October 8, 2001
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Mayfair: A Mini India in the Making

Fakir Hassen in Johannesburg

A little over a decade ago, the residential suburb of Mayfair near the heart of the business centre in South Africa's commercial capital was forbidden to ethnic Indians.

It was a residential area for members of the white community and Lebanese and Jewish settlers, who set up house there at the turn of the last century amid the initial gold rush into Johannesburg.

South African Indians were forbidden entry there under the hated Group Areas Act of the white minority government.

Now, ironically, if the same act were to be applied to Mayfair, it would be declared an Indian residential area.

South African Indians today occupy almost all the homes in the suburb. Many residents are the third and fourth generation descendants of those who first arrived here in the 1860s from India.

There are an estimated 10,000 South African Indians settled in Mayfair and more than 1,000 Pakistani and Indian refugee seekers. The white population in neighbouring suburbs is more than 10 times that figure.

Some people vividly remember being displaced from homes in or near Mayfair and adjacent suburbs like Vrededorp and Fordsburg, and being resettled with their families in Lenasia, some 35 km away.

After the dismantling of apartheid and its race discriminatory laws, many moved back to be closer to their businesses or places of work in the city.

South African Indians took advantage of a loophole in the law that prevented them from buying homes in Mayfair. They could, however, buy a house under a white nominee's name.

The white nominee would then "rent" the house back to the Indian principal, albeit illegally at the time, but the authorities turned a blind eye to this.

Originally built at the turn of the century to house mainly white miners on the Johannesburg goldfields in semi-detached homes, Mayfair's residents generally took very little pride in developing their homes.

Today the suburb boasts some of the finest houses in Johannesburg, all owned by South African Indians, but convenience comes with a hefty price.

Ismail Gattoo, one of the oldest established estate agents in the area, says South African Indians were forced to buy in the area after it was declared the only suburb in the city where Indians could buy homes under a permit system started in 1992.

"Whites were practically queuing to sell homes to South African Indians buyers because of the killing they could make on the price. Houses costing 10,000 rands on the open market changed hands for 35,000 to 40,000 rands," said Gattoo.

"Most whites moved to other areas, where they could buy up with the profits made, and in many cases moved into old age homes."

Unfortunately, says Gattoo, the new South African Indian buyers had to spend huge amounts in upgrading and adapting the sometimes-dilapidated homes.

While a similar situation existed in the suburbs surrounding Mayfair (Homestead Park and Mayfair West), many whites in these areas chose to remain there because their property values increased as their South African Indian neighbours upgraded their homes.

But the signs are clear: a mini India is in the making here. A former Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church has been converted to a Swaminarayan Temple; a Jewish Synagogue is now a mosque.

Currently under construction is a massive project -- originally involving the conversion of a church into a Hindu temple but now into a mosque and an orphanage.

In the busy main road of Church Street in Mayfair, there is hardly a white shop owner or medical practitioner to be seen. Amid the hustle and bustle, South African Indian greengrocers, spice dealers, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, supermarkets motorcar dealers and cafes go about their business.

Adding extra flavour to the street are Pakistani and Indian immigrants who prepare tandoori chicken, sheesh kebabs and paan in a variety of ways on the pavements. They began arriving here, many seeking refugee status, after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Four primary and one high school in the area have predominantly Indian pupils, and Gattoo says even people who move away to more affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg often return to Mayfair because of its unique community spirit and cultural atmosphere.

Indo-Asian News Service

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