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A nation divided: 1948 to 2021

A nation divided: 1948 to 2021

Sam Moodley | Amandla 77 | August 2021

     Pine Street in Durban, at the height of the conflict between Africans and Indians in 1949. When the riots were finally subdued there were 142 people killed and 1,087 injured.
Note: while I abhor the use of apartheid racial categories, I use terms such as “Indian” and “African” only to facilitate reading. Quotation marks are used to symbolise objection to apartheid categorisation.

The mayhem and upheavals experienced in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) in July 2021 are related to the extreme conditions of abject poverty, high unemployment, poor service delivery of fundamental human needs and corruption experienced by the most vulnerable in South Africa. But a deeper historical analysis of the interconnected racial conflicts that have sporadically arisen in Kwa-Zulu Natal over many decades is necessary.


The violence that occurred in 1949, and again 72 years later in July 2021, raises unresolved political issues in the unique situation of KZN.

The Apartheid laws implemented the divide and rule policy of the nationalist government that came into power in 1948. The aim was to continue to pit one racial group against the other. The “Indian” and “African” groupings were not only placed socially apart but often competed for limited resources made available to them.

Hosea Jaffe, writing in 1952, records that

“As a result of 89 years of anti-Indian laws and propaganda organised by all sections of the rulers; of intense propaganda in 1948 amongst Africans to “drive the coolie into the sea”; of using African businessmen’s jealousy of their Indian rivals, and of exploiting the political isolation of the Indians from the Africans – the Jingoes of Durban set African against Indian in January 1949. …… it was “an organised pogrom” ….’

According to L. Rosenberg et al in The Making of Place, the 1949 riots were sparked when an argument arose between 14 year old George Madondo and a shop assistant, Dhanraj, over a cigarette. Madondo slapped Dhanraj causing the owner to push Madondo through a glass window. This “commonplace altercation proved a lightning rod for the most violent confrontation between Africans and Indians in South Africa.” It took place at the Indian Market in Victoria Street.

Word of Madondo’s assault spread and set off the attacks by “Africans” on “Indians”, from Durban Central to Overport to Cato Manor. According to the Van den Heever Report of the Judicial Commission set up by the government, by eleven o’clock that night, 22 “Indians” with fractured skulls were admitted to the King Edward Hospital. Police inaction allowed the violence to continue for several days.

Gruesome evidence given at the Commission included the following:

The rioters ‘…. gave expression to a definite aim; to be rid of the Indian once and for all. …. Major Bestford, the District Commandant of the Durban area, describes the situation which now developed in these words:­ ” Houses were now being burnt by the score, all in the vicinity of Booth Road. Almost all the Indians not evacuated from this area were either killed, burnt to death or left dying. While the men were clubbed to death, Indian women and young girls were raped by the infuriated Natives. This state of arson and looting continued throughout the night and when further Military and Naval reinforcements arrived many instances occurred where the forces had to resort to the use of firearms to protect life and property.”

According to The Making of Place again, when the riots were finally subdued there were 142 people killed and 1,087 injured. 768 “Indians” assaulted were treated in Hospital, and 2,590 were treated in Refugee camps set up in community halls, schools, temples and mosques. Voluntary doctors treated the injured and the homeless. A total of 268 homes were looted and completely burnt and 1,690 partially destroyed. Forty seven businesses were completely burnt and “Indian” owned vehicles to the value of 49,980 pounds were destroyed.

The Madondo incident was followed by the second attack by residents of the Dalton Road Location. On a Friday around lunchtime, 2,000 Africans marched out of a beer hall in Grey Street and shattered shop windows, attacked Indian street vendors, Indian shop traders and shop assistants, and stoned vehicles. They were joined by the Point Dock Workers. Mass looting followed. Durban Central Area became a no-go area.  While some Whites joined in the looting of Indian-owned shops, others stood by and watched.

According to Maurice Webb, Europeans gathered in office windows and on balconies watching with amusement, and saying, “I am all for the natives. Serves the Coolie Right”.

The cause of the riots must be seen against the economic conditions of the time. While Whites dominated Industry with white monopoly capital, “Indians” to a lesser degree were included into the local economy through commerce and trade in “Non- European” areas. The absence of transport for “African” workers who had to travel great distances also became a contentious issue, especially when buses became Indian owned. Inflation impacted both “Indian” and “African” families.

Roadblock in Phoenix, July 2021. Communities barricaded themselves to keep families safe because of lack of protection from the police.

The 70s

The government’s tactic to divide the so-called “Coloured”, “Indian” and “African” communities was strongly challenged. The oppressed started to emerge as a force of collective power against white oppression. Student protests, worker strikes, building of trade unions and opposition to government created platforms such as the Bantustans, the Coloured Representative Council and the South African Indian Council and other collaborators, reinforced various power bases that challenged the repressive laws of the State.

