An interview with Ronnie Govender

Excerpts from a personal interview with Ronnie Govender, playwright and writer, born in Cato Manor as recorded by Madoda Ncayiyana from Cato Manor on 18 March 2002.


  • History
  • Trade Unions
  • Racial Tension
  • Culture
  • Social Conditions
  • Demolition and Relocation
  • Family Recollections
  • A New Community Spirit


Govender remembers: “I have many wonderful memories of Cato Manor despite the fact that, you know most of the people were very poor they were working class backgrounds. A survey taken by the University of Natal then revealed that over 80% of the Indian community was living below the bread line. Cato Manor was a vibrant district. It was settled in at the turn of the 19th century by indentured labourers, who were brought out from India to work in the sugar plantations of Natal. Now, when they gained the freedom from indenture, which was virtual slavery, with a few pennies they paid the deposit for land here in Cato Manor, which was owned by George Cato who was the sugar baron and also mayor of Durban. They turned those market gardens through the labour into tender pieces of ground into market gardens, built those little shanties and became a tremendous community of self-help. Although they paid their rates and taxes over the years they were not provided with schools and civic amenities. They built their own schools and they provided their own bus service, they built their own crematorium which is just across here, the sports field. They started the Aryan Benevolent home which is an orphanage for, a home for orphans and elderly people for the destitute. That is now a national institute. And from Cato Manor despite this great poverty emerged people who I think made an enormous contribution to Durban society, the Provincial society and of course to the country at large. I can think of many wonderful people like RD Naidoo and Billy Peters who were activists and communists at that time thrown in and out of jail, fighting against racial discrimination and for workers rights. They formed trade unions etc.”

Trade Unions

“The trade unions were formed; RD formed the Bakers Workers Trade Union. My father was a bakers van man so they formed it in our cellar (laughing) I mean away from the special branch and all that. That must have been somewhere in the 50’s early 50’s you know. Ja, but the significant thing was happening in the 40’s. The Natal Indian Congress, which was first major political organisation in the continent of Africa to oppose colonialism and racism. They launched their Passive Resistance Campaign you know that sort of mass resistance against apartheid. They were getting closer and closer together with the ANC. Eventually this was, you know, officially done in terms of the Doctors Pact of the 40, where Dr. Zuma of the ANC, Dr Dadoo, Dr Naicker of the Indian Congress signed this pact so that two strong political forces could come together. Now this was a direct threat to the regime and they did everything in their power to keep the races apart”.

Racial Tension

“An incident took place in town near the Durban Market, where I think, I’m not absolutely clear about how it started, but there was an Indian business man who found an African youth stealing.  He took the law into his own hands which he shouldn’t have done. However passing Africans reacted to this and there was some you know, little bit of violence breaking out, but I believe had the police acted in time, that violence would have been stopped but, as I said it suited certain people for this to be exacerbated. I mean where you have scarce resources you’ll always have tensions. And I think what made it worse was, I think the conservatism, the extreme conservatism of both the Indian and most of the Africans were Zulus at that time. Of course Africans had come into the area because as dispossessed people they were not allowed to own land etc. and they lived in Mkhumbane on land owned by Indian landlords and of course some of those landlords were unscrupulous as most landlords are. So you had these tensions. Within the Indian community, it is not a homogenous community. You have a pernicious caste system which I mean, meant that there were people who themselves were oppressed within the community so you had this dichotomy and this was being translocated into a new kind of situation. And all these kind of forces of course would have led to tension and there is clear evidence that these tensions were exploited by people who had a lot to loose by Indians and Africans coming together and hence in 1949 the so-called riots [came about]. In these riots more Africans died than Indians. It was only when the Indian government threatened to send down a warship that the South African government sent the police out to act but I believe that the riots were largely stopped from going any further by the prompt action of the ANC and IC leadership who toured the areas talking to people and had a wonderful response. A story in my book one of the final stories there is 1949 which is based on a true story on how an African man gave his life to save an Indian family”.


Govender remembers: “The Indian community was largely a conservative community. Despite the fact that they were very poor, you know, they struggled to maintain that culture. I mean I can give you the example of a waiter called Matimbooko Pillay you know how waiters work long hours and they get paid peanuts but this man kept alive the great plays that his forebears had created in India and the music and his family did that. There was a violinist called Jimmy Gandhi who somehow saved a few pennies, went over to India and cut a record many years ago. And then there were two-world class musicians, one of whom was Thubular Govansammi and the other violinist called Sonny Pillay who you know authoritative people say were world class. I heard them and from what little I know of music there certainly were world class. Then there were these vernacular schools; of course there is a story on how I personally dodged them at school which I have lived to regret”.

“There was a strong feeling of community and when we youngsters grew up we formed sporting organizations like the Mabel Physical Culture Club, with African, Coloured and Indian members”. We were one of the pioneers of the sports boycotts I mean I was about 16 years of age when we formed this because there was that kind of community feeling that kind of passion that was there. So in 1958 when it was declared a white area you can imagine how traumatic it was”.

