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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Asians in South Africa

View Group Chronology

South Africa Facts
Area:    1,219,912 sq. km.
Capital:    Pretoria
Total Population:    42,942,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Asians in South Africa face a low risk of rebellion and protest. Asians do face some political and economic disadvantages in the country. However, these disadvantages are not very severe and are unlikely to spur future rebellion. Low-level protest, especially regarding economic discrimination, is more likely. The government is democratic, stable and accommodative, thereby reducing the potential for future group discontent.


Analytic Summary

Most Asians in South Africa are of Indian origin, though a minority is of Chinese descent. They are culturally distinct from the majority black population (CUSTOM = 1). They are primarily English-speakers, although some members speak Hindi, Tamil or other languages (LANG = 1). Unlike black South Africans who are primarily Christian, most Asians are Hindu (BELIEF = 2). Almost all Asians are urban (GC119 = 5), and the majority live in KwaZulu-Natal (GROUPCON = 3).

In the 1860s, the first indentured Indian laborers were brought into the country to work on sugar plantations, railroads and in coalmines. After 10 years of labor, they could return to their native land or be granted a small parcel of land in South Africa. Most stayed in the country, and other Indians arrived independently in order to trade. Ethnic Chinese were brought into the country in the early 1900s to work in the mines.

Under the apartheid system, Asians were treated as second-class citizens, but they were not treated as poorly as black Africans. They, along with Coloreds, were never required to carry passes to move about the country, generally received better education, and earned higher wages than blacks. They also received their own parliament in 1984, though it was effectively powerless. Many leaders in the Asian community were outspoken opponents of apartheid, despite their relative advantages vis--vis blacks.

With the transformation of South African society in the 1990s, the Asian community was torn about whom to give their loyalty to. Many supported the ANC and its long struggle for equality. Yet as the discriminatory policies of the government crumbled, the Asians felt vulnerable because they were economically advantaged compared to blacks. They did not wish to lose this advantage. Many Asians were also fearful of black violence, remembering a 1949 Zulu attack on their community in Durban.

At present, the Asian community in South Africa does not encounter any political and cultural discrimination (POLDIS03-06 = 1). Economically, they are advantaged compared to the majority black population but are disadvantaged compared to whites (ECDIS04-06 = 1). There are some remedial policies in effect to help Asians; however, most affirmative action policies benefit blacks more. Asians complain of affirmative action policies, since they do not completely benefit. For example, the Equity Employment Act and Equality Act of 1998 mandates that companies mirror the demography of society. Asians are a very small percentage of the population, so this puts them at a comparative disadvantage. There is evidence of some anti-Indian feeling among some South African blacks, but the government seems committed to minimizing inter-racial tension. No violent intergroup conflict involving Asians was reported for 2001-2003. In 2004, there was an incident of anti-Indian rioting in Free State (CCGROUPSEV104 = 3). No intercommunal conflict was reported in 2005-2006.

Asians in South Africa are primarily concerned with economic opportunities and protection of their property from redistribution policies (ECDIS04-06 = 1). Although racially based attacks are few in number, the group is worried about the high rate of crime and some existing racial tension between Asian and blacks. As a result, protection from potential group attacks is an area of concern. Finally, Asians are seeking continued preservation of group cultures, including language preservation.

Asians in South Africa have a strong sense of group identity from which to organize to pursue these interests and no intra-group conflict to weaken such efforts. Mahatma Gandhi first organized them in the late 19th century. Now, they are almost exclusively represented by multi-ethnic parties. In the first all-race elections in 1994, there was one Indian party, the Minority Front. It won only 1.34% of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal. However, that was enough to give it one seat in the provincial legislature. More generally, Asians support the National Party and more recently the Democratic Alliance. Both are white-led with strong support from Asians and Coloreds. However, in 1999 the Concerned Citizens Group was formed. It is a group of prominent Indians who have urged Asians to vote for the ANC. In recent years, Indians have joined with blacks in order to foster joint interests. There is no group history rebellion in recent years and only low levels of protest (PROT01 = 1, PROT02 = 2, PROT03 = 1)



Africa Research Bulletin, published monthly in Exeter England.

Africa South of the Sahara, published by Europa.

Beinhart, William, 1994, Twentieth-Century South Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Human Rights Watch, 1995, South Africa: Threats to New Democracy-Continuing Violence in KwaZulu-Natal, New York: Human Rights Watch.

Library of Congress. 1996. Country Study: India."

Lexis-Nexis news reports, 1990-2006.

Saunders, Christopher, 1983, Historical Dictionary of South Africa, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

United States Department of State: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: 2004-2006.

van Rensburg, Heila Janse (Ed), 1994, South Africa Yearbook.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006