The promenade, Durban’s most democratic space

Most days, Durban’s magnificent beachfront promenade is bathed in glorious sunshine, a glossy advertisement for the city at its best.

Dubbed Durban’s most democratic space, the promenade on the beachfront is a place frequented by residents from across the spectrum. A decade after South Africa hosted the 2010 Fifa World Cup, some, however, wonder if the debt hangover was worth the party.

Others cherish the organisational efficiency and the non-racial ideal that the tournament came to symbolise. Whether you condemn the billions of rands poured into infrastructure upgrades for the semifinal match in Durban or crow about it, few seem to begrudge the expense of the promenade.

The R3 billion spent on the Moses Mabhida Stadium, with its iconic arch, has been widely panned.

Contributing towards a report for the Institute for Security Studies, journalist Sam Sole questions whether the stadium was “an arch of hope” or “a yoke of debt”? He references a newspaper report celebrating the moment when city fathers took their first ride in the stadium’s R20 million funicular mounted on the 106m-high arch, “their eyes filled with tears” in celebration.

“The euphoria of elites,” Sole writes, belied by a sober assessment of the real economic and social impact of the 2010 spending.

He refers to a tart comment in a Durban newspaper at the time, by shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, how city leaders didn’t weep when “the poor burn, live without proper access to taps, face illegal eviction, are attacked by his police and private security”.

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But somehow, animosity towards the stadium is seldom extended to the promenade. This is probably because it is better used. On any given day, you are likely to see the full gamut of users, across race, class and culture. There are surfers, strollers, cyclists, sand artists, muscle men in lycra, women in bikinis and others in hijabs. People come from mansions and shacks to enjoy the space together.

The tide rolls in on them all and, curiously, in a space that was historically so contested, there seems enough room for people wanting to catch a wave, slaughter a chicken in a sacrifice, or burn candles and decorate the sand with marigolds.

The city’s heartline

Durban academic Imraan Buccus says there is an “all-round sense of ownership” of the promenade, despite the past segregation of Durban’s beaches. “It is highly utilised and is definitely one of the upsides of 2010.”

In a discussion about Durban’s public spaces hosted by Vega University, some participants likened the promenade to a city heartline, the line that runs across the palm and some believe indicates a person’s emotions.

This is perhaps a bit far-flung, but Buccus says the promenade might represent an ideal. It is also a place of universal human engagement where your glee at the sea can’t be masked. “The government is obsessed with social cohesion and has pumped loads of money into conferences about this, but they should look at the success of something more pedestrian, like the beachfront.”

Buccus says the promenade flattens class lines. “A neurosurgeon has the same enjoyment as a mechanic.”

At the Vega discussion, Raymond Perrier from the Denis Hurley Centre, a non-governmental agency that helps the homeless, said Durban’s vibrancy was evident on the promenade. He scoffed at publicly touted government plans to build fancy, high-rise apartment blocks at the southern end of the promenade, closest to the port. The promenade was upgraded last year at a cost of more than R380 million, creating an 8km walkway from the harbour mouth to Blue Lagoon in the north.

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Perrier said: “Durban people do extraordinary things by collaborating across a range of sectors … Don’t try and create some sort of Dubai. Durban is real.”

At the same discussion, Nina Saunders from the eThekwini architecture department said the viability of the city’s future lay in residents preserving public spaces like the promenade. She said there was a long-term plan to extend the space by pedestrianising Dr Pixley ka Seme Street (the old West Street), the top end of which intersects the promenade.

The plan is to rip up much of the road and plant trees to create a 2.8km green corridor to Warwick Avenue, the city’s primary public transport interchange that more than 500 000 people a day traverse. Gabi Morrell, a film agency producer, described the promenade at the Vega discussion as “a space where everyone is welcome. It is a place of intersection.”

Money well spent?

Court interpreter Thabani Madonsela owns a flat one road back from the promenade near Addington beach. He and his daughter visit there a few times a week to exercise and relax at the end of the day.

Madonsela marvels at the integrated nature of the space that attracts so many different people.“It is like all rivers flow to the sea.”

Madonsela is an ardent sportsman and associates the promenade with multiracial sporting events.

“I love it, but my heart goes out to the poor people who live on the peripheries of Durban, who live in shacks and don’t get to enjoy the fresh air as often as others do.”

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The man at the forefront of driving the promenade construction is former municipal manager, Michael Sutcliffe, a self-declared Marxist often remembered because he raised the ire of many of Durban’s impoverished and working class residents who regularly accused him of being behind violent and unlawful evictions, prohibitions on protest and a failed attempt to replace the famous Early Morning Market with a mall.

Buccus credits Sutcliffe, a geographer, who administered the city for just shy of a decade until 2011, with conceptualising the promenade. Buccus is well aware of the deep hostility towards Sutcliffe from grassroots activists but feels that the beachfront was, nonetheless, a real achievement.  “Michael”, he says, “had a deeper sense of what it could do, even if it wasn’t articulated in a broader plan.”

Sutcliffe, was born at Addington Hospital on the shabbier, south side of the promenade, where he now owns an apartment with views of the sea. He has worked as a consultant since leaving his administration role.

Though the lavish expense of the beachfront and the 2010 infrastructure has been criticised, Sutcliffe says it was money well spent. He says his role in the United Democratic Front, leading marches in 1989 to open the beachfront to all races, fashioned his thinking about the promenade decades later.

“It was a space that projected what we could be in terms of class and racial harmony. But because I spent all my professional life as a planner and a Marxist, I know you don’t change the minds of people unless you change the environment they are in,” said Sutcliffe.

Breaking down walls

Sutcliffe said 2010 presented an opportunity to do this, to prove that high walls didn’t mean less crime and to change the architecture of a formerly whites-only beach. It was transformed from a place of “isolation and alienation” to one where “people engage”.

The 2010 construction involved demolishing a clutter of buildings, creating New Beach at the top end of Dr Pixley ka Seme Street, and kilometres of paving and landscaping.

It was done in 18 months by a strategic team that raised a few hackles and answered directly to Sutcliffe. It smashed through red tape, prompting critics to ask why the same spirit of urgency wasn’t applied to resolving a host of problems in the city.

Sutcliffe describes the atmosphere on the promenade as “wonderful … It is a place where people have started thinking differently … If you have a fancy car, you leave it in the car park. It is an equaliser.”

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He knows it has its critics and it will be 100 years before race, class and gender are flushed away. But for now, he’s “very happy” at how the promenade turned out and what it represents. “I am proud that 99% of the people who use the promenade respect one another. People just want to be there and enjoy it.”

There are still urban management challenges, but Sutcliffe says the feel-good factor of the promenade invokes a solutions-based mindset. Where people previously “ranted and raved” about how officials managing the promenade could do their jobs better, attitudes have softened and slowed down to focus on the happiness it brings so many people.

“In a world that is increasingly commodified around what we have, this is about value. The place reduces you to your basics. It is about nature and the people around you. I suppose because the ocean is bigger than anything people created. It has power and magnificence.”

“It is a sacred space,” says Sutcliffe, “where I can be myself.”

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