south africa 7: durban—sun, sea, sand and the indian connection

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Self portrait—Artist: Me; Location: Golden Mile

Day 1: Sun, Sea and Sand and a bit more
Durban is South Africans’ choice domestic holiday destination. It is the most African city in the country. It is also the most Indian city in Africa. Not many foreign tourists come here. Another one of those slips.

The busiest port in Africa, Durban is an eclectic mix of golden sands, colonial architecture, and Indian colour. There is an easy feel to it which makes one feel immediately at home. The pace is relaxed; the smiles are warm and friendly. Life simply revolves around the beach which makes the six-kilometre long golden mile the obvious ‘start’ and at times ‘finish’ to one’s explorations of the city.

Which is what I did as well. An invigorating walk down the paved promenade took me to uShaka Marine World, a themed aquarium built in a mock-up ship wreck. At the other end of the day a sky-car lifted me to the roof of Moses Mabhida Stadium and windy stunning views of the sun-kissed city. And somewhere in-between, against a backdrop of children shrieking with delight in the water rides and weathered Durbanites throwing their fishing lines into the waters, soft warm golden sands kissed my bare feet as I chatted with sand sculpture artists from far off Tanzania and Sudan.

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Sun, sea and sand …

But there is always more, even in an obvious beach haven. Behind the glitzy hotels lining the beachfront are countless treasures, some natural, others cultural. One such is to saunter through the Durban Botanic Gardens and round off the visit with toasted chicken mayo sandwiches and a cup of five roses in their tea garden.

The first European to sight the city, or area to be more precise, was Vasco da Gama as he travelled parallel to the coast on Christmas Day in 1497 and named it Natal or Christmas in Portuguese. The name has stuck since. Interestingly, Durban was never a Dutch colony, but a British one from the outset stemming from a settlement made up of a party of 25 men in 1824. The City Hall in the heart of the city is a replica of the one in Belfast!

Though a thriving African metropolis today, Durban, like every other South African city was equally subjected to the inhuman ugliness of apartheid and likewise it too has a museum dedicated to this painful chapter in its past and lessons learnt, namely, the Kwa Muhle Apartheid Museum. The Phansi Museum, on the other hand, with its collection of South African beadwork and indigenous artefacts is a visual treat.

One of the things that comes up in every book on South Africa’s history is the silks and beads the colonial traders brought in and sold to the local African people in exchange for ivory and gold. But where did these beads go? What use were they of to the African person? Seemed like a pretty skewed deal to me. It finally made sense today as I saw the walking sticks, baskets, ceremonial wear, fertility dolls, jewellery, and countless other objects in Phansi. They were all adorned with thousands of tiny coloured ‘foreign’ beads; a practice of decoration that carried on for centuries till it became an integral and accepted part of ‘indigenous’ African culture. That is international trade reflexively shaping national cultural identities for you.

It was also now time for me to find my way back to the beach. 🙂

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And a bit more … Moses Mabhida Stadium, a traditional beaded fertility doll, and the Durban Botanic Gardens, the oldest surviving botanical garden in Africa (1851)

Day 2: The Indian Connection
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Durban is home to the largest number of people of Indian descent outside of India, estimated at around 800,000. Bollywood, Tollywood, Bhangra bashes, Punjabi suits, curries galore, all that glitters is gold, rituals and traditions, the omnipresent extended family—all reign supreme here. But with a difference. Though tracing back to common roots, the Indians in South Africa have had a unique history over the past 150 years.

The Indian chapter in South Africa goes back to 1859 when the Natal Coolie Law was passed allowing sugarcane farmers in the Durban area to bring in Indian indentured labourers into the country. November 1860 saw the first group of 352 Indians arrive followed by thousands more in the subsequent years. But there were also free Indians who found their way to South Africa. These were the traders, who came from 1869 onwards and were known as the ‘passenger’ Indians since they had paid for their journey by themselves.

Life was not easy for the new immigrants. Added to an existence of lack and gruelling labour was the coming into force of the Registration of Servants Act of 1888 which classified Indians as an ‘uncivilized race’ and required all Indians to register and carry passbooks or else face arrest.

It was against this backdrop that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a lawyer, arrived in 1893 to represent a wealthy Indian businessman in a lawsuit and stayed on for 21 years making South Africa his adopted home. It was in this country, as the secretary of the Natal Indian Congress, that he developed his policy of non-violence, namely, satyagraha.

The obvious Indian sights are Victoria Market on Grey Street brimming with spices such as Mother-in-law exterminator and plastic floral garlands for rituals and ceremonies, and Juma Mosque, the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere. Less blatant, and a little further inside are the Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth and the Umgeni Road Hindu Temple. The former is a delight in design, structure, beauty and faith, with the most fantastic dal chawal at its restaurant—Govindas. Umgeni, in contrast, is a South Indian temple dating back to 1883 wrapped in fragrance, numerous deities and a sombre air. It was hard put to remind myself that I was, in fact, in Africa. And lastly are the Indian townships of Inanda, Stanmore, and Trenance Manor, amongst others, where I felt very much like the only tourist that had ever walked through them, and the Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix which encompasses the remnants of the printing press Gandhi set up in 1910, today a much forgotten complex at the entrance of a squatter camp.

South African Indians today are part of the very fabric of the rainbow nation, but as they say, you can take an Indian out of India, but never India out of the Indian. 😀

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The Indian Connection:
Spices galore in Victoria Market, Grey Street; the Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth; and the Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix

3 thoughts on “south africa 7: durban—sun, sea, sand and the indian connection

  1. Pingback: south africa: travel resources—where, what, why, how | rama arya's blog

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