It’s more than just a book, it’s an idea—an original, punchy, and thoughtful one at that. It has succeeded in undressing and stripping naked the gory underside of the people and the place—Durbanites in Durban. What right today has a collection of buildings and people to call itself a city in the global south, if it does not have, for example, its own fair share of the world oldest ‘professionals’ or gangsters who live and die beyond the law? Or the mosaic of colourful cultures co-existing and of course, sometimes reluctant to share the same space? In the age of global capital, the city has its poor, who are excluded from the technological revolution, living on the edge of survival. Yes, that’s Durban for you; it has it all that and more, and deserves to be called a city in the global south.
That is exactly what the recently published Undressing Durban
is about.Undressing Durban
was a mammoth undertaking to put together. The book runs almost up to 500 pages, contains 52 articles grouped into 16 sections, written by 54 contributors from no less than 12 countries from five continents. But it is more than just the sum total of its articles, it transcends them all because individually none of the articles can quite articulate the complexity of a city such as Durban. Undressing Durban
was the brainchild of its editors, Sultan Khan and Rob Pattman, both UKZN sociology lecturers. Their idea was to invite academics, students and members of the community to submit articles from their research field or interest pieces on their experiences of and in Durban. It is challenging to review a book as varied as Undressing Durban, that touches on a lot of diverse and often seemingly unrelated experiences and social phenomena. It is also difficult because one runs the risk of overemphasizing one aspect over another. To put it simply, the reviewer may well tend to focus on aspects that are in his/her interests overlooking other issues that are just as equally important. One may well be accused of being selective.
The book’s articles fall into six broad categories: ‘race’ relations, poverty, crime, identity, HIV and AIDS, and the sex industry in Durban.
The articles in the category of ‘race’ relations can equally qualify as the best in the whole book, because they provide some of the most moving and frank narratives. They are a gold mine for future research on self perceptions on the issues of ‘race’ and ‘race’ relations. But sadly their very ‘narrativeness’, the idea of just simply telling a story about one self, can also degenerate into a lack self-reflection, a lack of being grounded in the historicity of ‘race’ relations, and thus the ‘here and now’ over-determines all perceptions. As the editors point out in their introduction, that “the ‘Rainbow Nation’ has become a powerful fantasy which glosses over the perpetuation of apartheid-like relations, inequalities and identities in post-apartheid South Africa.” (pg18).
This becomes obvious when the book is read as a whole because ‘race’ seems to permeate throughout most of the articles, and when ‘race’ is not specifically stated its very absence somehow shows how much of a salient feature it is in Durban. Thus ‘race’ which was very much a defining feature pre-1994, its no a surprise then that almost every of socio-economic feature that relates to power, poverty, sex, disease and space is still burdened by this powerful ‘illusion’ that we call ‘‘race’’1. In fact it was Marx himself (1852) who pointed out in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “the tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.”
And so it is that the traditions of past generations still weighs upon us when you read the articles by One Silohilwe, Marie Saramandif, Shiretha Grindlay, and Sabashni Moodley of ‘race’ relations in Durban. They are about displacement, a feeling of outsideness, of the right to define oneself independent of essentialist discourses, the pitfalls of ‘race’ categorization and exclusion at UKZN and the city at large. I identify and empathise with them, feeling as an outsider too and having sometimes made my own blunders negotiating the minefields of Durban’s ‘race’ relations. Again notwithstanding the clearness, moving, and brilliant storytelling that each of these articles provide, which I cannot again overemphasize, there seems something that is left unsaid. Or rather it’s the typical Freudian tenet ‘they do not know that they know it’. The writers unknowingly either praise inclusion into white space where it exists and lament exclusion where it manifests itself.
