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Understanding Informal Segregation: Racial and Spatial Identities
among the Indian Minority of Mokopane
By Sahba Besharati (University of Cape Town and King’s College London) and
Don Foster (University of Cape Town)
Although South Africa’s history has brought a great deal of research attention to racial
dynamics in the post apartheid period, much of this research has been on the largest
demographic groups in urban centres. This study focuses on the spatial arrangement of
minority identities, through continued informal segregation, among the Indian minority
of Mokopane. Drawing on 28 open-ended interviews, segregation is explored in everyday
interactions and spaces. Working within a spatial-discursive framework, observational,
critical discourse and rhetorical analysis is employed. Participants’ discursive constructions
overwhelmingly demonstrate patterns of informal segregation among the Indian minority
community, within the micro-ecology of contact. It is argued that informal segregation acts
as a regulator of hostile and hidden racism. In mapping the dialogue of the Indian minority,
a story of the evolution of segregation emerges, which replicates internal divisions between
the established ‘South African Indians’ and recent ‘immigrant Indians’. This study ultimately
demonstrates the need for a spatial-discursive orientation and a more “embodied” turn in
our understanding of segregation.
Keywords: minority groups, micro-ecology of contact, segregation, race relations, spatial
Rethinking Social Boundaries: Micro-Ecology of
Racial Division
More than a decade after the demise of apartheid, the promise of transformation and reconciliation still lingers. Racial isolation persists to
invade wider, but especially more private spaces.
Although much research is emerging from South
Africa aiming to engage the challenges of integration, more emphasis has been placed on macroprocesses of institutional change. More intimate, micro-ecological considerations have not
received the same amount of attention (Dixon,
Tredoux and Clack 2005). At the same time, BlackWhite dimensions of segregation1 and prejudice
Segregation is understood in terms of Goldberg’s
(1998) definition as “an ideology narrating the presumptuous degrees of racial separation” (p. 21).
have also dominated traditional research. Minorities, such as the South African Indian community,
have been neglected (Radhakrishnan 2005; for
review see Hansen 2012).
Gordon Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis
set the premise for future studies on the consequences of the inevitability of interracial contact. In short, the contact hypothesis maintains
that continued isolation of groups enhances the
development of negative attitudes and stereotypes, while increased contact reduces prejudice.
A range of research emanating from the contact
hypothesis has produced inconsistent results
and a host of limitations (Dixon 2001). Although
the theory cannot be entirely discredited, revision is necessary. In a synthesis of past research,
Pettigrew (1998) argues that the optimal conditions required are insufficient, since inter-group
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Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
contact should rather be viewed as a slowlyevolving process and possibly unsuitable for realworld situations. Pettigrew and Tropp’s (2006)
meta-analysis, combining the results of 515
studies, concluded that contact typically does
reduce inter-group prejudice. It is suggested that
while optimal conditions are not essential, their
absence can enhance the reduction of prejudice.
Dixon, Durrheim and Tredoux (2005), although
supporting the basic assumptions of the contact
hypothesis, maintain that it is in need of a ‘reality
check’. Past empirical studies have mostly been
conducted under ideal or unrealistic conditions,
specifically in laboratory or experimental work.
Inter-racial contact in reality is much more complex and traditional experimental studies do not
unlock these complexities. To access the validity
of the contact hypothesis in South Africa, the
authors suggest that experimental focus move
to explore the reality of everyday prejudice and
contact in real-life settings. While recognising the
presentation of racial division at various scales
of society, most researchers have neglected to
explore segregation in everyday interactions
and spaces. In South Africa, more emphasis has
recently been placed on exploring the underlying
mechanisms behind prejudice and specifically
focusing on informal segregation. The pioneering beach studies of Durrheim and Dixon (2005)
established informal segregation as a dominant
pattern in South Africa’s changing segregation dynamic. Real interracial contact between
groups was in fact scarce. Informal segregation
persisted and manifested itself in more discreet,
‘bodily’ divisions, again embodying a process of
preferred segregation.
It has been proposed that inter-racial contact
in the new South Africa may be occurring on the
surface, but contact is still avoided in more intimate spaces. It is argued that racialised boundaries are maintained by continued racial categorisation and racial attitudes, regulating the intimacy
of intergroup contact (Dixon, Tredoux and Clack
2005). One may conclude that the micro-ecology
of segregation has remained a neglected dimension of research and that the greatest shortcoming of the contact hypothesis is its disregard of
spatial dimensions. There remains a need to
S. Besharati, D. Foster
explore the lived experience of segregation in
terms of bodily ‘positioning’, as Foster (2005:
498) explains: ‘Various kinds of spaces either
enable or constrain particular action. Places have
specific meanings for people; they resonate with
symbolic and emotional significance. We all carry
with us various senses of ‘place identity’ ‘. Discourse is not the only means to uncover meanings behind continued segregation. Integrating
bodies, discourse and space into a combined
analytical framework will result in a more holistic
understanding (Foster 2000).
Rethinking Psychological Focus: South African
Indians as Minorities
It is suggested that Black-White dimensions of
prejudice have dominated most research. The
South African Indian population remains marginal. The Indian minority is a numerical minority, having a population of only 1,115,467 compared to the total population of South Africa,
44,819,778. The most basic definition of a minority is based on a numerical assessment. When a
group constitutes less than half the population
they are regarded as a minority (Banton 1972).
