Grey Street is tied to the history of the Indian population in South Africa. Indentured Indian labourers were first brought out by the British in the 1860s to work the newly established sugarcane plantations in Natal. Indian traders, mainly from the Gujarat area, migrated to South Africa at the same time. Today, Durban has the largest Asian population in sub-Saharan Africa and trade with India has become a large part of the local economy. Grey Street exists today as the old Indian business and residential area of Durban and the cultural heart of KwaZulu-Natal Indian community.
Grey Street is given a particular Indian architectural character by the “colonnades over pavements, narrow lanes leading to courtyards behind and the fondness shown for the flamboyant and curvilinear architecture of the 1920s and 1930s” (www.sahistory.org.za). The boundaries of ‘Grey Street’ are Commercial Road in the south, Derby Street in the north, Field Street in the east, and Brook and Cross Street in the west. In Lotus People, Aziz Hassim explains how the different streets in the 1950s and 60s performed different functions. The eastern part of Victoria Street held the theatre, with the west being reserved for the markets and grocery stores. Grey Street itself was a clothing Mecca, with the latest fashions from London skilfully recreated by local craftsmen. Queen Street had the barbers on one side with the hardware and timber shops on the other, while Pine Street was the territory of the tailors. Prince Edward Street housed the sari shops and jewellers with tea-rooms selling sweetmeats scattered throughout the area. The area is still, to a degree, divided up into these specific segments though the old shops now compete with an influx of cheap Chinese imports.
The Grey Street writers featured all, unsurprisingly, produced works with political overtones. Nicol Street Square, or ‘Red Square’, became an important site for political rallies and speakers. In 1946, the Apartheid government instituted the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act whereby Indians were to be segregated forcefully into ‘Group Areas’. Dr Goonam’s family home was expropriated by the government and bulldozed to make way for white housing. After being arrested for her political activity, Goonam made the following speech:
"I plead guilty and ask the court to impose the maximum sentence permitted by law. ... I was protesting against that oppressive and pernicious law recently enacted against my people who had no part in framing it. The Act spells disaster, ruin and a state of semi-serfdom to our people who contributed greatly to the prosperity of this country. South Africa we are reminded frequently, is a democratic country…. I am here to vindicate this interpretation of democracy."
Today many of the main ‘Grey Street’ figures have moved away or died; and it no longer has the feel of the close-knit community described in the texts. In Lotus People, Hassim writes:
"The street's changing…Look around you. There was a time you could spot half a dozen scotens with one sweep of your eyes. Not anymore. And the cinemas - the Vic, the Royal, the Avalon - all no more than a memory. What happened to Dhanjees Fruiterers, Victoria Furniture Mart, Kapitans, that noisy Royal Tinsmith Company… hell buddy, I could go on forever."
As a historic literary region, Grey Street is comparable to Sophiatown in Gauteng and District Six in Cape Town – all three were vibrant multicultural areas existing in defiance of the apartheid policies. Sophiatown and District Six were destroyed by the state and so exist purely in the national consciousness as symbols of the struggle. Grey Street, luckily, can still be visited.
Grey Street Writers
This trail features Aziz Hassim, Phyllis Naidoo, Dr Goonam and Fatima Meer who all lived in Grey Street during the apartheid era. Recent additions to the Grey Street literary scene are Mariam Akabor, author of Flat 9, Ravi Govender, whose collection Down Memory Lane features stories of ‘old’ Durban, and Imraan Coovadia who wrote The Wedding. Not known as a writer primarily but an important local and international figure is Mahatma Ghandi who had links to Grey Street. Another famous resident is Archbishop Dennis Hurley who was based at the Emmanuel Cathedral located in the middle of the Casbah. Hurley was linked to the anti-apartheid struggle as was the Cathedral as a place of refuge.
Phyllis Naidoo (1928 - ) was a member of the Natal Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party. She writes mainly political non-fiction concerned with recording the history of the struggle. Her publication most relevant to the trail, is Footprints in Grey Street, a series of vignettes of the people she knew from her time in Grey Street.
