Discarding history

2010-06-29 00:00

THE Msunduzi Municipality stands accused of squandering the city’s history with its recent plans to erect temporary housing at the Tatham Memorial Grounds (TMG) in Fitzsimmons Road.

Residents in the area are not buying the municipality’s story that it will be erecting temporary structures. The Fitzsimmons Residents Association (FRA) say that temporary housing has a way of becoming permanent.

Gerald Harry, spokesperson for the FRA, claims that an area currently occupied by the informal settlers was a park with swings and slides. Eighteen years ago the municipality said people would be living in this park for three months. Today the people are still there.

Harry points to the prefab housing in Masukwana Street, erected over two years ago, that was supposed to be temporary but which has become a permanent fixture.

The FRA will be calling on the support of the rest of the city not only over the loss of one of the few recreational spaces in Pietermaritzburg but more importantly to save the Tatham Memorial Grounds (TMG) from being used for temporary housing. The FRA claims that with no proper planning or long-term view, the municipality is wiping away an important chunk of both the city’s colonial and struggle history.

Author Christopher Merrett has described the TMG as one of the most significant sites in the history of the city’s African population. This was in a piece he wrote for the journal, Natalia, titled: “Social Control and communal resistance: African football in Pietermaritzburg 1920-74”.

In his seminal work, Sport, Space and Segregation: Politics and Society in Pietermaritzburg, Merrett traces the layered history of the grounds.

He has written about the rationale of the colonial government for providing sports grounds for the Africans and the feisty battles, sometimes marred by violence, of the Maritzburg and District African Football Association (MDAFA) to win control of the grounds from the conservative Maritzburg and District Bantu Football Association (MDBFA). Interestingly, local struggle icon Harry Gwala was an integral player in this fight. During the late sixties and the seventies there was an attempt by the Indian Local Affairs Council to take over the grounds for the exclusive use of the “Indian” population. This was thwarted by the proponents of nonracial sport, who ensured that the grounds remained a nonracial facility.

Research on the history of political resistance in the city during the fifties shows that the TMG was used for protest rallies. One of the meetings was addressed by ANC stalwart Robert Resha, who headed the ANC’s economic boycott campaign at the time. Resha died in exile in 1973.

According to Merrett, the TMG was officially opened on July 28, 1937, by the highest representative of the colonial government, the governor-general, Sir Patrick Duncan. The grounds were named after Judge F. S. Tatham who was president of the South African Native Football Association. The opening was marked by the foibles of the master-servant relationship of the day. Oliver Msimang commented that whites had brought light into darkness and expressed pleasure in being a subject of his majesty. Merrett comments that he may have chosen to be diplomatic given the presence of Duncan. The governor- general, in turn, said: “The grounds would enable the native to live like a human being and would provide for him the sport that the Europeans required themselves.”

According to Merrett, part of the rationale for providing the grounds were white fears over free time for Africans, “imagining that it would lead inevitably to crime, alcoholism, illicit sex and, perhaps most worrying of all, radical political activity”.

There was also an open park-like space in Market Square, next to the city hall. White officials did not want Africans gathering there. Merrett said that in February 1939, a sports meeting and dancing held at Tatham was contrasted with the emptiness of Market Square, to the satisfaction of the authorities. Boxing matches also took place at the TMG and an early city bulletin commented that these measures deprived Market Square “of its former popularity with the natives”.

Merrett’s piece in Natalia describes in detail the highly contested struggles between the MDBFA and the MDAFA. He said the MDAFA, one of 11 branches of the South African African Football Association (SAAFA), adopted a more independent, radical and sometimes Africanist political stance that brought it into conflict with the Municipal Native Administrative Department and its rivals. This was a pattern that was also evident in Johannesburg.

The dispute between the two football bodies over control of the Tatham Memorial Grounds lingered on during the early years of the war. Merrett comments, “the football politics of the time were Byzantine in their complexity and are now hard to unravel given the limited scope of the surviving correspondence”. He adds that the history of African football during the forties illustrates the extent to which the governance of sport became a surrogate for meaningful political activity. “Football was used as a weapon against the white establishment, but also as a vehicle for struggle within different strands of African society, conservative and radical.”

Another highlight of the TMG was that in 1945 Wilfred Msimang was appointed the first municipal African social worker who was responsible for organising Sunday afternoon sport at Tatham.

The enforcement of the Group Areas Act brought its own challenges over use of the grounds and the apartheid government’s determination to keep communities apart. Merrett said the axe fell in 1973 when Tatham was transferred to Maritzburg Indian Sports Association (MISA) who restored the pavilion and developed a cricket pitch on the ground. However, this body had a fair number of members who pushed for nonracism in sport. By 1977, the ground was used by the nonracial Maritzburg District Cricket Union. According to Merrett the Tatham grounds provided the city’s nonracial cricket players with their only turf wicket. He adds that during the anti-apartheid struggle in the mid-eighties, political meetings were held under the cover of cricket. “Sunday morning was the favoured time. When the Pietermaritzburg Council on Sport held a fun run, security police were at the ground noting the names of the participants.”

Merrett concludes his piece in Natalia by saying that the Tatham Grounds, “is slowly falling into disrepair. But it is a memorial to the struggles of African people to establish a presence in the city to which they made such an enormous, and often disparaged, contribution.”

According to Merrett, the history of all African sport in Pietermaritzburg was one of marginalisation, impermanence and displacement, and that story remains a part of the history of the city in the physical presence of the Tatham Memorial Grounds. “And from a later era Tatham is the major remaining physical symbol, a place of nostalgic memory, for those who worked in the anti-apartheid movement in the name of cricket. As a feature of Pietermaritzburg’s complex history, the Tatham ground deserves greater respect than it appears to be receiving by way of preservation.”

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