While Durban’s beaches aren’t looking their best after the recent floods, the beach front promenade is something that Durbanites can really be proud of. A well looked after, mixed use space where people of all ages, colours and cultures come together to exercise, relax and socialise, it really is a world-class public space, accessible to all. But this wasn’t always the case. While everyone is aware of the apartheid laws that segregated people of different races, what many people won’t be aware of is the fact that racial segregation took place in Durban many years before apartheid came into effect.
As early as the late 1850s locals saw ‘Bay Beach’ being reserved for the exclusive use of white people, with beach segregation being officially introduced in 1930 by the Natal Provincial Notice No. 206, nearly two decades before the first apartheid acts were bought into law, and thirty years before the Reservation of Separate Amenities Amendment Act of 1960, which formalised the existing practice of separate beach facilities for separate races. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, first introduced in 1953, effectively did away with the pretext of ‘separate but equal’ facilities for black and white people by including a provision in the Act which stated that the reservation of public premises for the exclusive use of a particular race or class “shall not be invalid on the ground merely that” no similar premise or service is provided for any other race or class, or that a premise or service provided for another race or class “is not substantially similar or of the same character, standard, extent or quality” as those provided for a particular race or class of people (Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, s3). While existing facilities for non-whites were in no way comparable to those offered to white people, this loophole in the law provided legal justification for even lower standards.
In the same way that the racial segregation of Durban’s beaches happened over a number of years, so did their desegregation. In 1989 President de Klerk announced the official desegregation of South Africa’s beaches, with the repeal of the Separate Amenities Act of 1953 taking place in June of 1990. But for many years before the discriminatory apartheid laws were reversed activists had used the beaches as a key part of their struggle, with the result that many beaches had relaxed their segregation laws.
Today Durban’s beachfront is a vibrant melting pot with no signs of the ugly history of the African Bathing Beaches that form part of the Liberation Heritage Route.
Photograph by Guinnog, courtesy Wikimedia Commons