Although PIETERMARITZBURG (often called Maritzburg), the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, sells itself as the best-preserved Victorian city in South Africa, with strong British connections, little of its colonial heritage remains. It’s actually a very South African city, with Zulus forming the largest community, followed by Indians, with those of British extraction a minority – albeit a high-profile one. This multiculturalism, together with a substantial student population, adds up to a fairly lively city that’s also relatively safe and small enough to explore on foot, with most places of interest within easy walking distance of the centre’s heart. Only 80km inland from Durban along the fast N3 freeway, Pietermaritzburg is an easy day’s outing from the coastal city; it can be combined with visits to the Valley of a Thousand Hills along the Old Main Road (R103), or used as an overnight stop en route to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg or the Battlefields in the vicinity of Ladysmith.
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Brief history of Pietermaritzburg
Pietermaritzburg’s Afrikaner origins are reflected in its name; after slaughtering three thousand Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, the Voortrekkers established the fledgling Republic of Natalia in 1839, naming their capital in honour of the Boer leaders Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz. The republic’s independence was short-lived – Britain annexed it only four years later, and by the closing decade of the nineteenth century Maritzburg was the most important centre in the colony of Natal, with a population of nearly 10,000 (more than Durban at that time). Indians arrived at the turn of the last century, mostly as indentured labourers, but also as traders. Among their number was a young, little-known lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi, who went on to change the history of India. He later traced the embryo of his devastatingly successful tactic of passive resistance to an incident in 1893, when as a non-white he was thrown out of a first-class train compartment at Pietermaritzburg station.
Writer, teacher and politician Alan Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1903. His visionary first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, focused international attention on the plight of black South Africans and sold millions of copies worldwide. The book was published in 1948 – the same year the National Party assumed power and began to establish apartheid – and Paton subsequently entered politics to become a founder-member of the non-racial and fiercely anti-apartheid Liberal Party. He was president of the party from 1960 until 1968, when it was forced to disband by repressive legislation forbidding multiracial political organizations.
Paton died in Durban in 1988, having published a number of works, including two biographies and his own autobiography. The following year, the Alan Paton Centre was established at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s archives building on Milner Rd, Scottsville (visits by appointment; 033 260 5926). The Centre includes a re-creation of Paton’s study, as well as personal memorabilia and documents.