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Seventy years on, the Group Areas Act continues to map...

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Opinionista

Seventy years on, the Group Areas Act continues to map the future of Durban

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

July 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Group Areas Act, and Durban was the pioneering city to plan for group areas zoning. In 1958, Durban was zoned a ‘white’ city. As a result, about 75,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be uprooted from settled communities and moved to Chatsworth and Phoenix, and Umlazi and KwaMashu, respectively.

On 7 July 2020, it was 70 years since the passing of the Group Areas Act of 1950. The Group Areas Act was one of the main legal instruments used to reinforce apartheid, and emphasised the provision of separate residential areas, educational services and other amenities for the different race groups. 

The major impact of group area dislocations was borne by black communities, particularly coloureds and Indians. Africans were eliminated from cities by the Urban Areas Act (1923) and were reduced to “temporary sojourners”. 

Despite the rhetoric that the Group Areas Act would apply equally to all races, the Indian was singularly attacked in Parliamentary debates about the legislation as an economic threat to the whites by both the National Party and the Opposition. This was reflected in many anti-Indian sentiments, references to Indian “penetration” into white neighbourhoods, and the need to protect white supremacy.

The Durban City Council, representing the white ruling class, was at the forefront of calls for the segregation of Indians. In the 1940s, white civic organisations and the Durban Chamber of Commerce complained about the increased Indian encroachment into white residential areas, and this led to commissions of inquiry into Indian “penetration” in 1941 and 1943. As a result of pressure from white residents, the Durban City Council played a significant role in the initiation, development and promulgation of segregation laws, for example, the Pegging Act (1943), the Indian Land Tenure and Representation Act (1946), and the Group Areas Act (1950).

The Durban City Council’s collaboration with the government resulted in the group area proclamation of 6 June 1958, in terms of which Durban was zoned a “white” city. As a result, about 75,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be uprooted from settled communities and moved to Chatsworth and Phoenix, and Umlazi and KwaMashu, respectively.

There was little doubt about who were going to be the primary victims of the Group Areas Act, as it was basically an extension of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act. The National Party claimed that the Group Areas Act was in response to calls from Durban to act against Indian penetration. The Durban City Council regarded the Group Areas Act as a lifeline by which Durban could be preserved as a “European” city. Indians represent the smallest proportion of the four population groups in South Africa. Yet, proportionately, the impact of the Group Areas Act “has been borne most heavily by the Indians, with one in four of them having been resettled”, especially in Durban.

Restrictions on Indian acquisition and occupation of land in Durban dates back almost to their arrival in South Africa in 1860 as indentured labourers, who were followed by “passenger” Indians who were mainly traders. As Indians progressed economically, they were perceived to be a threat to European interests. Basically, there was a conflict between white and Indian capital, and this was being expressed in racial and ethnic terms. Indian merchants challenged white economic hegemony and status. 

Given its support for compulsory racial residential segregation, Durban was the pioneering city to plan for group areas zoning and established a Technical Sub-Committee (TSC) for this purpose in November 1950. The Durban City Council’s collaboration with the government resulted in the group area proclamation of 6 June 1958, in terms of which Durban was zoned a “white” city. As a result, about 75,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be uprooted from settled communities and moved to Chatsworth and Phoenix, and Umlazi and KwaMashu, respectively.

Indians were evicted from the Main Line suburbs (Sea View, Hillary, Bellair and Malvern), Sydenham, Overport, Briardene, Riverside, Prospect Hall, Mayville and Cato Manor, areas they established as pioneers almost a century earlier. The TSC had initially proposed that the Main Line suburbs be zoned for Indians, but this was rejected because of protests from whites. Whites were moved from one area – the pollution-infested cesspool of Isipingo Beach.

Indian political and civic organisations were vociferous in their condemnation of, and opposition to, the Group Areas Act, which was intended to ruin the community economically, relocate them into ghettos and ultimately force their repatriation to India. The Mayville Indian Ratepayers’ Association made a poignant appeal to the Durban City Council:

“People form deep and lasting attachments to the places in which they live, and such attachments are rooted in emotional association with homes, temples, churches, mosques, schools, burial places and with neighbours — years of friendship, the passing on of homes from generation to generation. Such are worthwhile values which cannot be set aside lightly.”

Political action consisted mainly of petitions, letters and delegations to the South African government authorities, appeals to India and the UN, and the occasional mass meeting. While the Natal Indian Congress (NIC, established in 1894) and Natal Indian Organisation (NIO, formed in 1947), claimed to represent the Indian community, there was very little evidence of mobilisation of the working class and the poor, whose interests were neglected by elite leaders. 

By the 1970s racial residential planning in Durban was complete, with only one inner-city integrated area remaining, the Warwick Avenue Triangle.

This was because the Group Areas Act affected the various classes of the Indian community differently. There would be financial losses for the wealthy and reduced opportunities for investment and commercial expansion. Segregation represented a double-edged sword for the underclasses: with increasing rents and slum clearance some would become homeless, but others could possibly be housed in municipal housing schemes. In fact, the question of housing for the underclasses was not raised forcefully by the NIC or the NIO, “since elements within the Indian merchant class were extensively involved in rack-renting to the Indian and African working class”.

While there was some collaboration between the NIC and ANC leaders, a telling indictment against the political leadership of the period was their elite tendencies and the failure to mobilise across racial barriers at the grassroots level. There was also a leadership vacuum as several leaders in the Indian and African congress movement, including Dr Monty Naicker and Chief Albert Luthuli, were arrested and charged with treason in 1956. Their trial continued until 1961, when all were acquitted. The apartheid state was keen on consolidating its power, and was “constantly on the defensive against the threat of destabilisation through popular unrest”. The fledgling apartheid state of 1948 and its repressive apparatus was firmly in control by the late 1950s. 

The “collaboration” between the conservative, numerically smaller NIO, which represented powerful economic and business interests, and the apartheid government did not yield any concessions in terms of the implementation of the Group Areas Act. The leadership of the NIO was ultimately co-opted by the state to form the Indian Advisory Council, the predecessor to the South African Indian Council (SAIC).

By the 1970s racial residential planning in Durban was complete, with only one inner-city integrated area remaining, the Warwick Avenue Triangle. However, Cato Manor remained vacant as a white group area, and there were unsuccessful attempts to relocate the Indian central business district (CBD).

Cato Manor failed as a white group area for two reasons. First, there was an abundant supply of land and housing for whites in other group areas. Second, part of Cato Manor was on ecca shale, which would contribute to significantly higher construction costs. The government did not proceed with the relocation of the Indian CBD to increase the legitimacy of the state-appointed SAIC, whose members had business interests in this area.

Since 1994, urban policies have reinforced the race, class and socio-spatial divisions of apartheid group areas, promoting the likes of Umhlanga and Sandton, and condemning the African majority to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in ghettoes and shack settlements, with limited or no basic services. DM

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