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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

8. Nondescript
Shanty Towns

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The East Bank Location, once the pride of the municipality, had degenerated quickly during the years immediately following the South African War. This was in direct response to an economic decline and a progressively uncaring attitude on the part of the municipal councillors. By 1914, when the "Great War" started, little had been done to alleviate the sharply deteriorating conditions and it soon became clear that there was scant prospect for improvement. The location on the West Bank, on the other hand, had suffered a long history of municipal neglect.


There is unfortunately little documentary evidence to determine precisely what conditions prevailed in the West Bank Location. It is as if that community had almost ceased to exist as far as the municipality was concerned. Nevertheless, certain disquieting features were noted at various times. First, until 1915 there was no water supply other than what the residents could carry in buckets from the town. Despite constant appeals for this situation to be remedied, the municipality consistently ignored the pleas, although the cost of laying a water main was not great and the money could quickly have been recouped through a water tax which the residents were quite willing to pay.

Access to the location by any vehicular means was also impossible because of the shocking state of the streets. In a sarcastic letter to the Council in 1918, a location resident suggested that the road had been camouflaged as a quarry during the Great War and he joked about the dangers that accompanied even the act of walking there. "One day," he wrote, "as I was going to my hut in the Location I saw an almost new hat on the ground and went to pick it up. Judge what my surprise was when I found inside it a human head. I & six other natives dug around it and discovered a human being attached to the head & after a little more digging finally came to the horse he was sitting on."

The Town Council would at the time have claimed that the general run-down appearance of the West Bank Location was due almost solely to economic factors. The township was situated near what had, by 1900, become the poorest sector of the town and its deterioration could therefore be attributable to a general economic decline of the whole community on that side of the river. The location was a slum, it would be claimed, because the residents themselves were too poor to build proper houses or maintain them. This argument, however, does not explain why the municipality itself paid so little attention to justifiable needs which could have been supplied at a minimal cost. It was estimated, by way of example, that a new road could have been constructed for a mere £60, yet the Town Council declined to undertake the operation despite strong motivation from both the Location Superintendent and the City Engineer.

It is possible, on the other hand, to know far more about conditions in the East Bank Location because documentation was both copious and detailed. The reason was simple. While the Location Superintendent paid only the occasional visits to the West Bank, the municipality provided him with accommodation within the East Bank Location and the latter township was therefore given his almost undivided individual attention.

The condition of the houses there was already desperate by 1910 yet it became a concern for the municipal authorities only as late as 1917. In that year three reports were submitted, namely from the Union Officer of Health, from the Location Superintendent and from the East London Christian Ministers' Association. All painted the identical bleak picture. The shacks (for they could no longer be called huts or houses) were overcrowded, had insufficient floor space, were under-ventilated and had dark and dirty interiors. The quality of the building material itself also left much to be desired. The "better type of housing", the Superintendent reported, consisted of galvanised iron of poor quality while the poorer houses were constructed of nothing but "tin-lining" from the insides of packing cases. The majority, he said, were "not desirable" from a health point of view, while a large number were totally unfit for human habitation.


Sanitary conditions within the East Bank Location were so appalling as to cause severe problems in health and hygiene. Despite the rapid growth in population after 1894, the municipality provided no more latrines and all the existing ones were on the outskirts of a township that by 1904 had almost quadrupled in size. They were therefore out of reach of the majority of the population, especially at night. The situation was further aggravated by the deplorable condition of the streets, while the absence of lighting made walking after dark a hazardous adventure. The latrines themselves had also deteriorated chronically over the years. The doors were missing, resulting in a lack of privacy, and the buildings themselves were described variously as "squalid", "filthy" and "stinking" so that most of the residents preferred to use the nearby bush. Furthermore, the growing incidents of diarrhoea meant that residents were often "taken short" and simply could not reach the distant and inaccessible toilets.

Of equal importance was the absence of medical facilities. With the deterioration of health and the escalation of sickness and disease, it was imperative that some form of medical service be provided. It was estimated at the time that in England there was at least one doctor for every 2 000 people, yet the East Bank Location had no doctor at all and a solitary nurse served a population of over 10 000. White doctors from the town, on the other hand, understandably refused to journey to the locations because the shoddy state of the roads was considered dangerous to both person and vehicle. The nearest clinic was the Frere Hospital which was situated within the town itself but offered only limited accommodation for township residents. Indeed, the very distance to the Frere made access difficult and patients needing to be hospitalised could usually not afford the costs of transportation. Furthermore, the most prevalent disease was tuberculosis but the Frere refused to admit such patients. The nearest T.B. centre was at Port Elizabeth.

