Opposing the Group Areas Act and Resisting Forced Displacement in Durban, South Africa. By Brij Maharaj


The implementation of apartheid in South Africa centred to a large extent on the control of residential location. One of the cornerstones of apartheid, and one of the few areas in which the policy has been effective, was the provision of separate residential areas for the different race groups. This spatial segregation and segmentation of residential areas for whites, coloureds, Indians, and Africans illustrated the impact of apartheid most acutely. The Group Areas Act (GAA) was one of the key instruments used to reinforce the ideology of apartheid, and emphasised the provision of separate residential areas, educational services and other amenities for the different race groups. 

In Sophiatown the people said “We Won’t Move!.”…and when the police arrived that first day people banged and tapped with stones and iron bars against the lamposts, and Sophiatown echoed in defiance…. 1955

The major impact of group area dislocations has been borne by black communities, particularly coloureds and Indians. According to Schoombee, ‘the actual legislative model taken for group areas has been the string of legislative measures starting in the 1880s directed against “Asiatics” (particularly Indians) in the Transvaal and later, Natal’. Indians represent the smallest proportion of the four population groups in South Africa, numbering about one million.  Yet, proportionately, the impact of the GAA ‘has been borne most heavily by the Indians, with one in four of them having been resettled’. They ‘suffered the most from the implementation of the GAA, either through removals or the inadequate provision of living space’. This was especially so in the port city of Durban, situated in the east coast of South Africa, where indentured labourers from India first disembarked in 1860 and were followed by traders (or passengers who paid their own way) in the mid-1870s.

This essay is a continuation of my earlier historical research on the GAA in Durban. The focus here is on opposition to the Group Areas Act and resistance to forced displacement. The reasons for the failure of resistance is also analysed. This chapter is divided into three sections. The background and context is presented in the first section. Opposing the GAA is the theme of the second. Resisting forced displacement is discussed in the third section, and the sub-these include the approaches of the Natal Indian Congress, the Natal Indian Organisation, the ‘All-in-Conference, and the 1958 proclamations and mass action. The data for this paper were derived from a variety of primary documentary sources, ranging from official central and local government records and newspaper reports[10] to memoranda prepared by political and civil society organisations.

Background and Context

Calls for some form of segregation between whites and blacks (Africans, coloureds and Indians) started in the 1880s, with the former expressing fears about being contaminated by the latter who were viewed as carriers of disease – the so-called ‘sanitation syndrome’. The solution was to confine blacks to compounds, hostels and locations which served as effective means of control and repression, and stifled political or labour action. The Urban Areas Act of 1923 represented the first national attempt to control, manage and segregate urban Africans. However, the legal segregation of Indians in South Africa preceded that of urban Africans by more than thirty years.  The whites of Duran were more concerned about the ‘Asiatic menace’ than the ‘Native problem’.  Natives were perceived as a passive threat, but Indians were regarded as a ‘sophisticated and active menace to their own position in colonial society, competing for space, place, trade, and political influence with the imperial authority’. Basically there was a conflict between white and Indian capital, and this was expressed in racial terms. 

In Durban, strategies to curtail Indian access to land and the economic activities of the trader group (who followed the indentured Indians) dominated local political debates for the first half of the twentieth century. Amidst intensified anti-Indian agitation in the post-World War I period, the government appointed the Lange Asiatic Inquiry Commission in 1920 to investigate the two burning issues of the period – Indian trading and their acquisition of land. The Commission maintained that there should not be any compulsory segregation of Asiatics.  Rather, there should be a system of voluntary segregation, which, if possible, should be mutually agreed upon.  This process would be facilitated if municipalities laid out suitable residential and commercial areas, with satisfactory public services and amenities to attract Indians. The Class Areas Bill (1924) was the first attempt to implement some of these recommendations.  The main aim of the Bill was to assign separate areas in Natal towns where Indians could trade, live and obtain property without permit or obstruction.  The Class Areas Bill did not reach the statute book because of the impending general election which the Smuts government lost to the National Party. The Areas Reservation and Immigration and Registration (Further Provision) Bill was introduced in 1925 by the new Minister of the Interior, Dr. D.F. Malan.  In essence, it constituted a revival of the Class Areas Bill.

