Tension Builds: Exploitation, resistance and beer

The Indian settlers were leasing land to Africans in the Cato Manor area; this led to routine charges of slum-lord tactics and exploitation laid against Indian landowners, traders and transport operators. These culminated, in January 1949, in two days of murder, pillage and arson that left 50 Indians dead, more than 500 injured and thousands in makeshift refugee camps. The Africans - whose toll was 87 killed and 550 injured - believed they'd won the 'Battle of Cato Manor'.  Indian landlords and traders were replaced by black traders and shack lords, who included Esau Makatini, J Shange and Isaac Zwane. Durban's city fathers were jolted into taking responsibility - for the first time - of the African residents of Cato Manor. They began expropriating Indian-owned land there for an Emergency Camp, but its African population reached 'unmanageable levels' within five years.

In terms of the notorious Group Areas Act (1950) a proclamation was made in June 1958. In Cato Manor 25,798 Indians, 2,107 Coloureds and 28,298 Africans would be shifted. Indians will lose 2,891 acres of land and 2,444 dwellings valued at £1,685,350. Coloureds and Africans will lose over 70 acres of land and 133 dwellings valued at £25,940.

The forced removal sparked the Cato Manor riots of June 1959 and, six months later, the massacre of nine policemen.  But, there was another reason for the high tensions and the resulting 1959 riots in Cato Manor, the reason was beer. In particular, the bitter dispute about who had the right to brew and sell the low-alcohol sorghum beer, or utshwala, which was such an important part of black culture.

Towards the end of the 19th century growing numbers of black people moved into Durban and did not have the time or space to brew their own beer. Entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the gap and there was soon a thriving industry including some large-scale brewing operations but a lot of the beer was brewed by women, who earned their living by selling it in town.

The authorities in Durban were keen to have black people around town for their labour but they were concerned that the relatively small white community would be overwhelmed if uncontrolled black urbanisation was allowed. They therefore introduced a system to control the influx of black people by forcing them to have permits to be in town.

This system would have cost ratepayers a lot of money but the authorities worked out a way to make it self-financing. They were the instigators behind the passing of the Native Beer Act of 1908, in terms of which municipalities in Natal were given the sole right to brew and sell beer within their boundaries.

The Durban municipality soon began to brew its own beer and sell it through a network of beerhalls, which it established. The first municipal beerhall opened in 1909 and soon the system was reaping huge profits. Every effort was made to stamp out the illegal brewing and the sale of beer through regular police raids.

Great numbers of people lost their means to earn a living because of this policy and, even if they did not stop brewing beer, there was always the risk of a raid. This and the fact that beer in beerhall were expensive, led to great bitterness and outbreaks of violence, including one in 1929 in which a number of people were killed.

Cato Manor grew in leaps and bounds during World War II when there was a boom in Durban's economy and a vast increase in the demand for labour. By the end of the war there were probably 30000 squatters in the area. The local economy was vibrant and self-employed people pursued their trades freely, which they were prevented from doing in town by the Jobs Reservation Act. In the background, however, the dispute over the brewing and sale of beer was still ever present and the municipal beerhall in Cato Manor was the focus of much ill feeling, particularly among the women who felt that it was stealing their livelihoods. Illegal brewing still went on and children on watch would shout "meleko, meleko, meleko" (milk, milk, milk) whenever the police appeared.

The tension over the 'beer issue' and the looming forced removals culminated in June 1959.

The Cato Manor Riots and Killings: June 1959 - February 1960

The riots in Cato Manor began on 17 June 1959, when a demonstration of African women forced there way into a beer hall destroying beer and drinking utensils and beating the men drinking there. The women were lead by Florence Mkhize and Dorothy Nyembe. The protesters were dispersed by the police.

Several days later the Director of the Bantu Administration Department, Sighart (S.B.) Bourquin, met 2,000 women at the beer hall. Once they had stated their grievances they were ordered to disperse. When they failed to do so the police made a baton charge. General disorder and rioting followed resulting in damages to vehicles and buildings estimated at £100,000. Later that day Africans attacked a police picket and were driven off with sten guns. During these riots four people died and seventy nine were injured.

After this, things remained comparatively quiet in Cato Manor until a Sunday afternoon in *February, 1960. An ugly situation developed in which nine policemen lost their lives.

Reverend Ambrose Reeves said of the massacre: 'This was a deplorable business. Whatever may be said of the actions of the South African police these men died while carrying out their duties. The blame for their deaths must in the first instance lie on those who murdered them'.

The fact that these deaths occurred in Cato Manor only a few weeks before the demonstration at Sharpeville must have been well known to the police gathered at the police station in Sharpeville the fateful morning of the Sharpeville Massacre. Certainly more than one spokesman of the South African Government linked these two affairs together.

The riots did not stop the forced removals, in fact after the police killings, the removals gathered pace, with the last shack in Cato Manor being demolished on 31 August 1964. The removals were done under the control of Sighart (S.B.) Bourquin who was Director of Bantu Administration in Durban and who, even though he supported the moves, wrote to the City Council on 23 June 1959 to say that something had to be done to improve the lot of workers in Durban so that they could afford the rents in Kwamashu. He pointed out that none of the City Council's own staff, if married, and few of those working for the South African Railways and Harbours could afford the rents.

*note: Sources differ on the date that the nine policemen lost there lives in Cato Manor in 1960. Some sources say it was in February, others say the massacre took place on 23 January. 

Last updated : 19-Jul-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011