Saboteurs? Or Saviours?

"Asian businessmen have been milking the Tanzanian cow for a long long time. So how can you avoid indigenization? The Asians should be prepared to pay back for all the wrongs that they have done here... Of course... those of us who identify completely with the Swahili people and language [and are, therefore, isolated from the Asian communities] are being put in the same box as "blood sucking" Asian businessmen because we have the same skin color as them . . . For a person on the street who does not know what I stand for, I am just a "Muhindi" [Indian]."
-- Fatma Alloo, Ithna Asheri journalist and activist

Satya and Shanti are two sisters who are a part of a noticeable community of Sikh "half-castes" in the city of Dar es Salaam. In the 1930s, when their Sikh father married their African (Sunni) mother, their mother had to seal her past completely. She only wore salwaar-kameez, she only said Sikh prayers, she never spoke a word of Kiswahili with her daughters and she never saw her relatives again. In a way, things have changed little between then and today. For example, when Alexander D'Souza (an alias) was forced to marry his "one night stand" Maggie (an alias) in the 1980s, Maggie had to "give up" much of her Chagga heritage to be accepted by the Goans -- her language, her family, her customs and even the idea that her daughters will ever date an African man. When asked to comment on this scenario, Francis, a Goan taxi driver, echoed a common perception that "if Africans don't undo their African ways, we [South Asians] have a hard time accepting them because in our eyes an African is just a house-boy or a house-girl [domestic servant]."

With the Arusha Declaration of 1967, six years after gaining independence from Britain, socialist Tanzania officially erased race as a category in government statistics. But the legacy of the racial hierarchy that colonizing Britain had imposed on East Africa, a hierarchy in which the "Asians" (actually, South Asians) were often complicit, remains a powerful and continuing source of tensions between Asians and Africans. Inequalities of economic class, gender, and social status are inextricably linked with sharply drawn lines of racial differences. Asians continue to be perceived as a privileged class, socially and culturally isolated, unwilling to learn the national language, Kiswahili, or to develop intimate social relationships with Africans. During periods of political turbulence these charges against Asians gain renewed potency. In this essay I explore one particular period of the evolution of this complex relationship between Asians and Africans in Tanzania, the decade from 1984-1993. The pangs of structural adjustment and the rise of multi-party politics during this period were followed by increased demands for "indigenization," or the transfer of economic power to African Tanzanians. In this indigenization debate Asians got labeled as the main "non-indigenous" group of "blood-suckers" exploiting the natural and human resources of the country for their personal, material gain. Here, I highlight the ways in which this period of massive political and economic shifts was publicly interpreted through race-tinted lenses.

But first, a quick historical sketch of Asian immigration and settlement in Tanganyika (which became Tanzania after forming a union with Zanzibar in 1964) is in order. Male traders, shopkeepers and merchants from the Gujarat, Kutch, and Kathiawar regions of western India, along with civil servants from Goa and artisans from Punjab, fueled the imperial engines by serving as middlemen and skilled laborers in colonial Tanganyika. Although these immigrants never constituted more than one percent of the total population, their place in Tanganyikan political economy was bolstered by colonial policies that favored Indians over Africans in trade, commerce and property ownership; and encouraged segregation among races in all spheres. The imposed concept of racial differences between Africans, Asians, Arabs and Europeans entirely disregarded (among other things) the significant divisions of religion, caste, sect, class and language that marked the various Asian communities. Thus, the separate wadis, jamaatkhanas, mosques, and temples of the Patels, Lohanas, and Brahmins; of the Ithna Asheris, Ismailis, and Bohoras, and of the Goans and Sikhs, flourished with almost no interference from "outsiders."

The privileges that the majority of Asians enjoyed in the colonial period made Asians extremely wary of the anti-colonial struggles in the 1950s and of the socialist path that Tanzania adopted under Julius Nyerere after 1967. Most middle- and upper-class Asians opted to remain "uninvolved" in national politics and kept open their avenues to the UK, Canada or South Asia by diversifying citizenships within their families. But these choices also made them a politically and socially vulnerable minority in the post-independence period. This was perhaps most evident when Asians, along with Arabs, became a target of violent attacks during the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 and over 10,000 Asians were forced to migrate to the mainland, especially to Dar es Salaam. While Africans often questioned the loyalties of Asians in the post-independence period, Asians frequently interpreted as "anti-Asian" the state's measures to Africanize the civil services, nationalize industries, buildings and schools, and spread the cooperative movement in the countryside. In the decade of the 1970s over 50,000 Asians left Tanzania, mainly for the UK and Canada. But none of the reforms undertaken by the Tanzanian government were able to erode the enormous power that Asians wielded in the national economy, and this power even rose significantly since trade liberalization began in Tanzania in the mid-1980s.