Dr Goonam (1906 – 1999) worked as a doctor in Grey Street but is remembered for her political activity. Together with Doctors Dadoo and Naicker, she led the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign against the anti-Indian Land Act, which would forcibly remove Indians from their homes and place them in ghettos. In 1990 she published her autobiography, Coolie Doctor. Her stories vividly capture life in the Indian community in Durban. During one of her house-visits a white child remarked “oh mummy, the coolie doctor is here”, a name she then used for the title of her book.
Fatima Meer (1928 - ) was born in Grey Street and was an anti-apartheid campaigner and founding member of the Federation of South African Women that spearheaded the historic women's march to the Union Buildings in 1956. Meer has published more than forty books, mostly non-fiction dealing with socio-economic issues, history and autobiography, (see Mandela: Higher Than Hope).
Aziz Hassim (1935 - ) spent his formative years fraternising on the streets of the Casbah. In an interview he states that “the area had a kind of romance and bittersweet lifestyle during the fifties and sixties, which lives on only in the minds of those that inhabited it at the time”. Hassim's debut novel, The Lotus People, won the 2001 Sanlam Literary Award and spans the events of this era.
Mariam Akabor (1984 - ) is a graduate of the UKZN creative writing program. She wrote Flat 9 from her own experiences of living in Grey Street in a dilapidated block of flats. The sense of community amongst the inhabitants of this block echoes the sense of community that Hassim evokes in his novel showing that the ‘old’ Grey Street still exists in small pockets in the area.
Ravi Govender hosts a talk show on the radio station Lotus FM. Down Memory Lane is a collection of 35 stories from his column of the same name in the Post newspaper, spanning life in Durban from the late 1800s to the 1960s and focused largely on Durban’s Indian history.
Imraan Coovadia (1970 - ) was born in Durban and currently resides in New York, where he is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Adelphi University. His debut novel, The Wedding, was shortlisted for the 2002 Sunday Times Fiction Award, Ama-Boeke Prize (2003), and Dublin International Literary Award (2005). He is also the author of Green-eyed Thieves.
Sites to Visit
[Suggested order for self-guided trail. This trail is based in the Durban city centre. As in any other large city, please take care of your valuables.]
1. Red Square was an important venue for mass rallies organized in resistance to the apartheid government. Fatima Meer writes in Passive Resistance that after a particularly violent attack by white youths on the people gathered in the square, Dr Naicker is concerned about the safety of the women and asks them to leave. But the women are defiant stating:
"We are in it now and we shall face it to the bitter end… We have heard of what has happened, but this makes us all the more determined to carry on, and we shall carry on. If sacrifice we must, then sacrifice we shall …"
The square is now the Nichol Street Parkade.
2. The Congress Hall, bought by Ghandi and where the Natal Indian Congress held its meetings, was located at the corner of Grey Street and Commercial Road. Now a low-rise office-block, the building is close to Madressa Arcade and the Cathedral.
3. Madressa Arcade was built in 1927. This is where Yahya’s, a character from Lotus People, first shop was situated. The arcade is lined with fifty or so little shops with stairs leading to flats above. This arcade conjures up images of what the Grey Street of the 1950s and 60s was like. Ravi Govender writes that taken “out of its geographical context, one could easily transport it to the populous Marrakech of Cairo” with its shops “selling anything you would ever need … with the wares spilling out of doors.”
4. The Emmanuel Cathedral is situated at the heart of Grey Street. The building is a landmark in Durban and was once a centre of intense political activity in the mid-1980’s. The late archbishop Denis Hurley, served at the Cathedral for 60 years. He was a champion of human rights, known especially for his contribution to the struggle against apartheid.
