THE ROLE OF COMMUTER ACTIVISM IN PUBLIC TRANSPORT DURING APARTHEID by Dr Shamin Mahabeer

The statutory provisions in the Group Areas Act of 1950 specified the allocation of property in residential and business sections in urban areas on the basis of race. Subsequent enactment barred members of other races from living, operating businesses, or owning land in designated areas. This resulted in the creation of a system of urban apartheid. Thousands of Indian, Black and Coloured people were also relocated from central Durban and surrounding areas close to the city centre to residential areas on the periphery. Suburbs like Umlazi, Kwa- Mashu, Phoenix, Wentworth and Chatsworth were physically located many kilometres away from the city centre. Thus, thousands of people of colour, who worked in, or owned small businesses in the city-centre struggled with their daily commute. This was due to the neglect by local and provincial government to provide a transport infra-structure for these communities after they were relocated. The forced eviction of individuals and communities from their homes in the city to segregated residential areas in the periphery had significant negative impact to their access to jobs, social amenities and institutions.

The few train lines that existed did not provide services that were adequate for the needs of the Non- White communities they served. Trains were over- crowded and did not run during peak times. The early morning and late afternoon travel were particularly stressful for commuters. Seating was of a poor standard, there were few bridges, no lighting at stations, no policing during peak times and poor ticketing facilities.

Berea Road Station
Berea Road Station:
This station served as a major point of disembarkation and return of commuters daily from the city centre in Durban.
Source: grahamliesliemccallum.wordpress.com

The government bus authority offered an equally poor service. Buses did not meet the needs of the community during peak times, and most routes stopped at the entrance of a suburb. The exhausted commuter then faced the prospect of walking miles to reach their homes. Many were robbed or assaulted along the way. They often reached home late at night to awaken to face the prospect of a similar commute the next day. Bus and train shelters, footpaths, pavements and lighting at stops did not exist, and fares were expensive. This picture in central Durban illustrates the chaotic scenario that prevailed daily.

741_54_Pedestrian_flow_from_Central_Business_District_to_Station_and_Bus_Rank (2)
Pedestrian flow from the Central Business District to the station and bus rank
Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

This differed markedly with the municipal provisions for the White community who had an efficient public transport service to the various suburbs they exclusively occupied in the wake of the Group Areas enactment. They were fortunate as many were able to move to new suburbs closer to the city centre. These suburbs, like the Berea and Durban North were made available to them for occupancy after the forced eviction of people of colour. They were at an advantage due to higher disposable incomes so more people in the community owned vehicles. This lessened the strain on their public transport services which already had excellent infrastructure, and was constantly upgraded.

The hurdles faced by the relocated communities to develop an improved public transport network to their suburbs can be traced by the work of volunteers who formed commuter bodies to make representation to the authorities about their daily struggles. The work done by The Natal Commuters Association highlights the difficulties encountered by the community. The representation process was tedious, the progress painstakingly slow and often yielded minimal or no rewards.

Durban Market
Durban Market area near Warwick Avenue in early 1980
           Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

History of the Natal Commuters Association ( NCA) :

The Non-European Passengers Association (so designated to align with the legal provisions for segregated services to Non- European, and later Non- White people) was formed in 1940 by Bhavani Jarbandhan. It was established for the purpose of assisting train passengers in Natal. Coal trains were the sole means of public transport during this era. Jarbandhan, during his daily commute to work had noticed many incidents of abuse of passengers by White conductors on the trains. During this period, no calls or individual representation could be made to the railway authorities.

After the formation of the organisation, Jarbandhan and his team of volunteers were able to highlight these injustices to the relevant authorities, and many improvements in travelling conditions were made. One must be mindful that making representation to hostile authorities that were largely inaccessible was very difficult during that period. The gains and improvements were painstakingly achieved as the association faced many bureaucratic hurdles. Many of the officials were labourers or artisans with minimal or no education who worked long hours during the week. Few members possessed the skills or the time to draft documents to the authorities, and delivering them to the correct departments was challenging. Although the organisation achieved some success, this was from a baseline of very poor treatment of commuters, who previously had no body to represent their basic requirements with regard to the travelling conditions that they were experiencing. There were many setbacks and failures that the organisation faced during this period.

Through the endeavours of the Non- European Passengers Association, the much needed Pilgrim’s Halt was established between Isipingo and Reunion stations. This station allowed the commuter to access the Isipingo Temple, which was a popular site for pilgrimage by the Indian community.

Jarbandhan continued his advocacy on behalf of the community until his death in 1972.

