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Book Review: Chatsworth, The Making of a South African Township

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

By Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

Holding the substantial hardbound copy of ‘Chatsworth, The Making of a South African Township’ in my hands, makes me ponder on Karl Marx’ (Samuel, H Beer,1955: ix) notion of ‘historical materialism’. The substance created from the engagement of a society with the legalities of the state. It is within this contextual framework, that this review approaches the writings of Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, as they document the social conditions of an Indian township, during and after the application of the political apparatus of ‘apartheid’ in South Africa. The implicit use of the verb ‘making’ in the title, suggests that the Chatsworthians have been actively producing their own material life, in relation to and despite of a dominant socio-political system that has irrevocably impacted their humanity and identities. The importance this book as a slice of historical material situated within the ‘post’ post-apartheid discourse, is crucial toward our collection of multicultural temporal histories. These temporalities, the experiential, exist as yellowing faded photographs, veiled memories, lived places, relationships and events, dotted along a broken timeline. The collective Indian narrative in South Africa exists as fragmented and dispersed amongst the archived bound histories of previous and current regimes. Desai and Vahed go about the important work of deftly sifting, collating and preserving these elusive fragments of human historical material, before they are lost forever.

The read consists of a collection of forty essays contributed by twenty-six writers and documents the period roughly from the nineteen sixties to the present day, in the township of Chatsworth, located within the coastal town of Durban, South Africa. Chatsworth was the name given for the geographical location, allocated for the relocation of all peoples of Indian descent living in South Africa during the period of apartheid (1948-1994). This forcible assertion of state authority over the disenfranchised was viewed as an attempt to ‘ghettoise’ (Desai and Vahed, 2013: 1) the Indian people within a ‘frozen racial landscape’. The narratives that emanate from this book, are however not petrified in time, they occur as living, organic permutations of real people having endured a most inhumane crime against their civil liberties and personal identities. Stories include the municipal workers of the Magazine barracks, fisherman from Bayhead, the banana farmers from the surrounds, factory workers from Clairwood and Cato Manor, and the market gardeners from Seaview, Cato Manor and Riverside. Various ethnographical, temporal threads, stitching together a mismatched, yet culturally rich tapestry of the heritage that has brought forth the contemporary generation of Indian South African citizens. Vahed weaves into this tapestry the lesser known, Zanzibari people of east-coastal African ancestry from King’s Rest, who were also relocated to Chatsworth due to their Muslim faith. He brings to light their struggle for identity against the daily onslaught of socio-economic deprivation (Desai and Vahed, 2013: 84), their inclusion speaks to the concentric ripples of devalued peoples of both black and Indian ethnicities relegated to the outermost peripheries of humanity.

Each of the forty essays are approached with a sensitivity and respect for the precious histories of the people, whilst contextualising each narrative within the broader socio-political framework of South Africa. Unlike the western linear model of history within the textbooks circulated in state - funded Chatsworth schools, the daily production of material life for Indian people was arduous, messy, inconsistent, unrelenting and silent. All of the twenty-six writers attempt to give a voice to a selection of the ‘urban proletariat’ (Desai and Vahed, 2013: 26), to tell their dialectical stories of resistance and acceptance, dislocation and homestead and perseverance and passivity. These are stories that are caught in flux between past and present, not neatly conforming to even the current revisionist order, they are loose open-ended threads flitting in the crosswinds of political change. Almost three decades after the apartheid, one might question the relevance of township history, a Fugardian[1] response would be that ‘people are living there’. The dynamism of Chatsworth is perpetuated by new generations of inhabitants, never static, but a symbolic place, in which the daily struggles of life continue to play out. Although the book casts nostalgic glances to the past, the overarching theme is aimed at a contemporary, psychological reconnaissance of what really happened here? And what did it all mean? (Desai and Vahed, 2013: 6)

‘Chatsworth, the making of a South African township’ does not constitute revisionist literature in post-apartheid South Africa, as one cannot revise what was never written previously. However similarly to a revisionist stance it squarely addresses issues of race and class (Leggasick and Minkley, 1998: 100) and validates identities and livelihoods into existence. A cruel symptom of minorities and marginalised societies is that of historic erasure, in this instance Desai and Vahed stitch together our fragmented quilt for posterity and it’s a good start. Becoming the curators of our own lived histories will foster a spirit of inclusivity and national identity within a post ‘post-apartheid’ landscape.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence, but rather it is their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Karl Marx, 1848).

Footnotes [1] Athol Fugard, is a South African playwright, novelist, actor, and director widely regarded as South Africa's greatest playwright. He is best known for his political plays opposing the system of apartheid. People are living there is a milestone two-act play which allows the audience to reflect and search for the true meaning of life.


Beer, SH. 1955. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifestos. With selections from the eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Capital by Karl Marx. Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc: New York.

Desai, A and Vahed, G. 2013. Chatsworth, The Making of a South African Township. University of KwaZulu-Natal: South Africa.

Leggasick, M and Minkley, G. 1998. Current Trends in the Production of South African History. Available online: (Accessed 10/01/2022).

Meer, F. 2000. Indian South Africans – The struggle to be South African. Available online: (Accessed 10/01/2022)

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