By Steven Kotze
During the first half of 2016 visitors to KwaMuhle Museum were confronted with the perhaps-troubling sight of large holes dug in the verandah of the building, and clouds of dust billowing from various doors and windows. The reason for these dramatic changes in the appearance of, and conditions inside the museum was the long awaited structural repairs to foundations under the building. Many people do not know that much of the area stretching from near the Workshop shopping centre to as far as Moses Mabhida stadium was once an enormous wetland. In fact, a low lying area of swampy ground laced with small water courses and pools of water once ran from the Point Road corner of Durban Bay to the Mngeni River.
Starting in the late 19th century, and continuing for decades, all this land was gradually drained and reclaimed as Durban expanded. Tons of domestic and building waste was dumped into the wetland in order to stabilise the ground, effectively making the area one of Durban’s early landfill sites. After it was considered dry enough for construction, Durban Municipal Council made the land available for construction and allocated KwaMuhle Museum’s present site to the “Native Affairs Department” in the 1920s, for the erection of administration offices and a brewery. Designed by William Murray-Jones, and completed in 1927, the building that now houses the museum was opened for use and became headquarters for officials who administered the infamous Durban System until 1986.
Over the intervening six decades it became apparent that the process of draining ground underneath the building was not completely successful. Parts of KwaMuhle, as it was already known long before the transformation into the museum, gradually dropped lower into the landfill where the high water table allowed. This resulted in cracked walls and damaged foundations, which were initially repaired before KwaMuhle was converted into a museum in the 1990s. Unfortunately this first attempt to repair the weak foundations by means of under-pinning was not entirely effective, and cracks once again appeared in the building. In order to protect the museum’s structure, an important piece of Durban’s history and a graded provincial heritage site, engineering contractors were appointed in 2015 to execute another round of deep under-pinning to alleviate the problems. The work, which included a fresh coat of paint for the museum and other minor repairs, were completed in time for the opening of two new temporary exhibitions in July 2016.