Mr Bhawani Jarbandhan
Bhawani Jarbandhan with his grandchildren    
Source: Mahabeer Family Archives.

At this stage, his two sons, Jarbandhan Ramdhani and Jarbandhan Bugwandeen, who were artisans, continued with their voluntary work highlighting injustices and challenges faced by commuters. The organisation was renamed the Natal Rail and Road Association. In 1970, the Natal Commuters Association (NCA) was formed.

The Mission Statement of the organisation documents that it:

  1. was formed to assist train and bus passengers to be given a fair deal whilst the system of public transport was open to the public in Natal.
  2. operated throughout Natal, to assist passengers to obtain halts and stations.
  3. would provide assistance to Indian owned bus operators to apply for certification to develop and extend services to the community.
  4. would advocate and negotiate with authorities to ensure the provision of quality services to commuters.

Jarbandhan Ramdhani was the first President, Archie Hulley the Secretary, and G. Ramsamy the treasurer of the organisation. Jarbandhan Bugwandeen served as President during the 1980s. He was also a Commissioner of Oaths and Justice of the Peace for the District of Pinetown. He was appointed as a member of the South African Railways Liaison Committee, and elected to the Spoornet Liaison Committee which was involved in improving security on trains.

03
Jarbandhan Ramdhani Source: Rajkumar Family archives

 

Mr Jarbandhan Bugwandeen
Jarbandhan Bugwandeen Source: Mahabeer Family archives        

Members met monthly at Himalaya Hotel or the Merebank Community Hall. In November 1972, the NCA appointed representatives in Sea Cow Lake, North Coast, Verulam, Isipingo Beach, Merebank, Phoenix and Chatsworth thereby extending their reach to the communities they served. This allowed the public increased access to services provided by the organisation.

Through perusal of articles in the newspapers The Graphic and Leader, the scope of work done by the organisation can be traced. This can be categorised into advocacy and negotiations with regards to trains, buses, issues around commuter safety and liaison with other civic bodies.

 

  1. TRAINS:

-Made representation for the establishment and expansion of train services to Phoenix and Chatsworth to the management of South African Railways (SAR). Once train lines were established, the body continued to negotiate for shelters, more halts, increasing penetration into suburbs, improved lighting, and bridges to improve congestion at peak times. Similar requests were also made for train commuters in Umlazi and Kwa- Mashu.

  • They approached SAR on many occasions about poor seating and overcrowded coaches, and were successful in getting both issues addressed.
  • The organisation made representation about safety issues along Berea Road station, Victoria Street Bus Rank, Warwick Avenue, Alice and Beatrice Streets.
  • The Commissioner of Police was approached for foot patrols by police after a visiting sailor was murdered. Incidents of assault and robberies in the area were commonplace during this period.
  1. BUSES:
Untitled
Durban Cental bus rank
                   Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

The organisation worked with bus owners, predominantly in Chatsworth, Clairwood, Merebank, Isipingo, Durban Central and Phoenix.

  • There was a ban on Indian owned buses with regards to the provision of services between Durban and Chatsworth in 1972. The Minister of Transport, Mr Ben Schoeman was not prepared to review the decision made by the Local Transportation Board with regards to the ban. This autocratic decision highlights the monopolistic practices relating to transport and other community services that existed in local and national government at that time. The organisation made direct representation to the Prime Minister, Mr B J Vorster to intervene and overturn the bus ban. Other civic and local bodies fought this campaign over many months.
  • The NCA approached bus owners in 1979, to provide a midway bus service from Clairwood to Chatsworth. Commuters who worked in Clairwood were being bypassed by the sole route operating from Durban City to Chatsworth via Clairwood. There were not enough buses servicing this route, particularly during peak periods, and commuters were often forced to walk home as the buses were already full, and were not stopping at Clairwood to pick them up.
  • They monitored tariff increases pertaining to commuters, and the implementation of the correct amount negotiated with transport authorities or private bus owners. Together with the Merebank Passenger Association, they sought legal action against bus owners who were charging commuters higher fees than stipulated by tariff lists in 1974. Commuters were often victims of tariff increases between 50 to 100% that were randomly implemented. The organisation made sure that correct processes were followed when protecting the rights of commuters.
Beatice
Beatrice Street bus rank
             Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

– They approached the City Engineers department on many occasions to provide bus and train shelters, as well as footpaths particularly in Merebank, Chatsworth, Clairwood and Phoenix. They were successful in slowly procuring these basic commodities for the community. The bus and train network was growing prolifically during this period.

