«STRUCTURE AND EXPERIENCE IN THE MAKING OFAPARTHEID 6-10 February 1990 AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January ...»
CONCLUSION The 1949 riots raised searching questions about structure and experience in the making of African political practices in the period immediately prior to the massive state interventions of the 1950s. During the 1940s Durban had grown rapidly, generating new struggles for urban space and power. Racially differential access to and control over. resources and power within the city had long been a central feature of life within Durban. Wartime growth revealed the incomplete and often highly contradictory features of this process. New social forces intensified the crises of a racially-ordered industrialising society. During the late 1940s as both state and capital searched for ways of resolving these crises, the dominated and exploited sensed a new terrain for advancing their interests. The future of Durban society seemed very much open to debate.
To a very limited extent elements within the dominant classes explored paternalist multiracialism as one means of reducing conflict in South African society during the late 1940s. At the same time a more far-reaching multi-racialism was being embraced within organised oppositional politics. In a racial society multi-racial ideas had a moral appeal, offering the basis for a more equitable and just post-war order. Multi-racial alliance politics had many facets. It provided a means of exploiting the weaknesses and crises of segregation during the 1940s. It searched for a mass base against the state's resort to new racial policies during that decade, especially in relation to Indians. It was a politics which saw possibilities for unity in the common material experiences of Indian and African workers and squatters. By the late 1940s organised alliance politics had become increasingly confrontationist, but it did not exclude co-operation with a reforming state in implementing social change.
Alongside the developing discourse and politics of multi-racialism, elements within the state and white politics were developing an intensely racial response to the rapid social
changes of the period. Durban was a pioneer in this regard. Local white ratepayers, sections of local capital, the Natal Provincial Administration and the central state found common ground in racial zoning policies, with far-reaching proposals for restructuring working and living space. Intensifying conflict over urban resources was played out within a profoundly racial political discourse. This was the crucible for the narrow nationalism of Champion's ANC, the Africanist politics of the local Congress Youth League, and the distinctly proletarian politics of 'New Africa'. The African proletariat had an ambiguous, and often conflicting, relationship with organised politics across the spectrum, from multi-racialism to parochial ethnicity.
Political choices within the African proletariat flowed from the daily experiences of sustaining urban life, and from an awareness of fluidity in the rapidly changing city. The transformation of proletarian interests into political practices was shaped by the structural features of Durban, and by the material and ideological resources available at particular points in time. African proletarians wanted an increased stake in the city and market-based populism held out the hope of rapid change, indeed of shortcircuiting other forms of struggle. In its essence the proletarian populism of the later 1940s spoke for those who desired to make a permanent home in Durban, a city which did so little to facilitate African settlement. Proletarian desires to gain greater control within an industrialising city were most commonly advanced through ethnic mobilization, a profound racism, and ambivalent challenges to state authority. Such political practices were aggressive and they commonly subverted established notions of legality, propertyownership and formal politics. Mass violence was not inherent to these practices, but popular struggles in a violent society indicated that violence, or at least public threats of violence, could have its benefits. The riots of 1949 were a dramatic outworking of this experience.
The resort to violence, often with racial dimensions, was not unique to Durban. Within South Africa there were a number of other incidences of massed violence during this period, often with a racial dimension. These included clashes in Newclare in 1949-50, and racial violence in Benoni in 1952.'" Elsewhere in Africa similar conflicts occurred during the 1940s. Patterns in East Africa came closest to those of Durban. The Kampala riots of April 1949, for example, were largely directed against Indian trade monopolies."5 In West Africa there were riots against Lebanese traders and the colonial authorities in Senegal, and in Ghana crowds took to the streets in Accra in 1948.146 In its scale and ferocity the 1949 conflict in Durban was unparalleled. The riots were a violent proletarian intervention in a large, industrialising city. Amidst the chaos were a number of organized African initiatives, creating a political vacuum in which specific goals could be attained. The massed violence was born not just from singular ambition, or the experiences of earlier struggles, or the general harshness of proletarian life. It arose from intense frustration at the limits of proletarian political practices. It was the fruit of organisational weaknesses on a city-wide basis. It bore the marks of competition
144. Lodge, Black Politics. pp38 and 99-100.
145. T V Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda. 1900-1986 (Aldershot:
Gower, 1986) pp.318-319.
146. R Cruise O'Brien (ed.), The Political Economy of Development: Dependence in Senegal (Sage, 1979); W.M. Freund, The Making of Contemporary Africa (London, Macmillan, 1984), pp.202-209.
35 and tension within the African proletariat. The proletarian preoccupation with cornering sections of the market, and so resisting marginality and transforming the city, had been only partially successful. The bargaining position of African workers was weak; collective struggles at the factory floor had been largely foregone. Proletarians had kept their distance from the established political leaders, but had not sustained alternative organisations. The promises of rapid gain which inspired the proletarian populism of the late 1940s had not been achieved.
The riots developed through a number of phases, gathering momentum and scale, and fresh objectives. By Friday evening the mass violence threatened to spread way beyond the localized conflict in the city centre. With the killings in Cato Manor and elsewhere came anarchy and new momentum, threatening established power relations in the city.
Large numbers of Africans.sensed a moment of opportunity to use popular force in challenging the state and its designs, not directly but through communal assault on a vulnerable racially defined target. Short-term objectives were interwoven with a broader challenge. The rules of the riots had a logic of their own. Conflict was largely confined to African attacks on Indians, but included also attacks on the security forces. There were African elements who saw the possibilities for a wider urban insurrection.147 The authorities resorted to a dramatic display of violence to put down the challenge. After the riots the commissioner recognized the crucial importance of the state's violent response: 'Public disorders break out, run their course like fevers and come to an end by being overcome or by destroying their host, the state."*8 The riots of 1949 drew the state and capital together in a determined quest to develop a broad policy arrangement for the introduction of urban apartheid. Countering the violence of the riots, the state imposed its authority over areas of the city that it had not effectively controlled previously. The Cato Manor area however remained an area of volatile conflict. In 1953 further rioting occurred in Mkhumbane. Again the targets were the Indian traders and residents who had returned to the area after the riots. It was then
that the state established the Cato Manor Emergency Camp in the Mkhumbane area:
what had been struggled for, what people believed they had gained through 'liberating' Mkhumbane during the riots slipped away. Although not without struggle the state was never to give up control of these areas. The poignant lesson of the riots was that the city would need to be dramatically reshaped and mass urban African political activity crushed.
As the state and capital grappled with the contradictory structural features of urban life, popular resistance to state and capital failed to acquire a broader unity in the aftermath of the riots. The 1949 conflict imposed a harsh legacy on black politics. The success story of the riots was the manner in which shacklords and traders gained a new foothold in the city: in due course they became the state-recognised urban African leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. The riots both dissipated the thrust of proletarian politics and made the potential for mass based organizational advance and alliance politics that much more difficult to sustain. The riots of January 1949 have cast a large shadow indeed.
147. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', p.48.
148. Riots Commission Report, p. 122.