Rob Haswell
18 minute read
13 Apr 2021

Recasting Maritzburg’s heritage

Rob Haswell

Very few South African cities have as rich, lamentable and creditable heritage as Pie­termaritzburg. Yet, another Heritage Month has come and gone, with little commemoration, critique or much-needed recasting.

Very few South African cities have as rich, lamentable and creditable heritage as Pie­termaritzburg. Yet, another Heritage Month has come and gone, with little commemoration, critique or much-needed recasting.

Yes, our city bore the brunt of both colonial and apartheid ideologies, in the form of a spatially, racially, socially and economically fractured and iniquitous structure. Yet, as I have written about for many years, our city’s townscape bears the stamp of the Dutch, English and Indians who settled here and interacted with each other. Likewise, if one begins to see the wood for the trees, this special place where peoples of European, Indian and African heritage met also resulted in a flickering flame of non-racial defiance and collaboration. So much so, that in 1961, the city was described as “a moral centre of opposition to the National Party Government” (Natal Witness, March 30, 1961).

If this contention was warranted, then Pietermaritzburg was not all together a sleepy place, and definitely more than just the last outpost, and our city’s heritage needs to be, in part at least, rewritten and recast.

In order to validate, or refute, the claim that our city was “a moral centre of opposition to apartheid”, this article traces the making of Alan Paton and Peter Brown into anti-apartheid political activists, in their own words, by quoting extensively from Paton’s two volume autobiography: Towards the Mountain and Journey Continued, and Michael Cardo’s biography of Brown: Opening Men’s Eyes.

The main conclusion reached is that both Paton, who was born and educated here, and Brown, who was not, were products of and made in Pietermaritzburg as a result of their interaction with the African and Indian people of Edendale. Paton and Brown were and are closely associated with each other, and with the rise and demise of the Liberal Party of South Africa, but less well appreciated is that both attributed their awakening to the injustices of apartheid, to their interaction with people in Pietermaritzburg, more particularly Edendale.

Our city therefore can claim to have been a crucible, and in fact hearth, of political resistance to colonial and apartheid oppression, and that surely is a heritage we can all take pride in, and, let me hasten to add, it is the very antithesis of what those who regularly call for in a return to the city’s former glory under colonial and apartheid injustices.

Date unknown. South Africa. Well-known South Afric

Alan Paton is most probably our city’s most famous son. His classic novel, Cry the Beloved Country, has been an international best seller since its publication in 1948, the same year in which the National Party of apartheid infamy, came to power. Many South Africans were moved by and can recite, the novel’s lyrical opening sentences:

“There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and lovely beyond any singing of it”(Cry the Beloved Country, page one).

But Paton’s classic is more than a well-written story, it is also a profoundly political and prophetical book, which concludes by enjoining the reader to ponder deeply about when emancipation, not merely political freedom, will be achieved in our country.

“Yes it is the dawn. But when that dawn will come of our emancipation from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret”(Cry the Beloved Country, page 236).

Clearly, Paton was more, much more, than a renowned writer, and in my view, he was not merely born in Pietermaritzburg on January 11, 1903, he was to a large degree made in Pietermaritzburg.

How then did a white boy raised in a strict Christadelphian household, who excelled in mathematics and physics in high school, become a renowned writer, let alone an apostle of non-racial politics, whose passport was confiscated by the apartheid government and who had no hesitation when asked to plead for clemency for those found guilty at the Rivonia Trial?

The Victorian Gothic cottage at 19 Pine Street, was Paton’s boyhood home. “Our home was a deeply religious one. This left an abiding mark on my sisters and myself. My brother became much more a man of the world … a typical Natal world of rugby, Old Boys associations, the Natal Carbineers, and much drinking of beer.” (Towards the Mountain, page 11.)

“In my childhood I had no conception of the complexity of our racial scene. We knew no African people except for our servants. The man who sold us fruit was Sammy.” (Towards, page 13.)

“I can only suppose that it was a happy childhood except for one thing, and that was the authoritarian and often arbitrary rule of my father. But for three things I am grateful — the opportunity to walk the green hills of Pietermaritzburg, to know the stories and noble passages of the Bible, and to enter the world of words and books.” (Towards, page 27.)

Clark House at Maritzburg College is a Pietermarit
Clark House at Maritzburg College is a Pietermaritzburg landmark.

