As the years go by the face of cities tend to change quite dramatically. Photos hung in pubs and in the foyers of hotels show what Durban’s beachfront used to look like, or how the Berea was covered in bush, instead of apartment buildings. Very few things remain the same, but if you take a look at photos of the Durban Bantu Social Centre that opened its doors in the early 1930s, and compare it to the building today, it’s definitely still recognisable, not only in terms of the building itself, but also the purpose it serves. Originally intended as a space to occupy bantu men in order to reduce the number of “skebengas” on the streets (as declared by the Natal Mercury in 1933), the centre soon emerged as a safe harbour for political activists, who held meetings at the centre and carried out research at the Ndongeni Bantu Library, Durban’s first public library for black people.
Contrary to the founders’ intentions of controlling the African population, activists used the space to mix with the workers, and generate support for their ideas. In 1939, Manasseh T Moerane, editor of The World and Thabo Mbeki’s uncle, was one of the activists present at the centre when the National Union of African Youth was established, the forerunner to the ANC Youth League which would be launched at the Bantu Social Centre five years later. The 1952 Defiance Campaign, considered to be the turning point in the struggle for political liberation in South Africa, also had its beginnings at the centre, which also played host to the ANC national conference in 1954.
In terms of it’s more formal functions the centre also provided an unemployment bureau and evening educational classes, very much in line with the work the Beatrice Street Young Christian Association carries out today. The NPO that runs from the premises of the old Bantu Social Centre offers the residents of Durban Adult Basic Education and Training, as well as running a free soup kitchen for the indigent.
Times may have changed, and the politics may not be the same, but some 80 years on remnants of the Bantu Social Centre remain at number 29 Charlotte Maxeke Street, in Durban’s CBD.