Light Reading | A fresh start

A photographer scales various heights to capture the essence of the new year as joyous people gather on the Durban beachfront to wash away the old and usher in the new.

Everyone goes to the beach on New Year’s Day. When I was young, all my friends and neighbours went. You can’t miss this day. It is for cleansing, for washing away the bad luck of the past year and welcoming the new year.

“Our land and sea. Our land and sea. God bless Africa for the sons and daughters.” These are my favourite lines from a popular song by Mzwakhe “The People’s Poet” Mbuli, released in the early 2000s. The song goes on to describe the love God has for us: “Nina ningusawoti womhlaba, nina ningukukhanya kwezwe. (You are the one that makes the Earth fertile, you are the light of the world.)” This describes the picture I took on 1 January 2020.

I struggled to position myself at a hotel window high up, overlooking Durban’s beachfront. It looked out over the pool, a good position for me to take photos. I poked my head through a little gap. Standing there, I was nervous. I am afraid of heights. People were moving like ants, shouting and singing. Helicopters flew overhead noisily.  

Amid that chaos, I managed to get the pictures I’d been hungry for. Click, click, click went my camera as I kept shooting with a smile on my face. 

On my way down in the lift from the 25th to the ground floor, people were talking about how excited they were in a mix of Setswana, Tshivenda, Sesotho and slang.

“It was hard to get inside the hotel, and it will be hard to come out,” I thought. I was thinking of the congestion as I approached the beach. I suddenly began to notice, for the first time, how people occupied the space. Some were seated at the entrance to the hotels, others were in restaurants licking ice cream and eating bread and chicken.

It was 30°C by the time I got to the beach. People were carrying bottles of water to cool down. The police were all over. At the pools, everyone was singing indlamu songs and clapping. Some of them were sweating. These were happy people. 

There is an old lifeguard station near the pools. I remember it from coming to the beach as a kid with my family, nearly 20 years ago. I introduced myself to the lifeguard with a smile. I wanted to use his vantage point to take a picture. I climbed up the iron steps and balanced as I grabbed my camera from around my neck. I took a few shots facing the pool. Kids were splashing water everywhere, playing games. I spent 10 minutes there, then I left.

I decided to take my last pictures for the day of the sea, a few metres from the pools. There is another green lifeguard station close to the sea. It broke my heart to see lost children being kept in a blue and white tent. I could hear them crying: “Ngifuna umama mina, uphi (I want my mother, where is she)?”  

People filled containers with sea water, but the sea doesn’t go alone into the bottles because then it would disappear. We grew up with this myth. A young man from Johannesburg who was filling his bottle with sand and seawater said his grandmother asked him to take some home so she could use it to chase away evil spirits.

When I left at around 4pm, people were still arriving in numbers.

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