Durban-based book lovers and history fanatics will be delighted to attend the Durban Book Fair at Mitchell Park from 4th to 6th December. The final event of the weekend fair will be the launch of Len Rosenberg’s greatly anticipated new book, “The Buildings of the Durban System: the architecture of social control.” The book illustrates, in more than 60 photographs, the notorious system of control that became the basis of “native administration” during the colonial and apartheid period. The Phansi Museum – in collaboration with the Durban Book Fair and the Durban Heritage Trust – will host the launch of the book alongside an exhibition curated by Rosenberg himself. 

Architectural sites of the Durban System

The Durban System was a precursor to the dreaded apartheid-era Pass Laws Act of 1952. The system was run by the Native Affairs Department, once housed in the KwaMuhle Museum, and sought to “control the influx of non-whites into the city, by requiring black Africans to apply for [permits] to stay in the CBD” ensuring cheap labour in the city. This system went hand-in-hand with the Native Beer Act of 1908, which prohibited women from brewing traditional beer, utshwala. Municipalities in Durban and throughout the colony of Natal built breweries and beerhalls. In consequence, labourers would spend their money at municipal beerhalls, and thus their wages were thus injected back into the government coffers.

These laws, much like future apartheid laws, aimed to subjugate and govern Africans. Money gleaned from the beerhalls funded the apparatus of control – barracks, hostels, educational, sports and social institutions – over people’s lives, thus perpetuating the system of inequality. Durban was a leader in this particular brand of oppressive administration that was emulated by other municipalities throughout the country. In 1959, over 2000 people at Cato Manor bravely protested against this legislation, and for the first time, the success of the Durban System was called into question.

Cato Manor Protests, 1959

Despite the system functioning as a pivotal and painful part of Durban’s history, there is always room for new insights. Rosenberg’s book, and the accompanying photographs, seek to grapple with lingering concerns from the perspective of space and the built environment. His previous exhibitions and works have explored Durban’s complex history and include titles like”Currie’s Fountain, Sports Politics and Identity”, The Making of Place, the Warwick Junction Precinct: 1870s to 1980s” and “Dirty Linen, Other Durban.”

The three-day book fair will see the launch of a number of books and is well worth a visit for anyone with a penchant for literature and history.

To RSVP to the final event at the Phansi Museum, email

Images courtesy of SA History Online and Durban Book Fair.

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