One might imagine that a person in charge of the Native Affairs Department, which was the office responsible for administering the infamous ‘Durban System‘, would not be the most admired individual amongst the local population in Durban at the beginning of last century. Yet, John Sydney Marwick was known locally as uMuhle, ‘the good one’. Employed as the manager at the Department between 1916 and 1920, Marwick previously worked in Johannesburg as the acting representative of the Department, and was responsible for looking after the interests of black workers from Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).
Marwick was in Johannesburg in 1899 when talk of a war between the English and the Boers began. People with the means to leave Johannesburg left in their droves. However, many labourers from Natal who had come to Johannesburg to work on the mines had no way of getting home safely and with the mines closed in anticipation of war, they suddenly found themselves without work.
Marwick managed to get railway passes for many of the workers, but when the rail service to Natal was suspended, the only way out was on foot – 241 kilometres to the Natal border; a total of 490 kilometres to Pietermaritzburg. With some difficulty, Marwick eventually managed to negotiate a safe passage for the stranded workers with the commandant-general of the Boer forces. He set about spreading the word of the trek back to Natal:
Go up and down the reef, and tell the Zulus about this chance to get away from Johannesburg. Tell the men to take with them enough food to last for five days, and tell them to come and bank their money with officials at the offices in Marshall Street.
Workers assembled at the Witwatersrand Agricultural Showgrounds, and on the 6th October, Marwick escorted an estimated 8000 workers out of Johannesburg. A few days later, on the 10th October, a formal declaration of war saw the Boer army moving down the escarpment into Natal. There were fears about a possible confrontation between the workers and the Boers. Realising that they didn’t have enough food to hold back and wait for the Boers to pass, Marwick managed to negotiate a deal whereby the workers would move ahead of the Boer army – but not before the Boers commandeered 400 men to drag their guns up a hill!
Once they had entered Natal, groups of people began to disperse to their homes, and by the time the workers arrived at Hattingh’s Spruit on the 15th October, only a 1 000 people remained. Marwick arrived in Pietermaritzburg to find himself something of a hero. Those who had marched with Marwick gave him the name Umuhle, with the building housing the Department of Native Affairs being referred to as KwaMuhle, ‘the place of the good one’.
But not everyone viewed Marwick in such a good light. John Dube, founding president of the ANC and editor of Ilanga, dubbed Marwick Mbubu, ‘the bad one’ in an article in his newspaper. Marwick sued for defamation and won.
In 1920, Marwick left the Department and went into politics, joining the South African Party and becoming the MP for Illovo. In 1948 Marwick resigned, purportedly over the repeal of legislation providing for African representation in Parliament.
Ten years later John Marwick passed away. At the funeral Peka kaDinuzulu, son of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, came dressed in his royal leopard skin, with a huge white shield, and sang Umuhle’s praises. Dinuzulu had participated in the march and had remained a friend of Marwick’s until his passing.