January 13th, 2021 marked 72 years since Durban’s riots of 1949. At face value, it seemed as though the riots were ignited when an Indian shopkeeper assaulted an African youth. This moment – and a number of pertinent socio-economic factors – ignited a wave of violence across Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It saw South African Zulu and Indian people enter into violent conflicts that resulted in 142 deaths, 1087 injuries, and a great deal of destruction to hundreds of buildings and homes.
The Durban riots were not an expression of permanent antagonism between Indians and native Africans but an explosion of deeper frustrations in a society where rapid urbanisation and forced proletarianisation had subjected large sections of both communities to ”conscious poverty”, which meant the inability to pay for a home or for adequate food and clothing.
A failed inquiry by the apartheid state
By the evening of January 13th, the Natal Indian Congress met to discuss a plan moving forward and created a number of camps across the city for Indians in need of refuge. By February 6th a joint council between the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was formed to further promote unity. By mid-February, the apartheid government created their own commission of enquiry, knowns as the van den Heever Commission, under the leadership of DF Malan.
However, the inquiry left much to be desired. The ANC and SAIC’s request for witness questioning so as to understand the riots, was refused. Their lawyer, Dr G Lowen, revealed how the hindering of witness questioning would render such an inquiry futile and result in a failure to understand the circumstances that led to such violence. Dr Lowen pointed out that the right to cross-examine was vital, noting:
“We want to prove that the horrible slum conditions of Indians and Africans are at the bottom of the riots to a certain extent.”
Eventually, the findings of the van den Heever commission were released but were disappointing in that they “largely absolve the White authorities for what had happened.”
Reasons for the riots?
Selvan Naidoo, the curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre, reflects on the writing of Kenneth Kirkwood and Maurice Webb in their book The Durban Riots and After. Two of their poignant reflections highlight how white South Africans and the state failed to intervene and help those in need, and how a culture of racism, intolerance, and severe inequality led to the circumstances that culminated in the violence:
Europeans gather in office windows and on balconies watching the scene, regarding it with amusement. By evening, a reign of terror was in existence throughout the poorer parts of Durban and district. Houses were being burnt by the score; many were killed or left to die in flaming houses; men were clubbed to death; women and young girls were raped.
Thus, in Kirkwood and Webb’s account, many bystanders watched the violence unfold with little compassion or care for those involved, likely dismissing the conflict as bitterness between the two groups rather than a reflection of the dire conditions of the time. Naidoo reveals that growing frustrations were a result of terrible living conditions and grave socio-economic distress. These issues included problems with transport, the removal of unemployed or ‘undesirable’ persons, and slum conditions.
However, highlighting how the past so often has a direct impact on the present, Naidoo writes that possibly:
…worse conditions prevail in the heart of Cato Manor that experienced the lion’s share of the 1949 riots’ bloodbath. Today, service delivery protests are being seen on a regular basis. We sit once again on a powder keg of uneasiness that will only affect the vulnerable and the poorest that live on the fringes of middle class suburbia.
State failure in addressing violence and intolerance
We cannot ignore the role that states around the world continue to play in reaction to violent conflicts. From the Rwandan Genocide to the present-day xenophobia that we see in South Africa and beyond, states have too often been complicit in the perpetuation of violence. This violence is often meted against those, like foreigners, deemed as “others”. State responses often fail to address the root causes of such tension including poverty, inequality, subpar living conditions and a lack of access to employment opportunities.
As such, part of commemorating the liberation struggle and upholding democracy is also about ensuring that the government play its part in preventing such discrimination and violent outbreaks. The Durban Riots of 1949 highlight uncomfortably how dire socio-economic conditions and inadequate government intervention can lead to mass violence and social unrest. May they remind us to not turn a blind eye to intolerance and to continue striving for a world in which all persons are treated with tolerance and respect.