TUESDAY, MARCH 25th 1958
Source: Speeches, I, pp. 72-80
Mr President, Gentlemen
The topic I have chosen to talk to you about is wide and much too complicated to deal with fully in twenty minutes. I hope, however, to give you a sketch of what has been happening in East Africa during the last year or two, and in particular to give an idea of the role which the Asian communities have played, and the one which they have to play, whether they desire to or not, in the future.
The three territories I am speaking to you about are just as different as England, France and Burma. They face particular problems and, therefore, must find particular solutions. Their economics and governments are different, but the role of the Asian communities in all of the three territories remains much the same.
Kenya is a state with an odd geographical composition: the mainland is essentially Christian and agricultural, whereas the coastal strip -- not technically belonging to Britain, it is rented from the Sultan of Zanzibar and administered by the British -- relies for its income on sea trade and is predominantly Muslim.
Uganda is semi-agricultural, semi-industrial, a declared African state composed of powerful African tribes, partly ruled by the Kabaka of Buganda, with a mixed population of Christians, Hindus and Muslims, the latter forming about thirty per cent of the total population.
Tanganyika is by far the largest territory, a United Nations Trust administered by the British, very rich in minerals, and nearly equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Into these three territories have flocked thousands of Asians, mainly from this country and composed of Hindus and Muslims. They have had to adjust themselves to the economic and political idiosyncracies of each territory. At the same time they had to make a living for themselves. Now they are going through difficult days, and they will be greatly responsible for their own future, and even perhaps for the futures of their territories.
It is perhaps more than two generations that the Asians left this sub-continent and migrated to East Africa. In those days, it was a bold step to take, but it has paid off a hundred times. Those who left this country became pioneers in trade and industry all along the east coast of Africa. They started in small business, such as cloth shops, leather merchants and many other small trades. Today they monopolise most of the middle man's economic life. Fish shops, photographic agencies, electrical appliance agencies -- all those stand today in the hands of the Asians. The Ismailis who reside in these three territories have got a very strong grip on the business life of the land in which they live, and though they are fine tradesmen by nature, they owe a large amount of their prosperity to the wise guidance which my grandfather used to give them. Through their own banks, their own investment companies, their own trust companies and their help in societies, even the poorest man in the community was able to borrow money at a very low rate to set himself up in business.
Today the scene in East Africa is changing; the struggle between Africans and Europeans in the political field has had its repercussion in the economic field. The natives realised that a strong economic position gives one a good bargaining point in politics. Bit by bit, therefore, Africans are moving into the small trades and, I say so with complete frankness, are competing successfully with elder Asian tradesmen. The question for the future is, therefore, what will happen when the Africans launch themselves seriously into business? Certainly there will be a squeeze on the Asians during the first years and they will probably suffer. However, there is an opening which ought to relieve them from their difficulties. In Uganda and Tanganyika, there are as yet very few large scale industrial enterprises. Much research is being carried on in Tanganyika in the hope that rich mineral deposits will be discovered. Kenya itself, though it is agricultural by nature, has large possibilities in the fields of tinned fruit, meat exports and other similar home products. The Africans do not, for the moment, possess the necessary capital to begin large industrial enterprises, nor do they have enough experience in trade.
The governments of the three territories cannot afford to use their resources for industrialisation. Their money must be spent on public education, building schools, training teachers and granting deserving students scholarships abroad.
If what I have said is correct, then the Asians are in an ideal situation to start the process of industrialisation. They know the countries well; they have sufficient funds to sink in big business and for some years to come it looks as though the field will be left entirely to them.
Of course the picture is not completely sunny; there is a certain amount of political frustration in all the three territories, and it si the Asian businessmen who suffer most. They hesitate, therefore, to invest large sums in concerns whose future depends to a certain extent on the vagaries of government policies. Also there is the danger of business isolation. The Asians cannot afford to, and should not, isolate themselves, either from the Africans or from the government. If they want additional security for their businesses, they must work with Africans on their staff. More than this, they should teach them how to run large scale factories for themselves. In the economic field, therefore, there is a large future for the Asian communities in East Africa. There are certainly dangers, but they are foreseeable and, I believe, can be overcome.
The political position of the Asians, on the other hand, is peculiar and, in many ways, invidious. They came to the continent as traders and generally they have preferred to leave politics to the tug of war between Europeans and Africans. Where they intervened, in Kenya for example, they have tended to play the role of a moderator and a conciliator -- often very successfully. Yet one has to recognize that the referee, though he may be respected by the opposing teams in a game of hockey, is seldom really loved by either.
