On 13 January 1949 an Indian store-keeper in central Durban assaulted an African youth. This incident resulted in a wave of violence, starting at the Indian market and soon spread throughout the suburbs of Durban and reached Pietermaritzburg by 19 January.
A total of 142 people died in the ensuing violence. Among them were 87 Africans, 50 Indians, 1 white and 4 unclassified people. A further 1,087 persons were injured – 541 Africans, 503 Indians, 32 whites and 11 Coloureds. Buildings which were completely destroyed in the riots included 247 houses, 58 shops and one factory, while other properties that were damaged numbered one thousand houses, over six hundred shops and two factories.
That same evening all members of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) executive committee were summoned to meet at the NIC offices at Lakhani Chambers, in Saville Street.
The NIC officials worked through the entire night from the NIC offices as Cato Manor (a suburb in Durban) went up in flames and to stem the violence and provide relief in many different fields.
Thousands of Indians left their homes and took refuge in camps staffed by NIC officials as rioting spread from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
On 6 February 1949, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and the African National Congress (ANC) formed a joint council "to advance and promote mutual understanding and goodwill among our respective peoples."
The joint council was the forerunner of the Congress Alliance which launched the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign in which Africans, Indians, Coloureds and Whites went to prison in opposition to the policies of apartheid and segregation.
The meeting of the National Joint Council on 6 February 1949 was the most representative meeting of the African-Indian people to have been held in the entire history of the country.
Dr DF Malan appointed a three member Judicial Commission (the van den Heever Commissioner) - Justice FP Van den Heever of the Appeal Court, Ryle Masson and HFW Schulz, Chief Magistrates of Johannesburg and Durban - to inquire into the riots. The commission commenced its work on 17 February 1949.
The SAIC and the ANC were jointly represented at this commission by Dr G. Lowen from Johannesburg. After the commission refused Dr Lowen's application for the right to cross-examine witnesses, the Congresses withdrew from the hearing but the Natal Indian Organisation (NIO) continued to participate.
Outlining the case of the Congresses, Dr Lowen pointed out that the right to cross-examine was vital because, “We want to prove that the horrible slum conditions of Indians and Africans are at the bottom of the riots to a certain extent."
Dr Lowen pointed out that the formation of the Joint Council of the ANC and the SAIC, supported the contention that Africans were not against Indians. Despite this plea the Commission ruled against cross-examination and Dr Lowen withdrew.
Major C Cowley, representing the combined Native Advisory Boards in Durban, followed Dr Lowen and his clients, and also withdrew from the proceedings.
The South African Institute of Race Relations remained and led evidence blaming White attitudes to Indians for what had happened.
During the riots there was much co-operation between the NIC and the African leadership in Natal. Many African nurses gave valuable services in the refugee camps.
On 16 April 1949, the van den Heever Commission issued its report, largely absolving the White authorities for what had happened.
While the Native Representative Council (NRC) rejected apartheid and segregation, the van den Heever Commission stated that the "Native fully supported segregation."
The SAIC issued a statement criticising the Commission's Report and drawing attention to numerous contradictions in it.
- Meer, I. C. (2006). I Remember - Reminiscences of the Struggle for Liberation and the Role of Indian South Africans, 1924-1958 . Available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/I_remember_IC_Meer.pdf online. Accessed on 14 January 2019
- Meer, F. (2000) Indian South Africans - The Struggle to be South African . Available at https://omalley.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02424/04lv03275/05lv03336/06lv03344/07lv03346.htm online. Accessed on 14 January 2019