Furthermore, differentiation between ethnic and
racial identity is a complex and contested distinction (Cornell and Hartmann 2007). For the purpose of this study, no distinction will be made
between ethnic and racial minorities.
During the nineteenth century, the development of the sugar industry in KwaZulu-Natal
placed demands for cheap labour. When the
African labour was not willing to work under poor
working conditions, additional labour power was
then imported from India (Kuppusami 1983). The
majority of the Indians in South Africa are Hindu,
although some converted to Christianity. 1860
to 1905 marked the peak of Indian immigration,
by 1911 there was a large decline (Freund 1995).
There was a secondary group of Indian Muslim
immigrants who voluntarily came to South Africa,
to escape religious persecution. These Muslim
Indians predominantly established themselves in
the trade industry (Kuppusami 1983). The Indian
settlers in Mokopane fell within the second category. More recently there has been an increase
in the number of first generation immigrants
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, immigrating to South Africa for work, family or under refugee status (Statistics South Africa 2011).
Radhakrishnan’s (2005) study is one of the
few that has begun to comment on the shifting
meanings of Indianness in South African society.
The new South African climate, it is argued, still
neglects the value of the minority community,
facing the well-known notion of “not being white
enough” and now “not black enough”. Meanings
of ‘Indianness’ appeared to constantly shift in
order to accommodate for a changing political
and social climate (Vahed and Desai 2010). This
study will adopt a case-study approach and use
the Indian population of the small town of Mokopane as the site for research. Assuming a spatialdiscursive psychological framework and within
the micro-ecology of contact, continued and
adapted forms of segregation within the town of
Mokopane, and the Indian minority in particular,
is questioned.
Design and Methodology
This study aims to explore how everyday processes and interactions maintain and regulate
new racialised boundaries within the Indian
minority, working under the general hypothesis
of a continued pattern of informal segregation.
Explorations into the subjective experience of
Indians in Mokopane will attempt to unlock an
understanding of shifting racial and spatial identities, working within the framework of a microecology of contact. The integration of ‘race’ and
gender as a means of social division, although
highly pertinant, moved beyond the scope of
this present investigation. Therefore, the main
research question framing this study is: how
does continued informal segregation manifest itself within the Indian minority of Mokopane, and how have racial and spatial identities
changed within this minority group? This paper
will address these questions by investigating and
analysing spatial considerations, and how people
talk about space.
Based on a 2008 pilot study, the South African
Indian minority of Mokopane was identified as
the primary focus of the research in question.
The analysis presented here is based on inter-
views conducted with multiple residents of the
Indian community of Mokopane, Akasia, over a
three week period, from the 29th June to 17th July
2009. The primary source of data collection was
open-ended interviews, with an interview schedule used as a rough guide. All interviews were
recorded and transcribed. Informed consent was
secured and pseudonyms used. Although spatial patterns were discussed within the context
of the interview itself, contextual data (i.e. maps
of the town) were additionally collected. A total
of 28 people participated in the study. The overall sample represented a mixture of age, gender
and social-economic groups, specifically male
(n=15) and female (n=12).
A discursive psychological approach was
employed, which included a critical discourse
analysis. However, here one should also observe
that this methodological approach does not offer
a fixed strategy, but rather a general set of guidelines for textual analysis (Parker 1992). A combination of two approaches to discourse analysis
was used. These included Potter and Wetherell’s (1994) discursive strategy, emphasising the
variability and function of discourse, as well as
a Parkerian approach directed towards a critical
orientation, which facilitated an examination of
power, ideology and institutional influence. Furthermore, underlining the significance of argumentation in social life, this analysis will integrate Billig’s (1987, 1991) rhetorical approach
to social psychology. Although no formal analytic approach was utilised, spatial segregation
patterns were further examined by mapping
changes in the physical layout of the town. Analysis of the interplay between spatial and linguistic dynamics of racialised isolation expands the
framework in which we understand ongoing segregation patterns (Christopher 2001). The article
uses the proposed socio-spatial framework to
help uncover mechanisms of informal segregation, specifically exploring the positioning of the
Indian minority.
Context of Segregation: Indians in Akasia,
Mokopane falls within the Mogalakwena municipality district, incorporating many neighbour-
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ing villages. An estimate of 19,394 people
reside in the town of Mokopane, excluding the
neighbouring ‘townships’ of Mahwelereng and
Sekegakapeng. Of the four racial categories constructed under apartheid, three of these ‘race’
groups hold a presence in Mokopane: Black,
White and Indian. The designated Indian township assigned during apartheid was named Akasia. There are approximately: 9,111 Black African,
9,419 White, 771 Indian and 93 Coloured persons in Mokopane (Mogalakwane Municipality
2009; Statistics South Africa 2003, 2011). Agriculture has historically been the town’s main industry, however currently the mining industry has
taken precedence. For example, Mogalakwena
Platinum Mine (MPM), located very near to
Mokopane within the Mogalakwena municipality,
has contributed significantly to economic growth
in the district (Mogalakwane Municipality 2009).
