The Streets of our Names 

 

 
 

12. Tracing the origins of the first Indian traders in the Soutpansberg

Date: 30 September 2016 Viewed: 2079

The literary definition for the word “orient” states: “situated in or belonging to the east; oriental”. For many readers it simply means people who originate from India, and when we talk about an oriental plaza, it means the place with the Indian shops. We think of generations of traders who established small stores in remote areas, selling anything from bread to bicycle spares. In the Soutpansberg district these traders were the true pioneers of business, opening up markets in the most remote areas and establishing Louis Trichardt as a major trading town.

To find out exactly who the first Indian trader in the area was, is no easy task. According to the Indian Who was Who of 1937, it was Ebrahim Cassim Suliman, commonly known as Cassim Suliman. He is described as the “premier Indian of the district” around the early 1900s. He also donated an erf in Kruger Street for the building of the first mosque. He bought up a number of properties in the district and at one stage his company, Cassim Suliman & Sons, owned most of the erven in Trichardt (now Songozwi) Street. His wife was Hajiani Hoorbai Suliman.

It is, however, unlikely that Cassim Suliman was the first Indian trader to set foot in the Soutpansberg. According to Prof Johann Tempelhoff’s book, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg, the history of Indian traders in the Soutpansberg dates back to the late 1880s when Karsan Lakha arrived in what was called the Groot Spelonken. He came from Lourenco Marques and first settled in the then Pietersburg, where there was an active Indian community. The Indian community in the Zoutpansberg were of a group commonly referred to as the “passenger Indians”, not to be confused with the “indentured Indians”, the latter arriving in southern Africa from 1860 onwards.

The story of the indentured Indians is fascinating, but for the first few decades it centres on the labour practices in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Natal. For our story, we will focus on the second group of Indian immigrants who were traders and mostly of Muslim religion. It was part of these “passenger Indians” that Karsan Lakha met when arriving in Pietersburg. Most of them knew Lakha, as they also came from the Ranavav block in the Katihar district of Gujarat, India.


Left: Adam Vally Mohamed (1879 - 1962) / Right: Ayob Abba (1856-1932)


Karsan Lakha soon moved to the vicinity of Soekmekaar, where he started a store. In 1896 his brother, Kana Lakha, and his sons arrived in South Africa and joined him in business. When the town of Louis Trichardt was established in 1902, the brothers Lakha opened their shops in Kruger Street. When Karsan Lakha died in 1916, his brother closed down Karsan Lakha & Co in Kruger Street and returned to India. He only returned to South Africa, with the sons, in 1930.

In July 1903, Major WN Bolton visited Louis Trichardt, along with the district surgeon, Dr GG Hay. The purpose of the visit was to select a site for a “Coolie Bazaar about 1 000 yards west of the town.” The government, however, decided that there was no need for such a survey and the matter was left there. Over the next decade the Indian population kept on growing, much to the concern of the local powers-that-be. In 1913, Mr OC Bowker, secretary of the Louis Trichardt Health Committee, complained in a letter to the provincial administration about the fact that the Indians and white “men of straw” were permitted to “run up tin shanties.” The reality was, however, that the Indian traders of that era brought essential supplies and services to the areas and were an indispensable part of the economy. Farming was still a major source of income and most of the white farmers relied on Indian traders to supply them with goods, often making use of the informal credit facilities offered.

We do, however, need to return to the first Indian traders who arrived in the Soutpansberg. Cassim Suliman’s name has already been mentioned, but he did not arrive here alone. Around the same period, in early 1901, he was followed by four other Indian businessmen who would become quite famous in later years. Ayob Abba and three of his younger nephews, Adam Vally (AV) Mohammed, Hajee Aboo and Aboo Dada also arrived in Louis Trichardt in 1901. From what could be established, they had all arrived in South Africa in 1892 and first started trading in Pretoria. Most of them later moved to Pietersburg and, shortly after the end of the Anglo Boer War, settled in Louis Trichardt to start Ayob Abba & Company. The head office was on the corner of Trichardt and Kruger Street. Ayob Abba & Co also had a subsidiary in the property market, trading as Abba Pty Ltd, which was established in 1903.


