A living monument to honour arrival of Indians in SA will best reflect Durban’s cultural diversity
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OPINION - SINCE the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa in 2010, there has been public debate about a monument to honour their memory, the form that this should take and the appropriate location.
There was some support for the monument to be located in the Point precinct, adjacent to uShaka Marine World.
While the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government remains committed to the project, the monument was delayed for several reasons, especially the lack of a clear conceptualisation of the project, limited public participation and bureaucratic inertia.
While unintended, the delays provide an opportunity to revisit the type of monument envisaged the location and for more public engagement.
This reassessment is necessary as such artefacts, especially apartheid-style ethnic monuments, which do not reflect the multicultural diversity and ethos of the country, have been rejected, defaced and vandalised.
There was apparently a public call for design proposals that would reflect the “aspirations and sentiments” of Indian South Africans.
The monument would not only be “commemorating the arrival of the 1860 indentured labourers, but creating a landmark tourist destination for the city. The memorial must also act as a catalyst for further development along the promenade”.
A project of this nature required robust public consultation and participation, but there was no evidence of any such engagement.
It was left to academics to initiate debate on this issue, led by indenture specialist Professor Ashwin Desai: “How does one not only commemorate but also empower the memory of such a people, and address their unique contribution to such a country in the most solicitous and worthy of terms?”
Professor Goolam Vahed warned that honouring the past should not “lead to ghettoisation and isolation from historical relationships with other ‘racial’ groups in post-apartheid South Africa”.
An important point made by Reuben Reddy Architects, who were initially overseeing the project, was: “What is being envisaged … is a powerful living monument that encapsulates the drama and historical importance of their arrival, the humiliation and pain of their experience as indentured workers, the sacrifices they made to survive in unwelcoming surroundings, and the path that they laid for the development of a community that is now a proud and integral part of a new democracy.”
The POST newspaper said that the “erection of this monument is not just an initiative by the Indian community. It was meant to be an inclusive project embracing all South Africans – one that would serve to bring people from different communities together and unify them … Monuments like the 1860 project are important to South Africans wanting to celebrate a shared history … ”.
Against this background, I want to make a proposal for a living monument, reflecting the multicultural diversity as well as connecting with the common people’s heritage – incorporating the Grey Street Complex, the Warwick Junction and its markets, Currie’s Fountain as well as the 1860 Heritage Centre.
Since the 1870s, this area has been a living monument dedicated to non-racialism and the defiance against apartheid. As architect Len Rosenberg has argued: “This area has generally been ‘invisible’ in the historical narrative of the city and remains the ‘other’ Durban”.
In the late 1980s the Warwick Junction Precinct (WJP) was described as a "no-man's land" and one of "the city's most neglected areas". By contrast, in the 1990s there has been a change in perception and the urban landscape in the WJP was described as reflecting a "vibrant ethnicity sorely lacking in our multicultural city".
In many ways, this new perception reflects the colloquial term often used when referring to this area – the “Casbah”, which normally refers to the exotic market places of north Africa and the Middle East.
The area is also home to the famous and century-old Victoria Street and early morning markets (and in 2009 the latter was almost replaced by a mall).
There are also the herb, bead and impepho markets that have a more indigenous and traditional orientation.
Then there is the world-famous Currie’s Fountain, a battlefield for many non-racial sporting competitions, as well as a community site for mass protests and resistance in the Struggle against apartheid.
There are also several educational centres, temples, mosques and churches in the area, some of which have heritage status.
This would also have great potential to attract national and international tourists.
According to the National Heritage Resources Act (1999): “Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others.”
The meticulous research and painstaking attention to detail by Rosenberg and his dedicated team (including the publication of a book and two pictorial collections) provide compelling evidence for the Grey StreetWarwick-Currie’s Complex to be declared an historic, urban, cultural, living monument and heritage site.
As per legislation and the 2003 Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Convention, the final declaration as a living heritage site would require: the consent and participation of the communities involved; the heritage claims being made must be supported by historical research; proof that no cultural or human rights are being violated; and the promotion of “social cohesion and good socio-cultural values”.
According to the original brief of Reuben Reddy Architects, the monument should be “inclusive and one that unifies all South Africans”; it should have “significance and relevance” for all South Africans and not just Indians; and should “transcend the historical confines of a single community (and) commemorate a chapter in a broader South African narrative”.
The Grey Street-Warwick-Currie’s Complex fits the bill – perfectly.
Maharaj is a geography professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.