From the very beginning, settlement in Lenasia was a contentious issue, driven with debates about race, class, collaboration with and resistance to apartheid. Calls were made by the Indian Congress to reject the plans of the newly elected Nationalist government, but the drastic shortage of housing for Indians in areas close to the Johannesburg city centre meant that some, especially the very poor workers, welcomed the offer of a place to stay and conditions which, although minimal, were a vast improvement on their previous lot.
After the National Party won the 1948 election on an apartheid ticket, the government moved speedily to introduce new laws and to implement these. The existence of suburbs like Sophiatown, where people of all races, including poorer White people, mixed more or less freely, had always irked those who wanted to see segregation more rigorously effected. This tendency, now ensconced as the ruling party, suddenly had the power to realise these plans – to unscramble racial mixing, separate the groups and deposit them in racially exclusive locations. The first step was the passing of the Group Areas Act in 1950.
Indians had been living in various suburbs in and around Johannesburg, in varying numbers, for decades. In towns such as Turffontein little pockets forming small communities had taken root, while in others there were larger communities, such as in Fordsburg, Doornfontein, Vrededorp, Sophiatown, Newclare and other areas.
The Nats at first proposed an alternative to re-housing the Indians by offering them a free passage back to India, but very few took up this offer. So the plan was for the Indians to be moved to a suburb populated only by Indians. The government at first offered the community the area today known as Robertsham, about 10km from the city, but community leaders refused to be housed there. Eventually some accepted relocation to an area known as Lenz, despite the fact that the Indian Congress had rejected the Group Areas Act.
Mahommed Jajbhay, Rev Sigamoney, Mahommed Abed, Ebrahim Dadabhai and Advocate Minty formed the Transvaal Indian Organisation, which was tasked to persuade Indians to move to Lenz.
Indians living in Sophiatown were the first to move to Lenz as housing had been the biggest issue for all the people living there. Entire families lived in tiny rooms because space was in such short supply. Rents were extremely high, and to secure living space tenants were also required to pay other costs, such as goodwill, a sum to guarantee the right to rent the lodgings in the first place.
Working class people in areas such as Sophiatown and Newlands, were being evicted from their lodgings by the authorities, with no alternative accommodation, their possessions dumped onto pavements. The Reverend Sigamany, a prominent figure in the Indian community, arranged for these desperate people to take up accommodation at a military barracks in Lenz.
Many of the newcomers to Lenasia were waiters at hotels and restaurants in the city centre who could not afford even moderate rentals, and found the lodgings at the military camp based 35km southwest of Johannesburg, affordable. It was a practical answer to an urgent need. They moved there in the early 1950s, living in barracks that were partitioned off into makeshift units.
The surrounding property was owned by a German national by the name of Lenz. He had acquired the property and settled there much earlier but he eventually sold the property to the government for housing developments.
At first, the entirety of Lenasia consisted of the people living at the barracks. Later the government sold plots for around R60 each, in the first extension to be established. The plots were purchased by families eligible for government loans to build private homes, according to strict specifications.
By 1955, the first school was established, the Lenasia High School, which was also meant to cater to Indian pupils living in Fordsburg and other areas of Johannesburg. These students would travel by train or bus to the school, the government having closed off access to high schools in Johannesburg. The first school principal, Mr Francis, was an enlightened educator, who served in this capacity from 1955 to 1967.
Like the other schools that followed, Lenz High School was a structure made up of asbestos, in an age when the dangers of the material had not been publicised. Despite the apparent temporary nature of the structure, it was used for some 40 years before a more permanent brick construction was erected, on another site, after the coming of democracy.
Indeed, infrastructure in Lenasia, in 1955, was nonexistent. Until the later 1950s, houses in Extension 1 had no piped water, electricity or sewage, except for a bucket system. Later a single U-shaped street became the first residential area proper. It was called 12th Street, and today it makes up Nightingale, into Sunbird, into Smew. The first families with permanent houses all lived along this horseshoe arrangement. Breadwinners travelled to the city centre via a road that crossed the railway line and connected with the R29 road that linked Johannesburg to Potchefstroom – mainly by a municipal bus service that offered two trips in the morning and two in the evening.
In 1958 Lenasia was proclaimed an Indian township under the Group Areas Act. The minutes of a meeting of the Non-European Affairs Committee of the Johannesburg City Council, dated 31 October 1961, reflect that the item under consideration was “Indian Housing: Lenz Camp”. The minutes record that on 27 June 1961, the Council resolved that:
“(a) That the lease of part of the military camp at Lenz by the Council from the Group Areas Development Board be renewed for a period of six months as from 1st july 1961, on the same terms and conditions.
