Cato Manor History


1 History of Cato Manor
2 1949 Race Riots
3 1959 Beerhall Riots
4 Today
5 Reference

History of Cato Manor
Situated about five kilometres from the centre of Durban, modern day Cato Manor is an area rich in cultural and political heritage.It was named after Durban’s first mayor, George Christopher Cato. Cato Manor’s first residents, the Indian market gardeners, to whom Cato sold the land, later leased plots to African families prohibited from owning land themselves. The vibrant, Afro-Indian culture that came into being from this shared space became a trademark of the area. Its Zulu residents knew the warren of shacks, shebeens and shops that grew into Cato Manor as Umkhumbane – named after the stream on whose banks the shantytown sat. Cato Manor survived and thrived for many years as a rough-hewn community in direct contradiction to the Apartheid government’s policy of racial segregation.

Famous residents included musician Sipho Gumede, politician Jacob Zuma, activist Florence Mkhize, businessman Prince Sifiso Zulu, Drum journalist Nat Nakasa and trade unionist George W. Champion who saw Cato Manor as a “place where Durban natives (Africans) could breathe the air of freedom.” So legendary was its reputation that novelist Alan Paton wrote a play called Umkhumbane set in Cato Manor.

1949 Race Riots
Despite the daily contact between the Indian and African residents, who lived in close proximity to each other, racial tensions did exist. Charges of exorbitant rent where often levelled by Indian landlords against their African tenants who had to cope with terrible living conditions, characterised by intense overcrowding. In ” Working Class Hero”, playwright Kessie Govender explores the Indian exploitation of the African community in Cato Manor.

Ronnie Govender’s “At the edge” and other Cato Manor Stories describes the 1949 riots, which were sparked off by an incident in Grey Street where an Indian stall-holder had caught an african boy stealing and had punished him. Africans began attacking Indian shops, businesses and residents. The riots quickly escalated into a race-war with some white people stirring up the trouble. The situation deteriorated with African mobs roaming the streets of Cato Manor attacking Indian residents on sight. That evening the arson, looting and raping increased. The smell of petrol and paraffin were in the air and the night sky was lit up by soaring flames. Indians with cars were fleeing. It took two days for the authorities to get the situation under control. By this stage many shops and homes had been destroyed, 137 people killed and thousands more injured.

1959 Beerhall Riots
In the 1950s, rural Zulus moving to Durban for work sought out Cato Manor as a convenient place of residence. The area quickly grew to accommodate this influx with 6000 shacks – housing around 50 000 people – erected in a matter of years. To earn money, African women brewed and sold beer to male residents. Nkosi elaborates in Mating Birds,” In Cato Manor, African women lived mainly by brewing an illicit concoction called skokiaan, which was often laced with methylated spirit to give it an extra kick. This dangerous and mind-destroying brew was then served daily to black workers, who,  every evening, as soon as they left work, flocked to their favourite shebeens, where they thirstily imbibed the stuff”. The Durban Municipality encountered problems controlling illegal brewing, which was in competition to their Municipal beer halls. Constant pass and liquor raids conducted by the police in Cato Manor agitated residents creating a potentially explosive situation.

By the mid-1950s, the area had become a political hotbed, with Chief Albert Luthuli garnering support for the African National Congress (ANC) by linking Cato Manor’s problems to the greater struggle against Apartheid. Mi S’dumo Hlatshwayo, a child of Cato Manor and influenced by its politics, later went on to write struggle poetry – collected in Black Mamba Rising – that mobilised workers against the government. Commenting on the classification of the Africans in Apartheid South Africa, Hlatshwayo wrote:

Today you’re called a Bantu,
Tomorrow you’re called a Communist
Sometimes you’re called a Native.
Today again you’re called a foreigner,
Today again you’re called a Terrorist

This random classification extended to place where the government would conveniently reclassify areas to suit their needs.

Cato Manor evictions
Durban’s white city-council felt threatened by this large community of politicised Africans and Indians on their doorstep and in 1959 Cato Manor was declared a white zone under The Group Areas Act (1950). Ronnie Govender wrote, “It was right here in black-and-white. The impossible had happened. In the name of community development, in the name of group rights and group protection, in the name of western civilisation, Cato Manor was declared a white area. All the families that had lived there for generations now had to move out of their homes, away from their own pieces of land.” Forced evictions to the racially segregated KwaMashu, Umlazi and Chatsworth began. These were strenuously resisted by Cato Manor’s residents, with protest centred on the hated Municipal Beerhalls, symbols of the Apartheid government. These riots, which later became known as the Beerhall Riots, culminated in the mob killing of nine policemen.

In response, Cato Manor was torn down – a community and its history destroyed.Ronnie Govender wrote, “We have built our home, our schools, our temples, our mosques and our churches with love and hard work. It is wrong for the government, in which we have no say, to take from us what is legally ours. This is legalised robbery.”

Even though the area was now a ‘white zone’ it remained a wasteland with scattered Hindu shrines, the foundations of buildings and the occasional fruit tree to remind us of this once vibrant community.

Cato Manor StreetTowards the end of the Apartheid, African and Indian families moved back to Cato Manor, reclaiming their expropriated land. With no clear development policy, the area quickly grew into a shantytown of tin-shacks, shebeens and spaza shops with many of the problems associated with Cato Manor of the 1950s. Recognising in Cato Manor an ideal opportunity to redress the wrongs of the past, the city of Durban embarked on an ambitious urban development project, receiving worldwide acclaim as a model for integrated development. The area now boasts low-cost housing, a heritage centre, schools, libraries, community centres and clinics and is home to 90 000 people.

Cato Manor Writers, KZN Literary Tourism, 2008.

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