Memories of forced removals: Former residents of the Durban Municipal Magazine Barracks and the Group Areas Act.

11 December 2014

Two powerful phenomena around which people coalesce in the present, and which consequently give rise to notions of “community”, are recollections of historical suffering, and an affiliation to low income working class districts. Exploring both themes are particularly useful when looking at the experiences and the memories of the nearly three and a half million South Africans who were displaced from long standing settlements, beginning in the late 1950s as a consequence of the Group Areas Act. It has been argued that in response to being victims of land dispossession, many have created a counter narrative to the Apartheid justification of Group Areas. Over years this has led to the construction of romanticised memories of life before forced removals which has a profound influence on the way they see themselves today. While the motives and the broader political and economic impact of the Group Areas Act has been widely studied, it also crucial to look at these subjective experiences of ordinary South Africans and how they were both, impacted upon, and responded to forced removals in different ways. Historians trying to access this kind of information, not contained in official state records, are dependent on oral testimony and consequently human memory. Oral testimony does however present various methodological challenges. This paper is concerned with the subjectivities and fluidity of human memory, and focuses specifically on former residents of the Magazine Barracks, with their own unique experiences and interpretations of forced removals. Rather than seeing the fluidity of memory as only a limitation, looking at what former residents chose to speak about and what they chose to omit is also revealing about how they responded to the state laws imposed upon them. Built in 1880 to house Indian municipal employees of the Durban Corporation and their families, the severely overcrowded Magazine Barracks was home to over seven thousand people by the 1960s when it was evacuated and residents sent to Chatsworth. Despite poverty and very poor living conditions, former residents today speak nostalgically about the community that they had created and have very fond memories of growing up in the Magazine Barracks. They established numerous voluntary associations to promote cultural and welfare endeavours as well as many sporting bodies. Albeit the improved living conditions and economic opportunities that former residents of the Magazine Barracks were able to take advantage of after moving to Chatsworth, today some of them argue that if it were possible they would prefer to go back to way that they lived in the barracks.