History and Politics


The Madressa Arcade, Grey Street

Grey Street is the teaming business and residential Indian sector of the Durban City centre, and is also the educational, cultural and business heart of the Natal Indian community. The significance of the area, in the life of the South African Indian community, can be gauged from the fact that up until the late 1930's, the they formed the largest racial grouping within the cities municipal boundaries.

The area took its name from the main street, named after Sir George Grey, the British governor of the Cape colony. But amongst the cities black residents it was know by many names, most commonly referred to as "Town". This is as opposed to going to West Street, which was seen as the "White section" of the city centre. While the area was predominately settled by Indians, it was also home to a small African and Coloured community.

The African residents of the area were the first to be forced to move out by the Nationalist government after the passing of the iniquitous Group Areas Act, which was one of the corner stones of its Apartheid policies. The size of the ghetto depended on where one lived, but its boundaries were a hotly contested issue between the White city administration and its Black population, but most importantly by the city's Indian community.

In terms of a special notice of the Group Areas Act, passed in 1957, the Nationalist government whittled down the boundaries of the area, restricting it to Indian business use only as, extending from Commercial Road in the South to Derby Street in the North, with Field Street forming the eastern boundary and Brook and Cross Street forming the western

Champion and the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU)

Grey Street bears no evidence of the time of the Barracks, the Victoria Street Beerhall, the ICU and Champion. As a result this is an aspect of Grey Street”²s history that is often overlooked - its association with African barracks and hostels and with the Natal Branch of the Industrial and Commercial Workers”² Union (ICU), led by A.W.G. Champion. Towards the end of the 1890s African refugees from Zululand and other African people who had lost their land moved to the city in search of a living.

At the turn of the century the majority of Africans in Durban lived in backyards, sheds, stables and other informal accommodation. At this time there was also a growing African trading class plying business in the Grey Street Area. In addition to the traders who operated from the market in Queen Street there were large numbers of men and women brewing and selling sorghum and hop beer in various parts of the Grey Street area. Many "Native eating houses" had also sprung up in this part of the City, providing food for African labourers in the town. By 1904 there were sixty Indian and African traders and twenty-five eating stalls in Grey Street and the Queen Street Market. Petty traders sold large quantities of beer from the Queen Street market. White business owners complained about the competition offered by the African meat market and the eating houses. In an attempt to control the African beer trade and to appease its white electorate the municipality proposed closing the Queen Street Market and setting up a municipal eating house. In a petition to the City Council 940 Africans appealed against the proposed closure of the market arguing that it served the African population as an orderly enterprise separate from residential areas and only sold produce from Natal. The municipality did not close down the market but opened Durban”²s first municipal eating house in May 1905 on Victoria Street. 116 African traders formally protested against loss of substantial investments. It was called the Queen Street Eating House but was later renamed the Victoria Street Eating House. With the passing of the Native beer Act (No. 23) of 1908, at the instigation of the Durban City Council, the municipality acquired a monopoly over the brewing and sale of sorghum beer in Durban. Sorghum beer was sold from the Victoria Street eating house and beerhall. In this way the municipality put an end to the many African traders selling beer in the Grey Street area. The Victoria Street Beerhall became a hive of activity with African workers in the city passing their leisure time there.

Champion arrived in Durban in 1925. He was the new Natal Provincial Secretary and Durban branch chairman of the ICU. Charles L. Dube, the brother of the Reverend Dr John Langalibalele Dube, ran an eating house and general dealer shop at 37 Queen Street. He was also a master at Ohlange Institute. He introduced Champion to M.E. Paruk who rented him a warehouse at 11 Leopold Street, where the ICU had its first headquarters. Champion lived in a little room on the premises for a while. A.I. Kajee, then secretary of Natal Indian Congress, helped Champion to get his handbills printed.