As one of the oldest towns in the old Northern
Transvaal, Mokopane, formerly known as Potgietersrus, was founded on a series of conflicts
between the local communities and the Voortrekkers [Boer settlers who had left the Cape in
the 1830s] (Du Plooy 1995). The town of Potgietersrus was officially named after the Voortrekker
leader, Piet Potgieter. In 2002 the town of Potgietersrus was renamed Mokopane. ‘Mgombane’
was the chief of the Kekana’s ‘tribe’, responsible
for Potgieter’s death. As in other parts of South
Africa, renaming is a tool used to assert a new
place identity which transcends colonial and
apartheid white supremacy.
The history of the Indian community can be
dated to a few pioneer families who settled in
Mokopane in 1888, engaged in the trade industry
in the town. Most of the Indians in Akasia come
from the province of Gujarat and follow the Muslim religion; although a few are Gujarati-speaking
Hindus (Hassan, Catchalia and Mohamed 2004).
More Indians slowly moved into the area from
Natal, adding to the population of Akasia. Akasia remains primarily Indian. However, in recent
years, a few African families have moved around
the boundaries of the area (Moglalkwena
municipality 2009). Officially there are 771 Indians living in Mokopane (Statistics South Africa
S. Besharati, D. Foster
Spatial Illustration of Continued Informal
A. J. Christopher’s (2001) Atlas of a Changing
South Africa presents a visual account of the
separation enforced upon South Africa. The
deconstruction of apartheid’s spatial divisions,
both in wider institutional separations and the
more ‘personal’ apartheid, is an on-going process. The structural architecture of apartheid not
only affected the larger segregation patterns in
urban centers, but invaded private spaces. Christopher’s studies have shown the effectiveness of
using visual representations, like maps, to track
changes in segregation patterns. With the abolition of the Group Areas Act, investigating the
‘remapping of the Apartheid City’ may provide
further insight into new patterns of segregation
(Dixon, Tredoux and Clack 2005).
The Map in Figure 1 is a simplified presentation of the topographical layout of what was previously known as Potgietersrus. The area marked
as ‘Sentraal’ represents both the residential and
business center. Before the imposition of the
Group Areas Act the White and Indian populations resided in the central area, with the Black
community living on the outskirts, mostly in surrounding villages. This mixed living was mediated
by the Indians providing trade services. The main
businesses in town were clustered in Potgieter
Street, renamed Nelson Mandela Street in the
post-apartheid period, and marked in red on the
map. However, with the imposition of the Group
Areas act in 1950, Potgieterus was tailored to fit
the architectural design of the new ‘apartheid
city’. To promote the ‘separate development’
policy of the new apartheid government, Potgieterus was declared a “White” area in 1963, and
in 1969 the Akasia Township was established as
a designated “Indian” area (Hassan, Cachalia and
Mohamed 2004). Interestingly, Potgieter Street
runs directly to Akasia and the Mosque specifically, therefore limiting the movement of the
Indian community to a very small section of the
town, even somewhat detached from the more
central White areas of Potgieterus.
The larger township of Segsegapang was also
established further north of Akasia. Maharaj
(1995) comments on how Indian townships such
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
Figure 1:Map of Potgietersrus/Mokopane pre-1999
The map shown is a simplified topographical layout of the town of Mokopane, when it was previously known as
Potgietersus before 1999. The map shows the different ‘areas’ of the town, namely: the ‘sentraal’ area which was
both a residential and business area for the White population, and the ‘Akasia’ area (highlighted in yellow), which
was the designated area for the Indian community after the imposition of the Group Areas Act. The main street
running though the town, Potgieter Street, is highlighted in red, and it is where the main businesses of the town
Source: Mogalakwane Municipality. 2009. Integrated Development Planning review. Unpublished Manuscript.
as Akasia seemed to act as a buffer between
“White” and “Black” areas physically and perhaps symbolically. The Akasia area appears to
serve the same purpose, being placed directly
in between the “White” and “Black” districts of
Potgieterus, and also unusually close to the trade
centres (Xaba 2001). This positioning of the
Indian locality also serves as a spatial representation of the hierarchical categorisation of the
apartheid system, with Indians having marginally
more privileges than Africans. The implementation of the Group Areas Act used buffer zones
or natural barriers to limit interracial mingling.
Many Indians in Mokopane were involved in the
trade industry, currently holding a strong economic presence in the town. The Akasia neighbourhood interestingly is almost attached and
runs directly to Potgieter Street, the business
hub of Mokopane. The Indian “township” is relatively removed from the White neighbourhoods,
but near enough to the business district to facilitate the needed trade services.
The current map of Mokopane (see Figure 2)
does show significant growth. However, the ‘Sentraal’ and Akasia residential areas have remained
primarily White and Indian. Sections marked
seven and eight are mostly occupied by Black
residents, while section nine and twelve are the
newest neighborhoods and have a mixture of
both White and Black residents, and a sprinkling
of Indian people. Areas to the right of the city
centre are mostly industrial. The representation
of the town, as demonstrated in the above maps,
runs in close comparison with that of Goldberg’s
(1998) portrayal of the ‘new segregation’, a society with no legal constraints to interaction, yet
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S. Besharati, D. Foster
Figure 2: Map of Mokopane at Present
The map shown is a simplified topographical layout of the town of Mokopane at present. The current map shows
significant growth in the town. The area marked in blue is the ‘sentral’ area, which has remained mostly inhabited
by the White population, while the ‘Akasia’ area, highlighted in yellow, has remained primarily an Indian residential area. The sections labelled as seven and eight are occupied mostly by Black residents, while area nine and
twelve are the newest and more affluent areas that have a mixture of both White and Black residents. The areas
to the right of the city centre are mostly industrial.
