History of Umlazi

The history of Umlazi (or Mlazi) dates back to 1845 when British settlers forcibly occupied what was then Natal (now KwaZulu Natal ) and created a number of ‘Native locations’ for the Zulus in the Natal region. A year later, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, a settler in his capacity as a diplomatic agent to the Native tribes of Natal, appointed by the British colonial authorities, orchestrated a system in his administration and, in implementation, allocated all the African tribes of Natal to six locations.

According to research, possibly  as early as  1714 the Cele clan which occupied the area of Umlazi was evacuated in an attempt to establish colonial controlled ‘Bantu’ settlements. Umlazi got its name from the Mlazi River, on the southern bank where the settlement was established. Mlazi is a Zulu name for ‘whey’ (milk curdle) referring to its colour and the flavour.

The name Umlazicould also conceivably have been adapted from "umlaza" (Zulu for the sour acid produced from fermented milk or sour milk). According to Zulu tradition it was believed that when the Zulu King Shaka, who reigned from 1816 to 1828, was passing through the area, he refused to drink from a local river because he alleged that it had the flavour of "umlaza", and from then on the region was called Umlazi.

In 1847 KwaMashu was gazetted. Aligned with the Christianisation mission of the British Empire, some parts of the locations were divided into ‘Mission Reserves’. After 1856, many mission reserves were divided in the Umlazi location as well. Among these was Umlazi Mission Reserve which was conceded to the Anglican Church. In light of this, many proclaimed townships of Umlazi fell on land that was formerly part of Umlazi Mission Reserve.

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The formation of the Umlazi Township

In the early 1940s the government had plans to convert the Umlazi mission reserve into a township and this became an ongoing contentious issue. The government considered Umlazi as a relocation point for Cato Manor residents because of its proximity to the south of the area and, initially, the land was unoccupied and they could resettle there. The government regarded the area as a slum and planned to eliminate it. “Slums” referred to areas of a town or city inhabited by Indians which were under-serviced, overcrowded and occupied by poor people who lived in neglected conditions. These areas were also subject to contagious diseases.

The residents of Umlazi reserve mission, together with the Advisory Board, were surprised at this idea, and eventually in the Cape Town Parliament it was announced that the people of Umlazi had approved that the mission reserve should be converted into a township. This prompted the mission community to take action. Delegates from Umlazi were sent to Cape Town to represent the Umlazi residents to former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, and the whole issue was left pending. The delegation consisted of CCW Nxumalo, Rev Alphaeus Hamilton Zulu, Rev Siveshe, Gideon Mthembu, Bob Nzimande, H.P. Ngwenya, Z.E. Maphumulo and Chief Albert Luthuli.

Application of the Group Areas Act in Durban townships

In the 1940s, when the Apartheid policy came into existence, Black South Africans and the Zulu communities living in Durban reached a period of transition. These changes enforced segregation of citizens into so-called ‘White’, ‘Bantu/African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Asian’ suburbs in terms of the Group Areas Act (1950).

African Durban residents were to be moved and relocated to townships, particularly KwaMashu and, later, Umlazi on the outskirts of Durban. Numerous Zulu residents knew they were not eligible for residence in a township and would be repatriated to their ‘place of origin’ in Natal. For the eligible ones, it meant that rent would be exorbitantly high, far more than their previous places of residence. In response, opposition and rioting occurred as a result of the forced removals, most notably in Cato Manor.

Successive Apartheid governments initiated housing projects for Blacks in KwaZulu-Natal, especially land that was administered by the then Natal Provincial Administration (NPA). Thus, KwaMashu and Umlazi emerged as the South African government’s attempts to resolve what they considered the ’Black problem’ (housing).

In 1967 Umlazi was established as a Black township and was one of the places where many who were  displaced from Cato Manor ended up. It housed African labourers, many of whom were needed to work in White-owned industries in the South Durban industrial area. The township would later become the largest in Durban. 

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