On the 23 February 1926, Indians throughout the Union observed a National Day of Prayer for protection in this hour of danger.  A South African Indian Congress (SAIC) deputation was sent to India to inform the government and the public there about the plight of Indians in South Africa (Palmer, 1957).  The Bill generated ‘consternation and anger throughout the whole Indian world, and for the first time the treatment of Indians became a decisive factor in Indian nationalism and British-Indian relations’. The official opposition of the Indian government to the Bill resulted in the second reading being dismissed, and it was referred to a Select Committee. However, allegations of Indian penetration into white areas in Durban – the ‘deliberate intention on the part of Indians to intrude into European areas’ – continued. This resulted in the establishment of the Broome Commissions (1941 and 1943), to investigate the extent of Indian penetration and served as a precursor for the introduction of statutory segregation.

This period was also characterised by a shift in Indian politics.  It is important to note that up to 1939 Indian politics was dominated by the trading and commercial elite.  The NIC (established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1894), for example, served vested commercial interests, and was controlled by the affluent merchants.  The various restrictions in Natal curbed the expansion of the bourgeoisie and threatened the very existence of the petty bourgeoisie.  Therefore, although the merchants sometimes included the complaints of the working class in their political representations, they were primarily concerned with protecting their commercial interests. The working class was thus not regarded as an important constituency.  Earlier, in 1933, the Colonial Born and Settlers Association (CBSIA) was formed to oppose the elite ideology of the NIC. In 1939, a new generation of more militant political activists began to contest leadership positions in the organisation.  As a result the majority in the NIC and the CBSIA merged to form the Natal Indian Association (NIA).  However, the more conservative elements continued to operate under the NIC banner, led by A.I. Kajee.

In an attempt to avert compulsory segregation, both the NIC and NIA had adopted accommodationist strategies of negotiating with the state to protect their commercial, residential and investment interests.  The NIA had served on the Lawrence Committee, and the NIC was party to the abortive Pretoria Agreement.  Significantly, both attempts at voluntary segregation and co-operation were destroyed by the local state of Durban. In 1943, the NIC and NIA merged to form a newly constituted NIC, uniting to oppose the Pegging Act (1943).  Under the terms of this Act, Indians were allowed to retain properties purchased up to March 1943, and thereafter it was illegal to acquire or occupy premises in predominantly white neighbourhoods of the Durban Municipal area. The Act was due to expire on March 1946, and within this period it was envisaged that a solution to the problem would be found. Yet, after the abortive Pretoria Agreement, Prime Minister Smuts announced on 21 January 1946 that the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act would replace the Pegging Act. This new law covered two main issues which affected Asians – ownership and occupation of land and the franchise – and would come to be know as the ‘Ghetto Act’.  

After a great deal of grassroots mobilisation of working-class Indians, the radicals ousted the  accommodationists and took control of the NIC in October 1945, and George Naicker was elected as President.  With a more radical leadership, the NIC embarked on a massive passive resistance campaign to protest against the Ghetto Act.  The campaign was launched on 13 June 1946 and suspended on 31 May 1948.  Resistance took the form of occupying properties in defiance of the Act.  The state responded by arresting the resistors, and many prominent Indian leaders were sent to prison.  The state also auctioned the properties of passive resistors to defray fines. However, there was very little evidence of mass working class support for the passive resistance campaign. The majority of working class Indians could not afford to live outside their existing slums and were not immediately impacted by the Ghetto Act, which only seriously affected wealthy Indians who could afford to buy land in white areas. By 1945, political organisations were only just beginning to address working class issues such as exploitation, poverty, inadequate housing, etc. Under these circumstances ‘to have expected any greater empathy or committed support for these political struggles from the newly proletarianised and poorly educated working class … would surely have been unreasonable’.

Ismail Meer, Chief Albert Luthuli, Albertina Luthuli, Thembekile Luthuli and Monty Naicker in Durban led Protests. Picture by Ranjith Kally

In 1947 the accommodationists, under the leadership of A.I. Kajee, formed the Natal Indian Organisation (NIO).  Its membership consisted largely of businessmen, attempting to obtain concessions from the government by ‘constitutional’ and ‘legitimate’ means. While opposing segregation, it was also against the more militant strategies of the NIC.  Then, in 1948 the National Party won the general election, and given its previous support for stringent segregation policies, there was little doubt about what was in store for Indians.  The Ghetto Act of 1946 had in fact laid the foundations of the Group Areas Act (GAA) which followed in 1950. 

Opposing the Group Areas Act

The Group Areas Act (1950) was an intricate, lengthy piece of legislation, couched in technical and legal terminology which was often difficult to understand.  It had 39 clauses which were extensively amended and the ‘definitions’ alone comprised 5 pages.  The maxim underlying the GAA was the division of land among the different race groups.  It was a powerful tool for state intervention in controlling the use, occupation, and ownership of land and buildings on a racial basis.  The state also controlled all interracial property transactions.  Complex machinery was set up for the establishment of group areas. The GAA was the most far reaching apartheid proposal to sustain separation of the races and served as an instrument of oppression.

