YONELA DIKO: Phoenix violence - Indians’ dangerous colour complex


In March 2015, three African students from Cote D’Ivoire were attacked and beaten up in Kothanur, Bengaluru, India. The reason for the attacks had nothing to do with the Ivoirians. They were just unfortunate to share skin pigmentation with a random African national who was allegedly speeding a car and drove rashly in this Indian neighbourhood.

That alleged speeding vehicle by an African triggered anger among Indians who then went on a hunting spree looking for any Africans they could find in the neighbourhood to release their anger, if not on the alleged perpetrators who drove away, any African around would do.

The following year, on 31 January 2016, a Sudanese national had a car accident and a 35-year-old Indian woman was killed. A large group of Indians quickly gathered at the scene and were so angry they burnt his car as he was trying to run away.

This group of Indians also did not think it was enough to avenge the death of their own with the person responsible. They went about looking for any African they could find and three Tanzanian students who were also passing by got caught up in this random chase for Africans. They were badly assaulted, with one of them - a 24-year-old woman - stripped and beaten and her car also torched.

Almost every year in India similar incidents happen to Africans from Chad, Nigeria and South Africa, where Africans have been hounded, harassed and sometimes killed, not because they did anything wrong in particular but because they just happened to be Africans in a community that clearly harbours deep suspicions about Africans. A sin of one African can, in their eyes, justly be visited upon any African in sight. There seems to be great vanity in inflicting pain on the black race itself.

The scenes that came out of Phoenix, a predominantly Indian community in South Africa, where Africans who happened to be in the community became victims of vengeance and vigilantism, not because they did any particular crime or misdeed, but because they were condemned in the eyes of these Indians for having the same skin colour as those who were looting and damaging properties, connected painfully with the general experience of Africans in India.

There were brutal scenes of Indian groupings in Phoenix driving around, carrying weapons of war, looking for anyone with a black skin with the aim was to punish and inflict pain - not on the perpetrators themselves but on anyone who was part of the guilty black race itself. This makes one realise we remain strangers to these people, sojourners, as were all our fathers.

Where does this deep seated prejudice for what is African in the Indian community come from? This is a question many Indian scholars and those in the diaspora have wrestled with for a long time and it’s been a source of shame for Indian progressives.


The main source of these anti-African sentiments in the Indian societies can be traced back into India’s ancient caste system, which used to divide their society into castes that saw a society divided into hierarchical groups. Although that system is no longer official, it endures to this day. Those Indians who were placed at the top of a caste were not allowed to mingle with those at the bottom. The Indians at the top were privileged, had better opportunities, greater access to resources, ate well, lived well and existed in much more friendlier climates and did no hard, manual labor. They predominantly were of fairer skin. At the bottom of the hierarchy of castes were the darker skinned and nappy haired dalits, prejudicially referred to as the untouchables, those no other Indian of better station should mingle with. They are predominantly dark, they did most of the hard outdoor labor, burnt by the sun and earned and ate very little.

Castes remain a defining feature of Indian communities to this day. Whether it’s in marriage, work, social circles, associating with those with darker skins is seen as lowering one's standard and one's place in society. Dark skin is seen as less intelligent, less capable, less human and deserving of any scorn or venom that may be discharged on them.

The same stereotypes that have been attached to the darker Indians are now attached to Africans with greater disdain. Now Africans, treated worse than dalits, are stereotyped as drug dealers, sorcerers, cannibals, kidnappers, snatchers and that black girls sell their bodies. Many Africans who have been assaulted and killed in India have been accused of one or the other of these stereotypes, without a piece of evidence

The caste system has followed Indians wherever they have been and the India south/north divide exists even among Indians here in South Africa.

In the little time I have spent in Durban, I quickly realised that there is an unspoken divide among the Indian community. Those who live in places like Phoenix and Chatsworth are different from those who live in Musgrave and Morningside, and they are definitely different from those who live in Ballito and Umhlanga.

It’s not only a matter of class and affordability, but places like Phoenix and Chatsworth reside predominantly darker people of south Indian descent, who in Indian history have been the victims of mockery and prejudice from the more light skinned Hindu community.

As Arundhati Roy has said, these Indians then take out the same prejudice and disdain they receive from light skinned north Indians on to Africans who come to live in their communities or become neighbours.

The hunting down and killing of innocent Africans in Phoenix over wrongs that have been done to Indian businesses and others, an outcome too different than anywhere else where there was looting. It is exactly what is happening in the south of Deli and other Indian parts where Africans are killed; the deep-seated anti-African sentiments that seeks not to punish those who have committed a crime, but anyone who shares their skin pigmentation is very much alive in both south India and Phoenix.


The experience of dark skinned Indians and Africans have surprisingly been similar. Primarashni Gower, editor of the Mail & Guardian publication "The Teacher", remembers an incident where she was told, "Shut up, you black bitch. I'll slap you" by a light skinned girl. Both Gower and this girl are of Indian descent but of different shades, with Gower of a darker shade.

Gower remembers that the girl was from a Hindi speaking background where being light skinned symbolises superiority and being dark means you are inferior and are expected to occupy the lower rungs of society's ladder.

Gower's parents are from south India and know all too well the north/south divide in India predominantly on the basis of shades of black.

As already stated, Roy sums up the dark skinned and black experience this way. "South Indians who are mocked by north Indians for their dark skins in turn are humiliating Africans for the very same reason. It’s like falling into a borewell with no bottom."

Indeed India seems to have an intense prejudice not for what is black per se but for what is dark, whatever the race. This preference of lighter skin among Indians has had greater implications for Africans who live among Indians, almost the same implications it has for darker skin south Indians who continue to bore the brunt of racial prejudice among their lighter skin counterparts. It has implications on who gets hired, who gets fired, who rises and who falls and how soft is the landing when one falls. Indeed, you see this light skin obsession in billboards, cinemas, and advertisements in India.

When the British arrived in India with their racial segregation system, they found the caste system having already entrenched such color prejudices. Only that the mocked and hated dark skinned people of Indian descent now had another group, the African, for them to project their own victimhood.

Phoenix reflects both the south Indian attitudes towards blacks and their colonial hangover.


It is going to take confronting our prejudices, understanding where they come from, and genuinely seeking to deal with them and end them for us to be able to move forward together.

We have to deal with the legacy of casteism and colonialism deliberately and intentionally, with greater vigour and determination. It starts at our kitchen tables, our schools and workplace where we must drill in the message, everyday, through word and deed, that skin pigmentation is not a measure of anything - not class, not intelligence, not capability and certainly not social status.

If we don’t do that, we will always live life suspicious of one another, and when such anarchy erupts as we saw early July, it will naturally trigger those suspicions and innocent people will be violated because of prejudices that have not been dealt with.

Government has a responsibility every year to bring all the colours of the rainbow nation together to discuss, more honestly and genuinely, the last vestiges of the legacy of our ugly past, before it devours us in the future.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.