«STRUCTURE AND EXPERIENCE IN THE MAKING OFAPARTHEID 6-10 February 1990 AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January ...»
27. J.R. Burrows, The Population and Labour Resources of Natal (Pietermaritzburg, Natal Town and Regional Planning Commission, 1959.), pp.24-25.
should look. It was a debate informed by the relative weakness of the state, by the desire of segments of local capital to restructure the urban workforce, by the increasingly vociferous racial demands of Durban's white ratepayers, and by the assertiveness of ever larger numbers of proletarianised Africans and Indians. Key issues were political power within the city, employment, wages, land, housing, education and the appalling state of other amenities and infrastructure. Living conditions for the mass of the population, and - crucially - the unresolved future of the city, provided the central arena of conflict between dominant and dominated. During the later 1940s, mostly in response to challenges 'from below1, state and capital attempted to effect short-term remedies, deflect public anxiety, and gain fuller control over the city. Reacting to these initiatives, and seeking to seize opportunities for advance in a situation of flux, the underclasses fashioned an aggressive politics of their own.
Amongst Durban's Africans the struggles over basic requirements for urban living often assumed a class character. During the late 1940s the lines of class differentiation grew more varied and marked. Material conditions and daily experiences differed between 'educated' Africans in the lower middle class and the mass of wage labourers. Amongst the latter there were important differences between domestic workers, weekly or monthly paid industrial workers, and daily-paid (logt) dock workers. Class antagonisms provided at least part of the motivation for the almost weekly battles at soccer matches or ingoma dance competitions between industrial and logi compound-dwellers, on the one hand, and gangs of domestic servants on the other.28 Further differences were experienced between municipal township residents, compound-dwellers, and squatters in the growing shacklands. There were also signs of an increasingly self-conscious 'urban' African component, calling for state intervention to protect and advance city-dweller interests against migrant workers and the masses streaming into Durban.29 Hostel dwellers spoke vehemently about the need to allow further migrant workers into the city.
The interests of established residents were challenged by the thousands of new arrivals who sought a foothold on the peripheries of the labour market and shack settlements.
Yet contacts with the rural areas were still too close, experience of the city and wage labour too new, and class differentiation amongst Africans in Durban still too unformed to give rise to specifically class-based politics. Real and potential class antagonisms amongst Africans jostled with collective experiences of hardship in the city. These experiences were pervasive, affecting Africans in racially and ethnically distinct ways.
From this grew a form of proletarian populism that was to assume an ever more central role within African urban politics during the late 1940s. This was a populism which attempted to counter class- animosity, gain improved access to basic essentials, and provide for those denied formal employment. The geographical focus of this populism was the large and rapidly growing Cato Manor shack area, less than ten kilometres from Durban's city hall. As increasing numbers of women and children settled in the city, the difficulties of sustaining a permanent household became more pressing. Formal employment amongst Africans, including domestic work, was largely restricted to men,
28. For example, Killie Campbell Audio-Visual (KCAV): Interview with T. Dlamini, 14 June 1981.
29. For example, Durban Native Administration Commission (hereafter Broome Commission), verbatim evidence: 14 November 1947, Baumannville African Women's Association, pp.34-44, and 21 November 1947, Chesterville Location Tenants Association, pp36-49.
and was further limited by the nature of capital accumulation and racial workplace division in Durban. Wages earned in the formal sector were crucial but not sufficient.
It became essential to gain other means for household survival. From this flowed a growing sense of the broad material and political position of Africans within the city.
Central to African proletarian experience was a growing understanding of the structures, imbalances and contradictions in Durban's post-war economy. Demanding a living from the industrializing city, ordinary Africans became increasingly aware of how money, goods and services were produced and distributed. Proletarian perspectives sometimes coincided and sometimes conflicted with those of other interest groups and classes, striving to achieve their own specific aims. According to a popular African slogan of the time, it was important to examine 'economics' rather than simply speak of the benefits of different political perspectives.30 Four inter-related but conflicting cycles of accumulation and distribution were commonly identified."
Firstly, there were the dominant structures of industrial and commercial activity.
Industry was controlled by Vhite' capital while both whites and Indians held considerable commercial power. African participation in large-scale industry and commerce was effectively restricted to the roles of consumer and unskilled labourer.
During the late 1940s, industrialists sensed an imbalance between the industrial and commercial sectors, while white commercial interests reflected different concerns.
Durban's market area was small and included vast African reserve areas where trade was minimal. Within Durban many felt that there was too much commercial competition. White commercial interests called for restrictions on the Indian traders who had cornered key African custom.
Secondly, there were the municipality's profiteering networks. Profits came from a municipal monopoly over sorghum beer sales and from renting stalls to African traders in official beerhalls and eating houses. Aside from a general resentment against the municipality, Africans were struck by a particular irony. African custom provided the means whereby the municipality could strike against its major competitor, illicit African trading.
Long-standing market networks of African petty commodity production, services and exchange represented a third commercial cycle. These informal networks had, by the early 1950s, almost completely ousted a fourth cycle, the barter exchange of basic goods.
