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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

7. Tottering
on the Brink

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The East London Council initially took great pride in its East Bank Location, so much so that in about 1901 a picture of the township even appeared as a postcard to advertise the town. The Medical Officer of Health in turn would boast of the hygienic conditions which prevailed which of course was a matter of simple expediency because an outbreak of any major epidemic there would have had a serious effect on the White community as well. Indeed, Bill Swanson points out that the White population in South Africa generally viewed the people of "colour" as being the harbingers of contagion. It was for this reason, Swanson argued, that in 1901 such municipalities as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were able to lobby successfully for the establishment of separate locations for their African populations and positioned them far enough away from the urban area as to isolate them from the other townspeople.


Initially Percy Potter was particularly scrupulous about the maintenance of sanitary measures within the East Bank Location and undertook the construction of five blocks of latrines, giving the East Bank Location a total of 34 seats. A further two were built on the West Bank. All were scrubbed twice a week by contractor, Potter reported, the streets were kept tidy and rubbish was deposited in bins placed "in convenient situations". Yet, despite his supposed fastidiousness in maintaining sanitary standards, Potter proved distinctly unpopular among the location residents because his actions were often high-handed and vindictive. He was known to rule "with a rod of iron" but his actions often appeared arbitrary. Walter Rubusana, the township's first Black clergyman, went so far as to describe him as "utterly at sea governing the natives on lines of justice & equity." Events proved this opinion to be perfectly correct.

Open conflict erupted between these two men during the latter half of 1896 when Potter ordered the destruction of a number of kitchens within the township. These had been built with Council permission but the Superintendent believed that some of the owners were infringing regulations because they were using the kitchens as places in which to sleep. They were therefore unhygienic. Instead of enforcing the regulation on the offending parties, however, Potter insisted that every kitchen in the entire location be pulled down.

Rubusana, on the other hand, claimed that the Superintendent had deliberately kept the Council misinformed as to the number and quality of the structures. The clergyman wrote a lengthy letter to the Mayor, pointing out that the kitchens were a "great convenience" to the residents "from a domestic, moral & sanitary point of view". Potter's insistence that the people demolish what they had put up "with his consent & with some cost to themselves" was viewed, he said, with alarm and apprehension "by those who know the natives well".

The Superintendent had gone even further, Rubusana stated, by singling out "as fit objects for his persecution" those people who had failed to pull down their kitchens. Indeed, for four consecutive months the Superintendent had refused to accept their monthly rent when it was tendered, thereby making the residents liable for eviction. He had also withdrawn other privileges, such as the granting of permits to chop wood on the commonage, as well as withholding of municipal lime-wash for their houses.

The Council hastily established a Location Committee to deal with the issue and it concluded that, in future, licences should be issued for the construction of kitchens but, because Potter had already ordered some of the existing kitchens to be destroyed, it was decided that it would be "unfair" to allow the others to remain. As a matter of justice, therefore, all kitchens had to be pulled down before the regulation could go into effect.

Rubusana immediately drafted separate letters to Councillors Blaine and Stacey, men whom he both trusted and respected. He thanked them for their continual support in Council but thereupon launched another broadside on Superintendent Potter. "He is no gentleman," the clergyman wrote, "& is harsh & drastic in all his dealings with the Natives. He is a vindictive man & is not above doing mean things. He is not truthful, & for that reason, he should be carefully watched by the Council."

Potter was soon dragged before the Council's Location Committee to explain his actions but he lost no time in retaliating and accusing Rubusana of being a liar. The latter attempted a claim for defamation of character for this remark but lost the case on a technicality because the Town Clerk testified that Potter's language was "not quite abusive". Nevertheless, the court proceedings shocked the Superintendent and had a deterring effect on his future "dealing with the Natives". The Council nevertheless fired the man after he had bungled some critical legal matters, indicating that he was indeed at sixes and sevens as far as the law was concerned. In 1901 Charles Lloyd was appointed in his stead and would remain in the post for a further three decades. He was a man with an extraordinary attitude towards the Black community, whom he saw purely as a commodity for the labour market, but overpaid and lazy.


Despite the economic boom of the 1890s which brought prosperity to the port and rapid development to the town itself, the Black community lagged financially behind the White sector. The reason was twofold. First, wages were not immediately increased to allow the labourers to participate in the prosperity. According to Lloyd's testimony, wages rose substantially only during the South African War period, a full decade after the start of the economic take-off. Second, the Africans still relied to a great degree on subsistence agriculture to provide food to supplement their earnings but the extreme drought of the 1890s destroyed the crops and brought famine.

The combination of drought and a bullish market, however, lead to a dramatic increase in the population of the locations, especially in terms of Xhosa and Fingo residents. The population rose from a mere 1 939 in 1894 to peak at 12 111 in 1905 at the start of the post-war depression, a growth of 624 percent. On the other hand, there were no new extensions to the locations during that entire period, with the result that the construction of dwellings was not able to keep pace with the population explosion. Indeed, the total of huts numbered 236 in 1894 and rose to 1 070 by 1905, an increase of 435 percent but lagging almost 200 percent behind population growth.

