Tin Town: Before and after the flood

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published May 31, 2020

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Durban - Regular correspondent on our Then and Now series, Alan Gangasagar, spent part of lockdown going through his files  and newspaper cuttings and sent us these fascinating pictures of Tin Town, a poor community who lived on the banks of the uMngeni River.

An active, close-knit community developed out of the wood and iron shacks that made up the settlement in Springfield Flats, where Intersite Avenue is today.

The settlement had no basic services. Many of the residents were market gardeners or seine netters, living off the land and the ocean.

While it proved impossible to match the pictures, because today the major retail and industrial sites fill an area that has changed beyond recognition, we thought many of the original inhabitants would appreciate the pictures.

The area on the banks of the uMngeni was prone to flooding. The Independent on Saturday has written the story of the Padavatan 6 - Captain Mariemuthoo Padavatan and five volunteer fishermen who launched their boat to save the residents of Tin Town when it was submerged in the waves in the 1917 flood.

Survivors were clinging to the roofs of their collapsing houses, holding up jewellery as a reward, pleading to be saved. Many were in the water, battling the current, while the Water Police had abandoned their rescue attempt, fearing for their own safety.

The Padavatan 6 saved 176 people from drowning.

The residents of the settlement picked themselves up and rebuilt. And although poor, the area had a thriving community life.

Golfer Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum was one of its famed residents.

Born in 1930 into a family of sugarcane labourers, he started working at an early age. As a young boy, he took to imitating the golfers he saw on a nearby golf course by hitting a golf ball with a syringa stick.

Later, he would practice his childhood passion when, as a caddie, he was given a second-hand golf club.

Despite his unorthodox golf grip, Sewgolum honed his technique, winning the Dutch Open three times and the Natal Open, where he infamously received his trophy outdoors in the rain, because of apartheid.

In 1976, the waters of the uMngeni once again came down in flood, devastating the settlement: 482 shacks, housing 781 families, were flattened.

Gangasagar remembers it as a young boy because his family lived in Clare Estate, which was fortunately spared the ravages of the river.

But author, editor and film-maker, Viroshen Chetty, described the scene in his book, Legends of the Tide: “The Umgeni River in flood is as large as a python and as fast as a viper. It swallows everything: dogs and chickens, carts and carriages, goat sheds and goats too. Time and again the river slammed against the massive concrete pillars of the Connaught and Railway Bridges, which spanned the Umgeni Valley just before the Springfield Flats area. Wave after wave, the Umgeni dumped its dinner of shredded trees, corrugated iron sheets and carcasses. A wall of death and debris dammed up the river.”

The residents lost everything and were initially housed in tents at the Asherville Sports Ground until the Durban City Council made homes available in Phoenix.

Activist Fatima Meer was part of the relief committee and led rescue operations for the thousands of flood victims.

She was the mover behind what became known as Tent Town as well as organising food relief and clothing. She also helped negotiate permanent housing for the residents in Phoenix.

Tin Town was a special place in the heart of many people. Lost to memory, Tin Town’s heartbeat resides in the soul of its formers residents who are still a close-knit community today.

The Independent on Saturday

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