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The celebrated
Mvalo stick case

An incident of legal racism at East London in 1892

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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In August 1892 William Mvalo -- a visitor to East London -- disembarked from a train at the Terminus Street station. He carried his belongings securely wrapped inside a blanket, his fighting-stick protruding at one end.

As he exited into Cambridge Street, he was arrested for contravening municipal regulations, appeared before the Magistrate and was sentenced to a fine of £1 while forfeiting the offensive object: his stick.

Mvalo's case was nothing new. The stick regulation had been in existence for a decade and during that time many infringements had been prosecuted. What made this particular prosecution important was that William Mvalo was the first to appeal against the verdict.

His action then set in motion a chain of events which would irrevocably alter the Black person's lot both at East London and in other towns of the eastern Cape.

When Mvalo appeared before the Magistrate, his defence argued that the "stick regulation" was racist because it applied only to Black people. This was in contradiction to colonial law and was therefore illegal. Whites could carry sticks and so therefore could Black people.

The prosecution, however, argued that the regulation was important for the better administration of the town. Africans, they claimed, readily resorted to using their sticks when in a fight, whereas Whites used only their fists.

The Magistrate agreed and the claim was dismissed. Mvalo, however, appealed and the case was heard once more, this time in the Eastern Districts Court.

Mvalo's team argued this time that the stick regulation was an attempt at "class legislation" because only Blacks were forbidden to carry sticks. The Solicitor-General pointed out that it was possible then to prevent Irishmen from carrying shillelaghs within the municipality.

Mvalo won his appeal. The judge concluded that authority to make class legislation was the sole prerogative of Parliament. The Town Council could therefore not frame any discriminatory regulations unless such power had been specifically conferred on it by Act of Parliament.

The verdict had an immediate impact on East London's Black community, many of whom now began a deliberate campaign of defying municipal authority. Their idea, the East London Dispatch reported, was that the superior authority had upset "the pretensions of the local powers".

So perturbed was the Town Council at its loss of face that it decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. The case was therefore heard for a third time but the verdict in November 1892 again upheld Mvalo's argument.

The court decided that the bye-law itself was "unreasonable". Africans could have their sticks confiscated merely "by having them", the judge stated, even if they were peacefully disposed -- as in Mvalo's case.

The regulation made no mention of sticks being confiscated because they were dangerous weapons. Indeed, a Black person might have his stick in a bag -- or even wrapped up in a blanket -- and still have it confiscated.

The "celebrated Stick case", as Mayor Rees called it, was a landmark judgement and focussed the Council's attention on the legality of its other racist regulations. Furthermore, the judgement had serious implications not only for East London but also for the other towns in the Eastern Cape.

A doubt now existed about the legality of all regulations which were specifically aimed at the Black community but not directly provided for by law. It was not enough that a bye-law appeared reasonable, Mayor Rees explained to his Council. It had also to be reasonable "within the meaning of the Statute".

If any regulations were to be framed for the control of the locations, therefore, it was first necessary to be in possession of an Act of Parliament. It was therefore essential, the Mayor concluded, that "no time be lost" to secure additional powers to "deal with the natives".

The Council therefore turned its immediate attention to submitting a Private Bill to Parliament to give it racist powers. By the time the draft Bill had been prepared, however, it was too late for it to pass during that session. It was recommended that a "public measure" be passed instead.

The Port Elizabeth and King Williamstown municipalities were immediately called upon to support East London's case. The result was an Act of Parliament of 1893 which gave considerably increased powers to municipalities to pass various additional regulations to govern their Black communities.

Nevertheless, this Act was purely an interim measure. The municipality wanted even wider powers and was aided in its efforts by the dominance of the Afrikaner Bond within Parliament.

The East London Municipal Bill of 1895 was the outcome, drawn up to enable the municipality to embark upon various programmes like an electrical power scheme and the construction of a tramway system.

Hidden in the Act were three revolutionary racist clauses which had as yet appeared nowhere else in the Colony: a law to forbid anyone other than Whites from using the side-walks of the town; authority to segregate the bathing areas; and power to discriminate against Asians.

Edward Brabant explained to the Select Committee of Parliament that what East London required was a "clearer definition" of its powers over the non-White community generally.

Segregated bathing, he said, was seen as absolutely necessary "in the interest of public decency and morality".

The question of turning "non-Whites" off the pavements, on the other hand, was one of "simple expediency" because "hundreds of natives flocked into the town" on Saturday afternoons to frequent the canteens, and "respectable" White women and their children could no longer walk along the streets.

The Bill met with little opposition in Parliament, except to exclude "exempted natives" from the measure -- that is, those Black men who qualified to vote. It became an Act of Parliament in July 1895.

Within two years, the first discriminatory regulation was passed which forbade all but White teams from playing on the municipal grounds. Indeed, Black people were forbidden even to enter the gates.

In December 1903 the African populace was forbidden from walking on the side-walks of the town, a situation that would be maintained until the 1930s. In 1909 segregated bathing was imposed, with all East London surf-spots except the Eastern Beach being reserved for Whites.

Mvalo's successful appeal in the "celebrated Stick case" certainly won him a personal reward and showed up the pretentious Town Council for what it was. Unwittingly, however, he also ushered in a new phase in Cape history where local authorities were given even more power to promulgate racist measures.

The "Stick Case" also heralded the introduction of political resistance. Black organisations became more and more angry at the growing racism which the East London Municipal Act of 1895 heralded. Eventually, in 1912, this would give birth to the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of today's African National Congress.

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