The Era of Liberalization

The years 1974-1984 are remembered by many Tanzanians as the hardest period of their lives. The economic crisis that began in 1974/75 due to declining agricultural production and severe balance of payments problems worsened after 1979, leading to immense food shortages and inflation. In the 1980s the economic crisis deepened as a result of both external and internal factors ranging from the oil price increases, the breakdown of the East African Community, and Tanzania-Uganda war in Kagera, to the fall in the production of export crops and rising rate of inflation. The decrease in manufacturing output combined with scarcity of foreign exchange and widespread price controls resulted in extensive development of "parallel markets." Thus the hard years of economic scarcities for the masses became "golden times" for racketeers, smugglers, embezzlers and other quick money makers who were termed by the state as economic "saboteurs." In 1983 the state launched a massive crackdown on these "evil barons" but this Anti-Economic Sabotage Act failed to rectify the situation. The few necessity goods such as sugar and soap, which many people could earlier manage to get on the black market, completely disappeared from the market after the crackdown. People started complaining that black market was better than not having anything. Peasants were not getting inputs and machinery. Workers complained that there were no items of basic consumption. Traders were not getting their televisions, cars and spare parts. Students rebelled in the University of Dar es Salaam because food, accommodations and facilities were terrible. The salaries of the university professors were so low that many had to run taxis and keep poultry farms to support their families.

When the situation continued to worsen the government was forced to change its course and the 1984 budget took the first steps towards implementing IMF recommended structural adjustments. Within a year the Anti-Economic Sabotage Act was repealed and the erstwhile "saboteurs" became the "saviours" of the economy. The shilling was devalued by 26 percent against the US dollar; school fees were introduced; subsidies on maize flour, pesticides and some agricultural inputs were removed; producer prices of food and export crops were increased; and there was a drastic reduction in the number of commodities under price control. Also, restrictions on domestic trade in staple grains were eased and foreign exchange retention schemes were introduced to enable exporters to finance their import needs. A major policy reform in the 1984/5 budget was the introduction of the Own Funds Imports Scheme which relaxed import restrictions on essential consumer goods, spare parts and other capital goods such as transport vehicles and allowed unrestricted import of any goods funded from privately owned sources of foreign exchange free from the official banking system. These "own funded" imports could be sold at market clearing prices. In this way, an important part of the parallel market was legalized.

A new era of social, political and economic changes began with the inauguration of Ali Hassan Mwinyi as the nation's President in 1985. The emphasis of the country's economic policies shifted from small scale and communal production in agriculture to the encouragement of large-scale farms. Large tracts of agricultural land were leased to individuals and corporations, and several coffee and sisal estates were denationalized. In 1985, Julius Nyerere also declared that the Building Acquisition Act of 1971 was now unnecessary. Trade was further liberalized and exchange control restrictions were relaxed. Political analyst Issa Shivji notes:

Very soon, shops in Dar es Salaam and other towns were filled with all sorts of commodities from toys to towels as container-loads of consumer goods, mostly luxury, from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. were dumped onto the starved market of Tanzania. A whole range of goods became suddenly available at exorbitant prices. It was clear . . . that the so-called "own imports" were being financed through smuggling of hunting trophies, gold and other precious items including coffee, which was taking place on a very large scale.

The Mwinyi government adopted the IMF-prescribed Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) in June 1986. The ERP relaxed the statist control of the economy and emphasized the importance of competition and market forces, and encouraged private initiatives to revive the economy. By 1988 foreign firms were being openly invited by Tanzania to participate in joint ventures with local entrepreneurs. In the agricultural sector, policies gave encouragement to private capital, commercial and smallholder farming. Steps were taken to liquidate nine parastatals and a parallel market was allowed to function side by side with the state trading structures. Since 1979 all foreign exchange had been administratively allocated but in February 1988 the government introduced the Open General License facility (OGL, funded by the World Bank and other international donors) for imports financed by official sources of foreign exchange. Soon after, the OGL list of eligible goods was extensively expanded, the annual ceiling per importer was raised, tariff rates were substantially lowered, and specific duties were eliminated.

