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HomeSpecialsInterviewsSouth African MP Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi talks to OpIndia: Racist attacks against Indians, the Indian...

South African MP Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi talks to OpIndia: Racist attacks against Indians, the Indian govt’s help, a ‘toolkit’ and a people in distress

"The Honourable Minister of External Affairs Mr Jaishankar has spoken to our minister Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor and they are communicating to assess the situation. The Indian government has to be thanked for having their finger on the pulse and have extended support to us", the South African MP told OpIndia.

South Africa has been thrown into unrest and a civil war-like situation was seen developing after the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma. On the 7th of July, Jacob Zuma was arrested after he failed to appear for his corruption hearing and was sent to jail for 15 months over contempt charges. In the ensuing violence, reportedly, 72 people have died and over 1,200 people have been arrested. However, as the protests escalated, the violence turned racial and the Indian community in South Africa was targeted.

According to eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, around 45,000 businesses have been deemed out of commission, and it is estimated that properties worth R16 billion (around 8225 crores) have been looted or destroyed during the riots that include damage to infrastructure and equipment.

Kaunda said, “Preliminary estimate of the economic impact revealed that the unrest had cost R1 billion in terms of loss of stock and around R15 billion in terms of damage to property and equipment.” He further added that around 45,000 businesses that include 5,000 informal traders have been severely affected by the riots. “Small businesses may never recover from this upheaval,” he said. 

According to some estimates, over 1,29,000 jobs are at risk in Durban as malls, factories, and certain industries have been burnt down to ashes. A large portion of workers were dependent on these establishments, and it will now add to the already skyrocketing unemployment figures in the country.

Several South Africans took to Twitter to call for violence against the Indian community, some, saying that the violence was retribution for the crimes of the Gupta brothers. However, the violence had severe racial undertones with the Indian community being specifically targeted and Gupta Brothers were being used as an excuse to justify the racial violence

OpIndia, which has followed the developments closely since the beginning of the violence, conducted an interview with the South African Member of Parliament, Ms Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi from the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature. She belongs to the Minority Front (MF).

Speaking to OpIndia, Shameen Rajbansi revealed how there was a ‘toolkit’ to target Indians in Kwazulu-Natal province and how the charge that the violence was unleashed as retribution for the crimes of the Gupta brothers was completely unfounded. She further spoke about how the Indian government was corresponding with the South African government to ensure the safety of the Indian community and explained the roots of the racist violence in the country.

Following are excerpts from the interview. The questions are indicated in bold, followed by the answers given Shameena Rajbansi.

Do you think the violence that South Africa is seeing today is just protests turned ugly or does it have racial undertones

It was purely a political protest when it started out. During a protest, there are always various agendas at play and then, there are certain people who come out and become violent. On many occasions, the violent takes a racial turn and that is what happened here.

Is there a reason, you think, why there is a racial undertone to the violence specifically against Indians? Because we have seen several examples of racist violence against Indians in African nations. One recalls what happened in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin in 1972. In South Africa specifically, can you explain why there are these racial undertones.

You just quoted Uganda and South Africa is no different since we have a long history of racial undertones against the Indian community and for no fault of ours. It started with the displacement of the Indians from the 1860s from the time Indians were brought in as labourers and shunted off to different parts of the world by the Britishers. Our ancestors went through this. Having come here, being enslaved, then being resilient and working their way up, always being in survival mode and eventually naturalisation, getting citizenship status and getting their rights back – all this has been a long process, but a very painful one.

As far back as 1949, riots against Indians at Durban Central, going on to the 1985 riots to what we are currently experiencing, you have had different political shifts at different time and many riots have broken out against the Indian community. But the root cause has always been that of political power. Whenever there was a crisis in power in South Africa, one of the communities that has always got the brunt of violence has been the Indian community. Because we have been soft targets believing in non-violence. Therefore, we have become vulnerable targets to perpetrators.

Several South Africans too took to Twitter to call for violence against the Indian community. One of the common themes that emerged was that they said it was a backlash because of the Gupta Brothers. Do you think the corruption charges against them along with President Zuma contributed to the violence against the Indian community?