Champion helped to form a Workers”² Club in Durban to run dances and concerts. The Workers Club was opened in December 1925 and operated from 11 Leopold Street. It changed its name to the Natal Workers Club in 1928. The municipality turned down the ICU”²s application for a licence to run dances and concerts. Champion wrote to the Secretary for Native Affairs and reported that the Durban Municipality was interfering with efforts to reduce loneliness and homesickness among Africans in the city. He asked the government to send representatives to investigate the conditions under which he was running the club. As a result, a delegation arrived, under the chairmanship of Major Herbst, the Secretary for Native Affairs, together with Dr Roberts of Lovedale and Dr Loram, the Chief Inspector of Native Education, to watch the dances at the club. Thereafter Champion took them to the open space at Cartwright”²s Flats where he put on traditional dancing.

In 1927 the annual meeting of the ICU was held in Durban at the Parsee Rustomjee hall, in Queen Street. However, so many people turned up that the hall was too small to accommodate them. It was decided that the meeting would adjourn to the Cartwright Flats where the leaders of the ICU would address the crowd.

Later on the ICU rented a hall at 117 Prince Edward Street, which became known as ICU Hall. Champion had bought a property on behalf of the ICU at 25 Leopold Street in Durban. However, as a result of a dispute between Champion and Ballinger this property, together with other properties owned by the ICU, was forfeited. The Leopold Street property was auctioned off at the end of 1928 when Cecil Courley”²s firm sued the ICU for debt.

Champion went into business with Bertha Mkhize, opening a shop, the Vuka Afrika Trading Company, at 113-115 Queen Street. The business was managed by Champion”²s wife, until its collapse during the 1929 disturbances.

Another African businessman who owned a business in the Grey Street area was Henry Ngwenya, from Inanda. He owned a shop at 254 Grey Street. George Lenono, who became a bitter rival of Champion in the ICU, owned a shop in Carlisle Street. Martin Luthuli, editor of Illanga lase Natal, had a business in Queen Street and the Reverend Cele ran a hotel in the Grey street area. There were also a number of black-owned shebeens in the Grey Street area, such as Ma Phillip”²s which has been described as a "classy shebeen in Alice Street".

The African Market was based in Victoria Street alongside the Victoria Street Beerhall and ran from Victoria through to Queen Street. African stallholders sold meat and also made and sold shields, beadwork and traditional Zulu attire. They also ground and sold snuff on the premises.

A 1924 census showed that over 220 African traders, the majority of whom were meatsellers, herbalists and general hawkers, were operating in and around Durban”²s municipally-controlled Native eating houses. They formed an African Stall Owners”² Association and held meetings in the Durban Workers”² Club.

In 1934 the Bantu Social Centre was set up with the help of white liberals in Durban. The Bantu Social Centre was based in Queen Street and was directed by the Edendale-born composer, Alfred Assegai Khumalo. Concerts, ingoma dance and boxing were held at the Bantu Social Centre.

A number of "Native dance halls”² also arose in the Grey Street area. The Bantu Social Centre was often used as a venue for musical performances and dance. Other popular dance halls were Seme”²s Club and Ematramini, the disused tramway sheds in Alice Street. After the 1929 Beerhall riots the municipality closed down many of the dance halls and also passed regulations, in 1932, for their control.

In June 1929 African workers in Durban mounted a boycott of the beerhalls, in protest against the municipal beer monopoly and other grievances. The Victoria Street beerhall was one of the targets. Champion and the ICU initially gave their backing tot the beerhall boycott. On 17 June 1929 600 white "vigilantes”² surrounded the ICU Hall in Prince Edward Street. They had beaten an African to death with a pick-handle and tried to storm the hall. The white mob believed that two white "traitors", Communist Town Councillor, S.M. Pettersen and ICU organiser, A.F. Batty, were in the hall. On hearing of the siege African workers from various parts of Durban made their way to the ICU Hall. When the 6000 strong force of African workers reached the hall they were confronted by 200 whites and 360 policemen. The violent clashes that followed left 120 injured and 8 dead.

