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Malayali’s ( from the small state of kerala also called Keralites) residing in Umtata,  like to tell us that when the city was renamed as Mthatha, the alphabet M was added to honour  the Malayali’s in the region ! That’s a joke ofcourse. What is not a joke is the contribution, Keralites have made to the region. Like sweets and ants, so are Keralites with job opportunities. No wonder then that they did not mind crossing the ocean, overcoming apartheid govt obstacles,  driving dusty roads, crossing jungles to finally arrive in this town that presented opportunities to teach in school and treat patients as doctors. From then on, the ubiqitous Malayali can be seen everywhere in town, running schools, owning business, treating patients and working in Universities. Going forward, question that comes to mind is, are Keralites on the road to emulating the Germans? Germans ? you repeat, taken by surprise.  What do these Keralite have in common with Germans?  And why only Germans of all people you wonder. Here’s a story that explains the connection.The story begins with the Crimean War that was fought between the British and Russians in 1850′s wherein Britain faced an untimely defeat. German soldiers, who had fought for Britain while their own country stayed neutral, were not welcomed home. Furthermore Britain was obliged to pay them for another year and so dispatched 2500 Germans to Eastern Cape. Eastern Cape in those days had British Governor Sir George Grey who was attempting to swell the expatriate community to 25 000 . Sir Grey wanted sufficient numbers  to impact the Frontier Wars against the Xhosa who opposed the wholesale occupation of land they viewed as equally theirs. And so  sending Germans to Eastern Cape made strategic sense.  Later when half of Britishers left to fight  the mutiny taking place in India, Grey went over his superiors’ head and brought another 5 000 German families, about to seek greener pastures in America, to the Eastern Cape.


Today their presence is immortalised in a German monument on the beachfront that features a family with a bonneted woman and child staring out to the sea that brought them here.  The German presence continues strongly today in the presence of a big  DaimlerChrysler plant making Mercedes Benz cars. Da Vinci Textiles Mills printing original German print fabrics now as African design. German Lutheran church still holding service in German and annual flea markets selling traditional German stuff. However most of all the German influence is evident with  German names of town  like Berlin, Stutterheim, Hamberg and Potsdam, that  have immortalized their contribution.A similar number of Malayali’s are also contributing to Eastern Cape today. And so will we, one day,  also see another statue on the beach of a Malayali teacher wearing traditional “munde”, holding a book in his hand and looking soulfully at the ocean and his motherland beyond ? And will Mthatha get renamed again as Malayalisthan ? A major diffrence between German and Malayali migration is that Malayali’s did not come as a part of govt strategy and sponsorhip.They came as a result of entreprenuerial initiatives by  ordinary individuals. Hence in a way,  they come closer to the league of European explorers who had ventured into African continent for the first time. Just that our soldiers of fotune carried books in their hand instead of guns. They came not to plunder the land, but to spread the light of knowledge in this region that was steeped in the darkness of illiteracy and poverty. Those were the days when Eastern Cape was made a part of Transkei Home Land,  a creation of the then apartheid government supposedly to give Africans their autonomy . A sham, since it only served to deepen the impact of the inhuman apartheid regime, and so plunged the region into major political turbulence. Specifically, in education  the apartheid regime introduced Bantu Education system in schools, This system was designed to indoctrinate African pupils to accept and recognise the supremacy of the white man over Africans in all spheres. This angered and outraged them and paved the way for their involvement in the struggle.


The Fort Hare University nearby was the first Western-style tertiary education institution in the continent to be open to non-white students.Fort Hare University and nearby Lovedale college became – as they are famously called tiday -the cradle of South African democracy. This is where students became politically active and opposed the apartheid authorities while  enjoying unqualified support of the Fort Hare authorities This is where communism and liberalism was debated to create a unique South African version of communism. This is also the place that produced the greatest struggle leaders of the country such as former President Nelson Mandela, the late Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, former President Thabo Mbeki and  Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.


A typical  Malayali, as we all know, is a very political consious creature , and so the  energence of  unions and communism would remind him of emergence of labor unions and communism back in his home state of kerala. His natural instinct would have been one of excitement ( instead of fear) on having got for himself a ringside seat of a show far bigger than what he had at home. Back home he would have joined in without a second thought, however here as a foreigner, he focused instead on job at hand of moulding the young minds in his class.


The “young minds” were from the local Xhosa speaking communinty that make up the Eastern Cape region. Fascinating people who probably were only just getting exposed to western style education. Traditionally, in Xhosa community, the elder’s teachings were not written, but transmitted from generation to generation by oral tradition. The Iziduko (clan) for instance—which matters most to the Xhosa identity (even more than names and surnames) are transferred from one to the other through oral tradition. Knowing your “Isiduko” is vital to the Xhosas and it is considered a shame  if one doesn’t know one’s clan. This is considered so important that when two strangers meet for the first time, the first identity that gets shared is “Isiduko”.It is so important that  two people from the same clan but different surnames are regarded as close relatives. This forms the roots of “Ubuntu”  - a behaviour synonymous to this tribe, of extending a helping hand to a complete stranger when in need. Ubuntu goes further than just helping one another, it is so deep that it even extends to looking after and reprimanding your neighbour’s child when in the wrong. Hence the famous Xhosa saying “it takes a village to raise a child”.Hence at the heart of  Xhosa’s traditional education is about inculcating the spirit of Ubuntu. One meaning aof Ubuntu is as we discussed earlier  meaning ‘humanity to others’. A second meaning is  more profound ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.  That finally explains why despite poverty and untold hardships, Xhosa people manage to be so positive and cheerful. And so it that when a Malayali in Mthatha reflects back at his contribution, this opportunity to imbibe the true spirit of Umbuntu on a daily basis, makes him feel fully compensated and a sense of deep satisfaction.

2 votes, 5.00 avg. rating (93% score)

About Mohan Nair

An engineer who evolved to become a corporate executive, evolved again to become a self made businessman , and then again to become an education activist and finally someone with a passion to make a difference in the lives of Indians with interest in Africa.


  1. Devendra Sharma
    Devendra Sharma

    Dear Mohan ji,
    A well written article, it was informative, the attempt of drawing an analogy between the Aryan (supposedly) and Malayali (Dravidian) is amazing attempt. In between the punctuating remarks Xhosas and their Ubuntu culture which I reminiscint of our Indian Jaat Paat was interesting.

    • Not sure why you had to bring in a racial tone in your reply to this well written article..are you reminding Malayalees of your supposedly Aryan roots.
      An ex Umtata Malayaalee.

  2. i liked the article.

  3. Mohan bhai, indeed a wonderful article full of wit, humor and information

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