South Africa

Colonial architecture puts Durban’s past on show

From the window of my hotel room, I had a ring-side seat of a harbour – South Africa’s busiest – bustling with activity. Cranes were hoisting large containers off ships, ready for onward travel by road and rail and loud beeping sounds reverberated across the bay as vehicles reversed.

Durban’s position next to the Indian Ocean has been instrumental to its success ever since the British persuaded Zulu king Shaka to give them some land in 1824 so they could establish a settlement and even more so once the colony of Natal was formally annexed in 1843.

In the second half of the 19th century, when British settlers were tempted over from the motherland in their droves, the sugar industry was starting to boom and Indian labourers were brought in to work in the cane fields. Sugar was exported from Durban’s harbour – as it is today – along with other goods, and the city quickly became industrialised.

Things moved up a gear when the railway between Durban and Johannesburg – a land-locked city that needed somewhere to export its recently-discovered gold – was completed in 1895 and the harbour was modified in 1904 so large ships could be accommodated.

Much has happened in South Africa since then – not least the fall of apartheid which saw numerous Africans flood into the city from rural parts of the province in search of work – but as I found, Durban still makes best use of its coastal asset.

Further up the coast from my hotel, families were enjoying a sprinkling of sun on the quiet beaches, which will attract holidaymakers in their droves once the summer proper kicks in. As I’ll discuss in a later blog, high levels of crime have been in a problem in recent years, but many people hope it is now starting to turn a corner.

In search of the past

With so much development in Durban over the years, you may expect traces of the city’s early days to be hard to find. My modern hotel – the Three Cities Waterfront Hotel – was party housed in a Victorian dock building and the fascias of old Victorian warehouses survive as shells in the car park.

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Three Cities Waterfront Hotel

The historic buildings near my hotel were only the tip of the iceberg I soon discovered.

Durban’s first two-storey building, which was erected in 1866, is now the Old Courthouse Museum. A wattle-and-daub house has been built as an attempt to re-create the type of structure that Frances Farewell, the leader of the 1824 British exploration party, might have stayed in.

The City Hall, built in a neo-Baroque style in 1910, is one of the biggest I’ve seen and dominates one side of Durban’s central Francis Farewell square. It is surrounded by palms and contains numerous stone memorials to those that fought in the First World War and other 20th century conflicts. Today, the building houses an array of interesting museum and gallery exhibits.

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City Hall, Durban

Opposite is the almost-as-grand post office, built in the same Edwardian-style it features a beautiful clock tower. And round the corner you can see remnants of the Natal Great Railway station, built in 1894 and now a tourist information centre. I was told that the platforms were moved to a new location on the edge of town when shopkeepers complained about the noise.

Away from the square, many of Durban’s fine old buildings – juxtaposed between the Indian population’s temples and bazaars – are looking tired and now occupied by shops and cafes. In many cases, no effort has been made to repair the stone work. But every now and again, hidden away behind a tatty veranda, you can spot a date etched on the stonework from the early 1900s and beneath layers of paint is a lovely Edwardian building.

Perhaps the most pleasant spot in Durban however is the botanical gardens, established in 1848 and the oldest surviving example of its kind in Africa. It was a bit cloudy when I visited, so wasn’t too busy, but there were still a few people enjoying picnics on the grass and others were sitting with a book in the colourful sunken ornamental flower garden. Couples wandered hand in hand along the tree line walks.

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Unhappy memories

But while the institutions and buildings founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries may be a joy to explore, for many they bring back some painful memories. During apartheid (something I’ll consider in more detail in later blogs) when non-whites faced considerable restrictions to their movements, some of the places I visited in Durban would have been off limits to the majority of the population.

What is now the Kwa Muhle Museum, was from 1928 the headquarters of the Native Affairs Department (later re-named the Native Administration Department). It was the place where non-whites would need to go to get their passes stamped if they wanted to work in Durban. I stood in the courtyard where people waited to be told whether they could stay or needed to leave the city. Black and white pictures on the walls today capture the long queues lines of people standing in front of counters where they discovered their fate.

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Kwa Muhle Museum, Durban

“After hours in the endless queue, I finally came face to face with a ‘baas’ commonly known as Zinti,” said one account from 1967. “He briefly paged through my reference book, stamped something in my reference book and told me to ‘go home’”.

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Non-whites waiting for pass books to be stamped at what is now the Kwa Muhle Museum

Non-whites that were permitted to work in Durban faced very basic living conditions. The museum has re-created a spartan, single-sex boarding house room with little more than two beds and a thin blanket. It was here that workers stayed close to their workplaces, but a long way from their families.

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Larger than life pass books on display at the Kwa Muhle Museum

The labourers spent some of their free time in African-only beer halls (some tables have been mocked up in an exhibition and examples of the large communal bowls they drank from are also on display). Durban city council made considerable profit out of these because it gave itself a monopoly on the breweries that supplied them.

Apartheid ended in 1990, but for some the racial oppression that many faced can’t be forgotten. At the splendid Howard Davis University College, which was opened in 1931 in remembrance of the 21-year-old who died at the Battle of the Somme and is now part of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, a stature of King George V is covered with red graffiti saying: “Colonial symbols must fall”. It was, after all, a very English city council that introduced legislation in 1922 controlling land in the city to non-whites (South Africa didn’t become self-governing until 1931 and has been a republic since 1960).

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Howard Davis University College, Durban

Today, Howard Davis remains a popular law school and is an enviable position, high up on the hill overlooking the centre of Durban and boasting beautiful landscaped gardens. The domed entrance hall (which features a large painting of King George V) is highly impressive. With fine colonial architecture surviving across the city, Durban’s past can’t be forgotten.

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