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Global capitalism and its effect on Durban back-of-port neighbourhood

Containers have become a well-integrated and indispensable part of our global capitalist trade system. What we don’t always fully realize, however, is what implications this containerization has for the daily lives of residents living in neighbourhoods nearby ports.

Wondering what your favourite sweater, daily cup of coffee and smartphone have in common? The answer is containers. Almost every consumer item that you’ve ever bought has seen the inside of a container during its journey to your home.

While today this may seem self-evident, this wasn’t always the case. It is only since the 1970s that containers became a well introduced vehicle for transporting goods in our global trade system. Before, cargo was stocked in the hold of the ship and needed a great amount of dock workers to load and unload it piece by piece. Since the containerization of global trade, all of this changed and the amount of goods floating annually over our seas increased enormously. While in 1950 about half a billion tons of stuff was moved around the oceans, this number increased to 4 billion tons in the early 1990.[1] Today this number is no less than 10 billion tons.[2]

This massive increase should not be surprising. With the containerization of goods, it became possible to stock large amounts of merchandise in standardized boxes, making the loading and unloading process less time consuming and drastically reducing costs of transportation. And because all over the world containers share the same sizes, these containers are easily able to travel globally, crossing oceans and land on huge cargo ships and semi-trucks.

In a sense, one could say that these metal boxes are the embodiment of capitalist globalization. Not only because their introduction in the shipping industry was an enormous boost for the number of goods traded globally, but also because when global capitalism suffers from a recession, this will be felt in the amount of containers being shipped. Or because the evolution from containerships that were able to carry about 800 twenty-foot equivalent-containers to today’s giants that are able to stash about 15,000 of them, can partly be explained by the constant need for growth inherent to the capitalist system.

Containers and the built environment

Dwelling on these facts, one can easily imagine the massive effect containerization must have had and still has on port cities all over the world. With the introduction of containers an entire new way of transport and storage was required. Cargo ships got bigger and the number of trucks required to keep up with the constant supply of containers in the port multiplied. Port related businesses had to adapt to the containerization of goods, and space needed to be created for extra trucking companies and container depots.

For a lot of harbours this need for adaptation meant their downfall, especially for those ports located close to the heart of the city. Harbour cities like San Francisco, Manhattan and London, for example, were already densely built and simply had too little place for space-consuming activities like container depots. Durban harbour, however, while being an old port located in the very centre of the city, did adapt to this change. Even more, it became the largest and busiest shipping terminal in sub-Saharan Africa, handling up to 2.7 million containers in 2015.[3] While this number is still far higher than any other African container port, Durban harbour fears to become less relevant if neighbouring ports, like the port of Maputo, are getting ready to receive mega-ships.[4] Because of this international competition, Durban Port feels a constant need to expand capacity, making room for bigger ships, more trucks and a higher number of containers.

Victims of containerization

What are the downsides of this urge for growth and expansion? In Durban, the most tangible side effects are found in the South of the City Centre, in the South Durban Basin. While this entire region feels the weight of being close to a container port in terms of air pollution and spatial pressure, it is especially in the suburb of Clairwood that one can fully experience how communities are put under stress by the ever expanding containerization.

Squeezed between the harbour of Durban and the city’s industrial hub at the South Durban Basin, Clairwood residents have to deal with a constant stream of heavy freight trucks driving through their neighbourhood, the slow decay of public infrastructure because of the intensity with which it is used by these trucks, and changes in land use with container depots and trucking companies popping up overnight.

Because of its attractive location, the municipality has had its eyes on this residential area for over sixty years, wanting to rezone it for industrial purposes. However, with the containerization of global trade and the need for more container storage facilities in proximity of the port, the intended zoning gradually shifted from industrial to logistics.

In 2012, the eThekwini Municipality launched its Back of Port Local Area Plan, in which it suggested to get rid of the residents in Clairwood to make way for distribution, assembly, warehouses, offices, and container storage facilities. With this plan, the precariousness in which the residents in Clairwood have to live day in day out aggravated, leaving about 5,000 people with no clear vision on what the future will bring.

A united resistance?

“Our fight right now is a very important one. It is one to ensure Clairwood’s prosperity and to recognize its history.” This is the chairman of the Clairwood Ratepayers and Residents Association (CRRA) talking. Like other members in the association, he has been fighting for decades against the many container trucks in his neighbourhood and the threat of rezoning. “It does become very frustrating, I have to say. This battle has been going on for 60-70 years now. But we will continue fighting the struggle.”