Source: Mogalakwane Municipality. 2009. Integrated Development Planning review. Unpublished Manuscript.
persistent in its tendency towards racial isolation.
Through interviews and informal conversations,
it became apparent that only a handful of Indian
families have chosen to live outside Akasia; from
my interactions, five very affluent families have
moved out of the neighborhood.
Despite the removal of legal segregation
enforced by the Group Areas Act, divisions of
the ‘old Apartheid City’ remain relatively intact.
Askasia has remained primarily an “Indian” area,
with a few Africans moving in. The notion of
place identity therefore resonates with this illustration. Similar to Durrheim’s (2005) description
of the historical importance of spatiality, Dixon
(1997) maintains that racial identity is imprinted
within physical locations. Although Akasia was
initially established as an institutional demand of
the apartheid government, the area now holds
a more symbolic meaning. It was their space, an
Indian space, and therefore not a mere physical
location but rather a promise of acceptance and
Discursive Depictions of Continued Informal
Despite evident restructuring of the town, residents, particularly Indians, still assume a physical separation. The basic observational analysis of the above spatial patterns in the layout
of Mokopane, and the arrangement of Akasia
itself, demonstrates continued racial isolation.
Participants’ discursive constructions of change
and racial integration in Mokopane overwhelmingly demonstrate a pattern of continued informal segregation. Twenty-five of the participants,
across gender divides, constructed a picture of
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
regulated contact. As one respondent, Abraham,
remarked, ‘By in large, apartheid served its purpose, it has kept people apart’. Despite structural
changes, it appears that ‘the character of the
town has stayed the same’, as described by Grace:
‘I often say to people that you stay in Mokopane
in the Limpopo province, but you are still living
in the Northern Transvaal [laugh]. Nothing has
changed! I refuse to call it Mokopane, because I
feel that it is still Potties.’
That is not to say that there has been no
amendment to the previous social structure. As
with the physical name change from Potgietersrus to Mokapane, there has been structural
and social transformation in the town, as in Masroor’s description, ‘today things are different, you
could not imagine that we were treated as animals’. Although there is evidence of transformation, the intimacy of such contact is once again
questioned. Racial contact in the town may be
routine and frequented in different daily activities (see Durrheim and Dixon’s 2005 for similar
example), however genuine social contact is lacking. One respondent, Salim, explains:
We have pretty much stayed apart, geographically,
but as well as socially… I really don’t think they give
a damn. They are living their own life. They don’t
mix with the Indians, and we don’t have other
In the narrative Salim directly expresses the apathetic attitude of the town towards real social
integration. His statement not only objectifies
and depersonalises other ‘race’ groups by using
they to identify them, but demonstrates a lack of
any desire to instigate or cultivate a friendship
with anyone other than Indians. This is reiterated
by Mona who expresses her frustrations with living in the town:
It sometimes becomes very frustrating, because
we don’t have those opportunities, that open
mindedness… It is not just the Indian community,
but the entire town, hmm, they just don’t see
things futuristically… People deal with each other
because of business or work, but it is pretty superficial… I come home, she comes home, our cultures
are very different, that sort of thing… There is an
open door to allow you to talk about business, but
were not going to come over every Saturday for a
braai [barbeque] or sit on your couch.
Much emphasis has been placed in traditional
social psychological literature on the importance
of contact in finding a ‘resolution’ to prejudice’
(Dixon, Durrheim and Tredoux 2005). However,
the transformation attempts in Mokopane demonstrate how change in a social organisation does
not necessarily result in a change of attitudes.
Fatimah’s statement, for example, illustrates this
apparent lack of shift in attitudes and practice;
“Ya, you won’t change the attitude too much, but
we all live where we want to live… some people
are just stuck in their ways”. Even with regards
to the local High school2, racial divisions tend
to persist spatially. Iraj explains: “We are just
separate, we just stay out of each other’s way.
I know that the Indians have a certain section
of the school”. In this example the intersection
between a space and ideology again surfaces. It
is not just a school, a neutral geographic location; it is interlocked with historical and personal
significance. Racialised categories in the town
appear to ‘know their place’, as an unwritten
rule or as a result of social conditioning. Without institutional or legal demands, groups demonstrate a natural tendency to migrate towards
‘their own kind’; therefore keeping to previously
defined spatial locations.
Spatial positioning in the town and even the
school may not be inadvertent, but echoes the
analysis of White Spatial dominance (see Schreiff
et al. 2005). Potties is referred to as “their town”,
the “farming town”, as Sujata expressed, “Ya this
actually is an Afrikaans town… You feel you are a
small part of a big White Afrikaans town, you do
anything to survive in this town because you are
Indian”. Although Afrikaners are in the minority,
White supremacy appears to still linger. Similarly,
in the local high school, the notion of spatial
The local high school in question was previously
an Afrikaans medium high school. The associated primary school had a very contested and violent integration process, when forced to desegregate the school
and change the language medium. The high school
was permitted to become a dual-medium school and
avoided a similar experience, but still the school remains primarily Afrikaans, and so White, with a handful of English (Black and Indian) students. Language
appeared to be used as an excuse to maintain a degree of racial separation.
