Umuhle … Omubi – the good one, the bad one?

Broadcast on SABC 2 “Hidden Histories” series on 30th June 2013 @ 21h00.



uMuhle…..Omubi? [The good one….the bad one?], is a 48 min television documentary for the SABC 2 series title HIDDEN HISTORIES centered on the epic march – single-handedly orchestrated by Public Servant, John Marwick in 1899 – to repatriate 7 000 Zulu mine workers stranded on the Rand back to their homes 400 miles away in Natal.



[The good one….the bad one?]



Morality, the legacy of anachronistic paternalism & the so-called “Durban System”



A policy of paternalism creates dependency that leads to a pernicious cycle of self-enslavement.



uMuhle…..Omubi? [The good one….the bad one?], is a 48 min television documentary centered on the epic march – single-handedly orchestrated by Public Servant, John Marwick in 1899 – to repatriate 7 000 Zulu mine workers stranded on the Rand back to their homes 400 miles away in Natal. This deed earned Marwick the respect of the Zulu community as well as the title uMuhle, meaning ‘The Good One’.

The documentary looks at the irony of how such a man – who risked personal safety, life, limb & reputation – to rescue his workers from certain death, then went on to administer the implementation of the so-called “Durban System”.
The “Durban System” was designed to control the lives of black people in order to ensure a viable source of cheap black labour for the developing white economy in Natal.

A pernicious system designed to perpetuate a culture of dependency it was administered by the Durban City Council in the early 1900s.

This is set – in contrast – against the vibrant subculture of black community life that existed in the Grey Street area of Durban before the Council clamped down on African traders and monopolized the brewing and sale of traditional African beer through Council Beer Halls – a key strategy to the implementation of the “Durban System”.

Against this background, the documentary looks at the emergence of key Black figures in the struggle of the Black Community against this dehumanizing system.

uMuhle…..Omubi? [The good one….the bad one?], is an engaging documentary story centered on a little known piece of South African history & the repercussions of the actions of John Marwick – a man that history remembers as a “paternalist” – & the pernicious legacy of a system designed to perpetuate dependency.


Treatment Outline:

uMuhle…..Omubi? [The good one….the bad one?], is a little-known story centered on the plight of some 7000 Zulu labourers working on the mines in Johannesburg in 1899.

In the months preceding the outbreak of the first Anglo-boer war in October of that year, the mining industry on the Rand collapsed.

With their means of employment gone – stranded 400 miles from their homes – the Zulu workers were destitute & with war imminent, were threatened with abandonment & ultimate starvation.

The “boers” certainly did not see the unemployed workers as their responsibility and were prepared to turn them out into the veld to starve.

Although the Zulu workers were officially British subjects, the Colonial government of Lord Milner deflected responsibility and closed ranks in silence on the matter.

Had it not been for the doggedness of one Public Servant – a man by the name of John Marwick – the tragic fate of the 7 000 would surely have been sealed.

John Marwick worked as an official for the Natal Native Affairs Department in Johannesburg and was responsible for the management of the Zulu labour force supplied from Natal to the mines on the Rand.

In early October 1899, Marwick sent a telegram to Lord Milner reporting that the Zulu mineworkers – for whom he was responsible – had lost their jobs.

With war imminent, if left to find their own way home to Natal – Marwick explained – the destitute men would starve.

Receiving no response from his superiors, Marwick decided to try and bring the Zulu refugees out by himself.

His efforts were thwarted when the authorities refused his request to facilitate an evacuation using the railways.

The clock was ticking and for Marwick – assuming full personal responsibility for the well-being of his 7 000 charges – there was only one option.

Marwick had decided that he had no choice other than to personally walk with the 7 000 – leading them out of Johannesburg – and take them back to their homes 400 miles away in Natal.

Having made his decision, he sent the following cable to his superiors at the Natal Native Affairs Department in Durban:

“So that my proposed action may not embarrass you, please suspend me from office.

