South Africa has been home to a large Indian community since November 1860 when a number of indentured Indian labourers were brought from India to work in Durban. Not all Indians arrived under these conditions; some were merely ordinary passengers seeking a better way of life while others were ‘special servants’ – people with a particular skill for which they had been specially sought out and recruited on behalf of a particular employer. However, the majority were indentured labourers who worked on sugar plantations, railroads, etc... They started to spread out across the country and records show that there were already Indians living in Port Elizabeth by 1890.
In 1911, the indentured labour system came to an end and many of these workers chose to remain in South Africa instead of returning to India. These people came from many different parts of India and belonged to different religious- and cast groups. Before long, numbers grew and communities were formed. There were Hindu Tamil communities, Indian Muslim communities, Hindu Gaujerat communities and Christian Indian communities. These people soon became active members of the local communities, engaging in various commercial activities and oftentimes managing to build very lucrative businesses. They became launderers, tailors, shoe repairers, fishermen, clothing manufacturers, clerics, grocers, outfitters, wholesalers, butchers, shopkeepers and transportation providers. Their businesses became well-established hallmarks of society, and were passed down from one generation to the next. The people themselves were proud of their family heritage, neat and well-presented. Looking back at past information, it is clear that they were a civilised and educated people. Unfortunately, the Job Reservation Act made it impossible for them to pursue a large number of alternative job opportunities.
Of course, life cannot be successful without some play and relaxation and the Indian community was very developed in this aspect as well. These people were avid sportsmen who engaged in cricket and soccer – both of which were popular in India too – as well as body-building and weight-lifting. Soccer and cricket were the most popular sporting activities and, despite a complete lack of adequate facilities, dedicated and committed sporting officials saw to it that the sports were developed to the fullest extent possible. Many Indian sportsmen exhibited excellent natural talent and there is little doubt that, if it had been possible to develop these talents more fully, these individuals would have excelled on either a national or international level. Soccer games were particularly well supported with families attending Sunday matches dressed in their team’s colours and cheering the players on.
Sport was very much a part of life for the Indian community in Port Elizabeth and it provided a way for families to bond and for individuals to unwind. However, their talents and interests were not limited only to sport and commerce. Various members of the community were also engaged in activities such as ballroom dancing, ballet, knitting, sewing, girl-guides and scouts. They attended the cinema recreationally and enjoyed brigades, savings clubs, church clubs and catering. Much of this came to a screeching halt when the Apartheid era came into full effect, effectively destroying the very essence around which this strong and proud community had built itself. Because of this, people such as Mr V.A. Pillay, Mr D.S. “Baby” Pillay, Dr Marsalamoney Pather, Mr Mohammed Desai, Mr Balu Pillay, Mr B.B. Ramjee, Dr S.V. Appavoo and Dr K. Moodaley joined the struggle for freedom and democracy in the early days.