A trip to the heartland of Durban reveals the real South Africa – its townships
THEIR chants rose up to a spine-chilling crescendo, filling the entire valley like a Sunday church choir in full song. Thousands of assegai (spears) clattered rhythmically against their umbumbuluzo (cowhide battle shields). The few score godforsaken British Redcoats crouching terrified behind piled sacks of grain, bayonets fixed, knew what was coming.
“Well, they’ve got a very good bass section, mind, but no top tenors, that’s for sure.”
And with that famous line from the 1964 blockbuster Zulu, waves of brave warriors threw themselves at the Martini-Henry rifles and were cut down in their hundreds.
Today, the former British colony and South African province of Natal is KwaZulu-Natal, a name adopted in 1994 when it merged with Zululand after the dissolution of the apartheid government.
The capital city of Durban, with an ethnically diverse metropolitan population of around 3.5 million, is lauded for its fine weather, beaches and tourist attractions such as uShaka Sea World and the massive 56,000-seat Kings Park Stadium.
Durban is also a major manufacturing centre and maritime port, the busiest in Africa, and despite the coast being sighted and named by Vasco de Gama in 1497 as “Natal”, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that European settlement began in earnest. The name Durban is derived from that of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, then governor in the Cape Colony.
The vast suburbs and “townships” sprang up around the city. The massive Indian labour influx that occurred around the time of proclamation has grown to become the second-largest Indian-origin community outside Asia, next to Mauritius. At the same time, the indigenous Zulu population was relegated to segregated enclaves euphemistically called “townships”, which still exist in much the same form today.
As with the most famous of all townships, Soweto, outside Johannesburg in neighbouring Gauteng Province, visitors looking for a taste of authentic daily life as experienced by the majority of South Africans can embark on a tour into the heartland of Durban, away from the raked beach sand and brand-name food outlets.
Our guide has advised us to avoid flashy jewellery, large cameras and lots of money. It’s the same sensible advice I take with me to many parts of the world, including my local railway station in Sydney. We pile into a humble minibus sent to collect us from our city hotel and are soon on our way along the freeway that cuts a swathe through the rolling hills dotted with tiny tumbledown dwellings.
Life in the townships is traditionally a tough struggle. Low wages, long hours, hard work, high unemployment and the inevitable societal challenges these factors produce. While middle-class trappings are creeping into many of these once “slum” neighbourhoods, breaking out can be just as tough.
KwaMashu, one of the oldest and largest of these townships, is home to a thriving arts community spawning such forms as hiphop, pantsula dancing, contemporary dance, amateur drama and Maskandi, a traditional music deeply rooted in Zulu culture.
Maskandi (or sometimes maskanda) is a kind of kinetic storytelling mixed with energetic and comedic dance. Highly entertaining and intensely visual, maskandi artists were traditionally male minstrels who would roam about with a couple of rough instruments singing an evolving musical saga telling their own story.
Here at the eKhaya Multi Arts Centre (EMAC) for Arts and Performance, local artists can hone their skills, record and play their music on the FM radio station and stage productions in the theatre.
The stated mission of the centre is “to discover, develop, expose and contribute artists towards sustainable employment opportunities and to provide creative, quality arts and entertainment to the community”.
Our tour includes spirited song and dance performances by the youthful ensemble. To the accompaniment of a raucous chorus of wild yelps and howls,