Liberalization of trade and businesses had a great influence on every Tanzanian. For the Asian businessmen, liberalization marked a moment of celebration even though many of the transactions that were openly allowed by the ERP were already taking place "unofficially." A Jain businessman said that everything is brought from outside and then sold here.

The crackdown of the early 1980s that defined the peak of the state's socialist war against Asian traders and businessmen was completely reversed by the economic liberalization of the late 1980s and early 1990s. After 1985 Asian businessmen made more money than most other Tanzanians did because they were financially better equipped to apply for the trading licenses. Another Jain businessman commented:

When trade liberalization began, Asian merchants were the only ones who were in a position to import goods. The Africans were satisfied with their "ten percent" [bribe]. Asians ran the whole show. They imported, exported, and bribed the African managers, ministers, and officers . . . So we [in Tanzania] bring in containers full of televisions or refrigerators, we sell [them], there's a quick turn over . . . and then we import again. It forms a cycle. We have no industries, no investment. All we have is containers!

The arrival of the "container economy" and the "container bourgeoisie" heralded the end of Ujamaa and self-reliance. The small industrial base that the country had developed was eroded and there was no more talk of local soap or locally assembled cars. By 1990 "secret delegations" from Ujamaa villages were "enticing" private shop owners, who had been eliminated in the 1970s, "to establish private shops in the villages because Ujamaa cooperative shops had collapsed" (Daily News, Sept 17, 1990). The marketing cooperatives were also "dying" and businessmen were allowed to buy crops from the peasants. Tanzania's development budget as well as the government's recruitment expenditures became heavily dependent on foreign grants given by "donor" countries. Furthermore, as conscious attempts were made to reduce the state's control over the economy, subsidies were dismantled, social services were cut, and labor was subjected to increasing wage controls. As Shivji points out in a 1991 essay, liberalization "rehabilitated" the former saboteurs and racketeers while making the workers and peasants pay more for education, water, health and medical care.

The period of economic crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, which was followed by a period of radical economic and social changes during the ERP era, greatly reshaped the communal lives of all Tanzanians. Ethnic ties, whether tribal, religious, sectarian or regional became strong and communal organizations came forward to meet the basic needs of the people. The most populous Asian communities of Hindus, Ithna Asheris and Bohoras in Dar es Salaam saw an ever-increasing number of their poor living side-by-side with owners of fancy houses, large businesses and Mercedes Benzes. Formal and informal networks based on religion, caste, sect and gender strengthened to provide support to community members. The Ithna Asheri community found a strong Islamic identity in the Iranian Revolution and became more close-knit and organized than ever before, both in terms of religion and welfare activities such as provision of health, housing, education and financial aid for its members. Similar developments also took place among the Bohoras, Sunnis, Ahmadiyas and Hindus.

Multiparty Politics and Indigenization Debate

The arrival of the trade liberalization period in Tanzania temporarily elevated the status of the erstwhile Asian "exploiters" and "blood-suckers" to "investors" and "partners in joint ventures" and, in the late 1980s, some of them started returning from overseas to reinvest in Tanzania. At the same time, however, the relative lack of African capital in the country in combination with the move to dismantle and privatize the failing parastatals and the rapid rise of multi-party politics led to a renewed cry for "indigenization" (Uzawa in Kiswahili). Prominent African businessmen increasingly felt that apart from the peasantry and a handful of organized commercial ventures, the private economy was dominated by Asian and Arab Tanzanians and that "indigenous" or African entrepreneurship should be encouraged in the process of privatization. In this indigenization debate, several Africans targeted the Asians and Arabs as the main non-indigenous enemies. Asians' cultural and social isolation from the Africans was subjected to renewed, harsh criticism.

After the Annual Conference of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in 1963 a democratic and non-racial one-party system was established on the mainland Tanzania by law. TANU was identified with the people as a whole and its membership was open to every citizen. In 1977, TANU on the mainland and the Afro Shirazi Party (ASP) in Zanzibar merged to form a single party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), and Tanzania was a single-party state until 1995 when the first multi-party elections were held.

