Cape Town - The positive experience that Indians played in the reconstruction and development of South Africa is an example of how immigrants can help build a country, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said last night.
Addressing a gala dinner hosted by the 1860 Legacy Foundation in honour of the first boatload of Indian indentured labourers who came to South African exactly 150 years ago on Tuesday, Motlanthe commended the role the country's Indians played in the struggle against apartheid.
He said though under apartheid they were considered as second to whites on the racial totem pole, Indians chose to consciously support blacks and coloureds and had played a critical role in the struggle for a non-racial society.
He pointed to the formation of the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses and the African Peoples' Organisation, which predated the formation of the ANC and had played an important role in the struggle against colonialism.
The first discriminatory legislation directed at Indians, Law 3 of 1885, was passed in Transvaal and was aimed at among others things, demarcating certain areas to Indians and ensuring that Indians did not own fixed property outside of these areas.
Motlanthe commended the role that Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for 20 years, had played in the struggle against oppression in the country, particularly through his philosophy of passive resistance.
Gandhi's views on the upliftment of all people and castes, of the equal treatment of women and of building bridges between peoples and religions remain relevant today, he said.
He pointed out Gandhi's role in the stretcher bearer corps in helping the wounded Africans during the Bambatha rebellion of 1906.
When Gandhi left to return to India, his work was taken up by other leaders, such as Yusuf Dadoo, Farouk Meer, Ahmed Kathrada and Billy Nair.
"There were those who joined Umkhonto We Sizwe, like Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba, and still others incarcerated on Robben Island for their roles, like Indres Naidoo," he said.
Motlanthe was optimistic that South Africans would one day be able to develop a common identity not based on ethnicity or race.
"We can reach a point of maturity in our national consciousness where it is second nature to think of oneself as a South African first and a black or white person after," he said.
Motlanthe said that the country's recent history, which spanned decades of non-racial struggle, should be an "unlimited resource" to moving South Africa forward.
"Based on this rich history thrown up by the act of the arrival of the Indian indentured labourers, we would do well to define the direction we are taking as a country today," he said.
Racism in South Africa, he said, was a conscious effort at social engineering and can equally be defeated by conscious efforts.
He said justice, equality and economic well-being for all South Africans are critical elements in the expansion and deepening of a non-racial future.
"We must reach a point where this diversity in our collective life is not a mechanical practice or a contrived outcome, but an instinctive exercise that comes naturally."