Overcrowding was already noticeable by 1894, when Superintendent Potter made an initial call for stricter control. The regulations allowed for six adults per hut, Potter said, yet in numerous cases he had found 12 or even 14 residents in them, the surplus always attributable to "visitors just come". Nevertheless, he believed that the overcrowding could be prevented by tightening the regulations, for it was not the holders of passes who violated the law, he argued, but "the loafers and dregs" of the Black society who would only obey by force.

In February 1897 the Superintendent reported that the population was increasing "daily" with the result that the existing huts were "quite inadequate". The Africans, he said, were crowding into the town, suburbs and even the bush, and were "lying about anywhere and everywhere" so that it was not uncommon to find huts accommodating as many as 15 people, with doors closed and no windows for ventilation. The most frequent excuse for the overcrowding, Potter said, was simply that there was no other place for the people to sleep. All the other huts were full. "Give us a place to sleep and we will willingly pay for it," had become the general cry throughout the location. The municipality eventually responded by constructing two lodging houses and by 1907 a further two had to be built but even this was scarcely enough. Accommodation would remain critical for decades to come.

A complicating factor was that the African had to construct his own house. He rented a plot measuring 40 feet square on which one hut could be built and for which he paid a sum of 2s. per month to cover sanitation and water rates. If he wished to accommodate lodgers, he had to pay an additional 4s. per month. The regulation further laid down that the house had to be built to certain specifications and of good material, but only a man of means was capable of meeting such requirements. The rest had to seek lodgings and the critical housing shortage was thereby severely aggravated.

Rapid urbanization had another repercussion in that the traditional Xhosa round hut was gradually replaced by square shacks of wood and iron. A major reason for the change, Superintendent Lloyd stated, was that the roofs of the round huts were not extended far enough to protect the walls and during the rainy season these then became sodden and collapsed. It was also probable that the availability of grass had diminished both as a result of increase in population and the constant drought.

On the other hand, Desmond Reader argues that the evolution in housing was in fact due to a change in African philosophy: he simply no longer saw the house as a dwelling in which he could take a pride. It now became purely a place of lodging and he therefore strove to build as inexpensively as possible, making use of material which could be scrounged from the town. It was also designed in such a way as to allow the addition of further rooms as the owner's capital increased. Such houses, Reader states, were draughty, leaky and highly sensitive to temperature changes, which meant they were ideal breeding grounds for diseases of the respiratory system, particularly amongst infants.


The South African War erupted in 1899 and had a marked effect on the people of East London. For one thing, the conflict meant a dramatic increase in the number of troops in the country, many of them operating on a line from East London through Aliwal North. For the merchants at the port, such an influx meant a massive new market and many became immensely rich almost overnight. Secondly, the war led to an evacuation of "Uitlander" refugees from the republics on an unprecedented scale. It was natural that they would flee to coastal towns where the milder climates made their unsettled life more bearable.

Indeed, as many as 5 000 descended on East London, doubling the town's population in less than three months and, since most had had to flee without either money or possessions, they were forced to depend on charity, and generally they found much of this at East London. A tent community quickly sprang up at the beachfront, on the open land between what are now Inverleith Terrace and Moore Street. The townspeople then set up committees to provide tents, clothing and food for them.

Not all the refugees were White but there is little information about the effects of the war on the Black community at East London. We do know that along with the Uitlanders came over a thousand Africans, Coloureds and Asians but the local authorities tended to ignore their plight in the face of what was regarded as the more pressing problem of the White fugitives. The Town Relief Committee did erect a few large shelters near the East Bank Location and initially some funds were earmarked for the support of the "other than White" exiles. As economic pressures mounted in 1900, however, the Black refugees were the first to be struck off the lists. Furthermore, there was a tendency towards retrenching the Black labour force to help alleviate White unemployment.

The war also had serious long-term ramifications for the township populations because scarcely was the conflict over than the economy began to stutter and collapse. The clash between the Empire and the Boer Republics had caused an almost complete truncation of trade into the interior and although this was not immediately felt by the merchants who were capitalising on the presence of imperial troops in the country, it would start to become noticeable as soon as the soldiers went home.

Indeed, the Colony quickly slumped into another major depression, although it is doubtful whether it was quite as serious as the "Great Depression" of the 1880s. The downturn was first noted among the poorer sectors of the population during 1903 and it progressed slowly until the town found itself in the trough in about 1907. Land prices also slumped so that no further municipal sales could take place prior to the "Great War" in 1914. Retrenchment and unemployment again became the order of the day and people began to leave the port in search of employment elsewhere.

The economic distress was first brought to the Council's attention in March 1904 when a deputation representing various religious bodies in the town pointed out the "great amount of poverty and destitution" prevalent at East London. It affected mostly the poorer classes, they said, and the clergymen appealed to the Council to open a relief fund as a matter of urgency but the councillors were hesitant to undertake such a scheme. First, they disputed the fact that there was excessive unemployment in the town at all and claimed, in any case, that many of the destitute were in fact Dutch-speaking "poor Whites" who had migrated to the port from up-country. It was therefore the Government's responsibility, the councillors argued, and the problem should not, and could not, be laid at the door of the Town Council.