As opposition parties emerged in the early 1990s, several of them promised to give "indigenous" Tanzanians priority over "non-indigenous" Tanzanians and this led to furious debates in the media over who was an "indigenous" Tanzanian. However, it was not until Reverend Mtikila (leader of the Democratic Party) coined the labels Magabacholi (thieves and looters) for Asians and Walalahoi (downtrodden) for Africans that the indigenization debate took a dangerous turn. This categorization, along with Mtikila's vision of "cleansing Tanzania of undesirables," sparked off violent popular antagonism against Asians and Arabs in the media and in daily life. In Dar es Salaam, Asian property was looted and Africans stoned Asian bystanders after Mtikila declared a war against non-indigenous Tanzanians in a Democratic Party rally on January 23, 1993. This event created widespread waves of resentment and fear especially among poor and middle class Asians, Arabs and "half-castes" living in Dar es Salaam. As one woman asked,

My grandfather comes from Zambia, my grandmother from Tanzania, my father comes from India. I am an Afro-Asian. Not only me, we are thousands . . . . Now, I am married to a European, my children are Tanzanians. Should my fellow Tanzanians with African origin go around throwing stones at me just because I am of Asian origin, and [at] my children who are half-African, half-Asian, half-European? (The Express, February 11-17, 1993)

While the ruling CCM blamed the "fascist" opposition leaders for "propagating racial conflicts to divide the people" for their own political ends, supporters of opposition parties accused the CCM for allowing "greedy and selfish Asians" to "grow from strength to strength." A commentary by Miki Tasseni in Business Times summarized the beliefs that have made Africans bitter about Asians. One, 80 to 90 percent of Asians held more than one passport. Two, they ran away in difficult times. Three, the Asian community refused to integrate with the indigenous community and form business partnerships with Africans. Four, the Tanzanian society and economy were divided primarily into an Asian-have and African-have-not structure. Five, Asians had access to capital through their international ethnic networks. Finally, Asians dominated the economy by offering bribes to government officials. Tasseni acidly remarked that "[t]he Asian community is at fault for maintaining business exclusivity and negative attitudes toward the Africans while claiming that they are Tanzanians . . . Yet, . . . they are ever ready to fly away when the going proves rough, to join their brothers and cousins whose citizenship is scattered in five more countries."

Asian businessmen defended themselves by claiming that it was not the Asians or Arabs but the "indigenous" Tanzanians who had mismanaged the parastatals. Some Africans also agreed with this position: "[T]he majority of us Africans are not interested in their [African businessmen] bragging about indigenization . . . Do they want us to believe that Indians are to be blamed for all the mess and inefficiency in our civil service, parastatals, hospitals, banks, energy, communications, City Council, etc.? These are totally Africanized" (A.M. Suleiman, in Business Times, February 26, 1993). A few Asians also pointed out that 70 percent of the Tanzanian Asians were middle class workers, 20 percent were small shopkeepers, five percent were "virtually beggars, dependant on assistance from relatives and well wishers" and that only five percent of Asians were big industrialists and businessmen (A. Dewji, in Sunday News, March 7, 1993). At the same time, some Tanzanians (both "indigenous" and "non-indigenous") interpreted all the hue and cry over indigenization as a "hidden agenda" to serve the interests of a few African businessmen whose practices were no different than those of the Asian businessmen whom they criticized (Daily News, January 15, 1993; The Express, Jan 28-Feb, 3, and Feb 4-10 1993). They correctly saw indigenization as "a war between the Reginalds and Rajanis," or African and Asian tycoons.

What is likely to happen is that a few indigenous Tanzanians will be legislated into prominent business positions and, psychologically, many Tanzanians will be happy. Simba will replace Patel and Ally Sykes will be sitting with Girish Chande in the same board of directors. In reality, though, nothing much will change. The majority of indigenous men and women will be left to fend for themselves. (Business Times, February 26, 1993)

Irrespective of arguments for or against Mtikila and his allies, the fact remained that Mtikila was not, as John Mpangile pointed out, "a queer dreaming quipster. What he [was] driving home at in his rallies [were] the very words and ideas which many Tanzanians [were] saying, wondering about and discussing in the streets, offices and everywhere else in the country" (Family Mirror, No. 2, March 1993). Nizar Visram, an Ismaili journalist masterfully commented on the current developments thus:

Asian racism seems to have come back to roost . . . . Let the Asians question the underworld cowboys who have bought off the political elites and top civil servants. Let them question how come so easily a container load of cocaine can pass through Tanzania for onward transportation to a neighboring country. Let them question how come expired medicines find their way to the shelves of our chemists.

