REAL AFRICA

A trip to the heart­land of Dur­ban re­veals the real South Africa – its town­ships

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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,

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