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Privilege and Endurance

I recently read a book on Apartheid. It was a narration of real-life events of a man, his Xhosa mother and White father. As the stories of growing up in segregated South Africa unfolded in the book alongside the history of the many Black groups, Afrikaners and British, I could not stop from drawing parallels with India in the Mughal and British eras. Despite the common themes, neither set of rulers in India was able to subjugate and segregate like was done in South Africa.

Apartheid was institutionalized racial segregation for the minority-Whites to govern the non-White majority. When Apartheid was imposed in 1948 by the British, South African society was bucketed into three populations - Bantu (all black Africans), Colored (those of mixed race) and White. Asians were considered White or Black depending on the needs of the Whites. For economic reasons, Chinese were Black and Japanese were White. Go figure.

By law, areas were designated for White, Black or Colored occupation. Other racial groups could not own property or operate businesses in these designated areas. Blacks in urban areas were employed by Whites as domestic help and Blacks in white collar jobs was unheard of.

This book gave me insights on the Colored and Black cultures. The Colored aspired to be like the Whites; the Blacks did not. The Blacks are a melting pot of many characteristics: the Zulu are warriors; the Xhosa are negotiators and so on. Painting South Africans with one brush is clearly a disservice of epic proportion.

Europeans began exploring South Africa in the 13th century as they made their way past the Cape of Good Hope on the way to the Far East. The Dutch East India company established a trading presence at the Cape in 1652. The Dutch, also known as the Boers - later Afrikaners - had fled persecution for their Calvinist Protestant faith. Tragically, they soon became the exploiters and persecutors in South Africa. They made inroads into black territories, subjugating them in exploitative arrangements and brought slaves from Asian countries to work on their farmlands.

By 1820s, the British had arrived. John Barrow, founder of the Royal Geographical Society, declared that the Dutch had neglected their responsibility to humanity by treating South Africans as “objects”. The irony of this is stunning, considering what the East India Company was doing in India.

In 1834, the British abolished slavery while the African ethnic groups and the Boers fought with each other, all the time unsuccessfully resisting the British. Once slavery was abolished, Indians began to move into the southern part of Africa, in search of employment.

And then, all hell broke loose.

In 1869, gold and diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Now it became a ruthless scramble to occupy and exploit. We are not talking about a little bit of gems: the Kimberley mines increased world diamond production by 10x, and the Witwatersrand plateau near Johannesburg held half of the world's gold reserve. You can just imagine what happened next with ownership, labor and the balance between Whites and Blacks, between Afrikaners and Brits, between the Black ethnic groups.

In 1884-85, the Europeans met in Berlin to divvy up Africa. Imagine that. In this frenzy, the British went from the enlightened, liberal protectors of the Blacks to being the colonists they were around the world. In the late 1880s, the British defeated the Boers and captured mines in their territories.

Not long after, the laws of Apartheid were enacted to control the “natives”. It lasted until 1994, and unleashed one or the darkest eras in human history.

The British were not able to create Apartheid in India because the Indian ethnic groups were not in conflict with each other. The Mughals of Persian origin who preceded the Brits had already beaten us into compliance. When the East India Company rolled in with their militia, we were like “Come on in!”

It wasn't until the mid-1800s that resistance took shape because of the exploitation, injustice and atrocity the British Raj unraveled on the Indians.

The institutional constructs, norms, language and foods in this book reminded me of my childhood years - going to Catholic school, calling seniors “matrics”, being hit by a metal ruler on the knuckles, eating achar. Plus, the Indian school curriculum of my childhood paralleled the one in South Africa which was modeled after the British system. But nothing, absolutely nothing, in my childhood was remotely close to what this man and his mother endured.

The book is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Put it on your list to recenter on the privilege we have and to understand - no, begin understanding! - the endurance it takes to overcome unfathomable poverty and injustice.




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