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«STRUCTURE AND EXPERIENCE IN THE MAKING OFAPARTHEID 6-10 February 1990 AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January ...»

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76. For example, Riots Commission 1949, evidence, p.240.

77. Guardian. 10 July 1947, 18 September 1947, 2 October 1947; NA 3/DBN 4/1/3/1580, 323B, 2: NIO memo to Riots Commission, 11 March 1949.

78. Inkundla 1st fortnight, March 1946, and 1st and 2nd fortnights, April 1946.

21 democrats had explicitly rejected collaboration with and indeed access to state structures. Recognizing their isolated political position they realized the importance of gaining a mass base. This made the need for an alliance with African political organizations imperative. Numerous abortive attempts were made to link up with both the Congress Youth League and Champion in a bid to plan joint campaigns.

The housing and land question, more than any other in Durban's black politics of the 1940s, brought African-Indian relations to the fore. This flowed from Durban's historical policies, from racial patterns of settlement, from state intervention during the 1940s, and from distinctly communal mobilization by Africans and Indians. It might be tempting to stress a continuum of African-Indian tension running though the workplace, the food shortages, co-operatives and trading, public transport, and housing. From this it would be easy to develop a scenario of cumulative racial conflict that only needed a 'spark' to break into flame. This method must be rejected. The riots were not inevitable. There was no primordial antagonism; ethnic competition was a feature of a modern industrialized society. The structural features of Indian-African tension did not necessarily lead to organize, violent conflict. The massed violence of 1949 did lay bare important social fissures within Durban's black society. Important structural conditions, social forces, state policies, and political precedents had the potential to bring Africans and Indians into conflict in particular arenas. Each arena had its own distinctive racial dynamic; each was contextualized in its own way. Each arena contained, from the perspectives of the Africans involved, anti-state as well as anti-Indian aspects. Violent racial conflict was not necessarily inherent to proletarian political discourse.

During the two or so years prior to the riots there was a sense in many quarters of the black proletariat 'on the move', assertively demanding a living from the city and seeking to influence the politics of the city. This groundswell of militancy did not take a clear organizational or ideological form, making it difficult for the state to defuse it or contain it. Extensive police raiding was a pertinent indication of this. Political activists also struggled to 'tap into' the ferment, capture it, or draw it into city-wide or national campaigns. Popular and proletarian struggles were very much alive in Durban during the late 1940s, but most occurred outside the ambit of the political organizations. This severely constrained the activities and potential within formal black politics.

During 1947, after representation from the local Joint Council of Europeans and Africans, the Smuts government appointed judge F N Broome to investigate African grievances in Durban and propose socio-economic measures for defusing a volatile situation. After taking exhaustive evidence Broome candidly admitted that Durban was 'sitting on a volcano', but he was not quite sure what the Volcano" consisted of.79 The militant mood was difficult to categorise and pinpoint. A few months before, the normally uneventful advisory board elections at the huge Somtseu Road hostel had turned into a political fiasco. ANC Youth League members organised large public meetings of hostel residents and had the corrupt election results annulled in court. But when the Youth Leaguers failed to secure election or the removal of the discredited Native Administration hostel officials, the residents lost interest and the advisory board campaign fizzled out.80 From this disillusionment came public calls for direct African

79. NA 3/DBN 4/1/3/1502, 290P, 1: Broome Commission report, p 3.80. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', pp.26-28. 22

representation on the city council." During 1947, a letter in the local African press hinted at the ominous possibility of 'underground movements' plotting violence against an intransigent state.82 Early in 1948 a squatter deputation informed the police that widespread and brutal raids were causing 'intense hatred in the African people'. They threatened attacks on the police.0 At this time, the police file 'daily reports' of 'minor disturbances'." In mid 1948 there was a total beer hall boycott, in protest at the introduction of smaller tin drinking mugs.85 An African policeman complained about the difficulty of isolating the ringleaders of the boycott: 'We cannot distinguish between the ordinary boycotters, the pickets or the leaders. Every African is a boycotter, every boycotter a picket, and every picket a leader.'88 The boycott revealed the reservoir of militancy that could be tapped in struggles against municipal authority. During 1947Champion made a number of abortive attempts to direct this militancy into general unionism, in the name of a revived Industrial and Commercial Workers Union." At the docks, Zulu Phungula, the worker leader banished from Durban for five years after the 1942 strike, had arrived back in town and was remobilizing the dockworkers around wage demands. Consciousness and political culture amongst Durban's Africans during the late 1940s had many strands, many targets, and many choices.