(b) That the arrangement be subject to review after December 1961.”
The minutes further record that the Secretary for Community Development had informed the Town Clerk in September that the Group Area Development Board was planning to take over the camp “as from 1st January 1962 on expiry of the present lease”. The meeting ended with the recommendation:
“That the Group Area Development Board be asked to continue housing the existing tenants at the Lenz Camp until other accommodation becomes available for them.”
Some of the earliest inhabitants include the Singh family from Sophiatown, the Adjoodas, Govenders, Moonsammys, and Khans, among others.
In 1957 Mr Bila Singh and his family moved to Lenasia Ext One after they were granted several plots on which to build homes. The Singhs were one of the pioneers on this new frontier, and continue to have a large presence in the town.
Mr Bila Singh, the oldest of a family with 10 siblings, reports that he was paid a sum for his property in Sophiatown that enabled him to qualify for a mortgage to build a house in Extension 1. Mr Singh said that the conditions in Sophiatown, which his family had abided because of an absence of alternatives, were horrendous. In his case, his father and his father’s brother each had 10 children, and the entire household of some 24 people lived in two rooms. There was no privacy, the surrounding community had the use of only two toilets, the backyards were always filled with strangers, and life was near intolerable.
The creation of Lenasia meant that Indians were hived off into a separate area, and if Africans had a presence in the town, it was as workers: domestics or labourers. It also meant that Indians, as Mr Bila Singh reports, could “maintain their identity”, ordering the environment in accordance with their religious and cultural practices.
But this development also meant that a process of differentiation took root, where Hindus and Muslims each developed a sometimes uneasy cohesion. Further divisions also became marked, to a large extent determined by class and caste stratification: Gujerati Hindus tended to have a more middle class position than Hindus of Tamil origin, while Muslims were stratified according to their place of origin in India, the well-known “gaam” system. Tamilian Hindus largely originated from indentured labourers, while Gujerati Hindus had earlier made their own passage to South Africa, as did many Muslims also from Gujerat.
The centre takes shape: Extension 2
When the number of those who could not qualify for houses on the mortgage scheme reached a certain critical mass, the government built council houses and other forms of residential units to house them. Thus, Greyville, Thomsville and Rainbow came into being, together making up Extension Two.
The units in Thomsville were basic, smaller even than the “matchbox” houses in Greyville. About six families were housed in one long structure, divided into six units of two rooms each. Toilets were shared, situated in the backyard. These were subeconomic units that housed the very poor, and it was no coincidence that many Thomsville residents were the offspring of indentured labourers.
Housing units in the Greyville section were a little more conducive to family life. Identical to the famous matchbox houses provided for African people in Soweto, they consisted of a kitchen, bathroom/toilet and three tiny bedrooms. Larger council houses were also provided for families that could be described as relatively middle-class, in what became known as Rainbow, also a part of Ext Two. Because the houses were painted in a variety of colours, residents spontaneously named the area Rainbow. These units consisted of 500 sq/m plots with three-bedroomed houses. They were occupied in 1962, when many people moved to Lenasia from Fordsburg and other areas.
The establishment of Extension 2 cemented the idea of an Indian township, and henceforth the idea of Lenasia took on a momentum that could not be reversed.
The late 1970 and 1980s saw a massive migration to Lenasia. Housing estates were developed on a large scale and various extensions were added to the existing layout. Extension 3 opened up the east side of 1st Street, later renamed Flamingo Street. The houses were slightly more modern in appearance than the units in Rainbow. Ext 5 consisted of houses built on larger plots of 750 sq metres. Residents named the new swankier area “Luxury”.
By late 1970, another extension was in the pipeline. The Johannesburg City Council noted at a meeting on 27 October 1970, that the Director of Local Government had made an application for permission to establish another residential area, Extension 6. It would be situated south of Extensions 2 and 4, and Department of Community Development plans set aside sites for two schools, two nursery schools, a business site, 27 sites for industrial purposes, and sites for a church, two parks and a cemetery. Water reticulation and electrical supplies were to be put in place.
Eventually, Lenasia grew to have 11 extensions, but the largest development came in 1984, when Lenasia South was established.
For more info, visit: http://www.sahistory.org.za/indian-community-lenasia