It was evident from an analysis of the legislation, parliamentary debates and statements by various politicians that the GAA was a culmination of the anti-Indian measures, which had been restricting access to land and trade for almost a century.  The local state in Durban played a significant role in the development and promulgation of the GAA, which it regarded as a lifeline by which a ‘European’ city could be preserved, and worked in close collaboration with the central state.  The National Party claimed that the GAA was in response to calls from Durban to act against Indian penetration.

The general reaction of the Indian community to the GAA was one of shock, dismay and anger.    The different political and civic organisations were unanimous in their rejection and condemnation of the legislation, as well as in their analysis of its impact.  There was also agreement that the legislation was intended to ruin the Indians economically and force them into ghettoes. According to the NIC, in terms of the GAA, the central and local state had the backing of the law to uproot settled Indian communities, disrupt their commercial and economic activities, and force them to the undeveloped urban periphery, to start afresh.  The process represented a vicious cycle, for as urban expansion occurred, Indian property would once again be expropriated for European benefit.  Ultimately, it was envisaged that, through oppression and persecution, the Indian would be forced out of South Africa.

The NIC maintained that the aim of the GAA was to ruin the Indian economically, and to make their lives so unbearable and unpleasant that they would be forced to return to India. More specifically, the intention of the state was to:

  1. deprive the Indian people of their long established ownership and occupation of land and homes;
  2. facilitate the uprooting and expatriation of South African citizens of Indian origin;      
  3. ruin the Indian people economically; and
  4. confine them to ghettoes as a source of cheap labour.

The NIO contended that the GAA was ‘the most devastating legislation that human ingenuity could have conceived, and its administration would bring complete ruin to Indian and non-European people’. At numerous protest meetings, the NIO resolved that the GAA was sinister in its design because:

  1. it imposed compulsory segregation on Indians throughout the country, which would result in the sequestration  of all properties owned by Indians outside their group areas;
  2. it would destroy Indian businesses and agricultural activities outside their group areas as the issuing of licences will be controlled;
  3. the arbitrary powers of the inspectors and police would turn South Africa into a police state;
  4. the natural development of the Indian community in South Africa would be stultified, who would become helots within the Commonwealth of Nations; 
  5. it represented a violation of human rights.

Resisting Forced Displacement

Given its support for compulsory racial residential segregation, Durban was the first pioneering city to plan for group areas zoning and established a Technical Sub-Committee (TSC) for this purpose in November 1950. The first racial plan of the TSC allocated the Central Area, Lower Berea, Durban North, Riverside, Prospect Hall, and Cato Manor to whites. The Main Line suburbs (Sea View, Hillary, and Bellair) were zoned for Indians (Figure 1). According to the TSC plan, about 119,249 Blacks out of a total population of 145,744 would be dispossessed, with the future of the remainder uncertain. Indians would be evicted from the mixed neighbourhoods in the Old Borough of Durban, as well as in Sydenham, Springfield, and Cato Manor, areas they established as pioneers almost a century earlier. In comparison, the TSC plan would require the removal of between 7,000 and 12,000 whites.

Group Areas Act Protests at Cato Manor led by Natal Indian Congress leader Monty Naicker. Picture Credit: kznpr.co.za

Indian political and community organisations argued that the implications of the Technical Sub-Committee’s plans were far reaching in that it envisaged the ultimate exclusion of all Indians from the city.  Consequently, Durban would become a white group area, with the other race groups being located outside its boundaries. Concern was expressed that the Durban City Council (DCC), in taking the lead with regard to the implementation of the GAA, would influence other town councils with their unjust ideas. The NIC contended that the TSC did not even make any charade at objective planning in response to the needs of the different groups.  Its proposals were regarded as a calculated effort to seize Indian homes, properties, businesses and other economic interests in Durban.  Millions of pounds worth of property acquired over ninety years of hard labour would be forfeited under the guise of racial zoning.The NIO argued that an evaluation of the TSC report revealed that its primary objective was to serve and entrench the white interests in Durban at the expense of Indians. The white protest to the zoning of Sea View, Hillary, Bellair and Malvern for Indians would ultimately be heard because they had the vote. The vociferous resistance of whites to the zoning proposals of the TSC, the NIO maintained, emphasised an important factor neglected by the Committee – ‘the deep-rooted attachment which human beings have for their homes and established areas, in this case the Europeans who live in the Main Line suburbs’.