All this led to an increase in illness and a substantially higher death rate than in the White residential areas. Infant mortality in 1916 was as high as 42 percent although the prime cause of death was, in the words of the municipal Medical Officer of Health, "preventable disease" such as diarrhoea, gastro-enteritis and bronchitis. The lack of medical supervision meant that most of these children simply never saw a doctor, while the majority of tuberculosis cases were not even reported until after death.

It was generally accepted that the unlit streets, together with the appalling conditions, led to an increase in crime and a lowering of moral standards. Yet, despite the fact that a significant sum of money was budgeted in 1914 to supply electricity to the East Bank Location, nothing further was done until 1918 when the grand total of 15 lamps were at last erected, a number that was totally inadequate for a township of that size. A similar situation affected the water supply. The original water main, with its eleven taps, had been designed for a population of only 3 500. Not only was the supply not increased in proportion to the growing population but the number of taps in operation actually decreased so that by 1913 a mere seven were still functioning. There were also no wash-houses and, despite constant appeals to the municipality to remedy the deficiencies, nothing would be done before 1923.

As was the case with the West Bank Location, the Town Council would have blamed the collapse on the negative economic climate of the period 1900 to 1918. The poorer sector of the population, it would be argued, was always the first to feel the effects of a recession and the last to recover. It stood to reason, therefore, that the location community which represented the bottom echelons of the working class suffered the most. The fact that they were also required to construct their own houses meant a constant deterioration in the quality of their homes as the depression following the South African War bit deeper, and the Great War thereupon brought excessive privations.

That, however, leaves an important question unanswered: Why was the municipality itself so tardy in coming to the assistance of the Black community? The Town Council did, after all, have the power to relieve at least some of the hardships suffered by the township residents. Essential services such as a better water supply, introduction of electricity, construction of roads and improved sanitation were quite within reach of the municipal budget.

This is especially so if one considers that never during the period from 1895 to 1916 did expenditure on the townships amount to more than half the amount collected by way of location revenue. Indeed, if one adds together all the municipal estimates for the provision of necessary services between 1913 and 1919, the total cost could have been met by using the profit on location tax from any one year during that period. The municipality, however, resisted any outlay to upgrade the townships and, even when provision was made for essential construction, it was usually postponed because of a perceived greater need within the White community.

In this way the 1914 budget to supply electricity to the East Bank Location was shelved because the Great War created economic uncertainty amongst the ratepayers. In 1918 a proposal for the provision of municipal housing in the townships was set aside because of the outbreak of the Spanish Flu epidemic and because of a demand for a housing scheme for East London's growing "poor White" population. Even when, in 1918, the Government Secretary for Native Affairs advised the various local authorities to adopt a resolution that money collected in the locations should be spent on those townships, the East London Town Council responded that it was "unable to see its way" to do so.

To understand the Town Council's outlook, one needs to analyse the development of White attitudes at East London towards the Black community. What then becomes clear is that, until about 1880, members of the Town Council tended to exhibit a paternalistic posture towards the African population. Although they were viewed as a social and health risk, the problem could be solved by removing the locations as far from the White residential areas as necessity demanded. The paternal attitude, however, changed during the 1890s when rapid urbanisation took place, leading to a dramatic expansion of the townships and altering the numerical ratio of Black and White population.

The idea that the Black townships were purely labour pools dominated East London philosophy even into the 1920s. In 1903, for example, Location Superintendent Lloyd stated this belief before the Lagden Commission. Further evidence of this principle is seen in municipal action against the residents of the East Bank Location in 1920. By then the locations were so overcrowded that the Town Council decided to expel all unemployed persons and a series of night raids was authorised.

As it happened, the campaign met with little success because the regulation had always been enforced and few residents could be found without the necessary work-permits. Although there was a major loop-hole in the system in that most employers simply called their labourers "John" and entered that most original name on the employment certificates, making falsification of documents easy, the perceived function of the townships nevertheless remained clear and unchanged from the late 1840s to the early 1920s.

Such was the nature of the Town Council's attitude towards its location residents. By 1892, when the East Bank Location was created, paternalism was clearly a thing of the past and racism was the philosophy which was rapidly gaining ground, causing the municipality to work around a few inflexible rules. First, the locations had to exist to provide labour for the town and harbour. Second, unless ample accommodation was provided within the locations, the "natives" would "steal" into the town. Third, the locations had to be administered with an iron fist so that the residents would best serve the interests of the town without question. Fourth, the locations should be self-supporting and should not in any way be a burden on the White ratepayers.

