In The Forbidden Quarters: Shacks in Durban till the end of apartheid

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Seminar Date
September 17, 2008

This is an early draft of what, I hope, will become the first chapter of my PhD. It is an attempt at synthesizing some of  the historical work done on  the question of shacks in Durban.

The first shack settlements began to be constructed in Durban following the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom and the simultaneous movement into the city of Indian workers who had completed their indenture on sugar plantations. Bill Freund writes that “Durban had the appearance of a string of colonial commercial and residential islands set in a sea of cultivated shacklands.” He adds that “To a white observer, the vast majority of poor Indians lived in squalid shacks whose disorder defied any sense of structured purpose. However, those wood‐and‐iron shacks in fact were ideally suited to the needs of their inhabitants in some respects. They could be built, repaired and extended cheaply with little reference to the construction industry.” They were equally functional for Africans, many of whom had been forced off their lands and were looking for a well located and affordable means of access to the alternative livelihoods offered by the city.

Colonial authorities soon began to act against the settlements by legally entrenching the segregation of Africans. The key tool of colonial urban planning was the division of the city into different zones which were then allocated to different activities and to different groups of people. By 1900 municipal acts had been adopted to control and monitor access to these different urban zones. By1901, in consequence, a third of the city’s African population (20 000 people) had been arrested in terms of various government and municipal laws. In 1903 contemporary commentators described Durban as a “modern Babylon” in which white men living with African women were “bringing disgrace on our own people”. In the same year the City acted to practically entrench segregation by beginning to build Municipal barracks for male migrant workers. This was intended to result in ‐ in their own words ‐ “reducing illegal liquor traffic, theft, assault, and the risk of fire, to protect health standards and to maintain property values”.

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