-Improved lighting in these areas was also a priority. One such area was highlighted by an article in the Graphic in January 1973 when the organisation made representation to the Durban City Council to provide lights on the overhead bridge along the Southern freeway in Merebank. The Council made good on their promise to the Association.

– Opposed moves by Indian bus owners who wanted bus stops along the Higginson                                                highway. The recommendation of the NCA was that this request was not in the interest of public safety, and would increase traffic congestion during peak hours. This is a good example of how objective the body was in prioritising the needs of the commuter.

springfield
Springfield Passenger Service, Lorne Street Bus Rank , 1957
Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus
  1. MISCELLANEOUS COMMUTER ISSUES :
  1. The plight of stallholders and commuters at the Durban Market

The NCA was sympathetic to, and made representation to various bodies with regards to the numerous challenges pertaining to the market area in central Durban. In 1976, following the reports of injuries involving commuters, they approached the City Engineers Department, and the Durban City Council to request the construction of robots to ease traffic and to assist the public after the re-routing of buses from Victoria Street market rank through the narrow Market Lane.

741_51_Market_Located_Near_Bus_Ranks (2)
Bus rank located near Durban market
Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

In 1980, they made urgent representation to the Durban City Council to allow the bus terminus to remain near the Indian market instead of moving it to Old Fort Road which was 4 km away.

early
Early morning at Durban Central bus rank
 Source: UKZN Documentation Centre, Westville Campus

This picture illustrates the ad hoc way in which this rank functioned.

There are no designated parking bays for buses, cyclists pedal amongst

commuters and buses. There are no pavements, signage, designated paths, pedestrian walkways, bridges or lighting to assist with passenger safety.

Assistance to commuters in the hospitality industry:

In 1980, the NCA successfully advocated on behalf of hotel waiters and employees to SAR to provide more trains, and with increased frequency on weekends to enable ease of travel from central Durbanto their homes in Chatsworth. Their shifts were often not synchronised with the working hours of the general public.

Accessibility to the Mobeni Heights crematorium:

In October 1980, the NCA approached the Mayor, Mrs Sybil Hotz and Senator Eric Winchester of the Progressive Federal Party after being informed that the City Engineers department declined a request from the community to build a bus stop near the Mobeni Heights crematorium.

They highlighted the plight of hundreds of mourners, who had to walk long distances, and pay high fares to attend funerals. This issue highlights the lack of cultural sensitivity and attitude that existed in local authorities. It indicated poor planning and a failure to imbibe the utilitarian needs of the people.

Advocacy on behalf of store-owners in Clairwood:

After being approached by the Clairwood Ratepayers Association, the NCA inspected the main South Coast Road after the council had stopped all parking on the main thorough- fare, supposedly in the interests of public safety. This highlights the lack of concern for convenience and public access. These are key elements that form the cornerstone of transport planning. Moreover, the dwindling income of the small businesses in the area resulted in unemployment, and contraction of the commercial economy of the city. It raises awareness of another crucial failure of the local authorities who were tasked with the creation and protection of economic growth in cities, especially commercial hubs.

The NCA were successful in their recommendation to the City Council that private vehicles be allowed to park in designated areas, and in front of shops during non- peak hours.

Assistance to commuters and hospital patients at King Edward V111 Hospital:

The NCA made representation in 1975 to the Superintendent of the hospital where administrative staff adamantly enforced rules against hospital visitors and patients. Staff insisted that long distance travellers who wanted to visit in-patients produce bus or train season tickets before they were granted permission to visit family or friends outside stipulated visiting hours. This rule also affected discharged patients who often waited from early morning after discharge to visiting hours late in the evening before their relatives were allowed access to the wards so that they could return to their homes. The Superintendent was sympathetic to the plight of both visitors and discharged patients, and this practice was abolished.

In conclusion, the challenges encountered by the community with regards to public transport after forced relocation to residential areas far from the city after the enactment of the Group Areas Act are described in this article. The process of relocation was callous and ruthless, and there was scant provision with regards to the planning of an infrastructure and network to support the new needs of an emotionally vulnerable people. The forced segregation visited upon them was exacerbated by their distant commute. The services were minimal, and provided on an ad- hoc basis. The authorities showed no empathy for the additional financial burden township people faced, and little attempt was made to assuage their plight.

This can be contrasted to the meticulous attention to detail provided by the City Engineers and Urban Planning departments to the needs of the White community. Thus, in urban and township planning, race was the single prerogative with no value placed on human rights.

