From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

In January 1949 a bitter racial conflict occurred in Durban. The consequent loss of life and property was officially given as follows: deaths; 142 (87 Africans, 50 Indians, 1 white and 4 others whose identity could not be determined); injured; 1 087 (541 Africans, 503 Indians, 11 Coloureds and 32 whites; of the injured 58 died); buildings destroyed: 1 factory, 58 stores and 247 dwellings; buildings damaged: 2 factories, 652 stores and 1 285 dwellings. In two articles included here, R. S. Nowbath, ex-editor of Leader, discusses the causes of the convulsion, and the failure of the Riots Inquiry Commission to come to grips with the fundamental reasons for the tragic occurrence. Source: (a) The Forum, 29 January 1949; (b) Common Sense, May 1949, R. S. Nowbath Collection.

(a) The Indians of Durban are still bewildered and stunned by the convulsion of two weeks ago ”” one fierce burst of terror which lasted from Friday afternoon, January 14, to Saturday morning, January 15. But let this be clearly understood: this was no race riot; it was no clash between two races; there were no pitched battles, no organised assaults and reprisals by two race groups. The Indians did not fight back. When violence descended on their person they took cover and remained under cover, from where they were later hounded out and killed or burnt inside their homes.

Subsequently, however, cases were reported where some Indians attempted reprisals, but they were quickly dealt with. At no stage, therefore, can the convulsion really be called a race riot.

Briefly, this is what happened. On Thursday evening (January 13) Indians in the heart of the Indian business area were set upon by Africans. They did not know what was happening. On the first day there was hardly any destruction of property, and after some hours the wave of violence died down.


But at midday on Friday a veritable human cyclone hit the Indian business area. Hordes of Africans, armed with a varied assortment of improvised weapons, swooped down on the Indian people and destroyed both property and persons in their wake. Looting followed and the whole grim episode took on a positive aspect ”” the African had something material to gain. The convulsion had taken on a sinister aspect for, despite the efforts of the police, and egged on by many Europeans (who subsequently joined in the looting), the Africans discovered that their reign of terror could have a positive enriching value. They set to it with barbarous determination.

The forces of law and order stood by, almost helplessly it seemed, as the Africans swept forward in their savage march, and the terror immediately spread to the peri-urban areas where the outburst of the previous evening became an orgy of murder, arson, rape and looting which did not seem altogether without aim, purpose and direction.

The storm burst with unbridled fury on people who, in the main, lived almost under the same conditions as the Africans who attacked them.

The Ilanga Lase Natal, Natal's leading African newspaper, has blamed the Indian bitterly, for it says 'the whole grim business was logical, simply inevitable'. It then advances the following reasons for the convulsions: black-marketeering by Indians, Indian opposition to the economic expansion of the African, 'shacketeering' by Indian landlords, social and racial humiliation of Africans by Indians and the differential treatment of Indians by Europeans which gives the Indians 'not only better rights, but a sense of snobbishness and superiority over the Africans'.


But if these were the real causes of the convulsion, why the senseless massacre of the poor Indians living side by side with the Africans on the perimeter of the city? Why the orgy of violence and rape against defenceless women and children? Were not the destruction and the subsequent looting of Indian businesses in Grey, Victoria and Queen Streets sufficient?

Replying to some of the allegations against the Indians, the Natal Indian Organisation explains that while there has been black-marketeering, what many Africans honestly regard as black-marketeering is really the considerable contraction of the buying-power of the £.

For instance, tea before the war sold at 1 shilling a 1b. Today it is over 4 shillings per 1b. Calico before the war sold at 6d. a yard: today it is at 2s. 6d. per yard. Have Native wages quadrupled and quintupled to meet the corresponding increase in the cost of living?

As for the shantytowns, the Indian landlord on the perimeter of the city met the needs of the industrial worker in the town. These shanty-towns have never been a cause - they have always been the result. The Natal Indian Congress attributes the convulsion to the whole conception of white domination in this country. The entire state system, it declares, is to blame for the violence.