Paton entered Maritzburg College in February 1914. “The school was a rugby playing school, and the game of the Scottish working class”, such as his father, “was soccer. When my mother and sisters came to watch the rugby, he went to watch soccer in Alexandra Park.” (Towards, page 30.)

“Maritzburg College was a fiercely patriotic school. In its halls were the names of its boys who had given their lives in the wars against Boers and Zulus. Our form master … despised the Indian people of South Africa.” (Towards, page 33.)

“In those days the anti-Indian feeling amongst the white people of Natal was rabid.” (Towards, page 34.).

“I developed an enormous pride in the school. But my greatest pride was reserved for the Old Main Block and the Victoria Hall.” (Towards, page 35).

“I disappointed my parents by not getting a first-class in the matriculation examination. I won the English prize. I also did equally well in mathematics and well in history and science.” (Towards, page 45).

“My father decided that I must go to the Natal University College. It was then nine years old and had fewer than two hundred students. If I had been from ten or fifteen years earlier, I should probably have gone straight to work, and my life would have been utterly and unimaginably different. I do not care to contemplate the possibility one could call it providence, or one could call it luck.” (Towards, pages 45 to 46.)

““We were powerfully motivated by the desire to find a purpose in life. It was easier to find it in unsophisticated Pietermaritzburg than in sophisticated Oxford and Cambridge.”
Alan Paton

“I wanted to become a doctor, but my headmaster thought my mathematics and science indicated that I should become an engineer and build bridges and roads and railways. But the real question was money … solved by the Natal Education Department which offered bursaries to student teachers. The department particularly wanted science and mathematics teachers. It was this that finally decided me to give up the arts.” (Towards, page 57).

“The University had only one academic building, a domed block with a central hall two stories high, surrounded on the ground floor and above by lecture rooms, laboratories, professors’ rooms.” (Towards, page 58.)

“It was in my first year that I met Railton Dent. He was about six years older than I. He intended to graduate and to devote his life to African education. He was the youthful principal of Edendale High School for African boys and girls.” (Towards, page 58.)

“We were powerfully motivated by the desire to find a purpose in life. It was easier to find it in unsophisticated Pietermaritzburg than in sophisticated Oxford and Cambridge.” (Towards, page 61.)

“This included — certainly in Dent’s case — the service of black people and of course black children.” (Towards, page 62.)

“It was Dent who first introduced me to Africans that were not servants or labourers, and that was to the teachers at the Edendale School. … I called them Mr and Mrs and Miss, and I shook hands with them. It was not a giant step for mankind, but it certainly was a big step for me.

“Our interests were by no means confined to religion and service. Dent gathered round himself … a group of boy-men … This was the beginning of an intense literary education. Dent’s love for literature was as great as my own.” (Towards, page 63.)

“But it was with Neville Nuttall that I made endless forays into literature. After an evening at his lodgings, or at my home, we would walk back together to the cemetery in Commercial Road, and then would sit in the little arched building among the graves. It was Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennessee, Browning. Indeed, I cannot remember all that we read.” (Towards, pages 63 to 64.)

“Our college was new, small and remote, but it opened the doors of the world.” (Towards, page 65.)

“In 1923, I was elected President of the Student’s Representative Council” (Towards, page 72.)

“Railton Dent left the Natal University Council in the middle of 1923. I must record with pain that we drew apart in later life. When Cry the Beloved Country was published I sent him a copy. But he was not enthusiastic about it.” (Towards, page 77).

“We drifted further apart when I helped to found the Liberal Party of South Africa in 1953. In that year Dr Verwoerd’s National Party Government passed the Bantu Education Act.

“The Liberal Party opposed the Act uncompromisingly and contended that the standard of black education would fall. Dent was not prepared to pass such judgement.” (Towards, page 78.)

Paton’s meeting with people in Edendale was, as he put it, “a big step”, as it was for another product of Pietermaritzburg, Brown. Brown was born in Durban on December 24, 1924, matriculated and attended a post-matric year at Michaelhouse, which offered a race-relations course. Importantly, Michaelhouse offered an exchange course with Adams College, the oldest school for black pupils in Natal. Brown recalled: “I went there with a party from my school on an exchange visit. Such visits, between a white and a black school, were a revolutionary concept in the Natal of forty years ago. And my visit had the effect they were no doubt intended to have. It shattered the accumulated stereotypes about black people with which I had grown up.” (Cardo, page 33).

