This month marks 70 years since the horrific 1949 race riots in Durban. Sparked by a rather minuscule dispute that started in Grey Street (now Yusuf Dadoo), it spread into a reign of terror that saw an unspeakable pathos of human tragedy.
Three days - from January 13 to 16 in 1949 - saw two communities, the South African Zulu and Indian brethren who had lived peacefully together for close on 90 years prior, debauch themselves into an abyss of psychological trauma that still lingers today.
The statistics of the ensuing carnage resulted in 142 deaths, with 1087 people injured.
The madness saw the complete destruction of one school, a factory and 58 trading stores, with 247 houses being destroyed.
Two factories, 652 trading stores and 1258 houses were partially damaged.
The real tragedy was evidenced by the psychological trauma that remained with the survivors on both sides. It is a tragedy that we continue to heal with cathartic acts of social cohesion that is still being practised to this day.
The Durban Riots and After, written by Maurice Webb and Kenneth Kirkwood, gives an intriguing account.
Webb’s vivid account of the riots reveals: “Europeans gather in office windows and on balconies watching the scene, regarding it with amusement.
“On the pavement a European comments, ‘I am all for the natives. Serves the coolie right’.
“Europeans stand aside the spectators. They do not go to the aid of the Indians or try to restrain the natives.
“By evening, a reign of terror was in existence throughout the poorer parts of Durban and district. Houses were being burnt by the score; many were killed or left to die in flaming houses; men were clubbed to death; women and young girls were raped.”
The relative ease and quickness at which the violence spread suggests that the spontaneity of the violence could not have been random.
The inaction of the police to intervene, together with the suggestion that authorities delayed intervention, suggests a far more sinister analysis of the riots.
It was only in the following week - around January 17, 1949 - that the government dispatched military force with tanks that saw the orgy of violence dissipate.
The resultant commission, set up by a non-partisan cohort, was not acknowledged by the Natal Indian Congress or the ANC.
The findings, however, make for interesting reading.
The causative factors for the riots were listed as:
* Transport facilities: Durban and the peri-urban areas have poor communications. “Virtually all the transport services debouch in one spot; traffic regulations in this congested area are primitive and ineffectual, and no provision is made for the protection of the passengers from the elements or for their convenience.
“Masses of irritable humans are found here during the rush periods.”
* Undesirable elements: the removal of the unemployed.
* Housing: “The slum areas on the fringes of Durban are a disgrace to any community which calls itself civilised. The fact that numbers of natives are herded together in compounds seem to have bearing on the riots.”
Almost 70 years later very little, if not worse conditions, prevail in the heart of Cato Manor that experienced the lion’s share of the 1949 riots’ bloodbath.
Today service delivery protests are being seen on a regular basis.
We sit once again on a powder keg of uneasiness that will affect the vulnerable and the poorest who live on the fringes of middle-class suburbia. The mere mention of the 1949 riots to the survivors reveals a disturbed gaze of anxiety.
I spoke to a survivor who was 15 years old at the time and living in Clairwood. The tremble in his voice relayed the terror he experienced.
“The loud stomping of impis’ (Zulu warriors) feet delivered with thunderous unison was the scariest thing I had ever experienced.”
He also recalled “how the poorest of the poor, like those in Coedmore near Seaview, were first affected with houses gutted and occupants being burnt alive”.
Reflecting on this horrific period is a difficult experience for many who were there at the time.
Many people argue that the 70th year “commemoration” should receive minimal attention drawn to it for fear of history repeating itself.
Indeed, this prudence is well placed, given the land expropriation narrative and the irresponsible electioneering utterances of the red berets.
Conversely, it is precisely the time that we should be doing much more to better inform all our communities of the ills of the past.
In a climate of discontent, it is often minorities that exist on the fringes who are mostly affected by irresponsible leadership and common thuggery.
The community of Seven Tanks in Silverglen, and the indentured ancestral farmers of Inanda were the first recipients of violence meted out to communities last year, because of the confusion around the land expropriation bill.
In the years leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, the (Hutu) government used all its propaganda machinery to spread bigotry and hatred of the Tutsis.
To this end, the late former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, who in 1994 served as head of UN peacekeeping operations, issued a statement 10 years after the genocide, saying he should have done more to stop it.
“We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda 10 years ago. We must acknowledge our responsibility for not having done more to prevent or stop the genocide,” Annan said in his statement.
In learning from the history of our fractured and painful past, there remains a lot of real work (not the token social cohesion programmes that are rolled out, often to the wrong audiences) and healing to be done to avoid a repeat of the 1949 riots.
Trawling through social media gives one a frightening sense of the real diversionist and anarchic thought that still persists on the ground here in South Africa, and throughout the millennial world.
It is about time we confront our fears realistically and engage honestly with each other. It is also time that we all acknowledge we can still do more to prevent hatred and violence.
* Naidoo is the curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre.