Blacks and Indians clash over divisive Zulu song

Lyrics accusing Indians of racism test the limits of free speech in new South Africa.

The Oriental restaurant in Durban's Marketplace mall offers a scene that epitomizes Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation" vision. Indians, whites, and blacks sit side by side at tables while they dig into plates heaped with spicy curries and grilled prawns.

But that vision is under some audible duress now. A new anti-Indian song is stirring up racial and ethnic tensions here among groups that eight years ago were unified in the fight against apartheid. And the source of the controversy is also surprising.

Mbongeni Ngema is a noted antiapartheid songwriter and playwright who has long championed a multiracial society. But one cut on his latest album seems at odds with his past.

"AmaNdiya," which is written in Zulu, the language of the African people who live in Natal, says: "Oh brothers, Oh my fellow brothers. We need strong and brave men to confront Indians. This situation is very difficult, Indians do not want to change, whites were far better than Indians. Even Mandela has failed to convince them to change."

Mr. Ngema, who did not return repeated calls for this story, has told the South African press that the song was intended to incite dialogue about Indian-black racial tensions, not to stir hatred against Indians.

Whatever his intentions, the song has been widely condemned by everyone from Nelson Mandela to the New National Party, the remnant of the party that built apartheid. Last month, South Africa's Broadcasting Complaints Commission banned the song from the radio on the grounds that it constituted hate speech. A lawsuit, brought by a South African of Indian descent, which temporarily stopped the album from being marketed and sold, has been found groundless by a Durban judge.

Despite the official condemnations, however, the song has struck a chord among many South African blacks – particularly here in Durban, where Ngema lives and Indians make up 27 percent of the urban population. Nationally, Indians are just 2.5 percent of the population. Ngema's album has been selling rapidly since its release in March, and bootleg copies have been making the rounds in local townships.

"They [Indians] treat you like an animal," says Sfiso Ngcobo, an off-duty policeman outside the Marketplace mall. He says the song reflects the way most Africans view Indians. "Sometimes you try to help an Indian person and they just think you're going to do something to them."

Relations between Africans and Indians, who first came to Africa in large numbers in the late 19th century as indentured workers in the sugarcane fields and railroads, have often been rocky. In the postcolonial era, Indians, known in Africa as Asians, have often been accused of exploiting Africans and of controlling a disproportionate amount of the continent's wealth.

In 1972, Ugandan President Idi Amin infamously forced thousands of Indians to leave. Many of them were from families that had been there for generations. More recently in Zimbabwe, the leader of the war veterans who have been seizing white-owned farms and businesses said Asian businesses would be the next to go.

"You've got the Indian trader, the Indian shopkeeper who is constantly in the eyes of the African because he trades with them," says Dr. Fatima Meer, head of the Institute for Black Research at the University of Natal. "The African looks at him and thinks, 'even he has more than I do.'"

Still, the existence of a common enemy pushed the differences between the two groups below the surface.

"If one looks at the apartheid era, you could quite accurately say that most black people, and I use the word quite generally, saw their fight against the white government as the factor that unified them," says Jody Kollapen, a South African of Indian descent and deputy chairman of South Africa's Human Rights Commission. "During the Mandela era here when the emphasis was focused so singly on reconciliation, there wasn't room for these issues either."

Some Indian South Africans dismiss the song as a publicity stunt. Yaseen Abdool, a college student who has watched the album fly off the shelves of Disc City where he works, says he doesn't think there is any tension between black and Indians in South Africa. "[Ngema] says we take advantage of blacks, but we're all working here together," he says. "It was just a quick way for him to make some money."

The song may ultimately serve to mend fences. On June 25, Ngema announced that he is starting to work with local Durban churches and community leaders to schedule several events to encourage community dialogue between blacks and Indians.

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