Brown moved to Pietermaritzburg in May 1951, to take up a position with the Edendale Local health Commission (LHC). According to Brown’s biographer Michael Cardo: “Brown was stationed at the Commission’s Head Office in Pietermaritzburg, but spent much of his time fact-finding about conditions on the ground in Edendale.” (Cardopage 60.)

Selby Msimang
Selby Msimang
Peter Brown
Peter Brown

“There he met Selby Msimang … and he became Brown’s political mentor and friend.”(Cardo page 60.)

In 1952, Brown was tasked with establishing a YMCA branch in Edendale, and organising both indoor and outdoor programmes. In particular, he established a sports programme for school children. “Every Friday afternoon during the school term, up to 500 children took part in football and basketball competitions.” (Cardo, page 62.)

During this time Brown developed enduring friendships with two other Edendale residents, Sam Chetty and Archie Gumede. “Men like Chetty, Gumede and Msimang opened Brown’s eyes to what life was like for a black South African without rights of any kind.” (Cardo, page 62.)

In Brown’s own words, “it was at Edendale that I made my first contact with Black Natalians.” (Cardo page 64.)

In 1952, Brown began to host non-racial meetings at his home in Pietermaritzburg, and these came to the attention of Paton. Paton wrote and asked Brown, “when is your next meeting to be. I just have a kind of wish to be there as it was in Pietermaritzburg that I was born.” (Cardo page 72.)

The next big step was a public meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, on December 8, 1952.

It was “attended by 40 people of all races, including Brown (in the chair), Selby Msimang and S.R. Naidoo”. (Cardo page 76.)

“… a committee was elected comprising Hugh Carey, Desmond Craib, Selby Msimang, Simon Roberts, S.R. Naidoo and Brown”. (Cardo page 76.) The meeting adopted a number of principles:

1. “We hold that all men shall be equal before the law and should enjoy freedom of speech, of the Press, of movement, and of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion, … and equal rights to acquire and own land.

2. We hold that there should be no laws that discriminate solely on grounds of race or colour; and that all such laws should be abolished step by step.

3. We hold that all men have a right to political representation … and all who have attained an adequate standard of civilisation should enjoy the adult franchise.” (Carbo page 77.)

“At this time Paton was living in Durban, where he became the chairman of a Liberal Group. In March 1953, the Pietermaritzburg and Durban groups merged, with Paton as Chairman, Brown as Secretary and Selby Msimang as vice-Chairman.” (Cardo page 80.)

Selby Msimang and his wife Noluthando are buried in the unkempt Georgetown cemetery. One hopes that the recently published Principle and Pragmatism in the Liberation Struggle: A Political Biography of Selby Msimang by Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize, will prompt an upgrade.

Paton and Brown played a leading role in the formation of the Liberal Party of South Africa in May 1953. Both served as national president of the party, and Pietermaritzburg, and the city became “the liberal capital” when, in June 1956, the party’s head office was moved to the building which still stands at 268 Langalibalele Street.

The Liberal Party’s advocacy of equal rights was too radical for white voters, with Brown trailing in third having received only 154 votes in Pietermaritzburg South, in the June 1954, Natal provincial elections. On the other hand, the Liberal Party’s prevarication over universal franchise was too conservative for both the African National Congress and the Natal Indian Congress. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the Liberal Party’s absence from the 1955 Congress of the People, the rights espoused by the Liberal Party certainly found their way, some 43 years later, into the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa as adopted in May 1996.

The fact that Paton and Brown co-operated with the ANC, particularly during the presidency of Chief Albert Luthuli, in response to the National Party’s programme of “black spot removals” notably in Charlestown and Roosboom, and with the Natal Indian Congress in response to the implementation of the Group Areas Act, particularly in Pietermaritzburg, are important examples of instances in which non-racial responses prevailed over political differences.

In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, in March 1960, a State of Emergency was declared. Brown was arrested and imprisoned for 98 days in Pietermaritzburg’s Old Prison. He was offered a conditional release but responded:

“I could not accept a conditional release whilst other ordinary members were still detained for political beliefs similar to mine.” (Cardo, page 148.) Brown’s principled stance was to find resonance in Nelson Mandela’s refusal of the conditional release offered to him by P.W. Botha in February 1985: “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when you, the people, are not free.”

After the lifting of the Emergency and his release, Brown stated: “Those of us who were arrested have not deflected from our purpose by this experience. We will continue to strive to replace apartheid by a democratic system of government in which rights and responsibilities will be shared by all.” (Cardo, page 151 to 52.)


