Indian South Africans as a middleman minority : historical and contemporary perspectives

26 April 2023

Beginning in the 1940s, a literature on middleman minorities emerged to demystify the intermediary economic niche that Jews had occupied in medieval Europe. They were viewed as ethnic entrepreneurs occupying the economic status gap. In the 1960s, scholars began to apply middleman minority theory to colonial societies and to American society. More recently, Coloureds in South Africa have been identified as a middleman minority of another type: semiprivileged proletarians occupying an economic status gap in labour between whites and Africans. A political status gap between whites and Africans, both seeking alliances to achieve hegemony, is also occupied by Coloureds. Among South African Indians, one finds ethnic entrepreneurs: a small shopkeeping and trading class from South Asia. But there are also Indian semi-privileged proletarians who emerged from the indentured labour population in the early twentieth century. This article employs a historical institutional approach to analyse political tensions among Indians, and examines the cleavage between Indians and other races over political rights vis-a vis the South African state. It also offers a typology contrasting ethnic entrepreneurs with semi-privileged proletarians in terms of the differing economic status gaps they occupy. Furthermore, it illustrates how Indians occupy a political status gap in a complex settler colonial society like South Africa.