In January 1949 a downtown street scuffle between an Indian shopowner and an African teenager was an incident which had many precedents. But this incident initiated a citywide conflict whose scale and horror was unprecedented in Durban's history.


The riots began on Thursday 13 January 1949. No organization or individual planned racial violence for that day. African-Indian conflict was not totally unforeseen, but hardly inevitable. The riots began with a common incident which did not in itself contain the seeds of conflagration, but which opened up new possibilities in the subsequent turmoil of events.

The first phase occurred during late Thursday afternoon." It began when an Indian shopkeeper assaulted an African youth, whose head was gashed by a broken window.89 The wound was not serious, but bystanders on the pavement saw much blood. The scuffle happened at the end of the day amidst the crowds of Victoria Street, near the central bus depot where thousands of Africans and Indians queued for a bus home. In addition to the bus passengers, thousands of central city hostel dwellers had converged

81. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', p.26.

82. Ilanga. 16 August 1947.

83. Guardian 22 January 1948.

84. Riots Commission Evidence, p.32.

85. Guardian. 24 June 1948.

86. Guardian 24 June 1948.

87. For example, Correspondence in NA 3/DBN 4/1/3/1702, 467C, 8.

88. Unless stated, the account of the first phase is drawn from: Natal Mercury. 14 January 1949; Natal Daily News. 14 January 1949; NA 3/DBN 4/1/3/1580,323B, 2: NIO memo to Riots Commission, 11 March 1949; KCAV interviews 305, T.

Dlamini, 17 June 1981; Riot Commission 1949, evidence, G Bestford, pp.31-54;

Kirk, 'Durban Riots', p.48-54.

89. It seems highly likely that Madondo was a street ruffian.

23 on the area, as they did eveiy day, to buy food and drink after work. The nearby beer hall, Durban's largest, was packed with male domestic workers, enjoying their traditional Thursday afternoon off.90 The bloodied George Madondo would have attracted curious spectators. The presence of domestic servants in the crowd might have been the key factor triggering collective violence. Domestic servants, characteristically young men and often newly arrived from the countryside, were the core members of the amalaita gangs which ruled the streets and parks at night. They were well known for their stick fights and assaults on unsuspecting victims." It was possible that amalaitas responded to the assault on Madondo with their practised methods of violence. The violence seems to have been prompted by women egging men to take revenge. The original incident became lost in a wider anger focused on Indian shops and buses in the immediate vicinity.

Stones began to fly, glass shattered. Within minutes Victoria Street became a battleground of hostile crowds,flyingmissiles, damaged buses, and broken glass. Indians hurled objects on to Africans from balconies above the street. Looting began through broken shop windows. Motives of personal gain mingled with anger at post-war food shortages and inflation. Both African and Indian bystanders exploited a chance for recompense.*2 All the signs were that state power would not intervene to protect Indian property.

If white anti-Indianism provided a general licence for stoning and looting in Victoria Street, the actions of the police provided further encouragement. Taken by surprise, and totally unprepared for 'riot control', the small numbers of baton-wielding police sent to the scene acted with uncertainty and made little impact on the milling crowds. The police argued afterwards that the large numbers of innocent bystanders precluded the use of bullets to disperse the mass. This did not explain why other forms of crowd control, such as teargas, were not used.™ The fact that only Indian people and property were being attacked, and that the rioting remained confined to a small locality, no doubt influenced the police reaction. Sporadic looting continued in the city centre till around 11 pm, and there were isolated incidents in Mayville and Sydenham. Forty eight Indians and four Africans received hospital treatment for riot injuries.