These historic buildings were demo­lished in the late 1970s and the Indian traders had to move to Eltivillas. On the left is the store of Hajee Aboo & Sons and on the right that of AV Mahomed & Sons. 


This partnership lasted for almost 30 years and personified the close-knit character of the early Indian pioneers. These families co-existed and supported each other. The Indian traders tended to have Louis Trichardt as trading headquarters where their wholesale operations were conducted. The company dissolved in 1932 and the partners each started their own businesses.

In an article that appeared in the Voice of the North in June 1977, Ismail Ayob, the son of Mr Ayob Abba, recollects the early years: “Traders had to go by mule or donkey cart to Pietersburg to do their banking and buy goods. The journey there and back took many days. One of the hazards to be faced was the rivers which could come down periodically in flood, and the unfortunate trader would have to camp out on the river bank until the waters had subsided.”

When Ismail Ayob joined his dad in business in 1917, the train line to Messina had already been built, passing three miles away from Louis Trichardt at the Madombidzha siding from where everything destined for town was off-loaded. “There were three trains weekly,” recalled Mr Ayob. He also mentions in the article that the first taps in town were only installed in 1917-18 and there were no tarred roads. People had to travel to Elim hospital when they were sick. There was only one bank (Barclays) and one hotel, built by a Mr Lewis. In 1918, there were two motorcars in town.

Ismail Ayob was a very important person in the Indian community and led the Muslim congregation in prayer for more than two decades, serving as an acting Imam. He died in 1986.

According to Tempelhoff’s book, the Indian population in 1920 in town stood at 78 people, of which 27 were children, 36 were men and 15 were women. These figures are, however, probably understated and a few dozen more Indian businessman traded in the area.

Another Indian pioneer businessman worth mentioning is Dungarshi Morarjee Hindocha. It is uncertain when he first arrived in the region, but it may have been before 1900. At one stage he had around 25 shops throughout the region. Many of the people who later became established traders started off working for Mr Morarjee. He was one of the biggest suppliers of mineral water in the area.

Over the next few decades several other Indian business pioneers settled in the area. The first ones were the Mehta family, the Gokal family, the Sundarjee family and the Ghelani family. Many of these still have children and grandchildren living in the Soutpansberg region and the names live on in stores such as V.M. Ghelani & Sons. According to Tempelhoff’s book, Mr Mohanlal Ghelani and his wife Manekbaie (1901-1996) came from India and started a store at Ratombo, near Levubu, in 1920. Their son, B.M. Ghelani, later bought over Khojas Modern Store. Another son, R.M. Ghelani, later stood at the helm of the firm of V.M. Ghelani & Sons.

The “travelling” nature of some of these Indian businessman is also reflected in the history. The Khojas family arrived in the district in the early 1900s and built up their businesses. They left the country in the late 1960s to settle in East Africa and Canada. Another Indian family, the Rasools from A. Adam & Co, also set up shop at the turn of the 18th century, but left the country for Canada in the 1970s.

In the 1930s and 1940s, more Indian families settled in the Soutpansberg area and became dominant figures in the local business community. These include the Premjee, Patel and Desai families. They were followed by families such as the Noor family, who arrived in the late 1940s. Most of them were extremely successful and, through hard work over several decades, built up small empires. Their stories each warrant separate articles and will take up much more space than available in one newspaper. Unfortunately, no streets were named after them, so we will have to try and incorporate their stories in some of the other streets. For now, we need to return to the first Indian traders.

Being of Indian origin was no easy thing in South Africa, especially in the mid-1900s. Even before the 1900s, anti-Indian legislation was passed, making it impossible for Indian traders to own businesses in the Free State Republic, among other things, or to move freely between provinces without a permit. The 1899 Regulations for Towns in South Africa even stated that it was prohibited for a person of colour to walk on the sidewalks (pavements) of streets in the then Transvaal. Indians had not been allowed to own fixed property, except in designated areas, since 1885.

