Clouds darken Indian summer: Mihir Bose on why the Asian section of South Africa's business community fears majority rule

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WHILE the eyes of the world watch the ending of the black and white divide in South Africa, one substantial sector of the country's business community is growing increasingly fearful.

As the government held talks with the African National Congress last week, five weeks before a deadline for the start of multilateral negotiations on a new constitution, South Africa's enterprising Indian community was expressing concern that it might be caught in the middle.

That is precisely where Indians were ranked in the apartheid system - above blacks but beneath whites. Nevertheless, without having any real political say, they managed to build up the greatest concentration of Indian wealth outside Asia.

Today, with fears of what a black majority government might bring, they are contemplating the inconceivable: supporting the country's white Nationalists.

We are on the top banqueting floor of a five-star Durban hotel with a breathtaking view across the harbour. A few years ago, Indians would have been barred from the hotel. Now they are being served Indian dishes by white staff as they wait to be wooed by white politicians eager for their votes and financial backing.

The night's speaker is Dr Zach de Beer, once of Anglo- American but now leader of the Democratic Party. Three weeks previously, President de Klerk had stood at the same podium and asked for Indian support.

De Beer presents his party as the only one of 'values', as opposed to the power-hungry Nationalists and the ANC. He is politely received, but at question time Indian fears of a black government become evident. At the end of the evening, one Indian turns to me and says: 'You know we don't like what the Nationalists did, but we will have to vote for them. We have no other choice. The ANC will nationalise everything, including the corner shops.'

His neighbour says: 'No, we can't vote for the Nationalists, not after what they have done to us. The DP? Maybe.' His answer hangs in the air as they get into their cars - a Mercedes- Benz and a BMW - and drive off.

That Indians, even those who are rich businessmen in South Africa, should be thinking like this is remarkable. Although apartheid did not ravage their community as it did the blacks', it has left many scars. The Group Areas Act, which banished Indians from the city centres of Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria to reservations, was a form of Afrikaner socialism, expropriating Indian business. Just before the dinner, my Indian host told me of the meagre compensation paid for the string of cinemas his family owned in white areas.

Until the Fifties, the Indian shopkeeper in the country's smaller and more remote towns - affectionately known as Abrams - often acted as a bank and extended credit to the Afrikaner farmer on fairly long terms. But no sooner did the Nationalists come to power than the same Afrikaners coveted Indian property.

Until a few years ago, Orange Free State - in the heart of Afrikanerdom - only allowed Indians to pass through on 24-hour permits. They could not take up residence.

As the scion of one of the most prominent Indian business families of Durban drove me to his factory in Pietermaritzburg, he recounted how in the Sixties his family, having overstayed their permit, had to spend the night in the car and could only do so by parking next to a police station and getting a special dispensation from the station commander. The next morning, they were allowed to use the toilet reserved for blacks.

Now, as we arrived in his Mercedes at the factory, we encountered a group of African workers blocking the gate - demanding higher wages. Inside, his uncle explained that the strike by black workers had meant employing poor whites, who could not find a job in recession-hit South Africa and were now willing to work for an Indian boss.

Such contradictions are probably inevitable in an abnormal society trying to become normal, but even Indian businessmen made wretched by apartheid appear ready to vote for the Nationalists who devised the policies.

One prominent Indian businessman in Pretoria, whose house must be one of the most opulent in the country, recounted how, as a boy, he would be sent to bank his father's shop takings , and how he would dodge whites on the pavements for fear of being kicked if he walked in front of them.

Not even his subsequent business success has tempered his bitterness about apartheid. 'If it wasn't for apartheid,' he said, 'I would have been a top international businessman.' But as he drew on his expensive cigar, reclining in a deckchair on his sunroof, he confessed that he could not see himself voting for anyone but the Nationalists. They would be the devil he knew; it would be a cruel but unavoidable choice.

Not all of South Africa's Indian businessmen share his wealth, but many echo his views. There are some who support the ANC and recall that it was the Indian political organisations, set up by Mahatma Gandhi at the beginning of the century, that spurred African nationalism. But even these fear that Indians could be alienated by ANC demands that all Indian candidates should stand under its banner and not those of the Transvaal Indian Congress or Natal Indian Congress, the parties set up by Gandhi.

The ANC may still have prominent Indians in its ranks, but the return from prison and exile of the black leadership has marginalised many of them and made the community fear that South Africa will see a repeat of the Indian story in the rest of Africa - blacks coveting Indian economic power when whites lose political power.

This fear is compounded by memories of racial attacks: older Indians in Natal recall the horrors of 1949, when the Zulus went on the rampage.

To add to Indian problems, the opening of South African society has meant that the rich Indian business community is suddenly being courted by Indians from elsewhere. The Indians in South Africa are seen as the richest, most sophisticated section of the Indian diaspora and not a day passes without visitors from the sub-continent or the Middle East, eager to find rich pickings.

In the last year, this has meant a parade of Indian and Pakistani entertainers and cricketers, and almost every dinner given by an Indian businessman features at least one representative from a bank from the sub-continent.

For a community starved of links with the motherland, this is intoxicating. But as one Indian said: 'I fear this might prove another source of alienation from the blacks. They will see our money going to the Middle East and the sub-continent, when it is needed here.'

(Photograph omitted)