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Memorialising the 1860 Indian indentured labourers – static versus living monuments


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

How and where to memorialise the arrival of Indian indentured labour in South Africa has been hotly debated. The ideal solution would perhaps be the establishment of a living monument in Durban’s historic Grey Street-Warwick-Curries complex.

Since the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in SA in 2010, there has been a great deal of public debate about a monument to honour their memory, and the form that this should take, as well as the appropriate location. 

There was some support for the monument to be located in Durban’s Point precinct, adjacent to uShaka Marine World.

Ten years on, the KZN provincial government remains committed to the project. However, the monument was delayed for several reasons, mostly a lack of a clear conceptualisation of the project, limited public participation and bureaucratic inertia. 

While unintended, the delays provide an opportunity to revisit the type of monument envisaged and its location, and for more public engagement. 

This reassessment is necessary as such artefacts, especially apartheid-style ethnic monuments which do not reflect the multicultural diversity and ethos of the country, have been rejected, defaced and vandalised.

According to monument specialist and history professor Seth  Bruggemans: “Removal debates remind us that commemoration is always political. Even the most benign monuments are products of choices made about how to remember, what to remember, and how to pay for it all.”  

Imraan Baccus cautioned that: “Static monuments serve elite pre-occupations with conjured glories… As our political climate becomes more fraught, race-specific monuments in public spaces might not be the most prudent.”

According to sociologist Karolina Kozlura, “monuments cannot be perceived only as works of art. They are created for specific purposes of keeping people or events alive in the consciousness of contemporary and future generations.”

There is an opportunity to consider a “living monument” to memorialise the 1860 indentured labourers. 

The notion of a living monument concept “represents a new paradigm in how we memorialise the past. Traditionally, we memorialise history with monolithic, rigid objects that isolate history and take it out of context”. 

“These mammoth objects try, unsuccessfully, to make the person or event immortal and unchanging. The living monument flips this around. Living monuments evolve and consider the wider context of interrelated connections that make up history. 

“Living monuments also focus on how history can be made alive, immediate and relevant to people.”

Following the KZN government’s commitment to funding a monument, there was apparently a public call for design proposals that would reflect the “aspirations and sentiments” of South African Indians. 

Furthermore, the monument would not only be “commemorating the arrival of the 1860 indentured labourers, but creating a landmark tourist destination for the city”. 

“The memorial must also act as a catalyst for further development along the promenade.”

A project of this nature required robust public consultation and participation, but there was no evidence of any such engagement. 

According to Professor Bruggeman, “monuments and memorials are neither silent nor innocent. The harder we think about their meanings today, the more likely they are to speak with clarity tomorrow.”

It was left to academics to initiate debate on this issue, led by indenture specialist Professor Ashwin Desai: “How does one do justice in recollecting, and honouring, the journey through one and a half centuries of an Indian community which has been viewed, for the greatest part of that period, as a minority and as insignificant to the country they’ve adopted as home – a country far removed from their motherland, and alien to their culture, religion and ways of life? 

“How does one not only commemorate but also empower the memory of such a people, and address their unique contribution to such a country, in the most solicitous and worthy of terms?”

Professor Goolam Vahed warned that honouring the past should not “lead to ghettoisation and isolation from historical relationships with other ‘racial’ groups in post-apartheid South Africa”.

An important point made by Reuben Reddy Architects, which was initially overseeing the project, was that “what is being envisaged… is a powerful living monument that encapsulates the drama and historical importance of their arrival; the humiliation and pain of their experience as indentured workers; the sacrifices they made to survive in unwelcoming surroundings and the path they laid for the development of a community that is now a proud and integral part of a new democracy”.

The Post newspaper argued that the “erection of this monument is not just an initiative by the Indian community. It was meant to be an inclusive project embracing all South Africans – one that would serve to bring people from different communities together and unify them… 

In the late 1980s the Warwick Junction project (WJP) was described as “no-man’s-land” and one of “the city’s most neglected areas”. 

“Monuments like the 1860 project are important to South Africans wanting to celebrate a shared history…”

Against this background, I want to make a proposal for a living monument, reflecting the multicultural diversity as well as connecting with the common people’s heritage – incorporating the Grey Street complex, Warwick Junction and its markets, Curries Fountain as well as the 1860 Heritage Centre.

Since the 1870s, this area has been a living monument dedicated to non-racialism and defiance against apartheid. 

As architect Len Rosenberg has argued, “this area has generally been ‘invisible’ in the historical narrative of the city and remains the ‘other’ Durban”.

In the late 1980s the Warwick Junction project (WJP) was described as “no-man’s-land” and one of “the city’s most neglected areas”. 

By contrast, in the 1990s there was a change in perception and the urban landscape in the WJP was described as reflecting a “vibrant ethnicity sorely lacking in our multicultural city”.  

In many ways, this new perception reflects the colloquial term often used when referring to this area – the “Casbah”, which normally refers to the exotic marketplaces of north Africa and the Middle East.

The area is also home to the famous and century-old Victoria Street and early morning markets (in 2009 the latter was almost replaced by a mall!). 

There are also the herb, bead and impepho markets, which have a more indigenous and traditional orientation. 

Then there is the world-famous Curries Fountain, a battlefield for many non-racial sporting competitions, as well as a community site for mass protests and resistance in the struggle against apartheid. 

And there are several educational centres, temples, mosques and churches in the area, some of which have heritage status.

According to the National Heritage Resources Act (1999): “Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others.”

The meticulous research and painstaking attention to detail by Len Rosenberg and his dedicated team (including the publication of one book and two pictorial collections) provide compelling evidence for the Grey Street-Warwick-Curries complex to be declared a historic, urban, cultural, living monument and heritage site. 

As per legislation and the 2003 Unesco Convention, the final declaration as a living heritage site would require: the consent and participation of the communities involved; the heritage claims being made must be supported by historical research; proof that no cultural or human rights are being violated; and the promotion of “social cohesion and good sociocultural values”.

According to the original brief of Reuben Reddy Architects, the monument should be “inclusive and one that unifies all South Africans”; it should have “significance and relevance” for all South Africans and not just Indians; and should “transcend the historical confines of a single community and commemorate a chapter in a broader South African narrative”.

The Grey Street-Warwick-Curries complex fits the bill perfectly. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Evan Mantzaris says:

    The Professor’s analysis is extremely multidimensional at all levels. He knows the history , the city the realities . He is an involved person in research , geography , history , religion, theology, Hinduism. He is also knowledgeable of the happenings in eThekwini Municipality . His suggestions are clear and our own knowledge has moved one step forward at least . The next step is the undertaking of the building of the Monument . The hope in the eyes of the KZN Premier celebrating Deepavali with the community was more than evident. It looked that the Monument was around the Grey Street-Warwick-Curries complex.

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