The turn of the century also marked the entry of a very remarkable Indian citizen, one Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi. He arrived in Pretoria in 1893 as a young lawyer, tasked with handling a case against the merchant firm Dada Abdullah & Company. Gandhi was asked to stay on after the trial and, for the next 20 years, became the undisputed leader of the Indian community in South Africa. He founded the Transvaal British Indian Association in 1903 and spent most of his time fighting against discriminatory laws. He also introduced the world to the concept of satyagraha, or non-violent defiance.

An interesting bit of history is that the well-known Indian trader from Louis Trichardt, Mr Morarjee (or Morarji), in all probability made use of the young Ghandi when he was practicing law in South Africa. On the GhandiServe Foundation’s website (www.gandhiserve.org), reference is made of four letters written by Ghandi to Morarjee. These all had to do with promissory notes and probably the settling of an estate.

The government of the day’s obsession with control increased in the 1920s and areas all over the country were reserved for certain race groups. The then Minister of the Interior, Dr Malan, introduced several new Bills prohibiting the influx of Indian people and also offered incentives to Indian families to leave the country. These were eventually abolished in 1953 when it became apparent that only the elderly, intending to retire in India, were making use of it.

In Louis Trichardt, business went on as usual, although several Bills passed in the 1930s made it very difficult for Indian traders to do business. Indian businesspeople were prohibited by law from employing white labourers. The Asiatic Land Tenure Act with all its amendments also posed a continuous threat as it was clear that the Indian shops and houses were in the government’s sights. In 1946, the Indian Representation Act (the Ghetto Act) came into force and the government of the day pursued its political ideals of forcefully removing people and setting them up in designated areas.


A photo taken on the corner of Krogh and Trichardt (now Songozwi) street probably in the 1950s. On the left Hotel Louis can still be seen.


National politics were mostly in stark contrast with the harmony that existed in the rural areas. The Voice of the North newspaper conducted an interview in June 1977 with two businessmen from Louis Trichardt, Messrs BU Mehta and RM Ghelani. At the end of the interview, Mr Ghelani remarked that his uncle, Mr M Ghelani (sr) had contributed to the building of the hospital in Louis Trichardt, but was never allowed to enter it for treatment. “But times are changing,” said Mr Ghelani, and he looked forward to a future where there would be much better understanding between all race groups.

It took several more decades for this to happen and things started to get much worse in the northernmost part of the country. The 1970s were especially tough, as this marked the struggle against the national government’s efforts to have the Indian community moved out of the centre of town into an area designated for them in a piece of open veldt.

The process started in 1970 when 53 houses were built at a cost of R1,87 million in an area later known as Eltivillas. Two years later, all the Indian residents had to move into these houses and had to be out of town. The Indian traders fought hard to keep their businesses in town, but in 1978 these were also expropriated. Government went ahead and spent R2,7 million on building a new shopping complex adjacent to their houses for the Indian traders and the message was clear: they had to go. In 1978, the PRP’s spokesman on Community Development, Mr Alex Boraine, described the forceful movement of Indian communities as “ideology gone mad.”

In a strange twist of fate, the planning of the various government departments was not co-ordinated and the roads department started building the new bypass adjacent to the newly developed Indian residential area. The main road north to Zimbabwe passed within a hundred metres of the Indian shopping complex and a number of businessmen in town raised their concerns. Ironically, this gave impetus to a combined resistance from both white and Indian traders against the proposed move out of the CBD. The local chamber of commerce conducted a census and joined forces with the Indian Association to oppose the move to Eltivillas. “...91% of the 6 500 Whites and 98% of the Indians wanted the businesses to remain in the town,” Mr Mannetjie Wolmarans, chairman of the Louis Trichardt Chamber of Commerce, told the reporter of the Sunday Express during an interview in June 1978.

“Indians have been citizens of Louis Trichardt since 1896 and colour has never been an issue in our town,” Charlie Ayob is quoted in an article that appeared in The Star in September 1978. Charlie was the son of Mariam Mohammed, the daughter of AV Mohammed. His words were backed by Mr Wolmarans, who replied that “We do not have those kind of troubles in Louis Trichardt.”

