Celebrating Tongaat’s first CBD

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The pictures for the Then and Now this week come from an array of old photographs on the walls of My Food Joint in Railway Street in Tongaat which celebrate the history of the sugar farming town.

The first picture shows the wood and iron general store of D Ramburran & Sons in Railway street, where you could buy anything from pots and pans, to school uniforms, to groceries and farm implements and animal feed.

Rafick Ally, who still has his bicycle shop in Railway Street, remembers the store “all my life from my father’s time”. His father had a bicycle shop to the right of Ramburran. On the corner with Main Road, today Gopalall Hurbans Road, was Bechari’s Cafe.

“It was a bargain store and I think it was run by a Mr Moodley,” says Ally.

Today his bicycle shop is three of four stores to the left and further down Railway Street, next to the My Food Joint, where bicycles old and new and parts and spares, are stacked to the rafters.

Trophy Excellence where D Ramburran & Sons were many years ago in Tongaat. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

Tour guide Sathi Govender points out that Railway Street was the original CBD of Tongaat and there would be very few people alive who would recognise the original town, pointing out they’d be well into their seventies.

“Tongaat back then was a village with a dozen or so business families running little shops along Railway Street. Behind was the original Tongaat mill and a few sugar barracks. The rest was farms,” Govender says. “The Ally family was one of those original traders.”

He also likes the Joko Tea sign and the fact that the address was PO Box 2, Tongaat. “Joko was a famous brand even back then.”

Little is known about the Rumburran Store. “It didn’t last long. I think he was a maverick and moved on into business,” says Govender. “The store would have been demolished and the plot stayed vacant for a number of years before the new building was built, so that you could have a shop at street level and live upstairs.”

The Durban Documentation Centre records a Mani Ramburran, indenture number 62015, from Ghazipur leaving Calcutta in April 1896 on board the Umlazi, for the Tongaat estate of Aberfoyle, owned by JR Saunders. It’s not sure whether they are related

Sunny Sookraj, a customer at the My Food Joint, has also lived in Tongaat all his life. He loves the little one-way street which today links the railway station to Main Road, the picture bringing back memories of his childhood.

The MG Redhi bookstore on Main Road, Tongaat, with the town hall in the background.
The site of the MGR building today which replaced the original MG Redhi shop. The trees are now obscuring the town hall. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

Also featured on the walls of My Joint is the original shop of MG Redhi at 333 Main Street next to the Town Hall. Today the building has long since been pulled down and features a three-storey block of flats with shops below. It is still named the MGR buildings. MG Redhi is now at 224 Gopalall Hurbans Road and has sold books, stationery and office equipment since 1937. They are also musical and electrical importers.

“Tongaat is a special town with a special history,” says Govender. “The Tongaat group dominated the economics of the town and created a beautiful town that included white, Indian and African people. It was a little more sophisticated than your average farming town, with standards set that were normally reserved for white people. So there were sports facilities and libraries. You could come straight out of the cane fields and send your kids off to be doctors,” he says.

Govender notes the challenges the town faces today are similar to many small towns. “There’s no community anymore. I hope the children won’t leave and we can rebuild that,” he says.

My Food Joint was opened in 2015 in the Anjuman Islam buildings, in part to create that community and to celebrate the rich and culturally diverse food history with recipes handed down from previous generations.

The Independent on Saturday

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