Social Conditions

“People [living in Cato Manor] were working in the industries especially around the dockyards and things like this, whatever work that was, unemployment was high. As I said 80% of the people lived below the breadline no were taken amongst the African people it would probably have been 95% you know. And you know TB was rife, employment was high and so you know you had terrible conditions in which people lived”.

Demolition and Relocation

“I grew up here and when Cato Manor was destroyed I was then in my late teens. My parents were very devastated. You know my old man couldn’t take it because they have put a lot to, most families have put a lot to their homes or their communities and when this happened some committed suicide, if they did not commit suicide physically they committed suicide spiritually and mentally. You know for a long while after that I would meet people who were walking around in a daze; there were those few people who said come what may they are not moving. One of them was a guy there is a story in the book about a man who seemed to be an apolitical man, by then I was a reporter and I knew about him as an apolitical man, who had no interest in politics and he told me “Ronnie they will take my house over my dead body”, the story is called ‘Over my dead body. There were a few brave people like this”.

“People were sent letters, kind of notices to move, you know. So some many of them just had to move, and were paid amounts for these properties. What happened was that you were threatened that if you did not move you would be forced out physically; that meant of course bulldozers and arrest. The vast majority of the people were peace-loving people and they crushed whatever resistance there was at that time. So you know it would have been highly desirable if people just stayed and you know stood up to these people but you must imagine at that time the forces, the regime, had awesome power and the people were just told to get and they got out. They were chucked to townships; you know that like Chatsworth, KwaMashu, Phoenix, Umlazi and Wentworth you know.  People received very little compensation from the then Department of Community Development (Laughter) you know, it was a euphemism for the biggest estate agency in the world; for that matter a crooked estate agency this was like legalised robbery”.

Family Recollections

“My brother Goni Govender was a journalist who was a pioneer journalist in Drum magazine and he wrote the stories that set Drum magazine on its feet here in Natal. He wrote an expose’ of the Crimson League which was a so-called Indian Gang at that time. He took a big risk in doing that and he wrote an expose’ of slave labour conditions on the sugar plantation which continued. He didn’t discriminate even if it was an Indian farmer he exposed it. Those stories exposed all slave labour conditions in all the farms and that set Drum on its feet there and Goni then was a sports writer. He wrote a book on Jake Ntuli when Jake Ntuli won the empire Flyweight Championship because we come from a sporting background. Two of my uncles were boxing champions from Cato Manor. I recall those grand old days when the guys used to spar under the trees put a punch bag on one of the branches and then I mean and here again is a situation where all the race groups just met. One of the greatest fighters from … in the country was Willy Thomson South African Welterweight Champion was a Cato Manor guy. My uncle used to spar with guys like Guy Makhaba and all that and I was a kid watching them and my uncle won two titles. He won the South African Featherweight and Lightweight Boxing titles, uncle Sonny and uncle Jack won the South African Bantamweight title. There was a guy called Frank Moodley who won the South African Lightweight title all from Cato Manor”.

“My brother left for England where he became a correspondent for BBC and then later on he became editor of the Times and the West Indian Times. Then my sister of course married and she is now in Cape Town, my other brother is also in Cape Town.  I also got a sister in Switzerland and I got another brother in Canada. I’m the only guy who’s remained in Durban. There were 11 of us”.

“The older generation [like my parents] who were very house proud, you know they had lived through an era of total deprivation and they had these rudimentary homes made of wood and iron, neatly kept rudimentary homes but overtime they had converted them into solid brick and tile houses, which they were proud of, were devastated.  So when suddenly somebody comes and takes it from you that is a devastating blow especially people who have been deprived of things, [people] who have been disadvantaged economically”.

“… [Our house was] in  44 Trimon Road and I was very pleasantly surprised to see when I went back many years later, I go there frequently. My mother used to pray every morning in front of the house where there was a castle apple tree. Those were the trees that were brought over on those rickety ships with the first indentured labourers, trees like that, plants, many of the plants like that curry leaves and the jack fruit tree and all that.  The castle apple tree is not there [anymore] but my mother used to pray there and on that spot that she prayed, it was almost as if it was consecrated ground”.

A New Community Spirit

“The people in the squatter settlement have erected an adobe Church, a church made of mud and tin, and it’s on that spot where my mother used to pray.  For me it was moving when I saw that, because I mean, I wrote a little story about ‘the will of the people of Cato Manor will never die’ the spirit is there and I saw that spirit then. When the people living in the squatter settlement were making every effort to redefine their lives and to grab some kind of dignity for themselves, they had a little church there and they had a little spaza shop”.

“[The people of Cato Manor] got themselves organized, there was a strong sense of community you see, [which] came from the people themselves you know that was the wonderful thing. And then of course I told you in squatter settlements you see that kind of evidence. People trying to make something in almost a waste land and I try to draw the attention of youth to the efforts of people there who do these kind of things. At the same time to be able to face tyranny to say this is what is wrong now in our society and to be part of the whole political process”.

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