If I get the “Natives” through without loss of life, you could please yourself about re-instating me”.

His offer was finally accepted by the authorities, and on the 6th October the great exodus from the Rand began.

It was a march of epic proportions, and on the 15th October – with many on the verge of starvation, but without any loss of life – the flock of 7 000 with Marwick at the head of the procession reached Ulundi.

Through sheer determination & the tenacious execution of his epic march, John Marwick rescued and repatriated some 7000 Natal Africans.

This deed earned him the respect of the Zulu community as well as the title uMuhle, meaning ‘The Good One’.

But ironically, John Marwick was no Moses – no “messiah” leading his flock out of bondage to be repatriated back to the “promised land”.

It is an oddity peculiar to this era of Colonial patronage, that – having gone to such lengths to personally ensure their well-being and having personally risked life, limb & reputation to save the lives of his workers – John Marwick effectively led them back into “the house of bondage” in the form of the so-called “Durban System”.

The “Durban System” was the strategy designed by the Natal Native Administration to accommodate the labour requirements of Durban’s white colonial population.

In 1916 John Marwick was appointed the first Manager of the Durban Municipalities Native Affairs Department. This was the department responsible for the implementation of the so-called “Durban System”.

A system of urban racial segregation, the “Durban System” has subsequently been acknowledged by historians and social scientists as the system which provided the blueprint for the enforced influx control laws introduced by Apartheid’s Nationalist Party government in 1950.

Under the “Durban System” Black people were reduced to units of labour with little regard for their humanity and well-being. Blacks were required to apply for “passes” to be allowed to live in the urban area. The granting of such passes was temporary & needed to be renewed annually backed up by proof of employment.

The men were required to live in single-sex hostels.

Black women were banned from brewing traditional beer – a primary source of income. The government monopolized the production & distribution of traditional beer to the male workers in the city through recreational municipal beer halls.

This system was a calculated and highly successful strategy and profits generated from the beer halls financed the administration of the “Durban System”.

History remembers Marwick as a “strict paternalist who saw his role as that of a parent who had to guide and restrain his children”.

This is the inscription below Marwick’s portrait at the Kwa Muhle Museum in Braam Fisher Rd, Durban and it reflects the bigoted paternalistic attitude of many British Colonisers at the time:
“Marwick’s aim was to provide Municipal housing under white supervision, to teach Africans habits of cleanliness, and the observance of punctuality and good conduct.”

Within a year of Marwick’s appointment, the Mayor of Durban congratulated him on “the improvement in African discipline and the reduction of crime”.

But the implementation of the “Durban System” did not pass unopposed & Marwick was not without his critics.

Educator and writer – John Langalibalele Dube – was born in Natal in 1871.

In 1903, he founded the first Zulu newspaper, Illanga Lase Natal [ The Natal Sun].

As editor of Illanga Lase Natal, John Dube criticised the Durban System and labelled John Marwick “Omubi” [ the bad one].
Affronted, “uMuhle” sued Dube for defamation.

In 1912, John Dube went on to become the founding president of the African National Congress.
In the late 1890s, Dube spent time in the USA and was heavily influenced by the philosophy & speeches of African American Civil Rights activist Booker T. Washington.

In America, Dube heard Washington speak on topics such as, “the dignity of labor” and the need “to teach the Negroes to become moral self-supporting, and useful citizens as skilled industrial labourers.”
Returning to South Africa from the USA in 1901, Dube founded the Ohlange Institute, an educational institution for Africans with the motto “Learning and Labor”.

Dube’s vision was that Ohlange should empower Africans with basic skills so that they could effectively improve their lives and social status.

At the time this was totally revolutionary and in direct antithesis to the ethos of the “Durban System” which relied heavily on keeping Blacks uneducated and available to the white economy as cheap unskilled labour.

