The richness of Hindu culture first touched the shores of South Africa almost 140 years ago when the first load of indentured Indian laborers from the Indian motherland were brought to the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1860 on board the Truro.
The harsh, oppressive conditions under which these early arrivals toiled were tantamount to slavery. But the indomitable spirit of these pioneering groups of Indians ensured that the seeds of Hinduism were sown and nurtured over successive generations with the same care as the lush sugarcane fields that began to thrive in the former British colony.
Presently, South Africa is aptly referred to as a "rainbow nation," but among the heterogeneous cacophony of cultural and religious persuasions that has become rooted in South African soil, Hinduism still commands a proud and substantive following. The nectar of Hinduism is being quaffed by whites and indigenous black South Africans who have come to embrace it.
Whilst this trickle towards Hinduism bears good tidings for Hinduism's staunch devotees in South Africa, the torrent of conversions away is of great concern. The highest rate of conversion is towards Christianity. Converts complain of a lack of understanding of the basic pillars of Hinduism. The religion is bound too much by rituals and traditions that may have lost their relevance in the modern era. Hindu religious leaders tend to remain too aloof and, therefore, inaccessible when their spiritual counseling is most desperately required. The former apartheid regime paid only lip service to the concept of religious freedom, a noble principle enshrined in the present South African constitution. But the forces of Hinduism have not moved fast enough to capitalize on this, some argue. Even those who have remained loyal Hindus lament the fact that very few opportunities exist for the mastering of Hindu languages and scriptures.
As for the Hindu youth, the country's integration process--particularly at schools and universities--sees them being bombarded by diverse cultural influences. Religious leaders, parents and apathetic youth--some of whom openly confess to being "embarrassed" about lending support to or participating in Hindu arts and cultural festivals--must share responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs.
Salutations must, however, be extended to several Hindu bodies which are actively involved in the upliftment of some of the most downtrodden of South Africa's people who eke out miserable existences under conditions of abject poverty. Although attendances at informal Hindu art, cultural and drama classes continue to dwindle, instructors persevere admirably in their quest to spread the cultural richness of Hinduism to the religion's future--the youth. Entrepreneurs are also playing their role by opening restaurants that serve traditional Indian delicacies--in this way, interest in Indian cuisine is being spread to all sectors of South Africa's rainbow nation.
In looking ahead though, a few causes of concern remain. It is up to all whose spirituality is grounded on the bedrock of Hinduism--especially parents and religious leaders--to ensure that succeeding generations have the will, the dedication and an unwavering belief in the virtues of Hinduism, to sustain it into the next millennium and beyond.
Ajith Bridgraj, 34,is a school teacher and freelance journalist who serves in many of his country's social upliftment projects.