In the heart of Durban’s hip new Rivertown is the Rivertown Beerhall, a social space filled with young creatives and out-of-towners taking in the sites and sounds of Durban’s newly gentrified CBD. But the relaxed bar belies the dark history of these beerhalls, that were a central part of the ‘Durban System’. A precursor to the dreaded Pass Laws Act of 1952, the Durban System was a way of controlling the influx of non-whites into the city, by requiring black Africans to apply for a permit to stay in the CBD. The Native Beer Act of 1908 reinforced and supported the Durban System, by putting money in the coffers of the municipality. The Act was purportedly introduced, in part, for ‘native welfare’, but in reality beer revenue was ploughed into the maintenance and establishment of barracks and hostels, additional beer halls, and the costs associated with the policing and administration the African populace as run by the Native Affairs Department. It was a means of ensuring ready access to cheap African labour through the subsidising of hostels, while at the same time taking employment away from African women, who prior to the introduction of the Act were the main suppliers of sorghum beer.
The success of the Native Beer Act was well regarded far and wide – until 1929, the year in which a boycott of Durban’s municipal beer halls was instituted, Durban remained the only town in South Africa with a self-supporting Native Revenue Account – it was an efficient system that made good business sense, or so the government thought.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, 17 June 1959, a demonstration was staged at the Cato Manor Beer Hall by a group of African women who were protesting the ban against their home-brewed beer. The women were dispersed, but returned in numbers the following day, with close to 2000 women staging similar demonstrations at beer halls around the city, including the Victoria Street beer hall, which now forms part of the Liberation Heritage Route. Men drinking in the halls were attacked by the women and warned that they were not to drink beer brewed by the municipality.
Protests and rioting continued for the next few days, with the beer halls eventually being completely shut down for a period of ten days. Profits dropped considerably as a result of the boycott of Municipal beer, and the success of the Durban System was for the first time questioned.