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The Durban System

By 18th July 2018April 2nd, 2021Exhibitions

If you’re looking for something to do this week to connect you to the memory of Nelson Mandela, who had he been alive would have been celebrating his hundredth birthday today, then a trip to the KwaMuhle Museum might be in order.

Nelson Mandela burning his pass book, 28th March 1960
Nelson Mandela burning his pass book, 28th March 1960

Mandela spent the majority of his life fighting for a democratic South Africa, where people of all races, gender and creeds would have equal rights. One of the main pillars of apartheid that Mandela spent his time combatting was the dreaded pass laws. Mandela and Tambo was established by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg in late 1952. It was the first law firm in the country to be run by black partners. On the subject of apartheid in 1965, Tambo spoke about the numerous laws that non-whites were subject to in the course of their daily lives:

The offices of Mandela & Tambo Attorneys, Fox St, Johannesburg
The offices of Mandela & Tambo Attorneys, Fox St, Johannesburg

To be unemployed is a crime because no African can for long evade arrest if his passbook does not carry the stamp of authorised and approved employment…….To brew African beer, to drink it or to use the proceeds to supplement the meagre family income is a crime, and women who do so face heavy fines and jail terms.

Our buff office files carried thousands of these stories and if, when we started our law partnership, we had not been rebels against South African apartheid, our experiences in our offices would have remedied the deficiency.

So it was that, as attorneys, Mandela and Tambo spent many hours in court trying to defend men and women who were arrested for failure to carry a pass book, or dompas, as it was popularly known.

The Durban System, operated by the Native Affairs Department, was the precursor to the Pass Laws Act of 1952. It aimed to control the influx of non-whites into the city, by requiring black Africans to apply for a permit to stay in the CBD. The Native Beer Act of 1908 reinforced and supported the Durban System: the Act was purportedly introduced for ‘native welfare’, but in reality beer revenue was used for the maintenance and establishment of barracks and hostels, and the costs associated with the administration of the Native Affairs Department. In effect, the Durban System helped to ensure ready access to cheap African labour through the subsidising of hostels, while at the same time depriving many African women of their income – prior to the introduction of the system African women were the main suppliers of sorghum beer.

The KwaMuhle Museum, which once housed the Native Affairs Department, now hosts a permanent exhibition on the Durban System, with documents and photographs telling the story of the segregated past that Mandela and his contemporaries spent much of their lives trying to abolish.

Images courtesy of and