This latter object was easy to achieve. Once a site had been determined and the plots measured out, the occupant was expected to build his own house. But the councillors, in their determination that the locations had to be self-sufficient, saw to it that almost no money was in fact spent on them other than the cost of administration and policing. East London location policy therefore had a fatal flaw. As long as the township residents were wealthy, or had a plenteous supply of timber and thatch with which to build their huts, the townships would prosper but, when hard times set in, the entire infrastructure collapsed.

The West Bank Location, containing the poorest of the African labourers, was seldom anything but a shanty town. The East Bank Location survived longer because it prospered during the boom years of the 1890s. When recession hit after 1900, however, that township too degenerated. The fault therefore lay with the Town Council and, of course, with the ratepayers who elected it. Although the Black proletariate played an important role in the economy of the town, yet they were perceived solely as a commodity to be used and then discarded. They were prevented from integration into the wider community, were expected to provide for themselves in almost every way, and then were taxed heavily to pay for the administration of their townships. On the other hand, they had no claim to the profit and were in no way assisted to better themselves.

At the same time, resistance at East London was still in its infancy. Because the townships existed solely as labour pools, the residents were for the most part uneducated working class people. Only in the 1880s was there any semblance of real missionary influence from the Wesleyan and Anglican churches, and only in the 1890s did the first Black clergymen appear. The early Native Vigilance Associations which thereupon sprang up were relatively toothless organisations which could petition the Town Council but could not demand and seldom acted. Only in the early 1920s did real pressure groups appear but, until then, the township residents were dependent on fair-mindedness and justice from the Town Council. They were doomed to disappointment, however, because the majority of White councillors were neither fair-minded nor just.


Another way in which this manifested itself was in the suppression of entrepreneurship amongst the township community. There was a recognised need for various types of shops and businesses within the townships, especially the East Bank Location which was situated far from the town. Residents worked long hours each day and arrived home after dark or when it was too late to return for forgotten provisions. In any case, entry into the urban area at night required a pass which would be issued only for special reasons. Buying groceries, matches or candles was not one of these.

Members of the township community were anxious to step in and supply these services. From the time when municipal correspondence was put on file in 1896 until the passing of the Natives (Urban Areas) Act which replaced the municipal location system in 1923, records of applications for licences to carry out a business are numerous. Almost all were refused although it is interesting to note that there was a clash in this regard between colonial law and the formulation of municipal regulations. For instance, Section 24 of the East London location regulations expressly stated that no shop or trading station would be allowed within any of its townships except "with the approval and during the pleasure" of the Council. Act 11 of 1871, on the other hand, laid down that the selling of colonial produce was not considered to be trading. Fruit and vegetables came under this definition, as did the sale of chopped firewood, bread, butter, eggs, cakes and colonially made sweets.

There were only two types of business which the Town Council was prepared to accept: the establishment of boarding-houses and the running of what were termed "coffee shops". Boarding houses were absolutely necessary because the critical shortage of housing in the townships meant that a large enough labour pool could never exist unless some house-owners took in lodgers, for which the municipality claimed its pound of flesh in terms of licence fees. "Coffee shops", on the other hand, were part and parcel of the boarding-house business because the lodgers needed a meal in addition to accommodation.

Long working hours also meant that many of the other township residents, most of whom were male labourers, had neither the time nor the enthusiasm to cook meals. They therefore also frequented the "coffee shops". The link between boarding house and "coffee shop", on the other hand, is clearly established by the fact that only the keeper of a boarding house would be granted a "coffee shop" licence. By 1905 there were some 25 of them within the East Bank Location and the meals which they served usually took the form of stewed meat with bread, either to be eaten on the premises or taken away to be consumed at home.

The "coffee shops" naturally relied on a regular quota of bread but, because it was inefficient and expensive to procure supplies from town, many of the owners took to baking on the premises. Although there must have been a temptation to hawk this bread as a means of secondary income, the Location Superintendent assured the Council on several occasions that this was not happening. The baking nevertheless did cause problems because, by alleviating the need to purchase from the town, it set up competition to many of the established bakeries. There was therefore a degree of resentment amongst the White merchants and so, as early as 1904, the Location Superintendent decreed that the baking would have to stop. Thereafter it became illegal for "coffee shop" owners to bake bread on their premises and all their ovens were summarily destroyed.