Because the Black community was generally on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, it is clear that it would be most affected by the economic slump. Information, however, is scarce although there is no doubt that the Africans suffered badly. The Council saw its immediate duty being to lower its rates so as to stave off hardship for the White ratepayers. Then, in an effort to provide as much employment as possible, public works were initiated and once again Whites were hired wherever possible in the place of Black labourers.

Over a hundred Whites were employed at a time in that fashion, at a cost of nearly £9 000 during 1907 alone, but the Council had still not learnt from previous occasions when that system had been tried and had failed. Costs again escalated because the new labourers were paid more but did less work than their African counterparts. Indeed, the Town Engineer reported that the estimates for work had soared by as much as 30 percent because the White labourers worked so much more slowly than the Black proletariate.

The Dispatch soon responded with a scathing attack on the morality of the unemployed. The public knew "very well", the editor wrote, that a high average work could not be expected from them because "there were too many" whose daily task appeared to be "to watch their industrious comrades exerting themselves". It was this latter class, he said, which gave truth to the saying that "the unemployed are generally the unemployable."

An examination of the official location statistics reveals that the total "other than White" population dropped from 12 111 in 1905 to 8 800 in 1910, a decrease of 27.3 percent. The recession hit the Xhosa group the hardest, with a drop of 33.3 percent. The Fingo loss was 27.9 percent while the "Hottentot" and Coloured population showed a combined loss of only 12 percent. There were as yet few Indians residing at East London.


The depression also took its toll on the Council's determination to keep the locations as "models of discipline and hygiene". Evidence of mounting disquiet became more frequent during and after 1908 but, despite this, the Council appeared unable or unwilling to take action to reform the rapidly declining Black residential area. At the centre of the problem was the fact that most of the East London councillors regarded the locations as somewhat of a necessary evil and would have preferred not to have had any members of the Black community close to the town. Little money was ever spent on the townships despite the fact that this community provided essential labour which in turn allowed the port's economy to flourish. In fact, it quickly became the golden rule that the cost of administration had to be balanced by the revenue accrued through hut-tax and various other rentals, and a profit had to be made wherever possible.

The local African newspaper, Izwi Labantu, was particularly harsh in its criticism of location policy. In May and June of 1908 it carried a series of editorials concerned with the appalling conditions which had been allowed to develop. The townships were compared to the White neighbourhoods of "superior buildings, good streets, and fine sea-frontage" and were found drastically wanting. There was "not a decent street....in the whole place", the editor wrote. Moreover, the people were "pigging" it in "ramshackle tin shanties" or in "miserable huts for which rents are extorted" but without ground rights to give them the incentive to improve their houses.

The Council was also criticised for allowing sanitation to collapse. In another editorial, Izwi Labantu stated that there was now only a "semblance of cleanliness" in the locations. Even that, however, was "mere surface show", for the surroundings were "sodden and rotten with percolations of decaying animal matter" and other refuse. There were also no lights, the editor wrote, and no recreation grounds, no fencing, no street repairs, no kerbing and guttering, no "application of the common laws of hygiene to the health of the people", no public day-schools and no night-schools. The most prosperous thing, he said, was the cemetery, "in a bad condition and rapidly filling up".

Despite repeated appeals for action, however, the Council did nothing. A further five years would be allowed to pass without a single penny being spent on the townships by way of repair. In September 1913, therefore, the Native Vigilance Association was forced to approach the municipality once more with a plea to take urgent action. The water supply was hopelessly inadequate, the delegation stated, while the streets were a danger "to health as well as limb". Gutters had by now become such deep channels because of erosion that people who attempted to cross them were likely "to have a nasty accident". The complete lack of lighting, moreover, was leading to insecurity and growing numbers of assaults after dark.

Only in 1914 did the Council at last see its way to taking some little action and placed an amount of £1 275 on the estimates for the provision of electric lighting, street construction, and the building of a slop-water drain yet the funds set aside came nowhere near the amount collected by the municipality in location taxes and rents. Even then the year elapsed without this minimal contribution being spent because the "Great War" erupted in August and Council attentions became diverted elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the period from 1890 to 1914 had been one of comparative stability within the locations. No resettlements had taken place and the Black community in particular had been relatively responsive to the Council's early paternal attempts to better their living conditions. Nevertheless, the intransigence of the segregation-minded White community had sown the seeds for further resistance as regulations became more racist in nature.

On the other hand, it had become clear by 1914 that the town was expanding in such a way that the future of the East Bank Location was again in question and, because the Africans were denied a right to the land, the continuance of the East Bank Location on its particular site had again been brought into question. The township community could therefore look only to yet another removal in the near future. In the meantime, conditions deteriorated. No money was spent to uplift the Black people between 1904 and 1914, and it quickly became quite clear that, once the holocaust of war had engulfed Europe, little money would be forthcoming. Furthermore, the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 would radically temper the political influence of the old Cape Colony in favour of the more reactionary philosophies of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

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