5. The markets of Grey Street are central to the lives of the surrounding community and feature prominently in texts about the area. Victoria Street Market was built during the late 1980's and is a recreation of the original Victoria Street Market. It contains a wide variety of small shops selling clothes, curios, bags, spices and trinkets from Africa and the East. Across the road is the fish market and just outside its doors is a small muti-market selling skulls, skins and other parts of animals. Dara’s store in Lotus People “sold just about anything portable, from cosmetics to cutlery, knives to nails, garden shears and stationery, axes, aromatic oils, potions and patent medicines.” It was also a tobacconist, newsagent, barbershop and unofficial meeting place of the local residents.
6. Another Ghandi site is located at 95 Prince Edward Street. This was a building purchased by Ghandi on behalf of the Natal Indian Congress. It is now a parking lot which is still administrated by the Mahatma Ghandi Foundation.
7. Shah Jehan Cinema (now closed) located at 275 Grey Street, built in 1956 and seating 2000 people, was a major drawcard and source of entertainment for the surrounding community. Ravi Govender remembers: “the whole delightful experience of going to the movies back then is hard to re-create these days … it was a family outing, an event that was awaited the entire week.”
8. The Corner Shop Café is the setting for one of Akabor’s short stories in Flat 9. It is a café that has been run by the same family for three generations and is situated at the corner of Grey and Lorne Streets. She writes that the café was “home to the many factory workers in the area; housewives, especially the lazy ones who didn’t feel like cooking; the school children who didn’t like what their mothers packed for them for lunch, as well as passers-by”
9. “A.K Mansions” (based on Afzal Building, 292 Grey Street) is a block of flats at Grey Street where all the characters in Akabor’s collection live. Despite its state of disrepair, it has a strong community living within its walls. “It was routine for all the housewives on the second floor of AK Mansions to meet in Zohra Bibi’s flat for tea on a Friday afternoon. This was their way of starting the weekend.”
10. The Juma Mosque is a prominent feature of Grey Street. Situated at the corner of Grey and Queen Street, it is the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere, with a floor area of 975 square metres and the capacity to take an assembly of 4500 worshippers. The mosque runs tours of its buildings. Hassim describes it in The Lotus People as “the magnificent and architecturally famous Jumma Mosque, with its minarets and many domes … it was a natural landmark for both the local residents and the out of town visitors.”
11. The rumour that the Bunny Chow, Durban’s famous bread-bowl curries, was first made in Grey Street could be true – in which case Kapitans Vegetarian Restaurant, which operated at 154 Grey Street is a candidate for this honour. The Indian shopkeepers were known as banias and therefore, the phrase Bunny Chow could mean ‘food from the shopkeepers’. On their arrival in Durban, Ismet and Khateja in The Wedding “lived on bunny chows from the café on Victoria Street” for four days. Visit one of the local restaurants, such as Little Gujarat in Prince Edward Street, to try out this Durban specialty.
Akabor, Mariam. 2006. Flat 9. Durban: umSinsi Press.
Badsha, Omar. 2001. Imperial ghetto : ways of seeing in a South African city. Johannesburg: South African History Online.
Coovadia, Imraan. 2001. The Wedding. New York: Picador.
Goonam. Kesavaloo. 1991. Coolie doctor: an autobiography. Johannesburg: Madiba Publishers.
Govender, Ravi. 2006. Down Memory Lane. Durban: Ravid Govender Promotions.
Hassim, Aziz. 2002. The Lotus People. Johannesburg: STE Publishers.
Meer, Fatima. 1969. Portrait of Indian South Africans. Avon House.
Naidoo, Phyllis. 2002. Footprints in Grey Street. Durban: Far Ocean Jetty
Gandhi Development Trust
Tel: (031) 366 7500
Fax:(031) 305 6693
Juma Masjid Mosque
Cnr Grey and Queen Streets
(031) 304 1518
The Emmanuel Cathedral
Tel: (031) 306 3595 / 6
Fax: (031) 306 3597
Victoria Street Market
Cnr. Queen and Victoria Streets
Tel: 306 4021
Compiled by Niall McNulty for KZN Literary Tourism.