The only change in the initial race plan submitted by the Technical Sub-Committee, which was approved by Durban City Council in May 1952, was that the Main Line suburbs (Sea View, Hillary, and Bellair) were zoned for whites. The concerns and objections raised Indian political and civic organisations were ignored. Strategic differences between the strategies adopted by the main political organisations, the NIC and NIO, to resist group areas displacement would become clear.

Natal Indian Congress – Repeal the Act

The NIC condemned the DCC’s race zoning scheme accepted in May 1952 as a ‘sinister plan to uproot thousands of non-European people from areas occupied by them for generations’. It represented the culmination of the council’s attempts to dispossess the Indians and expel them from the city, and would also displace thousands of Africans. The NIC argued that as the GAA did not make provisions for alternative accommodation, and municipalities were not obliged to provide civic amenities and services in the relocation zones, the disenfranchised Indians would be at the mercy of white local authorities.  The location of the proposed Indian zones would increase transport costs and add to the burden of a community where over 70 percent of the population lived below the bread-line.  According to the NIC, the DCC was ‘notorious for its criminal neglect of Indian housing needs’.

A conservative estimate by the NIC indicated that about 72,869 Indians would be uprooted from their homes.  This would exceed 100,000 if accurate population figures were available.  If Clairwood and Rossburgh were included, the total would exceed 130,000. Moreover, more than half of the displaced population (54 percent) was from the Cato Manor-Mayville-Sydenham complex.  Large proportions were also displaced from the Sea View-Bellair (9 percent), and Prospect Hall-Riverside (8 percent), areas. The NIC concluded that:

Only a callous central or local authority can contemplate the shifting of 100,000 people from their homes in the interests of race discrimination.  A large number of African are to be displaced by these plans.  If the Act can cause the displacement of non-Europeans on such a large scale in one municipal area alone, how grim a picture will the country as a whole present?

In terms of the DCC’s plans, Indian would lose 7,741 dwellings valued at 7,778,640 pounds. Also, Indians would lose 9,737 acres of land worth 15,683,765 pounds. The NIC estimated that to provide for the homeless and natural population increase (excluding the displaced) would require 8,000 houses for the 5-year period ending 1956.  This figure did not include the thousands of Indians who were living in slums.  Therefore, the NIC concluded that the basic problem facing Durban was to provide more housing, rather than reducing this commodity by the creation of racial zones which would cause chaos and suffering. The NIC resolved not to co-operate with the local or central government in the implementation of the GAA.

The DCC’s response was that it would achieve its objectives with regard to the GAA with, or without, the co-operation of the NIC.  In a letter to the NIC, the Town Clerk stated that the General Purposes Committee of the DCC ‘notes your Congress’ resolve not to co-operate with the City Council in securing the most advantageous application of the GAA to this City … The Committee has no doubt that the City Council will achieve its objective nevertheless’. In contrast to the NIC, the NIO adopted a more conservative approach.

Indian Organisation – The ‘Situational’ Approach

The NIO asserted that it was opposed to the GAA in principle, and its ultimate aim was to achieve the repeal of the legislation by legitimate and constitutional means.  In the interim it had no option but to submit, under duress, alternate race zoning proposals for Durban. The plan advocated by the NIO envisaged the maintenance of the status quo in long-established [Indian] areas, and coupled with it the provision for the future needs by the allocation of land large enough for immediate occupation and development and for expansion.

It argued that these twin principles could be applied in Durban fairly rapidly because there would be no forced removals, no insurmountable demands upon the public exchequer, and no pressure upon the present administrative resources of the city.  According to Mr. P.R. Pather, it was necessary for the Indian to fight to protect his property and commercial interests, and his case had to be presented to the government under duress.  He contended that under these circumstances no one can be accused of collaborating with the implementation of the Act. More specifically, the NIO recommended that the following predominantly Indian areas should be zoned for this group: Riverside and Prospect Hall (north of the Umgeni River; Cato Manor and Merebank-Wentworth). According to the NIO, these proposals would avert the displacement of 30,000 Indians. The President of the NIO, Mr. P.R. Pather referred to this as a ‘situational’ approach: ‘In other words, to seek ways in which something can be saved from the wholesale schemes designed to dispossess Indians of their ownership and occupation’.

The difference in strategies adopted by the NIC and NIO increased the tensions between these organisations.  Dr. Donges had stated in Parliament that a section of the Indian community was prepared to make the GAA work.  This was taken to refer to the alternate zoning proposals submitted by the NIO. To the NIC, the NIO was attempting to safeguard the vested interests of the commercial elite.  Dr. G.M. Naicker, President of the NIC stated:

We must not live in a fool’s paradise and believe that with this danger facing the entire community a few will be able to save themselves.  We must expose those in our community who are thinking in terms of saving their own commercial interests at the expense of the rest ….