The causes of the convulsion are much deeper and more involved and complicated than the allegations of black-marketeering and snobbishness. They permeate the whole fabric of the country. The outburst is the result of the shocking animal conditions under which the African people are compelled to live in and around Durban. They cannot own property in the city, and everywhere they fall foul of the Urban Areas Acts.

In the city the African worker is housed in compounds. There is no life for him; there are no family obligations for him; there are no civic responsibilities for him. He is compelled (not by the Indian) to live a life devoid of all decent things.


There is no security for him; there is no future for his children, and there is no outlet for his energies and emotions. He is frustrated and thwarted. His whole life is one long unending queue of disabilities. He has nothing worthwhile enjoying or living for, and when somebody set off the spark the Indian, more or less a fellow-sufferer, caught the brunt of his fury, hate and pent-up frustrations.

It is no unique social phenomenon that the Indian was the victim. It was only natural for the African to turn against a group which is persona non grata in this country and so try to earn the support of the white rulers. There is also evidence that after the first spontaneous burst of violence on Thursday, the convulsion assumed too much aim and purpose, making it extremely difficult for intelligent people to believe that there was no direction and instigation.


Why was no tear-gas used on Friday mid-day when Africans started swarming into town? Firm police action in town, even if it meant the loss of a few lives, would have halted the Africans, but the failure of the authorities to deal with the raiders may have possibly been interpreted by the African that had the 'okay' of the police to beat up the Indians.

The tragedy of it all is that in the long run the Africans will suffer. For them the clock has been put back, and the Government will inform them, whenever it finds it opportune to do so, that they have proved conclusively, that they are still in a savage state; that they are not yet equipped to exercise the responsibilities of a state and society organised on a European or 'white civilised' pattern. They must continue to live under special laws and regulations.

Those Indians who understand the deep-seated causes of this convulsion will realise that the fault is not that of the African, but those who have seen their homes destroyed in front of their eyes, those who have seen a life-time's savings go up in smoke, those who have seen their children hacked in front of them, and those who have helplessly watched their daughters raped, will not, they cannot, forget.


The generation that lived through that night of terror, January 14-15, will never forgive the African. For two generations at least the embers of hate will smoulder. Will this hate spread as the events of today become the history of tomorrow, or will the Indian people ultimately rise above their passions and motions, and place the blame in the correct place ”” on the whole fabric of South African life which reduces the African to the level of animals?

b) Probably no commission of inquiry on any aspect of Non-European affairs in recent times has produced so distressingly negative a document as the report of the Riots Inquiry Commission. The commission failed to rise above the limitations imposed upon it the day it was announced. One would have thought that despite the failure of the Government to appoint an Indian and an African as members, despite the refusal of the commissioners themselves to allow cross-examination of witnesses by certain recognised bodies, and despite the propaganda that was submitted as evidence to the commission, its members would still have made a lasting contribution to the documents on race relations in this country. The result has been a failure - a complete failure, and both the Indian and the African people, together with those Europeans who have vision and foresight and a grasp of the fundamentals of the situation, are deeply disappointed. The commission has given them nothing to go by.

There was general regret when the Government, sticking fast to its doctrine of apartheid, rejected the suggestion that an Indian and an African should also be members of the commission. Those who suggested it did so in the belief that two such Non-Europeans with knowledge of the difficulties of their people would have been able to make a useful contribution to the findings of the commission. The next step in this essay in failure was the refusal of the members of the commission to grant the opportunity to certain recognised bodies to cross-examine witnesses in order to test allegations and accusations which would be made. This opened the way for propaganda. It is no secret that many witnesses made the wildest of statements, which crumbled immediately the members of the commission began to test them. Local Non-European organisations with a sound knowledge of local affairs would have been able to make very useful and valuable contributions in this respect had they been allowed to cross-examine witnesses.

