A sea of white faces
It feels more like 1986 than 2016 as City Press walks into the water-sport clubs complex from the sand off Vetch’s Beach in Durban on Thursday afternoon. A sea of hostile white faces stare at us as we pass the first of several Members Only signs on the Point Yacht Club’s precast wall and make our way through an outside dining area dotted with tables and umbrellas towards the restaurant and bar it shares with the Durban Undersea Club.
There’s not a single black person seated at the tables behind the wall, the scene of protests earlier this week by the Durban region of the ANC Youth League in response to reports that the clubs were running a whites-only beach on the most southern end of the city’s Golden Mile.
A silver-haired elderly white woman stares at us openmouthed, trying to ask us what we’re doing here, but she is not getting the words out. Around us, conversation has stopped as patrons stare at us. Whether it’s photographer Tebogo Letsie’s black face or his big black camera that silences the crowd, we’ll never know. For a few moments, this beach looks more like Orania By The Sea.
We introduce ourselves and ask for the manager. She points towards the restaurant.
Inside, the only black faces we see are the staff. Bartenders; a manager; a skipper and divemaster; waitrons. They all avoid making eye contact with us. White patrons sit around the beautifully stocked bar (it’s resplendent with green bottles) and at the restaurant tables, where tasty looking T-bone steaks are being doled out as the evening turns busy, the customers are white.
A staff member (white) tells us the man to talk to is Paul Schmidt, the general manager of the complex, which also houses the Durban Ski Boat Club and the Durban Paddleski Club. Schmidt’s away on holiday, but will be happy to talk to us. We try to get the staffer and a black colleague talking about the alleged whites-only policy.
“It not exactly like that,” is all we get from the white guy. The black colleague says nothing.
We head off. Outside, there are mainly white folks. To the south, there’s a group of Muslim beachgoers swimming in kurtas, burqas and hijab. To the north, a crew of Indian men are fishing. There’s a pair of homeless guys – one black, the other white – on the grass at the end of the beach sharing a bottle in a paper bag outside the kayak hire shop’s entrance, where the first of the Members Only signs sprouts up.
Slightly north of them is the Moyo pier, a kind of invisible border between the south end of Addington Beach and Vetch’s. There’s a very visible difference on each side of the pier – whites to the south and blacks to the north.
The clubs hold leases with the Point Development Company, a joint venture between the eThekwini municipality and Malaysian development company Rockpoint, which is responsible for the long-term development of the area. The clubs will eventually be torn down and housed in a water-sport complex, which is part of the long-term plan that will be in place once the development, stalled by a lack of funds and legal hurdles, gets going.
Cuane Hall, chairperson of the Durban Undersea Club and spokesperson for the water-sports clubs, says the claims of whites-only memberships and racial segregation on the beach are “not true”.
“Our membership is based on participation in one of 11 water-sport codes, not race, creed or any other factor. No access is denied to any person,” he said.
Hall said anyone wishing to join the club could apply to join any of the sections, from sailing and scuba diving to underwater hockey, and they would be vetted by the club committee. He said more than 40% of the paddle ski club members were “of colour” and there were black members throughout.
“We don’t record anybody’s race or religion, as that is an invasion of privacy. If you are a member, that’s it. This whites-only label is a hoax.”
He said the youth league protest at the club had been a “publicity stunt” in response to “Penny Sparrow’s stupid remarks” and had not been based on fact.
City communications head Tozi Mthethwa said there was no private or whites-only beach in Durban, and while the city was monitoring the matter and had not received any formal complaints, “we will be meeting with the clubs’ management to discuss the matter further”.
She said any person who applied for membership but was rejected on racial grounds should lodge a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission.
Vetch’s Beach in Durban is open only to members