However, the Congress was also representing middle class interests.  According to Dr. Naicker, ‘[e]very property owner, big and small, is seriously affected’ by the GAA. The NIC concluded that the NIO’s actions were harmful to the community as this implied that it had accepted the principle of racial segregation.  Consequently, Mr. Debi Singh, Secretary General of the NIC, maintained that the difference between the NIO and the Government was one of degree only, as the former had submitted plans which would also uproot people, regardless of how few. The NIO summarised the NIC’s policy as ‘we shall object to any zoning proposals, we shall accept no areas, but if areas are forced upon us and if we are compelled to shift, we shall do so.  Such a stand means that the interests of the people must be sacrificed at the altar of vaunted principles’. However, the apartheid government disregarded the submissions of the NIO.

In an editorial comment, The Graphic maintained that there were dangers in the strategies of both the NIO and the NIC:

The NIO policy may be interpreted by the authorities as an indication of willing co-operation in an Act that is fundamentally alien to Indian interests, and they have been so accused by their opponents.  On the other hand, the NIC policy is such as to alienate any sympathy for the Indian case.  We cannot afford either.

The NIC was concerned about Indian apathy and was aware of the need to engage in more broad-based community mobilisation at grassroots level against the GAA.

Mass Action – ‘All-in-Conference’

In November 1955, Dr. Monty Naicker, President of the NIC, called for an urgent ‘All-in-Conference’ so that the entire Indian community could discuss the far-reaching implications of the GAA and its various amendments since 1950.  There was an evident need to mobilise the community, and Dr. Naicker urged that an alliance of

            Congress branches, trade unions, traders’ organisations, ratepayers’ associations, sport and religious societies and all other Indian bodies should meet together to formulate plans to oppose the Group Areas Act, which is being implemented to strangle the Indian people economically.

In May 1956, the NIC convened such a conference to discuss the different aspects and implications of the GAA.  NIC branches, the African National Congress (ANC), the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, trade unions, trader organisations, and ratepayers’ associations were represented at the conference.  The most important resolution of the meeting was the need for all organisations to rally blacks to oppose the GAA at all levels.  In order to do this, vigilance committees were to be formed in all provinces.  Although an invitation was extended to the NIO, it was not represented.

While there was some collaboration between the NIC and ANC leaders, a telling indictment against the political leadership of the period was their elite tendencies and the failure to mobilise across racial barriers at the grassroots level:

A study of the working class areas of Durban would surely reveal that even by the 1930s there was a considerable intermingling of African and Indian workers.  Much of this was superficial – on the race track, in the cinema, or in the bus – but some was more durable, in terms of worker or home relationships.  This urban intermingling might have become the basis for a political movement, if the Indian leaders had not remained so completely middle class, whether they were moderates or radicals in their ideology.

The May 1956 conference was successful in the sense that it was educational and informative, but the Indian Opinion criticised it for not discussing a mode of action: ‘That is to say what action were those victims of the obnoxious Group Areas Act were to take if they were asked to move out?’  It pointed out, ominously, the views of the layman:

Today the general opinion of the layman is that if the Government gives them a nice new home at a nominal sum why shouldn’t they move.  On the other hand they are told that they should not identify themselves with the Government’s plans but should fight for freedom.  They reply: ‘Why should we join the Congress?  What have they to offer us when our life possessions are in jeopardy?  While we stand to gain by doing as the Government wants us to do.’  That is the trend in which the ordinary laymen thinks.

The class divisions in the Indian community were once again being highlighted.  The failure of mass mobilisation against the GAA at grassroots level was due to the fact that the landowners faced greatest losses as a result of the legislation.  It was possible that low income groups would benefit by moving into public housing in the relocated areas, in contrast to their present slums.  In the mid-1950s about 33 percent of Indian families lived in one room, and 42 percent in overcrowded houses.

Poor living conditions among Indians was accompanied by a high level of unemployment.  It was estimated that 70 percent of Indians lived below the poverty datum line.  The Social and Economic Planning Council recorded that the income of 50 percent of Indian households was too low to enable them to purchase low cost diets. Councillor J.J. Higginson, Chairman of the DCC’s Housing Committee, drew attention to the ‘unemployment, poverty and shocking living conditions’ which was the plight of over 125,000 Indians living in and around Durban.  He estimated that 25 percent of Indians were unemployed. Moreover, those Indians who chose to be activists in political organisations faced constant surveillance by the security apparatus of the state. Under these circumstances, Indians were less likely to support militant mass action, which with the possibility of police arrests and imprisonment, would jeopardise their already precarious positions.