On November 1, 1960, the Liberal Party held an “anti-Verwoerd rally”, which attracted an estimated 1 000 people of all races, in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.

On July 29, 1963, Brown and 10 other Liberal Party members were banned from public life, a situation which Brown had to endure for 10 years. His telephone was tapped, his house was under surveillance and indeed raided by the Security Branch, and he was expressly prohibited from visiting Edendale.

Although Paton’s passport was revoked in October 1958, he was neither banned nor detained, and continued to be the main speaker at numerous protest meetings around the country, particularly in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, against the Group Areas in the 1970s, as well as the complete segregation of tertiary education institutions in the 1980s.

The Pietermaritzburg City Hall, with its clock tower commanding the intersection of the city’s two main streets, is flanked by colonial and World War memorials, but it is one of the very few buildings in the world in which Gandhi and Mandela, not to mention Luthuli, Paton and Brown, have spoken. Thus although it was built as a symbol of secular authority, and housed white-only city councils from 1856 to 1995, it is also an important site of defiance in the struggle for a non-racial SA. A brochure which does justice to the many facets of the building’s history is long overdue.

Such was Paton’s standing in South Africa, that Bram Fischer, who led the defence team at the Rivonia Trial, travelled to Paton’s home to ask him to give evidence in favour of clemency, prior to the judge passing sentence. Without any hesitation Paton agreed. Asked in court on June 11, 1964, why he had agreed to give evidence, he replied: “Because I was asked to come. But primarily because having been asked I felt it was my duty to come here. A duty which I am glad to perform because I love my country. And it seems to me, my Lord, with respect that the exercise of clemency in this case is a thing which is very important for our future.” (Bizos, page 142.)

“Is this faith and hope in Mandela justified? Is he more than a legend? Would he wield the same power outside of prison as he does in? One thing would happen. Mandela would be greeted in every part of South Africa by the greatest crowds in our history. They would expect nothing less than liberation.”
Alan Paton

Paton elaborated: “I had another reason to agree to give evidence. We in the Liberal Party understood as well as any the way in which Luthuli and Matthews and Sobukwe, and now Mandela, had been condemned by the National Party to a life of protest, to a life of knocking at a door which would not open. I had a third powerful reason. I had no wish to see the death penalty inflicted on the Rivonia Nine. I reckoned it would be a decision from which white South Africans, and particularly Afrikanerdom, would never recover.” (Journey page 250.)

In 1987, and shortly before his death, Paton wrote: “Is this faith and hope in Mandela justified? Is he more than a legend? Would he wield the same power outside of prison as he does in? One thing would happen. Mandela would be greeted in every part of South Africa by the greatest crowds in our history. They would expect nothing less than liberation.” (Journey page 253.)

Despite their small membership numbers, the non-racial Liberal Party led by Paton and Brown was a thorn in the side of the National Party, who in 1966 enacted the Prohibition of Political Interference Act, which prohibited political parties from having members from more than one race. Rather than kowtow the Liberal Party disbanded.

In looking back on his life, Paton said: “There are people who think that the Liberal Party interfered grievously with my career as a writer. I am something more than a writer. I am a member of an imperfect and unjust human society, which has its home in a most beautiful country to which I have given, like so many others, a whole-hearted love.” (Journey page 276.)

One hopes that this limited overview of Paton’s life, and how much he was influenced by the people he met and interacted with in Pietermaritzburg, particularly Brown and Msimang, has established that he was indeed more than a writer, and surely deserves to be recognised as such in his home town. Surely too our city’s educational institutions have cause to reflect on how to inculcate a non-racial ethic and equal opportunities. An extra-curricular course based on the life and times of Paton, Brown and Msimang, would be a good start, along with exchange visits and sporting interactions, as well as offering a broader and more equitable range of sports codes, is long overdue, as is the teaching of our city’s rich heritage. How many of our schools include class visits to our railway station and the Mandela capture site? Which other South African city has produced so many leaders, past and present, of African, Indian and European descent, who rejected the colonial and apartheid shackles?

There is a clear need for a new generation of scholars to recast an era in our city’s history, which is of national and international import.

Pietermaritzburg is a special and important place. It was a crucible and a hearth which pointed the way to a non-racial future, and I see no reason why it cannot lead the way again as we strive for social cohesion, and lay to rest the fears and bondages Paton identified 72 years ago.

Aluta Continua indeed.