Community histories of Durban

Related articles

Zulu Community

Late nineteenth century postcard of Zulu Warriors. Note the Europeans in the background. Source: Frescura Collection

The pre-1994 apartheid system of homelands or 'Bantusans' denied Zulu people South African citizenship and attempted to confine them to the nominally self-governing homeland of KwaZulu, now both part of the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Today it is estimated that there are more than 45 million South Africans, and the Zulu people make up about approximately 22% of this number. The large majority of the rural Zulu population remain in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Many Zulu live in the urban centres of Durban, Pietermaritzburg and in the Gauteng Province. This article will predominantly focus on the Zulu communities in Durban. However, the history of these communities is inextricably linked to the pre-colonial history, colonial history and the history of segregation within the province.

Zulu settlement and early life in Natal

It is thought that the first known inhabitants of the Durban area arrived from the north around 100,000 BC. Little is known of the history of the first residents, as there is no written history of the area before it was first mentioned by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who came to the KwaZulu-Natal coast while searching for a route from Europe to India. He landed on the KwaZulu-Natal coast on Christmas in 1497, and thus named the area Terra do Natal, or Christmas Country in Portuguese. Much of what we know of the development of the Zulu nation is based on archaeological evidence, and later on European settlers’ diaries and Zulu oral histories.

Long ago, before the Zulu were forged as a nation, they lived as isolated family groups and partly nomadic northern Nguni groups. These groups moved about within their loosely defined territories in search of game and good grazing for their cattle. As they accumulated livestock, family leaders divided and dispersed in different directions, while still retaining family networks.

The Zulu homestead (imizi) consisted of an extended family and others attached to the household through social obligations. This social unit was largely self-sufficient, with responsibilities divided according to gender. Men were generally responsible for defending the homestead, caring for cattle, manufacturing and maintaining weapons and farm implements, and building dwellings. Women had domestic responsibilities and raised crops, usually grains, on land near the household.

The word Zulu means ‘Sky’ and according to oral history, Zulu was the name of the ancestor who founded the Zulu royal line in about 1670. By the late eighteenth century, a process of political consolidation among the Zulu’s was beginning to take place. A number of powerful chiefdoms began to emerge and a transformation from pastoral society to a more organised statehood occurred. This enabled leaders to wield more authority over their own supporters, and to compel allegiance from conquered chiefdoms. Changes took place in the nature of political, social, and economic links between chiefs of these emerging power blocs and their subjects. Zulu chiefs demanded steadily increasing tribute or taxes from their subjects, acquired great wealth, commanded large armies, and, in many cases, subjugated neighbouring chiefdoms.

Military conquest allowed men to achieve status distinctions that had become increasingly important. This culminated early in the nineteenth century with the warrior-king Shaka conquering all the groups in Zululand and uniting them into a single powerful Zulu nation. Shaka recruited young men from all over the kingdom and trained them in his own novel warrior tactics. His military campaign resulted in widespread violence and displacement. Within twelve years of his reign (1816-1828), he had forged one of the mightiest empires the African continent has ever known.

It was during Shaka’s reign, in the year 1824, that a European settlement began in the area that is now Durban. Initially named ‘Port Natal’, the settlement was founded by merchants from the Cape Colony under the leadership of Henry Francis Fynn. Fynn reached a contractual agreement with King Shaka authorising them to establish a trading station. In 1835 the town was named Durban after the Cape Governor of the time, Sir Benjamin D'Urban.

In the beginning the settlement developed very slowly and many skirmishes between the Zulus and the settlers took place. The Zulu people obviously saw Natal as their tribal homeland and only tolerated the settlers, because the town was of use to them as a trading station.

In 1828, King Shaka was assassinated by his brothers and the Zulu empire weakened after Shaka's death.