Their combined pleas to maintain the status quo fell on deaf ears and the town Council was adamant that the Indian traders should move out of town. Letters written to various government officials and visits to Ministers made no difference. “It was too late,” the then town clerk, Mr Corrie van Rooyen, said. “I told them if they had come sooner, when the bypass was not under construction and the tenders for the Indian complex not already allocated, maybe we could have done something.”

The move to the new centre took place two years later, and in July 1980, the Eltivillas shopping centre opened. It immediately attracted a large number of customers who did not mind supporting the Indian traders at all. The Indian traders, however, found it difficult to leave their stores in the CBD behind. In some cases, the municipality had to use force to remove the belongings of the Indian traders out of the buildings before the bulldozers arrived. “The Indians had no choice but to move out. The people are bitter,” Charlie Ayob told a reporter of the Tribune newspaper a few weeks later.

In a letter written to the Zoutpansberger in 1986, Charlie Ayob writes: “(Our properties) were expropriated by the State at ridiculously low prices, e.g. R25 000 and R108 000. These same properties were later sold for prices as high as R210 000 and R411 000, with massive losses to their original owners and massive profits to the State, and this prevailed right through.” He also points out that when the Indian community was moved, not a single plot was allocated to allow for further expansion. “…the future lies in cooperation and free choice as propagated by all prophets and all religions and not by sectionalisation and segregating people on colour,” he wrote.

A number of years later, during an interview with the Zoutpansberger in 1997, the legendary businessman, Joe Aboo, recalled the sad part of their history. The early Indian families owned most of the properties in the centre of town in the 1940s. “We sold the site where the OK Bazaars (now Shoprite) currently stands for R13 000. Ten years later the site sold for R415 000.”

The irony was that the Indian families from Louis Trichardt were known throughout the country for their business skills. The Aboo family branched out and in 1958 established the firm Omar Bazaars, which assumed the name of Louis Trichardt Wholesalers (Pty) Ltd in 1960. At one stage, the family owned roughly 200 small shops which operated in and around the Soutpansberg, employing close to 6 000 people. In 1987, the family business was listed for a period of two-and-a-half years on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange under the group name, Abhold. During much of this time the owners were not allowed to stay in areas where they operated and were also not allowed to employ white workers.

The year 1986 marked the last salvos in this political battle in Louis Trichardt. In February 1986, the local Council had to decide whether or not to apply for a free-trading area in the CBD in terms of the Group Areas Act. This campaign was driven by, among others, councillor Johan Gilfillan, who tried in vain to convince the Council to open up the centre of town for Indian businesses. Council was divided on the issue and decided to “indefinitely postpone the matter”.

The Indian business community’s hopes to be able to return to town were dealt a serious blow in 1987 when the Conservative Party won the election in the Soutpansberg district. It was clear that the status quo would be maintained. They had to wait until the 1990s when the political dispensation changed, the ANC was unbanned and the Group Areas Act was repealed.

Today the town still has many remnants of the traders who operated in the region a century ago. A number of them have moved back into the centre of town and centres such as the Fatima Noor centre testify to the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years. The mosque in Kruger Street is still there, albeit hidden behind buildings. Eltivillas is still an active trading centre and the names such as Khojas, Kharbai and VM Ghelani live on.

As far as the pioneer company, Karsan Lakha & Co, is concerned, even this store has left behind traces in the town. When Kana Lakha returned with his sons in 1930, they started working for Mr Morarjee. His son, Harjee Kanjee, then started an own “general merchant” store. He was joined by another brother, Mavji Kana.

One by one the Kana family left the country, moving to countries such as Australia or settling in the United Kingdom. The only ones left are Mavji Kana’s son, Vrajkal (known as Bullet). Together with his wife, Asha, they still operate the Harjee Kanjee store in Eltivillas. Sadly, it seems as even this last bloodline is getting thinner and thinner in the Soutpansberg. The couple have two sons, Mitesh and Hamal, but both have professional careers in the cities. Like so many of the other Indian pioneer families, they will have moved on and left others to benefit from an economy that they had helped shape.

Sources:

* Tempelhoff, Johann W.N., Townspeople of the Soutpansberg – A centenary history of Louis Trichardt (1899-1999), 1999.

 

 


 

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