The fact is that the Asian communities in all three territories have created a very large economic stake in the nations of their adoption without as yet having formulated a very clear policy of protecting those interests once the mantle of British power is removed. This should be a matter of some concern -- not only to the Asians of Africa but to the business interests who deal with them from this sub-continent. I have not the statistics of trade between India and East Africa, but its growth has been substantial in recent years and is likely to increase still further. It will be evident to you all that large economic interests of this nature cannot survive indefinitely in a political vacuum. The age-old cry of the businessman "to preserve him from the politicians" is really a cry for the moon, because the more successful he is, the more interest politicians and the tax-gatherers take in him. That is an observation which I feel sure has nor escaped the notice of the Bombay Rotarians!
So we return to the difficult and delicate question of what is the most fruitful role the Asians can play in the politics of East Africa. It will differ, of course, in each of the territories. Uganda is expected to be the first country of the three to achieve complete independence. Its population is overwhelmingly African and the way in which the African leaders there treat the Asian minorities should serve as a very useful guide to what will happen later in Tanganyika and Kenya. However, in both these latter countries the Asian community is much stronger, both numerically and economically.
In both cases, too, the official policy is to work towards a multiracial society in which the rights and interests of minority races will not only be protected but encouraged to play an active role in the political structure of the country. Not very surprisingly, perhaps, the more extremist African parties are inclined to suspect this formula as a device to put off the day when they achieve independence for themselves, in which case, they argue, it will be up to them to decide the political structure of the country. From the Asian point of view, however, there is clearly an advantage to be gained from supporting the official policy, if only to provide a political base for the imposing economic fabric they have already helped to create.
But this political base will not be achieved without first winning the confidence and trust of the African majority, as well as of the Europeans. There are many moderate African leaders who understand the wisdom of trying to unite the different races who have contributed to the growth of East Africa and who perceive the folly of blind nationalism and race hatred.
It was in this connection that my grandfather, just after the last war, founded what I believe will come to be recognised as an institution of major importance -- the East African Muslims Welfare Society. This Society was formed to help the African Muslims build their own mosques and schools and today it is a living and highly successful witness to what can be achieved by voluntary cooperation between Asians and Africans. Operating in all territories, it is an entirely self-supporting body, relying on individual grants and donations. Besides building schools, it helps to find them teachers and pays scholarships to deserving African pupils.
East Africa is not so rich in natural resources and human skills that her territories can afford a repetition of the kind of debilitating, soul-destroying racial warfare such as Kenya endured recently in the Mau Mau outbreak. This is the path which can lead only to hardship and ruin for millions of innocent people of all races. There is also some force, though not necessarily as much as some of the European settlers would like to believe, in the argument that East Africa lacks the educated administrative talent which countries such as India and Ghana were able to call upon.
But questions such as these are always relative. Time will ultimately provide its own answer. The basic question facing two out of the three East African territories is whether political progress is to be achieved by the three principal races working in partnership -- African, Asian and European -- together, or whether it is to resolve itself into a barren, costly and perhaps bloody struggle between the African majority on the one hand and the European and Asian minorities on the other.
No civilised person would wish seriously to contemplate the second course. The first, I grant, sounds well in theory but bristles with difficulties in practice. The task of harmonising the various political interests, economic pressures and social prejudices in modern East Africa is one which would tax the wisdom of even the greatest statesman. And yet there are signs of real progress. Much of the advancement of the past has been made along community lines. The African Muslims have had their own schools, so have the Europeans, and there have been Christian Mission schools, Hindu Asian schools, Muslim Asian schools and many others. These have tended to keep the children of the various communities very far apart. Today our Ismaili schools are open to members of all races and faiths. I understand that most of the schools in all the three territories will before long be working along the same lines. Here then is one of the strongest and most effective ways of spreading race harmony and understanding in East Africa. As little as seven years ago, these things would have been unthinkable.
This process will continue and quicken, especially if it continues to receive the friendly and well-informed support of well-wishers abroad. It is good to see that in Bombay at least two of your daily papers publish regular features on African affairs. For I am certain it is not only desirable but in this country's own interest to see that emigrants from India who have made their home and careers in Africa can count upon the sympathetic understanding of their mother country.
In turn, as I have said, I believe that the Asians of Africa have a duty to work wholeheartedly for the countries of their adoption, to play a full part in building up their economies and to live their lives, not as a separate race but as part and parcel of their national community. If they succeed in this the concept of a multi-racial society will become a reality which will have an incalculable effect on the development of all Africa.
Click here for Speeches from 1981 - todate
Back to F.I.E.L.D