The Victoria Street beer hall.
The Victoria Street beer hall.

Durban’s bitter brew

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Dec 5, 2020

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Durban - As part of the Durban Book Fair this weekend, local architect Len Rosenberg will release his latest book The Buildings of the ‘Durban System’: The Architecture of Social Control, which tells the fascinating and appalling story of the city’s monopoly on the brewing of African traditional beer.

Rosenberg, the recently retired head of campus planning at the Durban University of Technology, has written a number of books on the city’s architectural and social history. They include one on Currie’s Fountain, A City Within a City, which looks at the Warwick Avenue Triangle and his PhD on forced removals from Durban’s inner city areas.

“I’m now enjoying writing books and looking at topics of interest,” he said.

Architect and author Len Rosenberg.

“In my research, I came across this thing that was actually called the Durban system. It was a system of controlling the African people in the city by preventing them brewing their own traditional beer or utshwala. The city wanted to control what it perceived as drunkenness on the streets and the noise of shebeens popping up all over town.”

The Natal government passed a law in 1908 giving municipalities the monopoly on brewing traditional beer, and Durban’s main brewery was set up next to the KwaMuhle Museum in 1913. From this stemmed a series of municipal beer halls which were the only places African people could drink beer.

The main municipal brewery was next to the KwaMuhle Museum.

“It was a lucrative business and the money raised from the sales was used to fund anything to do with African people, including policing them and funding the native administration.

“The system was so successful that the rest of South Africa soon followed suit. It was even used in the then Rhodesia,” he said.

The main beer hall was in Victoria Street, but there were seven in the city, going up to nine in the 1950s. There was one in Florence Nzama street in the Rivertown precinct and another attached to the Bell Street Barracks on the Point which were built as early as 1892.

“There was one at Maydon Wharf and another at Dalton. They were close to where African people either lived or worked,” said Rosenberg.

The city eventually had three breweries brewing all this beer. “There was one in Rossburgh and one in Sydenham, but I haven’t been able to locate them. The main brewery moved to Congella in 1964 opposite King Edward Hospital. It was at Congella that the city actually started packaging it in cartons to allow for take-aways,” he said.

The Bell Street Barracks on Durban’s Point.

From 1914, people, especially African women, resisted the system. “The money was no longer coming home,” Rosenberg said. “The women also demanded the lifting of restrictions on African brewing because it was a form of income for many. If they were caught brewing at home, the penalties were heavy.”

In 1929, there was a boycott of the beer halls, led by unionist AW Champion, lasting 18 months.

“In 1959, a huge contingent of African women surrounded the Cato Manor beer hall demanding its closure and the lifting of restrictions. They’d just had it. They later marched on the Victoria Street beer hall and overturned all the vats.

“It was only in 1962 that African people were allowed to buy European alcohol,” he said.

The Bantu Social Centre on Beatrice Street is today a YMCA.

“As an architect, I was intrigued by what this system looked like, the physical structures built from this money and the control of African people. First came the brewery, then the beer halls and then the barracks or hostels which housed the people.”

The Thokoza Women’s hotel was one structure funded from beer, as was the village of Baumannville, near the Magazine Barracks and opposite the current station. “This was the only accommodation for African people that had family units. It had the Loram School, which produced the intelligentsia of the time, and which still exists. It was here that Govan Mbeki met his wife, Epainette. Both taught at the school.”

The village was so named because the Baumann family, famed for their bakery in the city, were involved in the early brewing attempts through their understanding of yeast. “They were involved with figuring out how to brew utshwala in large quantities. By all accounts, the early attempts were pretty terrible,” Rosenberg said.

After the boycott of 1929/30, the system was modified with the creation of the Bantu Social Centre in Beatrice Street. “The idea was to try to ‘civilise’ Africans by teaching things like ballroom dancing and it had the first library, named after Ndongeni, who rode with Dick King to Grahamstown. It also hosted boxing matches. It was the only other social space for African people besides the beer halls,” he said.

The KwaMuhle Museum was the headquarters of Durban’s native administration and funded from money raised from the brewery.

Then came the sports facilities built from beer hall money. “There were facilities for Africans at Somtseu Road that included three or four fields, a little pavilion and a cycling track. Its fields (today the site of the Durban Magistrate’s Court) were the only recreation facilities for African people,” Rosenberg said.

The money from the beer halls also funded police raids into Cato Manor to confiscate alcohol. “The women made the beer in containers which would be buried in the ground so that if the brew was discovered, no one could be arrested. No one would own up. And there are pictures of cops digging for alcohol in Cato Manor.

“I can’t prove this happened in Cato Manor, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In one drawing from Johannesburg, there was a smaller stash higher up the hole acting as a decoy for a much larger stash buried below,” he said.

The KwaMuhle Museum building itself was built from the brewery money. “This was the headquarters of the native administration and the centre of control. It’s a beautiful building, but it wasn’t designed for African people, who had to queue in its halls for permits, but for the city and its European workers.”

Rosenberg said he got into the field of architecture by accident when he attended a school in Ixopo run by German nuns. The choice was between studying German or woodwork. “I was good at woodwork, especially the technical drawing side of it, and the headmaster suggested I study architecture.

“Coming from a coloured township outside Pretoria, my understanding of what a house was was very different from what we were studying in UKZN. But I got into it and figured out what it was all about.

“Back then, in the mid 80s, I had to apply to the minister to study at a white university, and UKZN was the only position offered.” He has lived and worked in Durban ever since.

So what will he be doing during his retirement? He is involved with Durban’s Phansi Museum resource’s centre and hopes to add many books from his own collection on architecture and design. Rosenberg will also continue researching avenues that interest him.

He will launch his book tomorrow at 4.30pm at the Phansi Museum, 500 Esther Roberts Road, Glenwood, as part of the Durban Book Fair. There is also an exhibition of 60 photographs taken from the book. Entrance is free.

Independent on Saturday

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