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East London's
Indian community

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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By the mid-1890s, Indians were beginning to settle in the Cape Colony in increasing numbers, which many believed would lead to new slum communities. Indeed, the East London Town Council even petitioned Parliament to prevent this influx.

Although the Whites in South Africa viewed the Black population as a passive threat, they saw the Indians as a sophisticated and active menace to their own position in society. They were competition in trade, living space and even political influence with the Imperial authorities.

When Edward Brabant piloted the East London Municipal Bill through Parliament in 1894, he lumped the Indians with the Africans as objects of legal discrimination -- something new because the Cape's constitution did not allow discrimination on the grounds of race.

Brabant argued that they were aware of the "nuisance" caused by Asians "flooding" American and Australian towns. It was important, therefore, to prevent the same thing happening in the Colony -- and East London was setting an example for the other towns to follow.

Parliament conceded. The Municipal Act of 1895 allowed East London to force Asians into locations, while forbidding them from walking on the town's side-walks. Yet the paranoia proved to be unfounded because East London did not become a major attraction to the Indian community.

They arrived initially as refugees from the Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War. Some also immigrated from German East Africa in 1902. By 1904, however, estimates put their total population at less than 600.

Nevertheless, the Council positively discouraged them from settling in the town by creating an Asian location as an appendage to the East Bank Location. This proved a white elephant because no Indians applied for plots there.

The municipality provided only sites, leaving the building of houses to the residents themselves. Although the Black community was accustomed to constructing its own homes, the Indians were not.

They preferred to rent accommodation in town rather than build at the location on plots which they could not own. Indeed, if they could afford the rents, there was no law to forbid them living in the town.

The Boer War provided an unexpected boon to the municipality in the form of a concentration camp for Boer women and children. It was constructed in 1902 but, with the war soon over, the buildings were then purchased by the Town Council at half the construction cost.

The camp was thereupon turned into an Asian location in the hope that it would overcome the Indians' reluctance to build their own houses within the East Bank Location. In August 1903, the Council attempted to force the Indians to take up abode there.

This decision was controversial but there was nothing anyone could do because the municipality's action was perfectly legal. Nevertheless, the town gained the reputation for being the most racist in the Colony.

Most of the Indians had moved into the location by the end of 1904, at which point the population there peaked at 404 residents, with only about 100 Indians left within the town.

Then they learnt ways around the regulation. If they rented town accommodation at £75 annually, and as long as there were not more than six tenants in a house, the Council could not legally touch them.

From 1904 onwards, therefore, the location population steadily decreased until, by 1912, it numbered a mere 53. The Council was helpless to reverse the situation and so the Indian Location was turned into accommodation for the influx of Afrikaner Poor White families.

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