There are many foreign businesses in South Africa. From the inception of our democracy, many people have come to SA looking for business opportunities. They have courted different presidents, leaders, influential people and they have integrated with the business community. They have been a part of powerful structures. Using the Gupta Brothers as an excuse to unleash violence on the Indian community is something I completely denounce. There comes a time as an Indian community we need to stand up. In South Africa, we have had large scale corruption by several other foreign business leaders but it has never taken racial undertones and it has never resulted in violence against their community. This is a political battle and the Indian community is being made a scapegoat.

You said that this is a political battle. How does it help the political cause if the Indian community is targeted

In our democracy, the Indian community has always held a sway vote that every party has been clamouring for. They know that the Indian community has that power, any which way, and they can become powerful if they get the Indian vote bank. In many ways, they also determine who becomes the President of the country. This is the reason the Indian community becomes a target on several occasions.

Are you indicating that the supporters of former President Zuma are targeting the Indian community because they support the current President

That is a blurred area. The Indian community has lived with a philosophy where we believe in ethics. We don’t support a particular leader as such. Indian people vote for who will give them security and who will be a good leader in the country and when they vote, they vote for a party. Indians voted for the majority party which is the party both the leaders belong to and they have been consistent in the voting party. There is no way that our community can be blamed for favouritism. We supported the leader that the party put up. There are even several Indian members in the ANC as well and they vote too for who leads the ANC party. The person who leads the ANC party then goes on to become the President. So the Indian community cannot be blamed for supporting a leader selectively.

Could you give us a sense of the scale of violence that the Indian community has seen in the past 72 hours. There have been reports of Indian women being raped, farm lands being burnt and Indians coming out on the streets to defend themselves.

The rape charges are false, I think. In our legislature we debated the violence as well and nowhere did the government mentioned that women were raped. But yes, 2 lives were lost. But a lot of property was looted, shops and businesses were raised to the ground and even business and shops of expats were burnt down. Perpatrators came into areas where Indians lived and violence was committed rampantly. Indians had to scramble to try to protect whatever they had. People had to use cricket bats etc because we have strong laws against owning firearms. So a majority of the Indian community was fighting with other means, like using bats and setting up barricades. The police was ineffective and could not help the people due to lack of resources. In fact, it was the community that was helping the law enforcement and when that was failing, we called in the army to come.

2,500 army personnel have now been deployed in the riot infested areas where majority of Indian people live. We have promised that the full force of the army will be in the Khwazulu-Natal and that the people will be protected.

There was news of ANC as well issuing a statement and blaming the Indian community for the violence, while they were only defending themselves. What do you make of that?

In order to be a responsible leader, we have to understand all of this in context. Politically, today, in our legislature, I apologised if any action of any Indian person was looked at as racism or discriminatory. But I also said that the Indian community was taken by surprise. And when that happens, it is human instinct to do whatever one can to protect their community. ANC has come out and made that statement, but it was an insidious attack and people were just protecting themselves. Indians were not the ones to start the violence. This was a very well-orchestrated, well-coordinated anarchy that was unleashed on this entire province. We were the community that got the brunt and historically this has been happening. This is an undeniable fact and since this has a political root cause, the political leaders need to find a solution to this.

I have been in touch with several members of the Indian community in South Africa, and they have now created Whatsapp groups just to try and coordinate the resources that are now running out. They have said they are out of water, food, essential items etc and they are helping each other out through specific WhatsApp groups. Now that the Army has been brought in, could you tell us what is the status of the violence now and whether resources have reached community members.

The Indian community is extremely resilient. I am proud of all the heroes. The business sector and the NGO sector has come out very strongly to support everyone in the South African community, not just Indians. They have sprung into survival mode and set up all sorts of Whatsapp groups. I drove around in the area after the Parliamentary debate to assess the situation myself. From Monday, other members are also going to go to areas where they have been deployed. The shops are now slowly opening up but there are unending queues to buy what is necessary. The NGO sector is beginning to pack different commodities like food, water etc. If there is a need, people are getting it to people. This is the magnanimity of the Indian community. They are not discriminating. Anybody who needs help, Indians are helping them.

Interestingly, you said that you apologised if any statement or action of the Indian community hurt the sentiments of the people. Historically, we have seen that Indians are blamed even when they defend themselves after the violence has been unleashed against them. They are blamed for unleashing the violence instead of defending themselves. I know this is a sensitive question, madam, but do you see this as a spark that might escalate further, leading to a situation like Uganda.