One success emanating from the resolution of the Group Areas conference was the formation of the Natal Provincial Vigilance Committee in June 1956.  It was comprised of representatives of the NIC, ANC, Liberal Party, Congress of Democrats, Liberal Party, Durban Combined Indian Ratepayers’ Association (DCIRA), and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.  The function of the Committee was to ‘safeguard the existing rights of the people and dissemination of propaganda written and spoken particularly to acquaint the European public with the inequities of the Group Areas Laws’. Successful meetings were held in various parts of Natal.  Mr. Archie Gumede, ANC representative on the Committee urged the Indian community not to be apathetic, or ‘all that they worked for over generations’ will be lost. However, the effectiveness of the Vigilance Committee was impeded when its Chairman, Mr. G. Hurbans (NIC), and Joint Secretaries Mr. N.T. Naicker (NIC) and Mr. P.H. Simelane (ANC) were arrested to face trial for High Treason.

The 1958 Proclamations and Mass Action

The 1958, group area proclamations in Durban basically confirmed the recommendations of the Technical Sub-Committee in 1952, as amended by the Durban City Council in May 1952 and submitted to government in 1954.  The proclamations distinguished between group areas for immediate ownership and occupation, and for ownership and future (undated) occupation (Figure 2). The areas for immediate (within a year) white ownership and occupation were: the Beachfront; Berea; Sherwood; Woodlands; Montclair; the upper white sections of Rossburgh, Hillary and Sea View; Durban North; and the Bluff. The following areas were intended for ownership and future occupation by whites: Fenniscowles; the low-lying areas of Rossburgh, Sea View and Bellair; Cato Manor; Mayville; Sydenham (Overport);  Riverside; and Prospect Hall (Figure 2).  Indian areas for immediate ownership and occupation were the Springfield Housing Scheme, Reservoir Hills, and Umhlatuzana Township.  Merebank, Clare Estate, and the area between the Umhlatuzana and Umlaas Rivers (Chatsworth) were proclaimed for future Indian ownership and occupation.  The only coloured area for ownership and future occupation was Wentworth.  The largest proportion of the residentially developed area of Durban was proclaimed for whites.  However, in many of the proclaimed group areas for whites, Indians made up more than 50 percent of the population.

The Indian community was devastated by the proclamations.  They would lose property worth millions of pounds.  Based on the 1951 census, it was estimated that 1,000 whites, 75,000 Indians, 8,500 coloureds and 81,000 Africans would have to move as a result of the 1958 proclamations.[83] These figures, the NIC argued, drew attention to the immense human suffering involved, the magnitude of the economic loss, and the impossible tasks facing the authorities of providing sufficient, suitable accommodation for those to be displaced. The NIC saw the mass dispossession envisaged in these proclamations as the exemplification of a flagrant infringement of human freedom and ‘a heartless attack in the name of racialism, on a vote less people.  Its aim is to render the Indian people economically impotent’.

The proclamations galvanised the various political and community organisations into recognising the need for a united front, transcending class and ideological barriers, in opposing the GAA.  This move was initiated by the President of the NIC, Dr. G.M. Naicker, who said:

            In the face of the grave dangers which face our people, I call upon all Indians, in all walks of life, to come together as never before in the history of our people, to meet the challenge unitedly and with one voice.  Now is the time for the Indian people to declare to the authorities and to the world, in the clearest possible language that they are totally opposed to the Group Areas Act.

The major bodies involved in this move towards unity were the NIC, NIO, and the DCIRA.  In a joint statement, they urged the community to participate in the mass protest action and emphasised the need for unity:

            The crisis facing the Indian people under the GAA is unprecedented in the history of our people.  In this grave hour let us in a dignified way speak with a united voice condemning the GAA and the injustice it seeks to perpetuate in its implementation.  With calm and dignity we want the country and the world to know the plight of our people.  We ask every Indian to participate in this protest against the recent Group Area Proclamations in Durban.

Three mass protest meetings were held in Durban within three weeks of the proclamations.  A protest meeting convened by the Riverside-Briardene District Indian Ratepayers’ Association on 15 June 1958 was attended by about 2,000 residents.  The meeting unanimously resolved to call upon the DCC to request the Minister of the Interior to deproclaim Riverside, Prospect Hall and Briardene, where Indians had settled and owned property for over 90 years.  The DCC was also urged to allow Indians to develop their properties, as this would help meet some of the housing needs of the community.  On 22 June 1958, another mass protest meeting was held in Mayville, Cato Manor which also endorsed the call for united protest and opposition to the proclamations.