In 1837 the Voortrekkers arrived in Natal. A delegation lead by Piet Retief negotiated a contract with Zulu King Dingane granting them the land between Durban and the Tugela river to found a Boer Republic in Natal. Shortly afterwards, Dingane had the entire delegation killed. After several more bloody assaults and attacks, the Voortrekkers defeated the Zulus in the dramatic Battle at the Blood River. Subsequently the Afrikaners founded their Republic ‘Natalia’ and laid claim on Durban, which, however, met with strong resistance from the British. They sent troops to Durban, who were defeated in the Battle of Congella in 1842. But the English secured their dominance in Natal the following year. The Voortrekkers resorted to trekking further north and found a new home in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

The destruction of the Zulu Kingdom

Sir Bartle Frere was appointed British high commissioner to South Africa in 1879 to realise the Policy of Confederation. This policy was set to bring the various British colonies, Boer republics and independent African groups under common control - with a view to implementing a policy of economic development. Sir Bartle Frere saw the self-reliant Zulu kingdom as a threat to this policy, a belief which was supported by Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs.

Shepstone averred that the Zulu people had revived their military power under Cetshwayo, which made them more of a threat to peace and prosperity in South Africa. On 11 December 1878, under the flimsy pretext of a few minor border incursions into Natal by Cetshwayo's followers, the Zulu were given an impossible ultimatum- that they should disarm and Cetshwayo should forsake his sovereignty.

Anglo-Zulu Wars

The inevitable invasion of Zululand began after the ultimatum had expired in January 1879. In a final onslaught known as the Battle of Ulundi, they secured an overwhelming military success. More than 1 000 Zulu were killed and Cetshwayo was forced to flee for safety, until he was captured in the Ngome forest in August and exiled to the Cape.

Natal received ‘Colonial government’ in 1893, and the Zulu people were dissatisfied at being governed by the Colony. A plague of locusts devastated crops in Zululand and Natal in 1894 and 1895, and their cattle were dying of rinderpest, lung sickness and east coast fever. These natural disasters, as well as the war, impoverished them. The men were forced to seek employment as railway construction workers in northern Natal and on the mines in the Witwatersrand.

Also following the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom and the simultaneous movement into the city of Indian workers who had completed their indenture on Natal sugar plantations (see Indian feature), the first shack settlements began to be constructed in Durban. These settlements offered Zulu’s, many of whom had been forced off their lands, a well located and affordable means of access to the alternative livelihoods offered by the city.

Colonial authorities soon began to act against the settlements by legally entrenching the segregation of Africans. The key tool of colonial urban planning was the division of the city into different zones which were then allocated to different activities and to different groups of people. By 1900 municipal acts had been adopted to control and monitor access to these different urban zones (also relevant here see ‘Beer Culture’ below).

In 1906 a poll tax of £1 per head, known as the head tax, was implemented. Hut taxes and other taxes like this poll tax had been used by British colonial governments across Africa before to force people out of a rural non”capitalist economy and into wage labour. Resistance to this tax resulted in the Bambatha Rebellion. Some two thousand Zulu workers and domestic servants left the city to return to their homesteads, where many joined the rebellion. This rural revolt produced tremendous anxiety in White Durban about the possibility of an attack on the city. However, the uprising was ruthlessly suppressed.

Zulu Communities in Durban after 1910

The establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 removed the colonies from direct Imperial control, and allowed local Whites to run the new national state. Quick shifts towards greater regulation of the African presence in the cities followed. The 1911 Native Regulation Act put in place a series of pass controls, thus substantially firming up a system in which single male workers were expected to live in hostels for the duration of their labour contracts, and to then return to their rural homes. But various ongoing attempts to install an effective system of pass controls over African women failed. Only a quarter of Durban’s 30 000 African workers were formally housed in male only barracks by 1916. White paranoia about Africans living outside of prison”like compounds remained rampant.

