Photo Essay | Durban’s public spaces

Piers and promenades, beaches, gardens and skateparks. The public spaces in Durban are democratic nodes in the interstices of a wider system of urban exclusion.

Durban is the second most populated city in South Africa after Cape Town, although Johannesburg takes the top spot as a municipality. The KwaZulu-Natal city also once had the largest South Asian population in the world outside of the Indian subcontinent and, along with isiZulu and English, – Urdu, Hindi, French, Kiswahili, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Mandarin, Dutch and German are spoken on its streets.

The flavour of Durban is changing, too. The city has become a home for many from central and west Africa as the conflict in the Great Lakes region and economic possibilities in South Africa make it a viable option for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. 

The east coast is a cost-effective holiday choice for those who prefer the warmth of the Indian Ocean over the icy Atlantic. The city is subtropical, so it’s warm all year round and mostly laid-back but still flavourful. 

In the central business area of the city bowl, you could be anywhere in Africa or Pakistan or India. On the beachfront, you could be in Rio de Janeiro or Miami. The promenade, which has been called the most democratic public space in the country, is a legacy of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.  

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Some liken the promenade to a city heartline, writes Greg Ardé – “the line that runs across the palm and some believe indicates a person’s emotions”. Durban academic Imraan Buccus told Ardé that the promenade flattens class lines. 

Public space encompasses the streets, the squares, the parks, the open market and the beaches. Public spaces are democractic nodes in a brutally unequal society.

These pictures are the result of connecting with some of Durban’s urban spaces as a commuter cyclist. They are areas a cyclist can traverse undetected, able to stop and look around and look again. Some are end points and some are waypoints. Others are surprises, the significance of which was only realised after some thought. But they all are spaces that the people of Durban have claimed for their own.

These pictures were all taken with an iPhone 6 cellphone camera. They first appeared on independent online media publication the Safrea Chronicle, which is created and curated by members of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association.

12 January 2020: The lily pond at the Durban Botanic Gardens, Africa’s oldest surviving botanical garden. The pond is a central feature, surrounded by lawns and shaded areas that make good picnic spots. Entrance to the gardens is free, ensuring that they remain a truly public space despite the high palisade fencing that surrounds them. There are indigenous and exotic plants and trees in the garden, and alongside the lily pond is a small house that complements the sun-lit lily pads and features a collection of orchids and koi fish.
12 January 2020: Long-rod surf fishers, families out for a walk and children on their bicycles frequent the Blue Lagoon pier. Fishers spread out at the end of the wide pier and young couples sit along the sides in plain view of family matrons and aunts.
18 January 2020: The mudflats alongside Wilson’s Wharf in central Durban. Most of the harbour is fenced, but there are a few spots the public can still access. Upogebia Africana, mud prawns or cracker shrimp, are plentiful in the open estuaries on southern Africa’s coastline and Durban surf fishers favour them as live bait. This has created a cottage industry of people making a living by collecting and selling the live mud prawns to fishers. At low tide, whole families can be seen on these mudflats collecting shrimp.
18 January 2020: The opening of the promenade from uShaka Beach to the mouth of the harbour has done much to increase the amount of public space in Durban. South Africa’s beaches are public land by law and anybody can walk on them or swim in the sea. Point Beach was public, but a long walk to get there from uShaka Beach discouraged the public from using it. Only the members of private clubs that backed on to Point Beach had easy access to it. The new Point Beach promenade changed this. There is now an amphitheatre where young couples meet later in the day. And club members now sip their drinks behind high security fences overlooking the harbour entrance and North Pier, also a public space.
26 January 2020: Skaters, kick scooter riders and BMXers at the North Beach Skatepark. Whippets of the urban pavement, they are hated by some in the city and looked up to by others. These riders view the city’s concrete and steel as surfaces to jump, glide and skid over. This Durban subculture perfects its street credentials on a concrete backdrop painted by Durban street artists. The skatepark is between the Bay of Plenty beachfront and the trees of Durban’s Sunken Gardens. The sky-reflecting windows of hotels and beachfront apartments overlook the area. Film and video producers often use the skatepark for location shoots as South Africa is dollar-friendly and easily doubles as mainland America.
16 February 2020: This Ruth First Highway underpass connects a rocky pier at one end of Durban’s 8km promenade and a grassy public park at the mouth of the Umgeni River. Recreational fishers and their families spend hot weekend days in the deep shade of the underpass, picnicking and catching fish in the tidal water of the lagoon. The intertidal area of the Umgeni River is a breeding zone for sea life such as Upogebia Africana, or mud prawns, which attract fish to the area.
1 February 2020: An event organiser watches over chairs, stands and a ceremonial arch on the North Beach Pier after a Saturday morning wedding ceremony. Weddings are often public ceremonies in South Africa and have to take place under a structure to be lawful. The pier is popular for its views and the tassels blowing in the wind give a romantic feel to this utilitarian pier turned wedding chapel.
18 February 2020: The sea is usually calm at Point Beach, 8km from the Blue Lagoon pier, as the long North Beach Pier protects the adjacent entrance to the Durban harbour and there is a shallow natural reef just offshore. People come to this beach to walk in the small waves, launch ski boats and hunt fish with spearguns. Swimming is only encouraged in one small area because of all the other activity on the beach.
8 August 2020: A security light pylon holds two fishing rods while the fishers wait for conditions to improve at the Durban harbour. The harbour authorities limit access to the area because of security concerns and this pier near the harbour car terminal is one of only a few in the area from which Durban’s subsistence and recreational fishers can still fish.
8 August 2020: Three young men from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo stand on the large concrete platform lodged on the mudflats near Wilson’s Wharf, taking in the view it affords on a Saturday afternoon. Durban is a lodging place for many migrants and refugees from the DRC and Great Lakes region.
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