The call for mass protest action culminated in a rally held at the Curries Fountain ground on 26 June 1958, convened jointly by the NIC, NIO, and DCIRA (which was referred to as the Sponsors’ Committee), and attended by over 20,000 people.  Thousands heeded the call to stayaway from work and school, and Indian businesses and shops closed for the afternoon.  The meeting was addressed by representatives from the three main conveners, as well as priests from the different religions.   The meeting declared:

            We would like to make it clear that we who have had no say in the making of this barbaric law and are totally opposed to the Act and the principles and aims of its originators, will not at any stage, acquiesce in its implementation.  Our stand is based on fundamental principles and truths.  We believe in the right of every man to choose his abode according to his means without any racial restriction.  We believe in the sanctity of our homes and cannot tolerate any interference from authorities who have not the slightest regard for our feelings.  Nowhere in the world would thinking people permit their Government to stampede thousands of its settled communities from their hearths and homes, and allow them to build in the bare veld.

A significant feature of the protest meeting was the involvement of Europeans who also opposed the proclamations.  Professor Hansi Pollak, Chairperson of the Natal Coastal Region of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), stated that many Europeans were also shocked at the proclamations.  Mr. Alan Paton of the Liberal Party questioned whether those who created such evil laws, or those who protested against them, were responsible for racial conflict.

At the meeting an impassioned appeal was made to Europeans to become more aware of the havoc inflicted by the proclamations.  An extract from the appeal read as follows:

            It was 93 years ago that we founded such settlements as Prospect Hall and Riverside.  In other places we have been living for 50, 60 or 70 years.  The vast majority of us have put all our savings into our homes.  Now under the GAA, 60,000 of us are to be removed.  Our properties, so valuable to us, have nothing like the same value for white purchasers.  We expect to suffer grievous losses, much heavier than most of us will be able to bear.  Most of us are humble working people and to buy land and build houses in the new areas will be beyond our means.  Those who are in business in these proclaimed areas will receive no compensation at all.

A group of 36 prominent, concerned European citizens, including members of parliament, churchmen and academics, signed a statement which declared that they shared the distress of those who would be uprooted by the GAA:

            We the undersigned, have read and have been deeply moved by the appeal of the Indian community to the white citizens of Durban.  We are confident that many will share their distress at the present Group Areas proclamations, which will ultimately uproot 100,000 of Durban’s citizens from their homes and settled communities.  Sympathy must be extended to all affected persons, whether they be European or non-European.  We are sure that the community’s sense of justice and humanity will be shocked by the inequality  of the sacrifice falling upon the Non-European citizens of Durban.  We respond to the Indian appeal and commend it to our fellow citizens.

The mass meeting adopted the following resolutions, to:

  1. Call upon the government ‘in the name of human decency and justice’ to withdraw the proclamation of 6 June so that tens of thousands of people would be saved from uprooting.
  2. Request the DCC to make a similar call to the government for deproclamation.
  3. Appeal to all South Africans who believed in justice and human dignity to support the clamour for the repeal of the GAA.
  4. Call upon the international community for moral support.
  5. Emphasise the need for the Indian community to be united in their opposition to the proclamations.
  6. Embark on a mass petition campaign to draw the attention of Parliament to the implications of the proclamations, and to request immediate redress.

Commenting on the meeting, The Graphic stated that although ‘there was no challenge to authority, no resistance advocated, the meeting itself was the greatest possible challenge to the conscience of the White citizens of Durban and elsewhere’.   However, the period after the mass protest meetings of June 1958 was characterised by a general lull. 

There was a failure to capitalise on the awareness associated with the mass mobilisation following the proclamations of 6 June 1958.  The main form of protest supported by the NIC was a door to door campaign to petition parliament about the injustices of the GAA and its proclamations.  The effectiveness of this action was, however, very limited:

            In fact, public petitions, except when part of a carefully organised parliamentary campaign, appear to be little but a waste of money and energy on the part of the petitioners.  The House itself will not, in fact cannot, do anything about them, and their only useful purpose is to serve as an indication of public opinion.