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entitlement re-emerges. Echoing Dolby’s (2001)
case-study on an Indian student at Fernwood
School, Indian students at the local high school
similarly experience a subordinate position. As
Iraj again explains, “The school is doing us a big
favour by accommodating us.” Previous graduates describe their experience as “racist, actually
not so good” or as Jatin describes:
“It was a White school and being Indian [pause] that
was difficult. It was like, he is Indian, we look down
on him, yeah…In a farming town, the White race
still dominates”.
It appears that a racial hierarchy still dictates
‘race’ relations in the town. Textual constructions of space, across most interviews, primarily
converge on the representation of the town as
a ‘farming community’ and ‘Afrikaans town’. The
collective identity of the Afrikaner volk is intrinsic to the idea of the boer or the farmer (see
Dubow 1992), interlocked within the spatial significance of the bush veld. Therefore, a description of the town as a farming community or ‘Afrikaner stronghold’, provides greater insight to the
Indians’ perception of white spatial identity and
dominance in the town.
‘Potties’, the abbreviated term for Potgietersrus, is not just a town, but a space that resonates with reminders of past oppression. As
Parvin put it: “In this town, how we suffered with
all those Whites. How they used to boycott our
shops… at one stage the government was ready
to deport all the Indians”. Parvin’s narrative contains the negative undertone latent with the
community’s depiction of Mokopane, and paralleled in Navid’s words: “I don’t want to stay in the
middle of a boera [farmer] place”. Goli similarly
explains how she prefers to just stay away from
the ‘White dominant areas’, and how it is still difficult for her to be reminded of past injustices.
In contrast, Akasia embodies a place of comfort,
‘home’. Akasia was no longer a space imposed by
the apartheid government, but rather a refuge
away from Afrikaner dominance. Here the ideological becomes physical. Finchilescu’s (2005)
notion of meta-stereotypes may also explain why
the Indian community prefers to stay away from
“White” identified areas. Avoidance of these con-
S. Besharati, D. Foster
tact situations may thus be a result of intergroup
anxiety, causing the Indians to withdraw into
their comfort zones.
It appears that reconciliation has taken limited
hold within the community, possibly as a result
of enduring resentment of the apartheid past.
The majority of participants reported stronger
feelings of solidarity with the Black community,
explaining that “during apartheid, we were seen
as Black”. Drawing on this shared oppression during the struggle, Abraham articulates a sense of
community with his ‘African neighbours’, explaining how it is “easier to relate to African people,
there is no difference, I always considered ourselves as the oppressed group, the ANC talks
about the Black oppressed, that includes Indians
and Coloureds.” In contrast, there is still much
resentment directed towards the White community, particularly the Afrikaners, most admitting
to a kind of “boer [farmer] hate”.
Experiences of Exclusion
Contrary to previous research, racial isolation in
Mokopane moves beyond informal segregation
to what can be described as hidden or covert
racism. Several discourses reaffirmed this idea of
masked racism, as in Yusif’s description: “most of
it is just swept underneath the carpet.” Yusif and
Abraham continue to describe how townspeople
perform opposing public and private roles (see
Goffman’s 1971): ‘So there are those people that
can be nice because of business, but we are not
home friends… behind closed doors, you are still
a coolie3’, ‘Ya there might be a degree of superiority among the white folks over other groups…
but that open racism is not there, but you feel
it at times, the majority [White people] keep to
themselves’. Despite the structural changes in
the town, participants describe that ‘the character of the town has stayed the same’. As Jasmine
I think it is not easily forgotten. For me it serves
as a barrier. That memory is still so deep that you
often look at people and wonder, you have enjoyed
everything for all your life and you still stand there
and look at me as if you are superior.
‘Coolie’ is historically a derogatory name used to
refer to Indians in South Africa.
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
It appears that apartheid’s previous ideologies
have not yet dissolved, but still linger. More
covert mechanisms, such as informal segregation
or hidden racism, seem to arise and re-establish
the status quo. Interestingly, when speaking to
both White and Black residents, the Indian community emerged as misunderstood and isolated,
as “quite another ball game altogether.” As a
minority in the town, Indians possibly assume
the identity of the ‘other’. As one Afrikaans resident described: “But the Indian community, you
know, have their own religion, we cannot be intimate friends, because you cannot have a very
good relationship if you don’t have the same
In the absence of the ‘optimal conditions’ of
racial contact (Pettigrew 1998; Pettigrew and
Tropp 2006), racial interaction is sometimes characterised by hostility, even violence. Descriptions
used by Iraj and Mohammad illustrate the nature
of racial conflict and reveal the volatile nature of
inter-racial relations in Mokopane:
And when people don’t discuss issues and hide it
under the mattress, it sometimes burns up and explodes… you still have racism among the Whites, in
certain places you cannot go, they will start fights.
So to avoid that we just keep away.
