Victoria St. Market

Victoria St. Market. Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
December 2011.

Better known as the Indian market, Durban’s Victoria St. Market bursts with color. Its merchants deal in vibrancy and saturation, hawking beaded jewelry, vibrant rolls of cloth, synthetic flowers, and bags of vivid curry.

Durban is known for its rich Indian culture, established in the mid 19th century when laborers from southeast Asia were brought to Africa as indentured servants. Known then as coolies, these indentured servants worked on the British sugar plantations of KwaZulu’s warm coast. Many remained, establishing homes in southern Africa and contributing to its diversity of cultures. Though many southeast Asian immigrants to South Africa were able to establish themselves as working professionals – including a young lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi – South Africans of Indian and other southeast Asian descent were denied basic rights of citizenship until 1994. I met one Indian South African described the irony of being forbidded from swimming at a beach on the Indian Ocean.

Today, the bakula – the Setswana word for people of southeast Asian descent, derived from the word coolie – are an integral part of South Africa’s culture and economy. Mango pickle, better known as atchar, and fiery peri-peri, both borrowed from southeast Asia, are as distinctive elements in South African cuisine as mealie-meal pap and chicken feet. In my village, most of the general stores are owned by a friendly and goofy guy Bangladeshi guy named Tony Hossain. Tony speaks fluent Setswana and stays in the nearby black township. Every couple of years he visits his parents in Bangladesh.

South Africa’s economic and cultural ties to southeast Asia are reinforced at a political level by its recent admission into BRICS, the coalition of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa.

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