The Transformation of Durban’s Promenade

It’s been more than twenty years since the fall of apartheid, and yet there’s no denying that large parts of South Africa are still very much divided along racial lines. There are many reasons for this – the legacy of apartheid’s spacial planning, slow economic transformation, access to education – the truth is, it’s a complex discussion. But take a trip down to Durban’s beachfront and you get a very different picture, with joggers, cyclists and surfers of all races taking in the sea air!

The story of Durban’s beaches in a fascinating one. Long before apartheid was formalised by the government, the city of Durban had already limited the use of one of it’s most valuable assets:

When the sand banks on the northern edge of Durban bay were first designated for recreational swimming in 1857 and named ‘Bay Beach’, the facilities located there were reserved for the use of white residents. The Indian Ocean seashore was named ‘Back Beach’ and was initially considered unsuitable for swimming due to rough waves and unpredictable currents. After the South African War of 1899-1902 the population of Durban expanded rapidly and this ‘Back Beach’ was developed into one of the premier seaside attractions in South Africa. Renamed ‘Ocean Beach’ the area was transformed with piers, boardwalks and a swimming enclosure intended for the use of white bathers, although racial segregation on beaches was not yet enforced by law. In 1929, the Durban Council set aside a stretch of beach from Vetch’s Pier to the harbour breakwater for the use of African bathers, and the following year beach segregation was formally enforced in Natal by Provincial Notice No. 206 of 1930.

After apartheid was established in 1948 the National Party government imposed more rigid requirements for social segregation of race groups. Although the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 did not contain any specific references to beaches, it was first amended to include beaches in 1960, followed by a subsequent provincial regulation a few years later. Passed in 1967, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Ordinance No. 37 (Natal), not only segregated all of Durban’s beaches according to race group, but reserved the best and most conveniently located beaches for white residents. The so-called ‘African Bathing Beach’ was relocated from Vetch’s Pier to this site, just south of the uMngeni River, which has since been renamed ‘Laguna Beach’. Regardless of efforts to relax racist discrimination on beaches during the late 1970s and 1980s, these laws were only repealed in October 1990.” Umlando, Issue 6, 2015/2016

So, while white South Africans made up only 22% of Durban’s population, they had exclusive access to more than two kilometres of prime coastline, with black South Africans, who constituted 46% of the urban population, limited to just 650 meters.

DA councillor, Martin Meyer, poses in front of the contentious sign

DA councillor, Martin Meyer, poses in front of the contentious sign

With the end of apartheid Durban’s beachfront fell on hard times, as large numbers of white people abandoned the city centre for the northern suburbs. Many buildings were severely neglected or abandoned and the beaches became a hotspot for crime. It was only really in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup that the promenade received a much needed facelift. Post the redevelopment of the beachfront their remained just one reminder of the area’s dark past – a sign reading “African Bathing Beach” could still be seen on one of the electricity boxes at Laguna Beach, the stretch of coastline which had previously been designated as a ‘black’ bathing beach. There was some debate as to whether the sign should remain as part of the history of Durban, or whether it was too offensive, and possibly even confusing for international visitors, who may not recognise the sign as historic.

Regardless of where you stand in the debate, there’s no denying that the Durban promenade is now a properly integrated space, and with the recent opening of the promenade extension which enables beachfront visitors to move freely all the way from the harbour mouth to Blue Lagoon, Durban’s promenade can now compete with the best in the world, welcoming visitors from all walks of life to its warm shores.

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