The Last Days of Bhambayi

R.W. Johnson

Just outside Durban lies the vast black squatter camp of Inanda, whose huddling shacks house half a million people or more – the only way to perform a census is to take an aerial photograph and allow for six people per shack. On Inanda’s eastern edge lies the historic Gandhi Settlement, founded by the Mahatma before he set off to lead the struggle against the British in India. Ninety per cent of South Africa’s one million Indians live in Natal, more than half of them in Durban, and the community is intensely proud of having produced the man who launched India’s independence. The Settlement itself became a focus of the Gandhian movement and a place of pilgrimage. It was also a place of reflection and refuge: during the hardest apartheid years this was where radicals of every stripe would retire for workshops and seminars or, on occasion, for Gandhian fasts of protest against the apartheid laws. Rick Turner and Steve Biko used to hold weekend retreats there, as did many of the activists who later built the trade union movement.

The surrounding African squatter population increased rapidly as waves of Zulu peasants poured into the Durban area. As was only to be expected, the densely-packed camps became increasingly unruly. In 1983 there was a bad outbreak of faction fighting, the losers fleeing to the Settlement, and staying there as refugees. For the Indians living round the Settlement life became increasingly dangerous, with their homes and shops more and more resembling miniature armed forts as they sought to fend off the depredations of the poor, sometimes starving Africans around them. In 1985 the insistent onward press of black poverty erupted into a four-day pogrom against the Indian community living around the Settlement. When the smoke cleared the Indians had fled, the Settlement had been covered with African shacks, and its buildings – a school, clinic, museum, community hall, Gandhi’s house and the building in which he had published his newspaper – had been sacked and looted. Today they survive as melancholy shells in an area known as Bhambayi – a Zulu approximation of ‘Bombay’.

The events of 1985 cast a heavy pall over the relationship between Indians and Africans, a relationship which had in any case not fully recovered from the far worse race riots of 1949, when Africans turned on Indian traders in Durban, killing fifty and injuring more than five hundred. Thousands of Indian houses and shops came under attack from Zulu mobs, bitterly resentful of what they saw as Indian exploitation. Over time, many hundreds of Africans were to be killed in reprisals by the forces of law and order. Indians in the Congress tradition, supporters of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), the South African Communist Party and the ANC, have all striven over the years to heal this wound, and so have the Indian members of the Black Consciousness movement, who have tried, with some success, to get Indians to refer to themselves as blacks too. But the gulf remains, and occasional flare-ups of anti-Indian violence, combined with a sharp Indian consciousness of the unhappy fate of other Indian communities all the way up the East African coast haven’t helped.

After 1949 the heart went out of Indian radicalism; at best, a painful ambivalence remained. On the one hand, the resentment this sophisticated and cultured community felt at its barbarous treatment under apartheid knew almost no bounds. On the other, there were many for whom the real insult was that they were ‘being treated like Africans’. Yet after 1949 most Indians feared Africans (especially Zulus) and the temptation to cling to the skirts of white power was very strong. For the NIC/SACP intelligentsia it was a very painful business. After all, if the black masses were not on their side the whole rationale of radical politics was undermined. But what price self-respect if one had to look cravenly for favour from a white establishment which, under Leo Boyd, the Durban mayor of the time, was urging that the solution to ‘the Indian problem’ was ‘boats, not votes’ (i.e. ship them back to India rather than enfranchise them)?

The solution for many lay in a conspiracy theory which claimed to ‘prove’ that the 1949 riots had been set in train by white manipulation. The theory became so emotionally necessary that even today one can hear it propounded by old radicals, though the bulk of Indians have no such illusions. Some years ago Chief Buthelezi, enraged by criticism from Indian radicals, made threatening mention of the need to remember 1949. This has never been forgiven, although Buthelezi’s IFP is now wooing the Indian community just as hard as the ANC is doing. In practice most Indians feel that the ANC-IFP fight is not their affair and ask only – today as in the days of apartheid – who can best protect them. Many are anxious that the Indian Government’s provision of military training to the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto, will draw IFP reprisals. But ordinary working Indians are also deeply anxious about the ANC’s affirmative action policies, about whether, on those terms, they count as white or black – and about the fact that they seem mainly to count as white. Most would like to keep their heads down – but fear their cause will go by default if they do.

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