Happiness in the Midst: a play on the historical Durban System

Happiness in the Midst: a play produced in May 2009 at the Playhouse Loft Theatre in Durban
The main theme of this play centred around the history of discrimination against black people in Durban during the early part of the 20th century.  In those years Durban’s population level was relatively low. In 1900 the total population of the town was about 55700 of whom 14600 were African. By 1921 the total risen to 90500 of whom predominately male. This kind of increase prompted the establishment of a structure to administer Africans. This structure was built on the revenue derived from municipal beer monopoly. Theophilus Shepstone also had an influence in the urbanisation process by introducing the togt labour system in 1873, which allowed Africans to lodge wherever they could in urban areas.

While hoping to force Africans to live in municipal barracks, the authorities could do little to force Africans out of backyards, rented rooms and dens of vice into bleak barracks. Durban’s Superintendent of Police expressed his sentiments to the 1903-05 South African Native Affairs Commission, “In May 1904, during the last three years I have had 7500 togt labourers with sleeping accommodation for only 450. The remainder lodged wherever they could in anyone backyard.
“How on earth can I take charge of natives that are allowed to squat in every yard hole, and corner in Durban, where everyone is allowed to go except policeman”, “I say send the natives out of town for god sake”.

The authorities in Durban introduced what became known as the Durban System, which sought to control the influx of black people by requiring them to have permits to be in town. To finance the Durban System the Native Beer Act was passed in 1908, giving municipalities in Natal the sole right to brew and sell beer within their boundaries. The Durban municipality soon began to brew its own beer and sell it through a network of beerhalls, which it established. The first municipal beerhall opened in 1909 and soon the system was reaping huge profits. Nothing was allowed to threaten this situation and every effort was made to stamp out the illegal brewing and sale of beer through regular police raids. Durban remained the only town in South Africa with a self-supporting Native Revenue Account, between 1909-1930; revenue from the beer monopoly was ploughed into the maintenance and establishment of barracks, beer halls, hostels and breweries, as subsidising the cost of policing the town. Great numbers of people lost the means to earn their living through this policy and, even if they did not stop brewing beer, there was always the risk of a raid. The fact that beer in beer halls was expensive, led to great bitterness and outbreaks of violence, including one in 1929 in which a number of people were killed.

People who did not want to live in hostels opted to reside in uMkhumbane. Many Africans from various rural areas flowed to this township which was vibrant with different activities. Activists, artists and business people made uMkhumbane their home. The selling of traditional beer by African women brought them in conflict with the authorities. They were continuously raided and arrested for selling utshwala. Besides all these frustrations Cato Manor had its own unforgettable moments that remained crucial memoirs for its residents.

The play  “Happiness in the midst” outlines the joyful events that uMkhumbane gave to residents. I’m talking about isicathamiya, jazz, boxing, shebeens and the gay area, all these were the activities and practices happening in Cato Manor at the time. Indeed it was a vibrant place; though people were facing strenuous conditions and the brutality of security force, they enjoyed themselves as human beings. Younger people do not know that gay culture did exist in uMkhumbane and that they even got married. In South Africa it is only recently that homosexual marriages are legitimised but the practice existed long ago though not recognised by law.

This play is showcasing suppression, resistance and social life in uMkhumbane. South Africans have experienced the worst in life, all racial groups had suffered the same, but such memories will always serve to keep the past alive and enable us to laugh about it and cry at the same time, this is what brings us together and appreciates one’s culture and practices. History is part of our lives that can not be erased but we should use it to reconcile and further the human unity for the prosperity of our country.

Leave a Comment