Dolby’s (2001) overall impression of the Fernwood School is similarly described. She explains
that desegregation in the school, like the town,
is conflict-ridden, with hostilities erupting with
increased racial contact. Re-segregation thus
‘diffuses’ racial tension, adopting a peace-keeping function. Therefore it can be argued that
informal segregation acts as a regulator of hostile and hidden racism, “So you get conflict, but
they just won’t fight they just abstain from one
Rhetorical Constructions of ‘Race’
Wetherell and Potter (1992) argue that discourses are not purely ideological, but also
adopt a rhetorical function. In this way, “race
talk” can be considered as rhetorically constructed to create a particular reality, seemingly
factual and stable, by using various discursive
devices. Drawing from ancient Greek rhetorical
tradition, Billig (1987) maintains that language
is a method of persuasion, actively constructed
against an “other”. In all interviews, some form
of argumentative dialectic emerged. In navigating their story of “Indianness” in Mokopane,
discursive constructions regarding racial interactions in the town commonly took shape in the
form of argumentative practices. Two dominant
rhetorical strategies can be located, labelled
as “normal”, which moves into a defensive
Normalise and Justify
This is a process in which a phenomenon is
described as normal and natural, functioning to
close off the argument. Billig (1991) argues that
customs and practices emerge as uncontroversial and undisputed when identified as natural
or normal. In most interviews, but in particular
among Indian men, the interview was eventually concluded by racial divisions being described
as natural or normal. The conception that racial
“groupings” are an innate or unchangeable tendency was duplicated in multiple discourses; participants describe how “naturally you socialise
with people that are the same as you” or “how
it is a natural thing for a person to like his own
community or group”, creating a normalised representation of segregation.
Across interviews, rhetorical constructions
were orientated towards the regulation of the
status quo. Rhetorical practices commonly function to legitimise or normalise racial division
(Durrheim and Dixon 2005). As in Wetherell and
Potter’s (1992) conclusions in Mapping the Language of Racism, where White New Zealanders
used the “culture” of the Maori people to legitimise segregation, the Indian community similarly
used the “culture” argument to defend their own
“cultural” exclusivity. Persons seemed moved to
validate their reasons for limited interactions
with other “race” groupings in the town, using
Indian “culture” as a motivation. Standard rhetorical arguments of self-distancing and victimisation (Billig 1991) can thus be identified as core
rhetorical techniques used. Individuals seemed
to deflect self-blame or avoid a racist label by
using the “culture” defense, as replicated in Misag’s statement:
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You see they have a different culture… I think as a
rule we like to stay among ourselves. But it is our
culture, it is a natural thing.
The normalisation strategy then moves into a
“comfort” rhetoric: it is not only normal, but more
comfortable to prefer “culturally” similar company. In Shanta’s case she explains that before
meeting her Indian colleague she had friends at
the office, but now has “someone she can relate
to”. Iraj honestly conveys this impression of ingroup solidarity by explaining that “An Indian just
feels for another Indian”.
However, the presentation of racial segregation as a natural human experience can be understood beyond rhetorical workings, in the context
of what Barker (1981) refers to as the “new racism”. This theory proposes that, for better or for
worse, it is a human condition to be bound to
one’s “community”, aware of “outside” differences, maintaining that it is human instinct to
preserve one’s culture and defend one’s territory.
Focusing on British attitudes towards immigration, Barker further identifies an emotional connection with the nation as not just a place, but
a national home. It is further explained that the
“new racism” can also be considered as a “cultural
racism”. To appear more neutral and appropriate in justifications for continued racial division,
assumed racial differences are explained as cultural variations or dismissed as inherent lifestyles
and habits. As Vahid illustrates:
You look for company you are comfortable with… it
is a natural thing for a person to like his own community or group, there is nothing wrong with it. I
can relate easier to people that are not white. I
have White friends, but it is not an easy relationship. I have no feeling of comfort with White Folk.
Foreign Invasion and a New and Pattern of
Indian Segregation
Up to now this study has documented changes
in segregation patterns, comparing Indian integration with other racialised groupings in Mokopane. However, interviews and observational
analysis revealed internal divisions and hostility
within the Indian minority. Again drawing on Billig’s (1987, 1991) notion of an internalised dialogue, the Akasia community is engaged within
S. Besharati, D. Foster
their own internal segregation struggle. With the
community remaining small in its numbers and
with few families moving in, group solidarity during the apartheid period was described as strong.
The Indian population in South Africa was very
stable for almost a century, with no new infusions
of people. Since the end of apartheid, many new
immigrants from the sub-continent have arrived,
coming mostly from India and Pakistan, and have
moved into cities and towns such as Mokopane.
These people are simultaneously slotting into
“perceived” apartheid categories and disrupting
those groupings, especially for those who were
historically labeled by them. The exact number
of recent immigrants in Mokopane is unclear,
partially due to the fact that many are residing in
South Africa illegally. As a result, the dynamics of
the Indian minority in Akasia appear to be shifting, with the community forced to mediate their
own internal divisions. Brown (1995) describes
social categorisation as necessary for any form
of prejudice. Without distinguishable groups, it
is almost impossible to discriminate or segregate.
Classification implies a label or given name, if we
are not labelled as “other” there is limited difference on which to act. Apartheid classifications
labelled and grouped a large cluster of people
into one category of Indian. However conceptions of Indianness lie on a broad spectrum. In
this case, two separate categories of “Indian”
surface: South African Indian and immigrant
Indian. Abrahams describes there being ‘a lot
of Indians from the Indian sub-continent, so it
is that sort of Indianness that draws them here…
There is a marked difference, in attitudes, manners and approach’.
