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Remembering The Durban 1949 Riots

A very pivotal moment in South African history for Indians.

#CROWNTHEBROWN: It has been 71 years since the Cato Manor riots, our ancestors experienced history like never before. We have often heard about South African riots from family members – especially Indian uncles – when they are all conversing around the table with their glasses filled to the rim, but what really happened during the Durban 1949 riots?

Let us unpack the ‘Durban Riots of 1949‘ and why this is such a significant moment in history within our South African Indian community.

The days between 13 – 15 January 1949 brought about one of the most horrific riots that set Indians against Blacks of South Africa. It was exactly 71 years ago when Indians were targeted by Black South Africans in Durban. This was known as the anti-Indian program fueled – literally – as White South Africans provided paraffin to Blacks to use in their fight against Indians.

1949 Durban Cato Manor riots

The bloodshed of the riots led to cases of grievous harm, incidents of rape and the massacre of Indians. Approximately 142 lives were taken and these riots created around 40 000 Indian refugees.  

One instance was of a 13-year-old boy who was drenched in paraffin, thrown into a drum and set alight. His sin? He was of Indian origin.

Ronnie Govender

The beginning of the end

On the first day of the riots, 13 January, a clash between an Indian shopkeeper and an African male escalated which brought about a humongous crowd of Indians and Africans in a violent outbreak in the Grey Street Area. Word of the incident spread overnight and African workers from urban and rural areas came together to retaliate the next day. 

The retaliation led to large-scale racial violence directed at Indians throughout Durban. Groups began to humiliate, beat and kill Indians as well as raping Indian women. This violence led to many Indians leaving the country.

The rage grew and African groups targeted Indian-owned stores and houses. The rioters frequently attacked Indians in lower income areas and those in African ‘city slums’.The riots made its way to Victoria street and assailants began stoning vehicles driven by Indians and looting Indian stores whilst chanting “Usuthu!”. 

A police detective present at the riots within the community stated that the talk of the town was that it was time to get rid of Indians. African leaders organized riots from workers’ hostels and took advantage of the lack of police intervention. They used weapons, attacking both people and properties. The groups would celebrate at the end of each riot day for the work they have done by trying to eliminate Indians in the community. 

Eventually, the government troops blockaded Indian districts where most of the murders, rape, attacks. Looting and arson took place. One horrific incident that really impacted many was the burning of a shop were four Indian women and a dozen children were stuck inside the store whilst the male owner ended up being stabbed in several places and died. The owner’s younger son was left on the road with his head split open. What an horrific sight.

The peak of violence happened on the 15th, when Africans burnt many Indian families alive. The military and police got involved after this and established a sense of order.

The aftermath of these riots caused a massacre which resulted in 142 deaths and 1087 injuries. 300 Buildings were destroyed and 2000 structures damaged. It also created 40 000 Indian refugees followed by many suicides during this time. This dreadful experience left many families disintegrated and led to economic instability, stress, racial discrimination and utter humiliation.

Let us never forget those who lost their lives and those who were injured. A painful time in history but a time worth remembering to celebrate those individuals that lost their lives during this time. 

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