularly, the “devastating effects of forced removals and resettlement paved the way for religious contestations and spaces in pursuit of hegemony between and amongst the two main religious groups (Khan, 2013, p.154).

Factored with socio-political effects, Hindu and Islamic communities were forced to find common ground in a shared Indian heritage, thus influencing and shaping South African Indian identity more broadly.


Ties to Indian identity within the South African Indian community have been influenced by two factors. The first being the preservation of religion within the community and the second being the socio-political influences of the apartheid government in segregating its population by ethnic identity. Whilst the latter factor has helped shaped a broader sense of South African Indian identity, the role of religion has ensured that sub-divisions within the community have been maintained, emulating the diversity of India itself. In particular, the early preservation of religion has ensured ties to ‘the motherland’ that may have otherwise been diluted or lost with the settlement of Indians in South Africa such as the architecture of places of worship and the authenticity of religious worship as per cultural guidelines.

Whilst the community continues to adopt the practices of its homeland and work with those from other ethnic backgrounds to create a sense of ‘South African’ identity outside of ethnic divide (since the abolishment of apartheid), it is clear that the ties to Indian identity, at least amoung Hindu and some Islamic populations, will always exist, since the foundations of both religions within South Africa have strong Indian influences.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s