This article documents the selfless work done by the members of the NCA on a voluntary basis to establish basic levels of service to the community, address safety issues involving commuters, provide adequate policing, lighting, shelters, footpaths and bridges, and to increase access of buses and trains to the suburbs. The work was painstakingly slow and the organisation encountered many obstacles, frustrations and failures. They were unflappable, and showed steadfast dedication to their cause and various campaigns on behalf of the commuter.

The NCA post- apartheid evolved to become the South African Commuters Association. Jarbandhan Ramdhani was the first president of the organisation.

05

Memories of my grandparents…….

This article documents the amazing work done by my maternal great grandfather, Bhawani Jarbandhan, my grandfather Jarbandhan Bugwandeen, and his brother Jarbandhan Ramdhani. I have clear memories of them, as we spent every weekend with my grandparents at our family home in Merebank. I remember soft spoken gentlemen, impeccably dressed in suits, clattering away at an ancient typewriter, which I now understand was used for drafting the various representations they were making on behalf of the community at that time. They were artisans, humble men, who always welcomed to their home bus owners, and disadvantaged members of the community. They did not possess a vehicle, so they used buses and trains for their own transport around the suburbs of Durban. Thus, they were ideally positioned to experience first- hand the challenges faced by commuters.

My mother, Mrs Kowsilla Mahabeer and I remember trips on buses to Clairwood, Merebank and Durban City. We would accompany these elderly gentlemen on long walks at the height of summer so that they could deliver their letters to the various authorities, and to the offices of the Leader, Graphic and the Sunday Tribune Herald newspapers in the city. During a conversation with my mother about my grandparents, she remembered that my great uncle had left some documents with my uncle. I was delighted to discover that Jarbandhan Ramdhani left meticulous records of our family history, their personal experiences during the 1949 riots, and the inception and work done by the NCA. I, together with my cousin Pravin Ram expanded our knowledge of their work detail by perusing hard copies of the Leader, Graphic and Herald at the UDW Documentation centre. I think my grandfather and his brother thought that by leaving these documents, that maybe someday their story would be told. It is my honour and privilege to do so.

Their characters and contributions were described in an orbituary in the Sunday Tribune Herald.” Jarbandhan Ramdhani, who passed away at 78 years, made an indelible contribution to society. Ramdhani, always dressed in a suit and tie and hat in hand made a weekly visit to newspaper offices, with his letter to the editor appealing to motorists, bus and taxi owners to be more aware of the plight of commuters. Ramdhani was passionate about the welfare of commuters and always opposed taxi or bus fare increases, deafening music and speedsters. His humble personality and gentlemanly disposition made him a pleasure to deal with. His commitment to commuters was so widely acknowledged that he was appointed as an adviser to Metro Rail, a job which he took very seriously.” Jarbandhan Bugwandeen was similarly acknowledged in his orbituary.

I am grateful to my mother Mrs Kowsilla Mahabeer for her insight and recollections, my uncle Prof V Jarbandhan for granddad’s documents and the Rajkumar family for their photographs. Mr Pravin Ram provided guidance and assistance, and introduced me to the art of storytelling. Thank you, Pravin for your patience, excellent comments and for proof reading this article. Mr Thiru Munsamy at the UDW documentation Centre was extremely helpful. I would recommend a visit to this treasure trove of memories, which through meticulous documentation and artefacts provide access to the history of our community.

image001
Author: Dr Shamin Mahabeer
Chemical Pathologist.

Finally, to the next generation of the Bugwandeen and Jarbandhan families, who are embracing new frontiers with regards to their professions, I am sure that you will acknowledge the foundations laid by our remarkable ancestors, and use them as role models in your own careers and philanthropic work.

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3 Comments

  1. I have a rare book in my collection titled
    “ Indians in South Africa.”
    It deals with the struggles of the Indians from the era of indentured laborers to the 60s.
    The struggles of the Indians of South Africa is a remarkable account of how the Indians survived against the odds of Apartheid.
    We salute our Black, Coloured and Indian stalwarts for their courage and tenacity against the odds .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a rare book in my collection titled
    “ Indians in South Africa.”
    It deals with the struggles of the Indians from the era of indentured laborers to the 60s.
    The struggles of the Indians of South Africa is a remarkable account of how the Indians survived against the odds of Apartheid.
    We salute our Black, Coloured and Indian stalwarts for their courage and tenacity against the odds .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Shamin. Brilliant article, well written and presented. Brings back memories of the daily lives in the pre 80s era. Good for young and old to imbibe.

    Liked by 1 person

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