By midnight the streets were quiet. White Durban was only to read of the rioting in the next morning's papers, where it received less prominence than storms in Mossel Bay.

But the events of the previous few hours had been the topic of excited conversation in hostel dormitories, backyard khayas. and shack courtyards. The news was spiced with rumour and informed by racial stereotypes. Madondo had gone to hospital, and been discharged after minor treatment. The stories about the attack on Madondo, however,

90. There were around 20 000 male domestic workers in Durban. Burrows, Population, pp.150-152, 164.

91. KCAV interviews 305, T. Dlamini, 14 June 1981; Riots Commission 1949, evidence, pp.267-8; P. la Hausse, 'Mayihlome! : Towards an Understanding of amalaita gangs in Durban, c.1900-1930*, African Studies Institute seminar, University of the Witwatersrand, 27 April 1987.

92. For a useful overview of theories of looting, see Webster, 'Riots', pp.26-29.

93. During the riots of 1929 Durban gained notoriety as the place where teargas was first used in South Africa.

24 were embellished with each telling. Perhaps the most extreme version was that Indians had cut Madondo's head off and placed it in a mosque. These rumours blended with other pertinent ones: that the diluted 'European' liquor sold by Indians caused tuberculosis, and that widespread venereal disease amongst Africans was the result of Indian lust for African women." The talk went beyond Madondo to the items that had been looted, the powerlessness of the Indian storeowners to stop it, and the weakness of the thinly spread police force. White news reporters had eagerly photographed Africans smashing and looting."

It began to dawn that the events of Victoria Street had unfolded so fast, and in such an unpredictable way, that they had not been fully taken advantage of. It was as if in the collective taking of breath, Durban's Africans realised that the morrow held out prospects of more looting and further defiance of authority. The Victoria Street battle had opened up an unprecedented moment of opportunity.

As the riots died down, it was in the larger hostels, such as Somtseu Road (8 000 residents) and Bell Street (1 500 residents), that the flames of rumour and excitement burned most fiercely.* That Thursday night a central city hostel manager reported that he had never seen the residents in such an angry and excited mood. Life in these singlesex institutions was hard and regimented, masculine and violent." During 1948 the state had progressively whittled unemployment insurance for African workers. This was an attempt to push marginally employed migrants out of the city on to the sugar farms and into the mines. This came at the same time when some local politicians were calling for rigid new controls over migrant labour. The hostels were highly vulnerable to mass police raids. For those who engaged in constant job-hopping, avoided full permanent waged employment and relied on unemployment insurance, these developments were an absolute threat to their continued life in the city. Under these circumstances the central strands of proletarian populism, which seemed to speak only for those who had already establishing nuclear households, seemed to offer little.

The opportunities opened up by the events of Thursday evening encouraged migrants to assert their power within the city. They sensed that the scale and volatility of the conflict offered possibilities that had not developed in earlier scuffles. Collective, organised street fighting was part of migrant experience: whether at soccer matches, jasbaadjie and dance competitions, beerhalls, and Sunday clashes between gangs and mobs.88 A pertinent example was the confrontation on Christmas Day 1948 between stone-throwing residents of the Somtseu Road and South African Railways hostels." As the migrants well knew, the police kept their distance. There were too many instances where street combatants had united to turn against police intervention. The migrants were fully aware of police ineffectiveness during the evening of Thursday 13 January.

Further, the racially defined conflict of that evening did three things. It brought out migrant hostility towards Indians, perceptions which had often been brought into the city

94. Riots Commission 1949, evidence, pp.277-278, 305-306.

95. See for example, Natal Daily News. 15 January 1949, pp.l&3.

96. For hostel sizes see NA 3/DBN 4/1/3/1504,290P, 1: Durban City Council memo to Broome Commission 1947, p. 6/1, and Natal Mercury. 4 February 1949.

97. A. Sitas, 'Accommodation and resistance', pp. 12-13.

98. KCAV interviews, T. Dlamini, 14 June 1981.

99. Ilanga 1 January 1949.

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