Concern was expressed about the ageing, bankrupt leadership, lack of direction and poor organisation. The Leader called for greater action and militancy. It maintained that ‘the militants [NIC]  appear to have sold out to the moderates [NIO], and in the name of unity have completely forgotten their militancy’.  The NIC attempted to justify the apparent ambiguity in its position at its 11th Annual Provincial Conference in November 1958:

            A distinction must be drawn between the principled opposition to the Group Areas Legislations … and the broader united front formed for the specific purpose of opposing the Proclamation of June 6th … In respect of the Proclamations of June 6th (the) primary function was to demonstrate to the Union Government and to the world the unanimous rejection of the devastating Proclamations.  Besides this primary function Congress has another vital function to fulfil in respect of its policy and programme and that is to take its independent policy of total opposition to the people as a whole.  There should be no room for confusion in regard to these dual functions of working within the united front and yet boldly putting forth to the people our independent line of action.

There were accusations that the NIC had ‘reverted to opposition tactics that would have been approved by its NIO rival’. The NIC did not consider using passive resistance to oppose group area proclamations.  According to Johnson, the NIC’s restrained response to the Durban proclamations was related to the inability to maintain a sense of urgency among Indians:

            This had been cited as a problem by NIC organiser George Singh in 1946, and the situation had not changed by 1958.  Only thirty-five Indian property owners were required to immediately vacate their homes by the 1958 proclamation, and even these were permitted to retain ownership.  An immediate resistance effort would therefore have been impractical, even if the NIC had been prepared to wage one.

There was also a decline in the active membership of the NIC.  The branches considered active by the general secretary of the NIC were reduced by more than half, from 28 in 1947 to 12 in 1959. ‘Lethargy’ and ‘inactivity’ appeared to characterise the attitude of most members.  The main problems experienced by the NIC were poor organisation, inherited from the pre-1945 period, and ultimately its domination by an elite group. It is also pertinent to note that many in the leadership hierarchy of the NIC, including its President, Dr. G.M. Naicker, were facing trial for High Treason during this period, and they were pre-occupied with this issue, rather than the GAA. 


In apartheid South Africa, the GAA was the most glaring example of the role of the state in the social engineering of space in order to realise ideological and political ends.  It was a culmination of the anti-Indian measures which had been restricting access to land and trade for almost a century and was significantly influenced by the DCC.  Indian political organisations were vociferous in their condemnation of, and opposition to, the GAA and racial residential segregation, which was intended to economically ruin the community and force them into ghettoes.  They resolved to mobilise their resources, to use every available avenue of protest to oppose the implementation of the GAA, and to defy the unprecedented assault on basic human rights.

While the NIC and NIO claimed to represent the Indian community, there was very little evidence of mobilisation of the working class and the poor, whose interests were neglected by elite political leaders.  Political action consisted mainly of petitions, letters and delegations to the South African government authorities, and the occasional mass meeting. These organisations were, however, primarily concerned with protecting trading and middle-class property interests. Therefore, while ‘they protested against white discrimination against Indians (hence their claim to represent the entire “community”) they protested from a class rather than a national or racial position’. In an atmosphere of increasing hostility and intolerance they utilised every peaceful measure to expose the injustice and violation of human rights in South Africa.  This included passive resistance, recourse to the law, and appeals to the government.   However, the differences between the NIC and NIO on strategy rather than principle, marred united opposition to the implementation of the GAA. The ‘collaboration’ between the conservative, numerically smaller NIO, which represented powerful economic and business interests, and the apartheid government did not yield any concessions in terms of the implementation of the GAA.

In spite of strategic differences, the 1958 Durban proclamations did galvanise the various Indian political and civic bodies into recognising the need for a united front in opposing the GAA.  Yet, opposition took the form of futile mass protest meetings and rhetorical outbursts.  There was an obvious lack of effective leadership to strengthen the non-racial alliance that developed in June 1956 and to mobilise mass opposition to the group area proclamations.  The main reason for this was that segregation affected the different classes of the Indian community dissimilarly.  For the wealthy, it reduced opportunities for investment and commercial expansion and caused financial losses.  While, for the underclasses, segregation represented a double-edged sword; with increasing rents and slum clearance some would become homeless, but others could possibly be housed in municipal housing schemes. In fact the question of housing for the underclasses was not raised forcefully by the NIC or the NIO, ‘since elements within the Indian merchant class were extensively involved in rack-renting to the Indian and African working class’. It must also not be forgotten that the coercive apparatus of the apartheid state, as represented by the army and the security branch police force, was very strong.  Indians struggling to eke out a living were unlikely to court arrest and imprisonment.  The apartheid state was keen on consolidating its power, and was ‘constantly on the defensive against the threat of destabilisation through popular unrest’. The fledgling apartheid state of 1948 and its repressive apparatus was firmly in control by the late 1950s, and it refused to acquiesce to the most reasonable demands of a disenfranchised, minority community. 


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