Only once, in 1916, did the Council have a temporary change of heart. A certain James Makambi applied to create an oven for his coffee shop because, he said, the times were so bad and bread so expensive that he could no longer afford to supply his boarders unless he could bake it himself. For once the Superintendent sided with the applicant. Part of the reason was simple municipal expediency. The "coffee shop" enterprise was not a lucrative one. Indeed, in the lean years following the outbreak of the Great War, when retrenchments started thinning out the labour force and caused many residents to leave the township, the "coffee shop" business began to wilt. Even those residents who stayed on were forced to look after their money more carefully and cook for themselves. Because the "coffee shops" paid a monthly licence of £1, however, strain on the system would lead to closures which in turn would cause municipal revenue to tumble. By 1916, therefore, it was advantageous to the municipality to create any incentive to ease the lot of the "coffee shops" simply to maintain its own income.

Makambi was a respectable person, the Location Superintendent told the Council, and his premises were ideally suited to such a business. Although he did have one misgiving, that other "coffee shop" owners might also apply should permission be granted, he nevertheless felt that this could be overcome if the municipality charged a special fee of 15 shillings to keep out all but the elite owners. The Council accepted this proposal and granted the licence but an immediate outcry from the town bakers led to the permission being quickly rescinded.

The establishment of grocery stores was also strictly forbidden. It was not that the Council failed to see the need, for the positive side of this enterprise was raised periodically. Councillors, however, were afraid to anger their ratepayers by allowing opposition to the established town businesses. They were also of the opinion that such enterprises, if established, should be kept solely in municipal hands.

A case in point arose in 1905 when Thomas Ntlebi, a former East London resident, returned to the East Bank location after a lengthy sojourn on the Witwatersrand. He had been running a grocer's shop in the Johannesburg location for two years (which he proved by supplying all the necessary documentation) and now wished to open one locally. The Location Superintendent pointed out in his memorandum to the Town Council that it was indeed "very necessary" for a "general dealer's shop" to be established in the East Bank Location because the residents were unable to return to town after hours without passes. Once they were at home, he said, they simply had to do without many important items such as candles and matches.

The Superintendent nevertheless recommended that Ntlebi's application be turned down because, he argued, it would allow the merchandising business to escape from municipal hands. He believed instead that the municipality itself should create a shop and then put it out to tender but, he warned, there were already a number of general dealers in the town which were solely dependent on the African trade.

There, indeed, was the heart of the problem. It was true that such stores were necessary and would have proved popular in the township. They would also have encouraged entrepreneurship and would eventually have led to the formation of a Black middle class within the townships. This would, however, have established competition with the existing White shops and, since the Town Council stood to preserve White interests, it could not accept such an idea.

Any applications for licenses were therefore consistently turned down, even in the strangely bureaucratic case of Percy Prince, a Coloured man, who operated a fruit and vegetable shop in the East Bank Location, something that was allowed under the new South African law. In 1919, however, he applied to expand his business so as to sell butter, eggs, cakes, bread and sweets of local manufacture. These products all came under the definition of Green Grocer's Trade, as did cigarettes, tobacco and mineral water. Theoretically, therefore, Prince had no need to seek permission. He nevertheless forwarded an application form and on it he placed one offending commodity: matches. The Council was quick to point out that Prince would need a General Dealer's licence if he wished to sell matches and his entire request was thereupon refused.

On another occasion the same Percy Prince applied for a licence to sell chopped wood which also fell under the definition of Green Grocer's Trade. Again the Location Superintendent advised the Council that this would give the man an advantage over the White merchants because he would be able to chop the wood within the location whereas the others had to transport it from the town. Permission was duly refused and refused again in 1914 when Peter Mtyeku applied for a licence to sell firewood in the location. In 1917, however, when a White dairyman named EW Theron applied for a similar licence, it was granted without question.

The period between 1914 and 1923, therefore, revealed a number of attitudes which had become dominant amongst the White ratepayers at East London. First, the Black community existed to serve their interests and could legitimately be exploited to this end. Second, not even the smallest amount of funding would willingly be budgeted to uplift the townships. Finally, the White merchants believed they had a monopoly over business and were not prepared to allow opposition to arise within the locations. The Black community therefore needed government aid to rescue them but quickly found that no sympathy would be forthcoming from that direction.

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