College of Humanities

Emigrants of SA Indian Descent in Australia – How do they Identify Themselves?

The majority of South Africans of Indian descent living in Australia refer to themselves as South Africans rather than by their ethnic identity.

UKZN’s PhD in Sociology graduate, Dr Subashini Govender, says she made the discovery during research for her degree which focussed on the transnational migration experiences of South Africans of Indian descent in Australia, particularly their identity construction and how they create a sense of ‘home’ in Australia while still being connected to South Africa.

In 2019, Govender was awarded the UKZN Doctoral Research Scholarship and was also one of the winners in the School of Social Sciences essay writing competition – part of that award granted her the opportunity to attend a decolonisation workshop in Botswana.

Her choice of topic was influenced by her supervisor, Dr Kathryn Pillay, who had visited relatives in Australia and noticed the challenges that SA expats of Indian descent experienced.

An important finding, says Govender, was the tension and contestation in identity construction. In South Africa, it was easy for participants in the research to refer to themselves as ‘Indian’ because South Africans still use ‘racialised language’.

However, in Australia, they did not identify as ‘Indian’ because part of their identity was constructed in relation to Indian nationals in the country. The study revealed stark differences between themselves and Indian nationals regarding language, culture, and citizenship. In Australia, SA Indians now generally use their South African nationality to describe themselves.

Amongst other challenges in her study, COVID-19 was the biggest as it prevented her from travelling to Australia, resulting in most interviews conducted via WhatsApp and Skype. However, it turned out well as there were many positives such as being able to reschedule interviews easily and interviewing people throughout the country.

Additionally, she received exceptional support from both the South African community at home and abroad. ‘I posted an advert on Facebook soliciting interviews for my study and people were so helpful – I really appreciated their support,’ she said.

She thanked her husband for his unwavering backing and all he has done for her throughout her studies, and also her supervisor Dr Pillay for her support and compassion throughout the research journey.