A Brief History of Hotel ownership and access by Selvan Naidoo
The ownership of hotels in South Africa is heavily skewed in favour of a minority. Only in recent years has there been a slight shift toward Black ownership with a few owners slowly starting to make inroads into uncharted territory. In 2018, Siyanda Sabelo broke new ground by becoming one of the first black hotel owners to launch the R350 million, Regent Hotel Apartments in Menlyn, Pretoria.
A few years earlier in 2015, Saantha Naidu acquired the grand old dame, the opulent Royal Hotel, quintessentially Durban’s finest colonial era hotels that set the benchmark for aristocratic class. The Royal Hotel opened its doors on the 12 December 1845, Durban’s first hotel that heavily employed Indian indentured waiters by 1860. Generation after generation of Indian waiters that worked at the Royal would have never imagined that one day, the Royal Hotel would have been owned by a Black person. In Naidu’s case, he certainly overshot expectations by owing a chain of hotels with the successful ownership of The Coastland Group Hotels as well as being a successful property developer.
Beyond ownership, basic access to hotels for Black people, even for leisurely purposes, has been imprinted in memory with the painful ignominy from colonialism to apartheid. KwaMuhle Museum in Durban bears painful scars of being the headquarters of the City’s infamous Native Administration Department as well as serving as the centre of Durban’s harsh system of labour control. The museum hosts an exhibition depicting the events of Beer Hall riots where the infamous Municipal managed beer halls hosted the only place where African men could drink sorghum beer within the city confines.
In our democratic dispensation and against this backdrop of informal entertainment, the rags to riches Max Mngadi’s development of Max’s Lifestyle Restaurant in Umlazi severs as a beacon of hope to the youth and of how township life can be transformed into hotspot for entertainment and economic prosperity.
The geography of hotels also played a part in the type of hotels accessed by Black people. The Group areas act that was set in motion by the 1960s led to the development of hotels in areas exclusively reserved for people of colour. To cater for Indians in Durban, The Admiral Hotel in Overport was opened in 1957 and run by Mr. R. Singh. In 1965, The Delhi restaurant in Grey Street (now Yusuf Dadoo St), Durban became the first Black restaurant to be granted a liquor licence. By this time many hotels were developed in former Indian areas like the famous Himalaya Hotel in central Durban, the Moon Hotel in Clairwood, Island Hotel in Isipingo, the Chelmsford Hotel in Tongaat, The Royal Hotel in Umzinto and the Pelican Hotel, Sol Namara and Savera Hotel in Chatsworth.
The ownership of the Pelican hotel, the Sol Namara Hotel and the Chatsworth Bottle store has a unique history with the famed barman of the West End Bar in Pine Street(now Monty Naicker St) Soobramoney ‘Soobrie’ Pillay being the unlikely owner of these iconic places of leisurely entertainment.
Post-apartheid and in recent years by 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic severely halted any development or new ownership for the hotel and entertainment industry. Sadly, for workers in this industry, many restaurants and hotels like Durban’s Hilton Hotel, the grand Edward Hotel have either closed their doors, temporarily, or transferred ownership. Many workers from these establishments have joined the ranks of the growing unemployed in a country that is firmly gripped by the pangs of an economic depression.
The start of 2022 has seen a resurgence in the people being able to go out in public with the easing up of restrictions because of the added protection of vaccines provided in the fight against Covid-19. Economically the rebuilding process has been painfully sluggish especially in KwaZulu-Natal where natural disasters, corruption, an insurrection, looting and civil unrest have colluded to deny any form of progress.
Despite these trying times, today marks an important milestone and pivotal moment in the reversal against unemployment with the opening of the 5-star Radisson Blu Hotel and shopping mall by business man Vivian Reddy. According to Reddy, “a total, of more than 26 000 people will be employed when the project is completed. The luxurious Oceans mall will have more than 14 restaurants, including signature restaurants. The project also consists 600 apartments is worth R4-billion, being the most significant mixed-use development in South Africa.”
Given the history of ownership and access to hotels on all fronts, the opening of The Radisson Blu represents a watershed moment in providing hope to the unemployed and assisting in the fightback against economic depression while potentially becoming the new trendy lifestyle hotspot for beleaguered Durbanites.
Written by Selvan Naidoo. Director at the 1860 Heritage Centre