In the inner city of Durban there was also a growing African trading class plying business in the Grey Street Area.
In addition to the traders who operated from the African Meat Market in Queen Street there were large numbers of men and women brewing and selling sorghum and hop beer in various parts of the Grey Street area.

Many black-owned “Native eating houses” had also sprung up in this part of the City, providing food for African labourers in the town.

There were also a number of black-owned shebeens in the Grey Street area, such as Ma Phillip′s which has been described as a “classy shebeen in Alice Street”.

Grey Street was Durban’s vibrant focal point equivalent of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown.
In time, white business owners began complaining to the City Council about the competition offered by the Black owned Meat Market & “Native eating houses”.

With the passing of the Native beer Act (No. 23) of 1908, at the instigation of the Durban City Council, the municipality acquired a monopoly over the brewing and sale of sorghum beer in Durban. From then on, the City Council exclusively sold traditional beer through Council Beer Halls & the tension mounted.

In the years that followed, civic resistance movements emerged.

In 1925, the Durban branch of the Industrial & Commercial Workers Union [ICU] was opened under the leadership of ICU Natal Provincial Secretary, A.W.G. Champion.

The Natal Indian Congress also had a strong presence under Secretary of the movement, A.I. Kajee.
Supported by the ICU, in June 1929 African workers in Durban mounted a boycott of the beer halls, in protest against the municipal beer monopoly and other grievances.

The Victoria Street beer hall was one of the targets.

On 17 June 1929, 600 white “vigilantes′ surrounded the ICU Hall in Prince Edward Street.

They had beaten an African to death with a pick-handle and tried to storm the hall.

The white mob believed that two white “traitors”, Communist Town Councillor, S.M. Pettersen and ICU organiser, A.F. Batty, were in the hall.

On hearing of the siege African workers from various parts of Durban made their way to the ICU Hall.
When the 6000 strong force of African workers reached the hall they were confronted by 200 whites and 360 policemen.

The violent clashes that followed left 120 injured and 8 dead.

In the years that followed, protests continued – often led by African women – against the Municipal system of beer halls.

These culminated in the watershed Cato Manor riots in 1959.

In June 1959 a group of Cato Manor women invaded the Victoria Street Beer hall. Florence Mkhize and Dorothy Nyembe led the way.
Male patrons were chased out of the beer hall and the premises were ransacked.

Police eventually resorted to teargas to clear the hall.

Socialized in the bigoted ethos of British Colonial arrogance with its attitude of racial & cultural superiority, John Marwick was the personification of that paradoxical contradiction of the time defined by the term “paternalist”.

His role in the Native Administration Machine that implemented the “Durban System” enslaved thousands of black labourers in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty enabling a source of cheap and controlled labour to the growing white economy of Natal.

It was the forerunner to a corner-stone of the Grand Apartheid design to be implemented by the Apartheid Nationalist Party government from 1948.

Its legacy of dependence by an enslaved majority on the highly conditional patronage of the privileged ruling minority was only effectively broken with the overthrow of the Apartheid regime in 1994.

Even today, vestiges of the system remain embedded in many a psyche.

And yet, John Marwick can be seen to have been motivated by a strong sense of morality – not without kindness, compassion and concern – and when all others looked away, John Marwick put his hand up, and did the right thing.

This act by uMuhle was generously acknowledged by the Zulu community to Marwick’s dying day.

With his death in Richmond on 4th April 1958 – hundreds of Zulus came to pay their last respects. Gathering at “Umuhle’s” farm in Richmond, they feasted as guests of the Marwick family but turned down the offer of being “bussed” to the funeral.

In the tradition of the “walk of 1899”, they then walked the 34km to the cemetery at Mountain Rise outside Pietermaritzburg.

By late afternoon, at the funeral – the hillsides around the cemetery of Mountain Rise were covered with hundreds of Zulus who came to pay their last respects to a man who – although a paternalist – had “when the chips were down”, carried out his duty.

This was the era of “uMuhle…..Omubi” [The good one….the bad one].

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