The Clairwood Ratepayers Association was founded when the first threats of industrialization started to occur in Clairwood and has been fighting ever since. It is very much so that it is the persistence and endurance of this association that has kept Clairwood more or less liveable for the last couple of decades. The last decade, however, this resistance has been failing to unite the people living in Clairwood in this common struggle.

Why, if the arrival of container depots and trucking companies meant so much environmental and social harm in their neighbourhood, do residents not overwhelmingly join the CRRA’s struggle? I would argue that it is because their struggle doesn’t give voice to those suffering from this capitalist system.

The arguments used by the CRRA to preserve Clairwood, ban the trucking and container companies and reject the rezoning to logistics revolve mainly around three issues: the Indian cultural heritage in the area, the loss of community among residents, and the rights of predominantly Indian property owners who are paying rates to the municipality. 

Once, Clairwood was the most densely populated Indian settlement worldwide outside India. Up to 50,000 Indian descendants were living in this suburb. Having been a predominantly Indian community for decades, resistance as well has always predominantly been based on the Indian identity. The rich Indian cultural heritage in the neighbourhood is one of the CRRA’s main arguments to insist on the preservation of the area.

Over time, however, the demographics of this neighbourhood changed substantially. Black African citizens became the biggest group living here, and  more and more residents didn’t own their property but had to either rent or squat. There are both poor Indians and Black Africans living here in very precarious situations. Some of them are tenants who have to deal with the constant fear of being evicted and replaced by a trucking company, some of them are shack dwellers hoping for better housing, somewhere far away from the containers and the trucking companies. But all of them have no direct interest in the cultural heritage in their neighbourhood.

Whereas the needs and interests of the residents changed over time, the arguments used by the protest group remained primarily those of an Indian property owning and heritage appreciative minority in Clairwood. Almost none of the Black African residents know the CRRA, or what they are fighting for. When asked what she thinks about the idea to preserve Clairwood as a cultural heritage site, a young Black African woman living in an informal settlement would answer: “They can remove us out of the area, and we will be happy to leave them with their temples, ceremonies and trucks. We don’t really get along with Indians, we feel like they are still discriminatory towards us.”

On top of the racial tension between Black South Africans and residents with an Indian background, and on top of the class tensions between property owners, tenants and shack dwellers, this community becomes even further divided by xenophobic sentiments, tearing down any hope for a united struggle against the continuing deterioration of Clairwood. Many of the drivers working for the container trucking companies that have settled in Clairwood have a foreign background. Coming from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, most of these young men work long hours for a pittance of about ZAR 80 for a full day work. This extensive use of cheap migrant labour is a main ingredient to global capitalist trade, but rather than recognizing the exploitation of these men, many Black South Africans and Indians living in Clairwood believe foreign labourers are stealing their jobs. Identifying them as the cause of many of the problems instead of victims of the same system they themselves are suffering, a united front between all residents, both Indian, Black South African and with migrant background, seems a sheer impossibility. 

Obviously, Clairwood’s is a much more complex story than a simple confrontation between residents on the one side and container driven economic activities on the other. For quite a few residents, these containers mean their livelihood in one way or the other. But it does make one thing very clear. The containerization of goods made it definitely easier, cheaper and faster for us to get that fashionable sweater manufactured in China, that cup of coffee with Ethiopian beans, or that latest smartphone consisting of parts produced all over the world. However, at the same time we don’t always realize that this containerization comes with drastic consequences for thousands of people living close to container ports, putting pressure on already precarious communities. People are losing their houses to container depots, experience a decrease in their quality of life by the air pollution caused by container hauling trucks, and struggle to preserve the liveability of their neighbourhood.

* ELISABET VAN WYMEERSCH is a PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp. Currently, she is a visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in Durban.

Further reading and listening

Podcast ‘Containers’

Containers is an 8-part audio documentary about how global trade has transformed the economy and ourselves.

Book ‘The Box’ by Marc Levinson

The Box tells the dramatic story of the container’s creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the seismic shifts it helped bring about — shifts with far-reaching consequences for workers, communities, and the international economy.

[1] Lundgren, N.G. (1996). Bulk trade and maritime transport costs. Resources Policy 22: 1/2,pg. 8

[2] Alexis Madrigal in ‘episode 1: Welcome to Global Capitalism’ of the podcast ‘Containers’. See

[3] Source: Ports & Ships. See:

[4] Source: The Maritime Executive. See: