I’m From Pietermaritzburg NOT India!

Saffiya Ismail a proudly South African girl from Pietermaritzburg unpacks her identity in this brilliant piece. A must read!

“Where are you from originally ….. India or the Middle East?” I stood there for a while wondering exactly how should I answer this question. I understand the confusion for some. So my response normally is “I’m Muslim South African Indian, born and brought up IN South Africa“

“Muslim African Indian” (*confused expression on the person’s face*)

So let’s take a step back here.

Due to migration from India in the mid-19th century; the British, you know those “dudes” decided to bring “Indians” (in my British accent) to South Africa as indentured labourers.

Some Indians saw an opportunity and followed the labourers to South Africa, the merchants who saw a niche in the market and opened businesses to cater for this new community. The first batch of Indians arrived in Durban from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka as early as 1860.

With them came different religions … Aha! There were Muslims, Christian & Hindus. Together these folks – our ancestors – arrived with a completely different culture and set of traditions, so began the blending in off the new people with the inhabitants on this faraway shore.

During this historic period the ‘Indians’ had zero to nil contact with their families back in India so they coalesced with the culture of this land.

The passage of time has made “Indians” more “African”.

The only connection that remained was that we had the same skin colour as our subcontinental cousins. I suppose I’d be considered one of those long-lost relatives, a third-generation Muslim African Indian with ties to my great grandparents’ birthplace of Andhra Pradesh

With that South African Indians carved out our own identity.

We in South Africa have our own geography with the highest number of Indians still in Durban, our food is different, our spices, dress code, even our languages have changed.

We are now in a melting pot of African culture.

Our individual heritage is very important part in our symbiotic relationship between our heritage and our Africanism, in no way does one supersede the other. This is why we celebrate Heritage Day, we have beautifully managed to create a fusion of different values, and customs which makes every one of proudly African Indians, and it is an important part of who we are and who we have become.

We visit India because we are fascinated by their culture and traditions; during apartheid, generations lost their ties with India; so there was nothing to refer back too. Often you will hear someone who visits India saying “You must go back to visit your roots, they are steeped in tradition and culture. We are so different.”

We need to ensure that we continue on this path for the future of our children and grandchildren. We need to remember our ancestor yes, but our heritage is here. Our food fused with African flavour, we learned how to make pap, samp n beans; madumbe curry, we introduced curry to the culture, hence African Curry, just like how we introduced lentils to our breyani, lets confess who doesn’t like a good samoosa or “bunny chow” our national obsession on who makes the best bunny. Even our clothing and dress sense, has a hint of Africa in it.


My ancestors arrived on a ship somewhere around 1911/1912. My great grandparents came from a fishing village called Nellore, India. Most were indentured labourers and according to my cousin, my paternal great grandfather was a merchant who owned a business (an opportunist – wish I knew where all the wealth went too). The story goes on that he married my paternal great grandmother who was an indentured labourer (now that was an upgrade).

Before apartheid, Indians and Blacks lived very closely; this is why so many Indians speak isiZulu so well, and so many Blacks understood our languages. The horrible divide and conquer policies of the Apartheid Era caused this relationship to break down, apartheid destroyed this harmony of learning and understanding each other’s cultures.

We as African Indians have worked very hard to be where we are today and fought very hard as well to conquer racial divides. Last week we took a cultural walk through Constitution Hill. One looks at all this history and you realise how far we have come as a nation. We got that chance back more than 20 years ago, and somehow this apartheid style thinking is creeping back into our lives. We should never allow our skin colour to cause disharmony because then apartheid will be winning again.

My heritage can be identified by where I come from, by where my father comes from, where my grandfather comes from.

So to answer the question “Where am I from originally? Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

A proud Muslim South African Indian.


About Saffiya Ismail

Born in Pietermaritzburg, she now resides in Johannesburg and says her most important role in life is being a mother. Saffiya is a freelance writer. A contributing author in “Riding the Samoosa Express” (Anthology launched 21st March 2015). With a second chapter submitted for the next book, Saffiya says her passion is writing.


  1. Beautiful. As black people you would think we were the only ones affected by apartheid but hearing someone from a different race speak about how they were affected and how they are coping is really an eye opener. Very well written piece. Thank you for sharing your views and history.

  2. I actually don’t think Indians have worked enough to eradicate racism in South Africa. In fact Ghandi was anti-black and instilled the idea of Black people being inferior to Indians. This is why Indians continue to mistreat Black South Africans and look down upon them.

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