The 80s

A gap of thirty years into the seventies changed the political life within communities. After the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960, a new wave of consciousness building, and the evolving of political consciousness, came with the advent of the Black Consciousness Movement. The rise of the student movement in the 1970s called for the reflection of self-pride, self-respect, dignity based on the pillars of independence, self-reliance but most important of all building a sense of solidarity amongst all people who were socially, politically and economically oppressed.

In the 80s, seething discontent lay simmering under the surface of most Black communities. By 1984, violence took the form of necklacing of local municipal councillors. The backlash against Black communities by the armed forces of the state left emotional scars on the minds of children who witnessed their parents being macheted and families dying while their homes were burnt. The trauma of the 80s manifested itself in self-hate which still appears to prevail today.

By 1985 in Kwa-Zulu Natal there were two phases of violence. The first was of protesting students against the brutal assassination of Victoria Mxenge, an activist lawyer, and against the presence of the police in the townships. The homes of policemen and trader/ councillors were attacked. In Kwamashu, thousands attacked the Kwamashu shopping complex, where big business was housed. Symbols of privilege and oppression came under attack.

The second uprisings came from within Inkatha ranks, who tried to mobilise to gain control of the townships. In Inanda, protesting students were joined by gangs of youths who threatened “Indian” shopkeepers and residents, wanting to burn their businesses and property. Some 1,000 residents, for fear of their lives, sought refuge in the township of Phoenix. Tensions rose. It was at this time that the Gandhi-Phoenix Settlement was destroyed

Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahathma Gandhi, who bore witness to the disaster said, “the Phoenix Settlement was also burned and occupied. I saw the hidden hand of Apartheid behind these six days of mayhem.” It was “a hidden hand with an agenda. The precision with which the operation was carried out and the targets chosen were all part of a very well orchestrated action to destabilise.”

In Inanda, after the “Indians” had left, the burning and looting began. “African” landowners and shack lords wanted to buy “Indian” property. “Indian” shop owners were the most vulnerable. When they did not receive any protection from the police they fled to Phoenix and Verulam. When there was a threat of an attack on Phoenix, battle lines were formed between Inanda and Phoenix.

In the meantime “African” warlords took over “Indian” owned land and there was no attempt to reinstate “Indian” landowners. The aim was to move “Indians” out of Inanda so that Inanda would be incorporated into Kwa-Zulu homeland. This was part of the state’s balkanisation policy. The violence of 1985, though initially against the KwaZulu Bantustan, became more complex, with the hand of the apartheid government visible in the fomenting of anti-Indian hostility.

There were many similarities between the 1949 and 1985 uprisings. In both instances “Indian” landlords and traders came under attack, as “Africans” felt that “Indians” were an economic threat. Many lives were lost on both sides of these riots. Looting, burning, rape of mothers became embedded into the memory of the “Indian” community. It became a memory of fear.   In both cases, society was experiencing a phase of economic crisis. Fear, mistrust, suspicion, animosity were the building blocks on which divisions were built.

  EFF march in Phoenix. The threats continue from the placarding demonstrators using inflammatory slogans (“no bail for bloodthirsty Indians”).

July 2021

So now in 2021, 35 years later, the crisis of violence, the destruction of property, the reign of terror, is being witnessed. Communities barricaded themselves to keep families safe because of lack of protection from the police.

The riot of 2021 was not a PROTEST by the poor against hunger, inequality, poor service delivery, unequal education, lack of health facilities. In fact, glaringly exposed were the crafty tactics of disgruntled politicians, their henchmen and provocateurs who stirred up the emotions of the poor to cause chaos, destroy infrastructure, render the state ungovernable and topple the President.

The poor were used as a smokescreen to cover the sinister plan of creating economic upheaval. Some reports indicate that part of the riot strategy was the fomenting of racial conflict between “Indian” and “African” compatriots. 

Flashbacks to Mbongeni Ngema’s 2002 song in Zulu, “AmaNdiya” (“Indian”), remain as a reminder of the threats that began 20 years ago. The same tune is now being sung and the threats continue from the placarding demonstrators using inflammatory slogans (“no bail for bloodthirsty Indians”). Busing in of supporters, pretending to use the marches to seek justice for those who were “murdered” in the “Phoenix Massacre”, was a psychological ploy to instil fear into the Phoenix community and perpetuate the racial divide.

From 1949 to 2021

It would seem that violence is used as a weapon to bolster prejudice and racism. Fear and helplessness are weapons used to recruit, eliminate opposition, and establish power and control. This has been fuelled by lack of safety and security by the state, labelling and stereotyping by the media, and inflaming prejudices through fake news and hate speech.

Violence leaves lifelong scars, destroying the fabric of society. Killings, brutal assault, disrespect for humanity cannot be accepted. All organisations, irrespective of political differences, need to galvanise now before the crisis escalates.

 Sam Moodley works as a researcher, educator and a socio-cultural activist 
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