Beyond The Casbah by Nanda Soobban

I always thought when freedom came to South Africa it would be a reflection of the “non-racial” enclaves in the middle of Apartheid South Africa, District Six The Casbah and Sophia Town.

The jury is out on whether we have that non-racial society that we all hoped for, but that would be a topic for another day!

In the meanwhile we can just sit back and enjoy a very special culture that evolved in South Africa in spite of Apartheid, the Casbah Culture or the “Casbah Way Of Life”!

Can I really claim the Casbah culture as mine, after all I was born in Clairwood and my dad was born in Overport and we had a house in Cato Manor?

Legend has it that the Casbah was a little area in the Warwick triangle whilst some people claim that the Grey Street area was the Casbah!

Well, if you look at it, Casbah or Kasbah means a citadel or a ghetto.

There were lots of ghettos around the city, like the Favelas around Rio de Janeiro.

If ghettos were referred to as Casbahs then there were a few Casbahs around the city. That means I also came from the Casbah or maybe I just had the thread of the Casbah Culture!

The Grey Street area was not a ghetto. It was a town within a city.

It was always referred to as “Town” by those who lived outside of it.

The merchant class lived in “Town” in buildings above their shops. Whilst the indentured, who after their “grimit” (agreement) or contracts were terminated, bought whatever land that was available outside the city.

Free Indians were desperate for land around the city. They took anything that was offered to them. They were offered land for sale that the white community thought was uninhabitable! Most parts of Cato Mano and Clairwood was supposed to have shale. The authorities thought it would be hard to build houses on shale so they decided to let the Indians have it. They built houses on the banks of flood threatened rivers, marshlands and even in the bay.

When they were offered half submerged land in Fynnland and the Bayside area they surprised everyone by taking it. They then built houses on stilts that would withstand the tide. When the tide did come they would take that opportunity to fish from their verandas. What most people didn’t know was these people who took a chance to build houses in the bay, actually came from Kanniakumari a fishing village in Tamil Nadu where houses were built on stilts. These are the Seine netters of Durban. I know because my dad’s mum came from Fynnland and she lived in a house built on stilts in the bay!

Free Indians also lived around the city, in barracks that belonged to the Municipality and the Railways. Sam Ramsamy the famous sports activist came from Magazine Barracks as well as Matambu Marimuthoo the famous footballer. The riverbanks of the Umgeni River also produced the great golfer Papwa Sewgolum.

Many of the “Free Indians” eventually moved into or closer to the Warwick Triangle and the Grey Street areas where they opened their own businesses, either legal or illegal!

These working class people were consumers and the Warwick Triangle and Grey Street became their “Shopping Malls”! It wasn’t just the shopping. It was the cinemas, the watering holes, the restaurants and the free spaces to just hang out and socialize. If you had a date, you would catch the morning show at Shah Jehan or Avalon and have lunch at Victory Lounge or Manjeras. If you were broke you could take your date to the Victoria Street Library!

After the shackles of indenture the “Free Indians” became brazen and more street smart. They built an attitude that they could take on the world with whatever little resources they possessed.

Aziz Hassim alluded to that in his book The Revenge of Khali and Malcolm Gladwell succinctly writes about it in his book The Outliers when he talks about the immigrant experience in America and their dogged determination to prove everyone wrong. It was dynamic and improvised, like the “Durban Curry” which is unlike anything you would find in India.

This culture filtered into the Casbah and “Town” and back into the fringes. It was not static.

Some of this country’s great political activists, writers, sportsmen, artists, musicians and journalist came out of this cornucopia.

They kept some of the culture and they dropped others. Many even married across caste, language and religious lines. Something they would not have done in India. In fact some even married across racial lines. There were lots of Indians who had Coloured relatives and that was part and parcel of the rich Casbah Culture.

There was also a lot of religious tolerance. Everyone celebrated Diwali, Eid and Christmas. Nobody complained about fireworks during Diwali and the sound of the Azaan was like a clock timer!

If you were non-Muslim and your Muslim friends visited and you asked them to stay for dinner, they didn’t ask if it was halaal. Anyway, our mothers knew that we had Muslim friends and as a mark of respect, the meat was always bought from Limalias or Sirkhots!

Another interesting eating habit was the exchange of curries across the neighbour’s fence. Before supper, the familiar call would be…”what the next door aunty cooked”?

Even Steve Biko hanged out in the Casbah with Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper while studying at the medical school in Durban. Together with Rick Turner, Fathima Meer and various others, these three were vital cogs in the “Durban Moment”.

The “Durban Moment” refers to the period in the early 1970’s when Durban, more especially the Casbah became the centre of a new vibrancy in the struggle against Apartheid.

I am proud of this extraordinary thread. If only we could do it all over again, without the restrictions. But then it might not be the same!?


3 thoughts on “Beyond The Casbah by Nanda Soobban

  1. Nanda I am all the way with you. its how I remember life there is a lot more to add, I hop I will be able to do so soon. I do not wish to jump on the band wagon but I certainly wish to put Iin wriwriting as I experienced life and what I saw through my eyes


  2. Nanda you penned the Casbah as I recalled it, from greats that emerged from the squalor and poverty of the Barracks to the rallies that I participated in at the outset of the 70’s from Curries Fountain. The Casbah was originally referred to the Warwick Triangle.


  3. Reminiscent of the time at the other end of south africa…cape town Nights in district six with dullah omar, Propagating against apartheid CAD and all dummy bodies The globe gang …seven steps…being offered koeksisters near midnite including bokaap above wale street Proud to have worked with Dullah and watch him become our first minister of justice Days to be cherished History in the making!


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