The scale and profitability of informal trading varied considerably. These activities were pivotal to proletarian household life, particularly in the shacklands. The informal networks, which relied exclusively on the custom of employed African workers, had the potential to sustain non-waged dependents and enable others to resist low-paid employment. Organized commerce and the municipality had long been hostile to informal trade and continually sought to stamp it out as an illegal threat to their
interests. Employers expressed concern over the implications of illegal trade:
drunkenness and low productivity, and the relative ease with which many seemed to escape the full rigours of continuous waged employment. But the ability of the municipality to curb these practices in the growing shantytowns was very limited.
30. C D S Mbutho, 'A History of Clermont', n.d. See also Ilanga 16 August 1947.
31. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', pp.36-38.
The new market ambitions and imperatives of survival amongst African households highlighted and exploited the political and economic space created by the contradictions of the Durban economy. Expanded informal trading networks, 'fertilized' by wage earnings, were perceived as a major vehicle for increasing the economic stake of Africans in Durban. Amidst attempts to reduce the marginality of Africans came farreaching demands and aspirations. Rejecting the prevalent notion of Africans as mere unskilled labourers working for others, came calls for African ownership, not just of land and housing, but also of businesses. These included buses, shops and factories. African working class consciousness was overlaid with proletarian aspirations that reflected a very different understanding of African status in the city. African demands introduced a new element, making existing racially defined struggles over access to and control of material resources that much more volatile. Africans were newcomers in a long-standing battle between whites and Indians.
There was also a new grassroots awareness of the relationship between ethnicity, economic power and an emerging sense of nationalist politics. Post-war Durban had seen an influx of Mediterranean immigrants who had used their whiteness to heave Indian traders out of central Durban. The economic movement had been crucial to the rise of Afrikaner power. Could the success of Indian and immigrant traders be traced to the use of kinship relations in business? High prices and social pressures pushed African customers away from white shops towards the Indian areas of the city. Surely Africans should keep their money for themselves? Could this be the way through which ordinary Africans and their families could survive? This was surely what people meant by 'self-help' and 'African upliftment'.
Such perceptions were central in the forming of a vibrant African proletarian consciousness. The interaction of structure and experience gave rise to new ideas of ethnicity, social transformation, urban belonging, communal accountability and the dignity of ordinary Africans. Proletarian ideas of 'New Africa' only partially resonated with petty bourgeois uses of the concept.32 Spanning a range of endeavours, from coping with daily life to the more optimistic visions of social change, the African proletariat generated its own leadership. A host of parochial leaders emerged, each representing the atomized interests of a highly fluid society. The most important leaders were those in the shantytowns who spoke primarily for the interests of newly established and prospective households. They were an articulate source of popular African intervention in public debate about the future of Durban society.
The distinctly grassroots assertiveness failed to develop organizational coherency. This was a form of mass politics that was often inchoate, only partly focussed and comprised of diverse trends. The potential for populist unity was strongest when directed against external targets. The structural position of Indians, particularly in the spheres of land, housing, and trade, provided a consistently fertile and unifying negative focus in African politics. When directed against the state, this politics was far more ambiguous and led to considerable disunity amongst the proletariat. Some saw benefit in pressurizing the central state to curb the oppressive power of the municipality or to force the provision of houses and urban services. Others resisted an increased role for the state, rejecting
any form of governmental authority. Others believed that through its weakness, state intervention would be coupled with a quest for legitimacy that could be exploited.
To the proletariat, however, it was not simply a question of state presence or absence.
Individuals and groupings did take advantage of state absence but it also seemed that in its testiness and brutality state presence revealed brittleness. When, for example, a white couple was harassed by two African men, police moved into the hostels taking many thousands for questioning. Africans responded not just with alarm, but with amusement. Police over-reaction and brutality was seen as a sign of weakness which often encouraged confrontation. For example, when police attempted to arrest a liquor brewer a mob forced them to retreat, and rescued the victim. Petty conflicts often attracted crowds, whose activities were often unchallenged as the police increasingly replaced foot patrols with forays in Scorpion vehicles. Proletarian life in the city had for long been brutal. State-initiated brutality simply enforced such experiences, but in a way which produced a profound disrespect for state power. This was a highly ambiguous tendency within African politics. It was one thing to be cocky against state officials; but quite another task to articulate a more substantial understanding of the role of the state.
State officials were aware of a buoyant and aggressive mood amongst Africans in postwar Durban. However they were unable to pinpoint accurately the actors or the interests involved. A similar unease was felt by established political and trade union organizations operating amongst Africans. From the Congress Youth Leaguers, the Communist Party members to George Champion himself, all recognized the vibrancy and potential force of proletarian politics. Many would try and tap into the groundswell. Others attempted to control or refashion aspects of the militancy. But the mass populism had a highly ambivalent relationship with such leaders and organizations.
The structural position of Africans in Durban society during the late 1940s, and the vigorous politics which flowed from this, provide a broad context for understanding the 1949 riots. The character of African politics during this period gave particular shape to the racial violence. But this conflict was not simply inevitable. There were a number of struggles and specific campaigns waged during the period in the areas of trade, transport and housing which illustrated the various directions and forms which proletarian politics could take. Although accepting the crucial importance of wages earned at the shop and factory floor, the main thrust of political activity lay away from the workplace.