At the heart of the predominantly Indian community of Chatsworth, near eThekwini, there exists an unlikely culture of its own. The story of the vibrant Makua community, descendants of freed Zanzibari slaves, is hardly a matter of public discourse.
But, as one of South Africa’s largest minority groups, it is undoubtedly one of strife, of a struggle for the legitimate recognition of their distinct culture. Their story dates back to 19th century Durban when a British patrol ship encountered Arab slave traders with 500 captured Zanzibaris on board.
The slaves were freed after working as indentured labourers for three years. Colonial authorities settled them on a hillock overlooking the harbour, Kings Rest, where they built a mosque and maintained their cultural identity.
With the advent of apartheid, they would soon be dispossessed – their suburb being declared a White area in 1961. The community was uprooted as they were forcibly relocated to Chatsworth, further south. They have maintained a distinct culture despite the changes in modern-day South Africa.
“A sense of belonging and a sense of self-identity are basic human rights. Makuas, who are inhabitants of South Africa since the 1800s, have grappled with identity issues,” said Halima Giles, a descendant.
She said the community had been incorrectly labelled as ‘Zanzibaris’ when their roots go back to the border region between Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.
“Although we were from Africa and now known as Zanzibaris, the fact is we are supposed to be known as Makuas. Zanzibaris definitely come from Zanzibar and Makuas come from Mozambique.”
She said this formed the basis for the Makua struggle of their own. “Although the main emphasis is on the origin of the Zanzibar Makua, one can hardly avoid referring to various other issues related to this most interesting and unique community,” she said.
“We are now trying to take up our own course, whether on a local [or] international level. In many respects, we are a unique people who are classified first as free slaves, then as, founders, then as coloureds, and eventually as other Asians,” said Giles.
Giles said the complexity of their identity served only to worsen their identity issues. Another descendent and activist, Abey Canthitoo, said explained how the apartheid regime even went as far as classifying them as the “lost tribe”.
“The apartheid government didn’t know what to make of us,” he said. “My parents both had ‘lost tribe’ written in their dompas,” he told the Mail & Guardian.