AS KwaZulu-Natal this week observed the 73rd anniversary of the fateful Durban Riots of 1949, a historian has lauded the city’s residents for avoiding a repeat of that violent and bloody event during last year’s July unrest.
More than 100 people of African and Indian descent were killed, while over 1 000 were injured.
Properties, including homes, businesses and shops, were vandalised and destroyed during the three-days of rioting, which took place from January 13 to 15, 1949.
While there were many reported versions about what could have sparked the riots, according to the late Alfred Nokwe, a legend in art and entertainment who lived in the area, the riots started after an Indian shopkeeper viciously assaulted a 14-year-old African boy after they disagreed over change.
A similar incident occurred this past July, during the unrest that broke out in Phoenix, when neighbourhood watch programmes – comprising residents protecting their properties and businesses – were infiltrated by racist vigilantes who took the law into their own hands.
A total of 36 people, mostly Africans from the nearby KwaMashu, Amaoti, Inanda and Bhambayi townships around Phoenix, north of Durban, were killed.
The victims were either shot or hacked to death. Phoenix community members claimed they were protecting their area when the looting and unrest broke out.
The killing created tension between the two groups, causing panic that could easily have sparked another riot.
About 30 people were arrested, including the owners of a Phoenix-based private security company.
The company was suspected to have opened fire on civilians and operated without proper registration.
The cases were still ongoing at the Verulam magistrate’s court.
Omar Badsha, a documentary photographer and founder of SA History Organisation, cited similarities between the 1949 riots and the July unrest – and commended Durban residents for not spreading violence.
Badsha said that just as they did in 1949, police took their time to respond, which he believed resulted in the loss of many lives.
“We know for a fact that police were not there to safeguard people; a small incident escalated into something big and people lost their lives,” he added.
He lamented the high level of inequality, which he said had made it difficult to build a non-racial community.
“The differences within our communities are very deep and date back 300 years, when colonists arrived in our country. 1949 was their successful strategy to sow division among the black race groups. But as a country, I believe we have come a long way as far as reconciliation is concerned.
"The July unrest could have easily spread to many areas around Durban. Indian and African communities showed tolerance of each other and let the law take its course. We saw a similar occurrence in 1985, where there were racial flare-ups once again.
“While the communities have displayed reconciliation, with many African people moving to predominantly Indian townships, inequality remains a stumbling block that divides communities.
There is a lack of social cohesion programmes and political will from the government,” said Badsha.
He also pointed out the escalating unemployment rate, particularly among the African people from the township, as a “time-ticking bomb” that would explode and plunge the country into another riot. Badsha said it was a fact that many people were unemployed in the African townships and they often viewed other races as opponents.
“There are elements of hatred and distrust among the communities, more African people are living in Phoenix – a predominately Indian township – but not the other way around. Government still needs to work on closing those gaps, making people equal,” he added.
Chairperson of the KZN Christian Council, Bishop Nkosinathi Myaka said they were grateful that there was a sense of calm and stability following the July unrest, which could throw a spanner in the works and bring peace between the two racial groups.
Ngcobo said as a council they have been working on the ground with all stakeholders including politicians, faith-based organisations and businesses to bring peace.
“We have various committees on the ground that have so far achieved a lot. Pastors are assisting us in preaching peace, we have developed a programme that includes sports and other business opportunities. As pastors we would not like to see the repeat of 1949 at any given moment. So we believe that our long journey worked, we saw people not resorting to revenge but they left everything in police hands. We worked closely with police and lawyers and we encourage those seeking justice to report to law enforcement agencies,” he said.