Kanniamma Naidoo

Petty vegetable street hawkers in Durban 1860 to 2000.

by Selvan Naidoo

My Pāṭṭi (grandmother in Tamil), Kanniamma as I affectionately called her, would have been very proud of my Pulicha Keerai (Roselle leaves) harvest from my garden. These herbs formed a major part of her diet. She enjoyed cooking these herbs because it needed little time for cooking, I suspect it also had a lot to do with lowering her blood pressure but that’s a story for another day. Time was always precious to Pāṭṭi, she had very little time to waste in the kitchen labouring over slowly cooked meals. Her days were spent in the hustle and bustle of Durban’s streets where she plied her trade as a petty vegetable hawker.

Kanniamma Naidoo, a petty vegetable street hawker. Picture Credit: Selvan Naidoo Collection

Pāṭṭi was a hard woman, tall and sturdy, a woman you wouldn’t really want to mess around with. Years of work rendered her calloused hands into a pair of kryptonite shovels than not even arthritis could deter, in her ageing years. She was physically very strong, aided by snorting copious amounts of snuff that saw her living well past a century. When her husband, a waiter at the Edward Hotel in Durban, died at an early age, she took to hawking to feed her family. She raised seven children and never complained about anything, she got by with very little and was very resourceful, using only her trusty panappai(moneybag) as her bank that she closely secured within the saree she wore every day.

A detailed study on the history of petty hawking in Durban is wonderfully captured by Professor Goolam Vahed, titled; Control and Repression: The Plight of Indian Hawkers and Flower Sellers in the Durban CBD, 1910-1948.

( https://disa.ukzn.ac.za/…/VahedGoolam3/VahedGoolam3.pdf)

Professor Goolam Vahed’s meticulously researched paper, examined the position of Indians who attempted to make a living on the streets of Durban as hawkers and flower sellers. With reference to how difficult it was for hawkers to trade on the streets of Durban, Vahed goes on the state: “The activities of Indian hawkers brought them into conflict with a local government committed to its white electorate and which passed a myriad of laws to peripheralise hawkers. The theme is primarily one of state repression and attempts by Indians to forge an existence in spite of state policies.”

Petty street hawkers at The Squatters Market, Durban, c 1910, Picture Credit 1860 Heritage Centre

The repressive street laws and the control measures put in place to deny petty street hawkers their livelihood are further elaborated by the oral testimonies of my eldest brother and only living aunt. They both bear testimony to the numerous times that my Pāṭṭi’s goods were confiscated and never returned to her. Pāṭṭi was jailed on several occasions when she traded near the Umgeni Railway station. Her bailed rescue from spending more time in jail was duly complied by my dearest late aunt, Akka Ruby who lived with Pāṭṭi in the famed Lorne street (now Ismail Meer St) of Durban.

During those days, when Pāṭṭi was jailed, not having her trading license, she was often manhandled by ‘Black Jacks’ (municipal police) with brutal force. The term ‘Black Jacks / later municipal police’ was used to describe poorly trained and often violent ‘policemen’. The ‘Blackjack’ police forces run by local administration boards and controlled by local government patrolled the streets of Durban were very cruel in carrying out their duties and were especially violent towards petty hawkers in particular.

Early ‘Black Jacks’ Municipal Police, Durban, 1900. Picture Credit: 1860 Heritage Centre

Despite this treatment and the repressive laws passed over several years to stifle a working class existence, Pāṭṭi triumphed against all odds. She continued trading, often carrying her trusty bamboo baskets well into her eighties and up to when I had gone to university. My proudest possession is a picture of her and my father standing alongside myself when I had graduated from University. It’s a moment that reminds me of the sacrifices that went before me in completely altering the trajectory of my future. This picture also makes my reading of Thomas Piketty’s work so much more appealing. Many years since her passing, I wrote this piece to help my son and daughter understand the responsibilities that rest on their shoulders in realizing the value of hard work and the dogged commitment towards the pursuit of a better life. Nandri Kanniamma, mikka nandri.

‘Coolie Mary’ as they were called in Colonial Natal were seen all over the streets of Durban, selling fresh produce. 1957, Picture Credit: 1860 Heritage Centre

Selvan Naidoo is a Director at the 1860 Heritage Centre.

Share your stories of your grandparents in capturing the legacy of working class heroes and heroines.


  1. I am 84 years old and have some knowledge (gained while I was librarian at UDW) of how our ancestors suffered during British rule in Natal. I am so glad that their suffering is appearing in social media to offset the mistaken belief that many Blacks, particularly the younger generation have of people of Indian origin being a privileged community under White rule. Whatever we own was obtained through sweat and blood and foresight of our forefathers not handouts. Please publish more widely articles and photos of the struggles we went through to get where we are today.

    Liked by 1 person

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