The 1913 Land Act gave legal sanction to the mass enclosures of land for the purpose of setting up a fully commercial White agriculture, and these enclosures pushed a rural crisis into a spiralling descent into mass poverty that is still evident in the deprivation and struggles of today. The Land Act initiated two waves of expulsion from the land. The first took place immediately, as land was expropriated and enclosed.

Therefore the 1920s saw fundamental changes in the Zulu nation. Many were drawn towards the mines and fast-growing cities as wage earners. They were separated from the land and urbanised. Zulu men and women have made up a substantial portion of South Africa's urban work force throughout the 20th century, especially in the gold and copper mines of the Witwatersrand. Zulu workers organized some of the first Black labour unions in the country. For example, the Zulu Washermen's Guild, Amawasha, was active in Natal and the Witwatersrand even before the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. The Zululand Planters' Union organized agricultural workers in Natal in the early twentieth century.

The 1920s saw an influx of Zulu people moving to Durban, and they settled in areas like Cato Manor. In Cato Manor the Zulu community was renting land from the Indian market gardeners. The Indian settlers leased small plots to African families who were prohibited by law from buying land of their own. By 1932 when Cato Manor was incorporated into the Borough of Durban, over 500 shacks had been built on the land making it a maze-like shantytown the Zulu called Mkhumbane, named after a stream running through it.

The Beer Brewing 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 African 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 beerhalls were expensive, led to great bitterness and outbreaks of violence, including one in 1929 in which a number of people were killed.

Durban townships and the KwazuluKwaZulu Homeland

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans and the Zulu communities living in Durban were no exception. These changes included the separation of citizens into so-called ‘White’, ‘Bantu/African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Asian’ suburbs, as a result of the Group Areas Act (1950).

In terms of this act African Durban residents were to be moved and resettled in townships, particularly in KwaMashu and later Umlazi on the outskirts of Durban. Many Zulu residents knew they would not qualify for residence in a township and would be repatriated to their ‘place of origin’ in Natal. In addition rent in the townships would be double what the residents were paying in areas like Cato Manor. Much resistance and rioting occurred as a result of the forced removals, most notably in Cato Manor (read more).

In 1953, the South African Government introduced homelands or Bantustans, and KwaZulu was ‘set aside’ for Xhosa people. Later, these regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Therefore many Zulu were denied South African citizenship, and thousands were forcibly relocated (many from Durban) to KwaZulu. Conditions of extreme poverty in the homelands meant that many Zulu men had no option but to move to urban centres as migrant workers.

The first Territorial Authority for the Zulu people was established in 1970 and the Zulu homeland of KwaZulu was officially defined. On 30 March 1972 the first Legislative Assembly of KwaZulu was constituted by South African Parliamentary Proclamation. Chief Mangosutho (Gatsha) Buthelezi, a cousin of the king, was elected as Chief Executive. The town of Nongoma was temporarily consolidated as the capital, pending completion of buildings at Ulundi. The 1970s also saw the revival of Inkatha, later the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the ruling and sole party in the self-governing KwaZulu homeland. Led by Buthelezi, Inkatha worked within the NP governments system, but it opposed homeland independence, standing for non-racial democracy, federalism, and free enterprise.

Military prowess continued to be an important value in Zulu culture, and this emphasis fuelled some of the political violence of the 1990s. Buthelezi's nephew, Goodwill Zwelithini, was the Zulu monarch in the 1990s. Buthelezi and King Goodwill secured an agreement with the ANC just before the April 1994 elections that, with international mediation, the government would establish a special status for the Zulu Kingdom after the elections. Zulu leaders understood this special status to mean some degree of regional autonomy within the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Buthelezi was appointed minister of home affairs in the first Government of National Unity in 1994. He led a walkout of Zulu delegates from the National Assembly in early 1995 and clashed repeatedly with newly elected President Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela. Buthelezi threatened to abandon the Government of National Unity entirely unless his Zulu constituency received greater recognition and autonomy from central government control.

Last updated : 18-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-Oct-2011