In June 1959 a group of Cato Manor women invaded the Victoria Street Beerhall. Florence Mkhize and Dorothy Nyembe led the way. Male patrons were chased out of the beerhall and the premises were ransacked. The police used teargas to clear the beerhall.

By Paul Tichman.


Professor Brian Kearney describes the Grey Street area as combining "a mix of residential, religious and commercial with a cultural variation of the East." He argues that he streetscape is given a specifically Indian quality by the "collonades over pavements, narrow lanes leading to courtyards behind and the fondness shown for the flamboyant and curvilinear architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the buildings in the Grey Street area house business premises on the ground floor and residential apartments above. The preponderance of family businesses, the mix of commercial and residential use of properties, the displaying of names and dates on pediments and gables all give the Grey Street area its "Indian" character. During the Union period the architecture of Grey Street underwent significant change, with the introduction of building forms and styles that were more characteristically Indian. These included residential apartments above shops. The veranda over the shop area was continued upwards to serve the residential apartments as a balcony. Verandas and balconies were treated as colonnades with "classical" columns or as arcades incorporating a variety of different types of arches and balustrades.

source: www.islamonline.netAn old and new picture of the Juma Musjin Mosque: The mosque is the largest in the Southern hemisphere and can accommodate 5000 men. The women either pray at home or, when at the mosque, pray in a different area.

Badsha Pir Shrine

Badsha Pir arrived in South Africa as an indentured labourer in 1860. He was a member of the Qadari Sufi order (an unorthodox Islamic cult). It is believed that Badsha Pir was assigned to a sugar estate in Tongaat but was honourably discharged after two or three months when his employers recognised his sainthood. He is described by his followers as a mazwap, a saint who withdraws completely from the affairs of the world and lives in constant ecstasy or union with God and is reported to have performed a number of miracles. Badsha Pir died at the age of 74 and is buried at the Brook Street Cemetery. A shrine was built over his grave and thousands of people flock there every year in search of blessing and relief from illness. The Badsha Pir shrine is visited by Hindus as well as Muslims. Every year the anniversary of his death is observed by his followers who hold a procession through the Grey Street area to the Badsha Pir shrine in Brook Street Cemetery.

Stage for Badsha Pir birthday celebrations. Brook Street, 1982. This picture is from the Imperial Ghetto series by Omar Badsha

The Gangs

A number of gangs operated in the Grey Street area.The Salot gang reportedly controlled the taxi rank near Kapitan”²s Balcony Hotel. The Crimson League often operated from the area around Simon”²s Cafe and the Young Generations operated in the Beatrice Street area. Sherrif Khan, before he moved to Johannesburg, was one of the gangsters of the Grey Street area. A gang member who ran a stall at the Victoria Street Market even had the nickname "Sheephead Daddy" and an interviewee recounted that "He cut sheep heads by day and people”²s heads by night". In spite of the number of gangs that operated in the area, residents were seldom harrassed by gang members. Rather, the gangs fought wars against rival gangs for control over territory as well as over various illicit enterprises. The Grey Street area was the scene of "taxi wars" in the 1950s, in which the gangs were involved.

The Group Areas Act

Mr & Mrs Hafagee, North Street 1982. Last residents to be moved from the area in terms of the Group Areas act. This picture is from the Imperial Ghetto series by Omar Badsha

With the passing of the Group Areas Act (no. 41 of 1950) the Durban City Council appointed a technical sub-committee of officials, on 20 November 1950, to deliberate on the rezoning of the city. The Grey Street area was proclaimed a "controlled area" in 1957. The effect of this proclamation was to freeze all developments within the area as ministerial permission had to be obtained from the Minister of Community Development before any development could take place. In addition, development of property for residential purposes in the Grey Street area was precluded.

As a result property owners had no incentive to maintain property and many of the buildings in the area began to decline. In terms of industry and commerce, residential and other requirements of the various race groups. Grey Street was declared an "affected area" and for more than twenty years the area faced an uncertain future. The effect of the declaration was that no development could take place in the Grey Street area without the approval of the Minister.

Last updated : 29-May-2012

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

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