Drawing on an Us-Them/We-They distinction,
two South African Indians describe the large
increase in recent Indian and Pakistani immigrants and the apparent ‘differences’ between
them: “they are definitely becoming the majority” (Nava), while Yashpal asserts a more marked
difference; “they are from there [India], we
are not”. Participants’ discursive constructions
acted to create a separate category, referring
to “them” as aliens or foreigners. As a religious
leader in the community, Vahid attributes this
difference to westernisation. We are reminded
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
of Hutnik’s (1991) conclusions that minority
values constantly come under pressure by the
majority, resulting in minorities often conforming with majority values (i.e. western values). A
clear example of this is the adoption of English
as the primary language medium; only some of
the elderly community speaks any local Indian
dialect. English, for the South African Indians has
now become the language of choice. As Vahid, a
South African Indian respondent, explains:
Our ways have changed, we have developed, if I
can call it westernised, eating habits, ways of dressing, everything has changed. But those people still
have that culture… for a long time we have been
exposed to western education system and learning
White history and I think their ways are different
and the people are different.
Following the apparent classification of the
“other”, a sense of fear also surfaces with the
influx of the immigrants (for a different example
of invasion narratives see Durrheim and Dixon’s
2004). The “local” Indian community complains
about the influx of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, “coming in large numbers”. Parvin’s
description highlights their frustration and concern of invasion or taking over:
Oh yes! Oh, I can’t live with them, I don’t know, I
don’t mix with them. We are flocked with Indians
and Pakistanis. You don’t really talk to them… people are not too happy with it. There is an issue of
overcrowding. It is escalating, it has not stopped
Some of the South African Indian participants
even go as far as describing it as a “new apartheid” or xenophobia. Salim attributes the difference to “habits, like personal hygiene”, while
acknowledging the discrimination as “almost like
apartheid in our own culture” and recognizes
that “it is a bad thing”. Akbar describes their
relationship by explaining that “we have friendships but we know our limits”. An underlying hostility may also still linger. A sense of “tension” is
described, accredited to the degree of contact.
According to some respondents, the conflict
is exacerbated by living together. The consequences of such attitudes should not be underestimated in light of new xenophobic tensions
that could arise between groups (for review see
Harris 2002). Vahid, for example, has a particular
vantage point, since he is a religious leader. His
assessment is that:
People keep things in their hearts, they hide their
feelings, but sometimes derogatory names are
used. Like in previous times the Whites had names
for people. So it also crops up from South African
Indians and those coming from India, someone will
make a comment. People don’t discuss it, but the
problem can erupt, because the tension is building
up and then there are outbursts.
Unlike apartheid’s enforced racial segregation,
the internal segregation described is not due
to legislative or institutional demands. Jithoo
(1985, July) describes how the caste system in
India was carried over into the South African
Indian community, proving that internal segregations and classification are not a novelty within
this minority group. A further motivation driving
inter-group segregation is class: the immigrant
population is less affluent than the South African
Indians, acting as an obstacle to integration. Practically, segregation is a result of housing affordability which then reinforces social segregation.
Here it becomes apparent that segregation is
not always caused by prejudice, but rather that
prejudice is a result of segregation (see Saldanha
2007). In fact outsiderness can be mobilised to
define social cleavages (see Ballard 2004). As
Essed (1991) argues, it is difficult to separate the
micro and macro aspects of segregation, since in
many ways they are codependent entities. With
this in mind, institutional ideologies may have
easily filtered down into the everyday experiences of the Indian minority. Prejudice and tendencies towards categorisation, whether arising
from traditional Indian conventions or apartheid
dogmas, now are seemingly integrated into the
daily experiences of the Indians in Akasia.
Towards Reconciliation
It is easy to pinpoint small towns as being highly
racist or conservative in their views. The real
question asked is: how we can progress in our
reconciliation efforts? Obviously there is no
easy solution to prejudice and social divisions,
however studies such as this can lead to social
action or at least help communities engage in a
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dialogue of transformation. This account of the
Akasia minority may appear to be labelling and
characterising integration patterns as unpromising. However, there were many clear markers of
a move towards reconciliation.
Although not the focus of this study, isolated
cases of reconciliation were readily identified.
Racial integration at schools in South Africa has
mostly not resulted in genuine racial integration.
Although formal legislation on segregation in
schools has long been disbanded, genuine interracial integration has proved to be problematic
(Dolby 2001; Holtman et al. 2005). Integration
challenges at schools in Mokopane are not an
exception. Inter-racial tension at the local high
school is in fact a continued problem for the
Indian community in particular. Some interviews
even raised concerns relating to the establishment of a private primary school in the Indian
area, causing both racial and economic divisions
in the community4. However, observations concluded that in both the government and private
primary school there is an almost even ratio
between Black and Indian students, with few
White learners attending either school. Interviews and observations revealed that integration between Black and Indian students has had
very positive results. Ashwine, the principle of
Akasia Primary School – the government school –
describes the relationship between the Black and
Indian children as encouraging. Ashwine explains
how Black and Indian children “run to him and
A local public primary school has long been the
only ‘Indian’ primary school in the area, previously
designated as an ‘Indian only’ school during apartheid. In recent years, the school has integrated with
many Black and few White students. Five years ago, a
new private primary school was established by a few
affluent members of the Indian community. Certain
interviews revealed a concern among some of the parents regarding the low standard of the public school
resulting in the founding of the private school. Other
participants however, questioned the true intentions
of the founding of the new school, claiming the true
concern was concerning the influx of too many Black
students to the school. However, observations concluded that the private school itself has more Black
students than Indian; both primary schools appeared
to have a good ratio of Black-to-Indian students, with
few White learners attending.