What is happening today is a reminder of what happened in 1949 when we had over 1,500 dead, 40,000 Indian refugees were left stranded and were looking for help. At that time, the Indian government did come in and promised to help them. In this case, we are monitoring the situation. The Honourable Minister of External Affairs Mr Jaishankar has spoken to our minister Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor and they are communicating to assess the situation. The Indian government has to be thanked for having their finger on the pulse and have extended support to us. They have also opened many channels of communication to us to understand what our situation is. Now we just have to monitor and on a daily basis, assess the situation and even our government’s political commitment to bring us back to normalcy. With the army coming in, we have to see and then make a decision on what to do. I have not asked the Indian government to come in and help us because we don’t want to be alarmist. Sometimes, being alarmist ends up claiming more lives and making the situation worse. We don’t want chaos. We want to do this in a responsible manner and follow protocols.

So the Indian government has reached out to the South African government and demanded that the Indian community be protected. Is there something else you think the govt should do? Because clearly, there is not a lot of awareness about the plight of the Indian community in South Africa.

The Indian government has a very long and good standing relationship with South Africa. From the time of Mahatma Gandhi to BRICS now. They have many channels through which they can help. Through BRICS, they could perhaps do something for businesses that are not going to be fully compensated and they can be helped to build their lives again. I even know of many expats whose businesses have been razed to the ground. They are really in a dire plight and they have no hope because they are only 13 years old in our country.

The other thing that can be done with the Embassies. If we are running out of our own resources, like basic commodities, maybe the embassies can start a program to help the community that does not have basic necessities.

You said the Indian businesses are not going to be fully compensated. Is that a problem of governance or is there an underlying racial tone to that as well.

When it comes to compensation, there are two parts to it. Those businesses which are insured, won’t be discriminated against. Built into our insurance, there is a problem of ‘quota’. Out of the R16 billion damages, we have been told only R4 billion will be repaid. But the other compensation would be discriminatory. It would be left to the discretion of the government and the department of economic development will decide how the victims will be compensated. I called in the parliament for a full investigation into a “toolkit” that we have discovered. There was a “toolkit” about the violence being unleashed and who were to be targeted. There were specific instructions about which businesses should not be targeted and which should be targeted. Once the government gives us more information, we will be able to understand whether they will discriminate against businesses that were looted and attacked on a racial basis – whether whites or Indians.

In this ‘toolkit’ that you talk about, was it specifically mentioned that Indian communities and perhaps also white communities should be targeted?

Yes. That is true. Also, this loss is what is being assessed. By the time the investigation is completed, one never knows what the numbers would be. On messages going on in Whatsapp, we have heard voice messages of instructions being given about certain people that need to be attacked. Currently, our intelligence has told us that there were 12 masterminds to this violence. As this unfolds, we will then see what is the treatment they will be given by the government. We will then see how they will compensate victims as well and hopefully, Indian communities will not be discriminated attack since this is an orchestrated attack against us.

R16 billion loss, 2 Indian lives loss, 12 men accused of the conspiracy to target Indian communities and a toolkit – this has the making of a larger conspiracy. Why do you think the international media is quiet?

Well, you know, that is not surprising. As I stated, the violence against the Indian community is a distraction. It is quite clear there is a bigger agenda at play and the Indian community is being used as a scapegoat. The International media, the different institutions are keeping quiet because only as we know the larger, real agenda, will we all be able to, in hindsight, understand why in this period why the violence took place and why the media was silent.

Are you hinting at a regime change operation?

Well, we all know the steps that are taken before a regime change operation is put in motion. We have seen such regime change operations across the world. When you look at other BRICS nations, like India, you will see the same thing. The hidden hand, the role of the media etc, and South Africa is not different. We have only asked for transparency from the government’s side. We are so much to be proud of and as a South African Indian, I would never want to see our country to be taken over by anybody. We can’t let our country collapse because someone else wants to loot our country. With the army coming in, I am hopeful. We have not declared a state or Emergency yet because we are also dealing with COVID-19. The vaccination program has also been affected by the violence. I am just hoping that the political impasse can be resolved and we can return to normalcy.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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