Such are the questions that if asked by all honest Tanzanians (of all races) will lead to a conclusion that the so-called "gabachori" phenomenon is not confined to one particular race or that not all Asians belong to this category.

In the absence of this consciousness being aroused the Mtikilas will continue throwing stones at Asians. And chances are that they will fall more on the heads of Asian doctors and teachers than on the cocaine importers. That is the irony of the whole matter.

Racial tensions were running high in Tanzanian society in 1993 and the Asians who felt most insecure and threatened were not rich businessmen but middle and lower class people residing in racially mixed neighborhoods. These Asians were mainly from lower caste Hindu communities of Bhois, Ranas, Divechas and Kumbhars and from lower caste communities of Sunni Muslims who migrated to the mainland from Zanzibar and many of whom intermarried with "Arabs" or "half-castes" (called Chautara in Kiswahili). Most of these people had no home but Tanzania, and they had nothing to gain and everything to lose in the event of heightened racial violence and animosity. Ashok (an alias), a lower caste Zanzibari taxi driver, commented:

Africans say that Asians cheat everybody. I hate that. They should say that such and such Patel or such and such Ithna Asheri is cheating. The [Asians] . . . who cheat the Africans, cheat me too . . . The rich Asians do the wrongs and we poor suffer. If something like the Zanzibar Revolution happens again, the rich Asians will pack their bags and go to Britain or Canada. We are the ones who will get brutalized and raped because we can't run anywhere.

Asian Homogeneity: Myth or Reality?

The widespread and rapid sociopolitical and economic changes in postcolonial Tanzania, the public debates around Africanization (1960s), socialism (1970s) and more recently around indigenization, have led to the construction of Asians and Africans as two distinct and homogenous communities by both "insiders" and "outsiders." These debates are often laden with contradictions and inconsistencies, for even as they overlook the complex divisions of caste, class and religion that define the Asian (and African) experiences, they are nevertheless rooted in a colonially constructed race/class hierarchy -- i.e., a racial hierarchy that closely coincides with a class-based divide. These structural realities are further reinforced by the practices of religious and caste-based institutions that define and regulate the lives and choices of all Asian women and men. These institutions not only play a critical role in ensuring that dissonances and contestations over difference remain within Asian communal boundaries, they also prevent the creation of any gender- or class-based alliances across racial lines.

These inconsistencies are reflected in the following quotation from Jamuna (an alias), a low caste street vendor and sex worker. Her words capture the terribly contradictory ways in which a "passport-less" Asian woman, herself exploited by wealthy and upper caste Asians, places herself (and is placed by outsiders) in the same category as an Asian millionaire who runs an import-export business in Tanzania, has a U.K. citizenship and whose bank accounts, investments, and family members are spread all over the world.

I don't know why Africans say that all Asians have two passports. I have never even seen a passport . . . We are poor people. We have lived eating leftovers of rich Asians and cleaning the filth of rich Asians' homes. Africans blame us for no reason. They don't realize that if Asians had not come here they would have had no shops, no trade, no railways. They would have remained backward even today.

Some Asians, however, are able to see through these contradictions; they express a keen awareness of the reasons behind African bitterness towards Asians. A lower class Mochi man, Ramesh, offered a sensitive analysis of the racial situation in Dar es Salaam:

Those of us who feed a family of six and educate our children on a salary of 60,000 shillings [US $135], can understand the resentment of African workers against rich Asians. A rich Asian who spends 300,000 shillings to take his family to see a movie star and 10,000 [US] dollars per year to educate his kids in the International School, pays only 6,000 shillings to his houseworker who often spends half of that salary on bus fare! Then he complains that Africans are lazy . . . Why shouldn't [they] be lazy? If the person who I am helping to become rich is having all the fun while I starve with my family, I would be as lazy as I can . . . Then these rich people give big donations and have huge auctions supposedly to help flood victims and poor Africans. But that is only to please the CCM and avoid income tax. Why don't they simply raise the salaries of their workers?

The words of Ashok, Jamuna and Ramesh exemplify the centrality of class and caste in shaping the Asian experiences in Tanzania. At the same time, they underscore the power of a certain publicly accepted perception that constructs all Asians as a monolithic category, and continue to shape the day-to-day encounters and struggles of Asian and African people in Tanzania.

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