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Why Coolie Remains Offensive To South African Indians

OPINION: Historically, in India a ‘coolie’ is someone who carried luggage at train stations. But here in South Africa ‘coolie’ is a not so forgotten term that is derogatory for Indian South Africans.

In 2019, staffers at a fast-food KFC branch in KwaZulu Natal endured a stark reminder that racism is well and alive in South Africa. I felt a sense of disgust watching the viral video of the incident.  And at the same time, we have had Cathie Geldenhuys who made passionate love to the word ‘coolie b*stard’ in her racial tirade. These shameful acts unearth painful reminders of an apartheid-era for many within the South African Indian community. Symbolically that word defines our ancestors’ history – one that bore the brunt of colonialism; the expectations of the White master; the expectation of being one that enriched the upper class and expect nothing in return; the baggage of being enslaved in essence.

I could go on but you know what I mean or I hope you do.

[Coolie] became the bureaucratic term for the British invaders who used to describe indentured labourers. It gradually developed into a highly charged racial slur.

Why is ‘coolie’ not as bad as the ‘k-word’?

The Naidoo and Ramaye sisters of Verulam, learn more about them here

As you can see, I cannot bring myself to type out the ‘k-word’ but I am splattering ‘coolie’ all over this opinion piece in order to make a point here. The k-word infuriates many but my problem lies with the word ‘coolie’ which continues to be a loosely used term among many. The derogatory term coolie is seen as a watered-down version of the k-word for Indians in South Africa. But it remains the one term that does not equate the same rage when uttered. However, I do hope as of today that it will be taken with the same passion we share for one being called the k-word’. I look back at my grandparents and their journey, I remember vividly cases where my grandfather was called ‘a f*ckin’ coolie’ a number of times. Have you forgotten that us Indian South Africans have endured as much as any other ethnic group under the Apartheid regime?

So why are we as Indian South Africans not fuming and speaking out about it constructively?  

Are we that disillusioned of our place in this democratic South African society? Does our identity as a South African Indian mean less? It seems between the Black and White race wars, the Indian identity just slips through. Or is it that we as an ethnic group remain just lazy, wanting politicians to say ‘coolie’ is just as bad as the k-word? I am not encouraging you to take up arms but its time to open dialogue on this sensitive issue. Educate not just your brown kids about racism but educate everyone around you about it. It is time that we say that it’s not okay – in any conversation – to call someone a ‘coolie’. Equality court magistrate John Sanders ruled on the matter of two members of the KwaZulu-Natal African-consciousness pressure group, the Mazibuye African Forum. The two were found guilty of hate speech for “anti-Indian” comments they made in articles and interviews including the use of the c-word.

Sanders had this to state in his judgement:

“Hate speech is not constitutionally protected, precisely because it strikes at the heart of human dignity, equality and freedom, and has the potential to impinge adversely on the dignity of others and to cause harm.”

He ruled that one comment, while it may be hurtful to some, did not “contain the vital element of incitement to cause harm”.

Origins of ‘coolie’

The dictionary definition of “coolie” is “a hired labourer.” The term is synonymous with the thousands that left their native lands to be part of a system of indentured labour in British colonies. The word “coolie” is a derivative from the South Indian language Tamil and Telugu, in which the word “kuli” means wages; similar-sounding words with equivalent definitions exist in other South Asian languages as well.

The British soon adopted the word into the English language in the 1830s as the indentured labour system gained popularity rather than the use of the word slavery. But for many in the Indian South African community, the word ‘coolie’ is a painful reminder of a troubled history of indentured labourer in South Africa. But don’t rush too quickly to call it the ‘c-word’ just yet, the British identify the c-word for the derogatory term ‘c*nt’.

That is how I would define the White patron at Kentucky Fried Chicken, he is the c-word – the British version that is! Like the saying goes which I have heard many times, ‘n boer maak a plan, maar a coolie maak a beter een.’


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