The reasons advanced for this refusal did not seem important enough and today it can be inferred that the commissioners were working to a time schedule. They were apparently asked to get their report ready in time for the United Nations meeting at Lake Success. Refusing cross-examination, the chairman said that the work of the commission would never end were this opportunity given to some organisations. So the commissioners had to rely on their own examination of witnesses - a state of affairs always highly unsatisfactory.

In an atmosphere charged with tension it was inevitable that so much of the evidence tendered was sheer propaganda. It was left entirely to the commissioners to decide what was propaganda and what fact. It is not for a moment suggested that the commissioners were not capable of doing this, but it must always be borne in mind that every individual starts with certain assumptions and preconceptions. In most cases, under these circumstances, it becomes a question of believing some and not believing others. All these difficulties are reflected in the contradictions which fill paragraph after paragraph of the report.

The report throws no new light at all on the tragic occurrences in Durban. The commission, unfortunately, had no power to recommend, but even the observations it has made do not suggest that it would have recommended very wisely. In their observations the commissioners chose to preach a few sermons, deliver some homilies and belittle the legitimate aspirations of the African and the Indian people. There is nothing new in the report. It has only elevated a number of fashionable anti-Non-European statements to the level of the observations of a commission of inquiry. The report does not raise much above the eighteenth-century Boer conception of race relations, for what else could have motivated the statement that what has been called frustration would have been regarded by the Boer forebears in the child and in the Native as lack of discipline, and a summary remedy found.

When the commission discusses facts, its conclusions are not logical. The human rabbit-warrens on the fringes of the city of Durban, the report described as a disgrace to any community which calls itself civilised. It described them as cesspools from which no pure water could be drawn, and then naively proceeds to observe that the human rabbits that live in these warrens are quite satisfied with this state of affairs. From this the next step is to exonerate the Durban City Council from all culpability in connection with Native housing. The Indian is told that his attempts to form a united front of African and Indian against the Government were a bad example and that he was hoist with his own petard. In the very next paragraph the younger generation of Indians is accused of adopting an air of superiority towards the Africans. The facts are otherwise. It is the younger generation of Indians which is interested in a united front of Indians and Africans and it realizes very well that any air of superiority will not help it. The younger Indians are actually fast discarding the belief of their forebears in this country that by virtue of their ancient cultural heritage they are superior to the African people. The young Indian man and woman concedes to the African what he or she asks for himself; that individual's worth be made the test for his place in any society and in country.

Were they not so distressing, the contortions of the commission in its attempts to exonerate white South Africa from any share in the responsibility for the tragic events in Durban would have been very amusing. The Durban City Council, as already mentioned, has been cleared by means of a contradiction. The commission took considerable pains to clear the police of any culpability in the tragic course which events took on January 14. It is not suggested that the police were overtly guilty, but wrongs can be done by means of omission too. The European inciters are cleared by means of a simple expedient: those white women who went dancing up the street were 'degraded specimens of their race'. The European politicians who preach anti-Indianism day in and day out and those Cabinet Ministers who visited Durban since last May and harangued the city with anti-Indianism are in effect acquitted because the commissioners could find no 'causal connection' between the speeches complained of and the riots! Yet causal connection is easily found between the 'hostile press abroad' and the human rabbits at Cato Manor ”” as if the Unknown Rioter received an overseas mail!

Indian bus-owners, shop-owners and the shack-landlords are cleared too. Up to this point, then, nobody seems to be at fault, for it is conceded that even the Africans laboured under a misconception and a misunderstanding. But the commission was charged with finding the causes of the riots and it ultimately found them in what it labels 'bad precepts' and blames the Indian, and secondly in what it labels 'racial characteristics' and blames the African. For good measure, miscegenation and the hostile press abroad are thrown in. It was tragic that the Riots Commission could not rise above the limitations of an eighteenth-century mental outlook on the Non-European question in South Africa.