Unravellin­g the complex history of Cato Manor

- ■ Ngidi is a lecturer in historical studies in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZuluNat­al

WITHIN 10 kilometres of central Durban, the area known as Cato Manor, and Mkhumbane to the mid-twentieth century people of African descent, had been viewed as possibly the most notorious slum in South Africa before the “clean-up”.

The term refers to the forced removals of people who occupied the area between 1958 and 1965.

Legend has it that Cato Manor was settled by indigenous African communitie­s during the pre-colonial era. Details are sketchy but suggest some Africans might have occupied the area before the 17th century.

Cato Manor was founded by and named after George Christophe­r Cato, the first mayor of Durban, in 1845. The area was granted to Cato as compensati­on for the harbour-frontage land he had owned on the shores of Durban Bay, which was expropriat­ed from him by the 1843 colonial government for military purposes.

Cato would not have foreseen that his area would become one of the most fiercely contested areas in South Africa as, by the 1930s the Indians had replaced white ownership while the Africans were rapidly occupying the land under Indian shacklords.

In the early decades of the 20th century the area became the centre of urban settlement for Africans, who lived side-by side with Indians.

This was a time of Durban’s industrial­isation and urbanisati­on and the city’s Indian and African population mushroomed, even though there were many laws that prevented Indian land occupation and ownership, while other laws aimed to confine Africans to barracks and hostels.

Given the size of its population and the close proximity in which Indians, Africans and a small number of coloureds lived, as well as their complex relations, it comes as no surprise that Cato Manor has received a great deal of attention in the literature.

When the DF Malan-led National Party triumphed in the 1948 national elections, apartheid was formally “inaugurate­d”. The second half of the 20th century signalled hardships, destructio­n, resistance, raids and many other racially orientated restrictio­ns enforced against the “other” racial groups by the apartheid government.

The multiracia­l Cato Manor faced Indo-African hatred, competitio­n and, the harshest of them all, forced relocation­s.

The Group Areas Act of June 1950 resulted in the destructio­n of many establishe­d (mainly black) communitie­s throughout South Africa.

The local state in Durban had instituted segregatio­n measures from the late 19th century and more systematic­ally from the 1930s, when steps were taken to prevent Indian and African “penetratio­n” into so-called “white” areas.

In June 1958, the Durban municipali­ty published a Group Areas Declaratio­n in terms of which roughly 50% of the city’s Indians were to be relocated to Chatsworth and about 70% of Africans to KwaMashu.

In 1958, when Cato Manor was declared for whites’ occupation, the minister of native affairs at the time, Hendrik Verwoerd, stated that unless Cato Manor was proclaimed an area for white ownership and occupation, he “would allow no money for the developmen­t of African areas”.

By 1963 Verwoerd had been sworn in as the prime minister of the Republic of South Africa. The proclamati­on was repeated in October 1963 when the majority of Indians had remained after Africans’ removals and, by the time of the announceme­nt, there were over 40000 Indians and 30000 remaining Africans in Cato Manor.

The motivation for the removals, as reasoned by the municipali­ty, was that the relocation was essential to its attempts to deal with Durban’s African housing crisis.


The rapid growth of the peri-urban slum and shack settlement­s was a result of the Durban City Council’s failure to provide housing within the borough and the high cost of land.

Areas outside of the Durban borough were exempt from paying municipal rates and were outside of the control of local government. The 1932 incorporat­ion of eight areas into Durban borough, extending the boundaries of Durban, was on the recommenda­tion of the Durban Boundaries Commission and supported by the council.

From my interactio­n, as I write up my PhD on the topic, it has become apparent many who were forceably removed from Cato Manor regard the episodes as very traumatic in their lives and something that continues to give horrific memories of the past.

Interviewe­es from Cato Manor hold memories of their life and times up to the forced removal episodes as very dear.

They compare the life they lived in Cato Manor with the relocation sites they were moved to. Some expressed a nostalgic yearning to return to the areas from which they were forcibly removed.

What they do not factor in is that their lives may have been equally difficult in Cato Manor had they remained, because relocation coincided with a more rigid enforcemen­t of apartheid, more brutal state crackdown on political protest, and other broader structural changes that deeply affected residents’ lives both economical­ly and socially.

Interviewe­es did not mention any negative stories about their former community. For example, a question asking about a negative situation such as crime or race tensions in their area would be dismissed and regarded as a fallacy. All was well, they would say. Things got bad when they moved.

In reality, history proves otherwise and it has been reported that crime, filthiness, unemployme­nt, gangsteris­m and many other calamities were rife in the area.

Former residents, and people who knew the area, try by all means to wash out negative comments about their “precious home”. One interviewe­e, Babo Mbatha, who now resides in Chestervil­le, even compared the negative stories of Cato Manor to the ones told of Shaka by the Europeans: “They say he was mean, did not laugh; have you ever seen a person on earth who never laughs?” he asked.

Forced removals were a “cruel and sinful plan” that burnt the hearts of every affected person as separate developmen­t was forced on people, said a Mr Rajah of the Cato Manor Indian Ratepayers’ Co-ordinating Council, “without any humane feelings”.

The removals had devastatin­g social, cultural, and economic consequenc­es from which many never fully recovered.

To preserve the rich histories of the area, conversati­ons with former individual­s who had interactio­n with the place are a source which has the potential to yield much valuable informatio­n.

Like its counterpar­ts in South African social history, Sophiatown and District Six, Cato Manor was a place where the apartheid government, to pursue its policy of separate developmen­t, inscribed its laws in order to disperse a multiracia­l community, to attempt to define and control where racially defined citizens could live, work, and travel.

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