S. Besharati, D. Foster
hug him… truly seeing what mixing has done”. In
both schools teachers describe, and observations
concur, that Indian and Black learners interact
in class-rooms and the playground without any
apparent racialised animosity or social distance.
Referring to Black-Indian interactions in the private school, one of the mothers recalls her child
referring to a Black friend as “the chocolate covered boy”. This description suggests that the boy
is seemingly oblivious to racialised classification,
describing his friend with a childlike innocence.
Moreover, it appears that group cohesiveness can be achieved with the mediation of one
commonality. Brown (1995) argues that social
classification is a prerequisite for prejudice, and
therefore that breaking down social categories
may minimise bigoted tendencies. He proposes
a hypothesis of cross-cutting categories as a
commonly found phenomenon. Brown describes
cross-cutting categories as two categories that
literally ‘cut’ the other, creating a common factor between different groups. For example, the
Black and Indian groupings are two racialised categories that can be ‘cut’ or ‘crossed’ by religion,
language, gender or the liberation struggle, facilitating what is called cross-cutting kinship. Many
seemingly different groups are in fact interdependent. This may, for example, explain how the
combined effort of the Black and Indian population in the liberation struggle may have helped
harbour better relations between the two groups.
A further example of cross-cutting kinship may
be represented by Kayvan, a Black Muslim, living
in Akasia and working for the Mosque. Kayvan,
a middle-aged family-man, proved to be a noteworthy case-example of the possibilities that exist
for group integration. As a Black male, originally
from the townships, Kayvan narrates how Akasia
has now become his home. After converting to
Islam and pursuing Islamic studies, Kayvan now
works for the mosque and lives with his family in
Akasia. Although his account does comment on
the ‘cultural’ differences and consequent difficulties in integration, his Muslim identity appears to
overshadow other differences, including ‘race’.
In this respect, it is interesting to consider the
impact of these commonalities and cross-cutting
aspects. Nationality, camaraderie during the
Understanding Informal Segregation Diversities Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013 • ISSN 2079-6595
apartheid struggle, to a lesser extent education
and most strikingly religion can be examples of
such commonalities or cross-cutting categories.
It also appears that the less pervasive racial categorisation is, the lower the tendency for racial
segregation. In line with Pettigrew’s (1998) conclusions, the emotional qualities that characterise such interracial friendships must also be
investigated. Exploring the reasons behind such
changes in behaviour or integration patterns
can enlighten our understanding of how to cultivate inter-racial friendships. In many respects
the reconciliation processes in South Africa can
be considered as top-down or institutional transformation. Bottom-up or grassroots attempts at
reconciliation with communities may prove to
be more successful in instigating genuine change
and integration.
Although this study was limited to a small, casespecific investigation, it serves as another important addition in the analysis of the micro-ecology
of segregation. Using the Akasia community in
the small town of Mokopane as a micro-ecological setting, this study has attempted to engage
in a dialogue of transformation and raise the
voice of the South African Indian minority. It has
been argued that ‘race’ relation research is in
need of both a perspective and methodological
shift, moving research into more natural, real-life
settings. This paper explored the lasting consequences of segregation and classification by analysing the spatial dimensions (e.g. physical layout
of the town) using observational methods, and
discursive constructions by analysing how people talk about space.
A continued pattern of informal segregation
was easily identified in Mokopane among the
Indian minority community. Informal segregation
is not only a reinforced everyday practice, but
acts as a regulator of hidden and hostile racism.
The struggle to dismantle the physical and ideological legacy of apartheid is thus ongoing. Informal segregation can be attributed as an enduring
consequence of the Group Areas Act, with segregation effecting public and private spaces. A new
pattern of internal segregation was further identified between the ‘South African Indians’ and
‘immigrant Indians’. The assigned colonial/apartheid racial category (Indian) continues to have
enormous material and discursive importance
in the post-apartheid era, which continues to
operate as a social cleavage in the town. Added
to this, there is now a new immigrant population group that somehow is incorporated into
the received category of ‘Indian’, even though
they were never part of the story of apartheid.
This apparent ‘slotting in’ is, however, not seamless within the generalised category, since the
established ‘South African Indian’ group does
not identify with them. Future research should
invest attention to mapping progress in cases
of reconciliation in particular. This study has
demonstrated that a commonality can be the
biggest influence in group integration, whether
it’s ‘culture’, family, nationality or religion. More
direct focus on successful accounts of integration
can offer more insight into the key components
needed for future reconciliation.
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Note on the Authors
Sahba Besharati is trained in clinical neuropsychology in South Africa, and is currently in
the third year of her Ph.D. undergoing a split-site collaboration between the University of Cape
Town and the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London. Sahba’s research draws on a socialcognitive neuroscientific approach in understanding questions of identity, self-contentiousness
and the bodily self. Her Ph.D. investigates the neurocognitive, social and emotional components
of unawareness of illness in brain damaged patients.
Don Foster is Professor of Psychology and Deputy Dean of Humanities at the University of Cape
Town. He has published widely on the topic of social identities in South Africa.