None it seems, never talk (praise or lament it) of being excluded in black African spaces, except for one who is surprisingly black herself. Of course, this is certainly no fault of their own considering that historically white economic and cultural capital is so powerful that one naturally wants to be included in white spaces—myself too. Trendy hip nightclubs in Durban are in formally all white areas, where it is safe and cool to be seen. Furthermore, if one has a sport other than soccer, one naturally finds herself with more than average white playmates. Cutting edge art and cultural events are also located in predominantly white environs. Not too mention the ‘middle class-ness’, which all students and young professionals aspire to, is generally associated with whiteness.
Thus, the unreflective nature of the articles is that they do not question why their world is so. Why shouldn’t it be the case that art and cultural events be equally divided across all racialised spaces in Durban? In fact why should they be places where one population group (‘race’) predominates in a free South Africa 13 years after democracy. Thus ‘race’, and the editors indirectly alluded to this point, should be viewed through the lens of access, access to resources either economic or cultural. However, there is hope they are all still students, and I am sure sometime in the future they will see these contradiction.
There are many articles on poverty and this should not surprise anyone considering that South Africa ranks 11 out of 125 countries listed in the United Nations’ Human Development Report 20062. The Shannon Walsh article on shack dwellers shows the wretchedness of their lives and, for example, that “ (in) Kennedy Road, an informal settlement comprising nearly 7 000 residents, women spend hours queuing for water at a single tap that serves 700 [people].” She highlights the perils of accidental fires that can rage through the settlement killing several people. Coincidentally, today 30 April 2007, two people from the same settlement were killed from a raging fire.
However, as Undressing Durban
also shows, people are not passive victims of circumstances beyond their control but also active agents attempting to subjugate and tame the forces that make their lives a living hell. The shack dwellers are also fighting back. Several other articles, eg by Fazel Khan and Evan Mantzaris, show them fighting back against the authorities as they demand land and housing, water, electricity and sanitation. It should be an indictment to society. They are fighting for the right to live like us.
For some writers though, shack dwellers are not the worst affected by the gross inequalities that plague our city. In fact, having a shack that you can call home is a blessing in itself because they are others less fortunate who live on the streets of Durban or in its crowded shelters. Shanta Singh and Jackson Kariuki have done research on Durban’s street children, some as young as 10, battling daily to find food and a safe place sleep. The two articles smash our stereotypes of street Kids as delinquents, as thieves targeting women and the elderly, as glue inhalers and so forth. Many are that, that’s for sure. But the writers also show the other side. That the children have dreams of educating themselves, of bettering their life situation. We are also shown their sense of camaraderie as fellow travellers in Durban’s unforgiving streets.
Geoff Water and Thorin Roberts have researched people living Durban in shelters for the homeless. We see how a man can survive on R20 a day, which is enough for a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Incidentally I have met a few and befriended one such sort at my favourite watering hole. These guys are pretty decent and many have trades (mechanics, fitters, boilermakers etc) and had served well for the former regimes defence forces – they were not all ‘Prime Evil’. However, in the changing economic landscape of the post-apartheid era, job losses and retrenchments of workers occurred and there was no alternative but the streets. The articles show people who have been left out of the ‘Rainbow Miracle’. The difference is that they are white. The importance of the two articles is that they talk about the plight of people that everyone is quick to denigrate—Afrikaner, white and male.
How could one talk about 2010, immigration, amakwerekwere, Durban’s CBD, middle class gated communities, and South Africa in general without crime coming up as a topic? Crime is such a divisive topic that the writers in the book seem to tread on it as if it where a ground strewn with eggs. The authors all more or less articulate the right ‘left’ sentiment, which I of course believe too, But wouldn’t it have been refreshing to have had one article clamouring for the death penalty, castration, or hand chopping? In moments when my suppressed rightwing leanings escape from the deepest recesses of my soul, triggered by a mugging, or being held at knife point without a cent in my pocket; anticipating—where the hell is he gonna knife me, I feel like crying—BRING IT BACK!
As a young black male I have experienced that look of fear directed against me and it is rather disturbing. One Thursday evening I was shopping in Musgrave Centre. Late as always, I found myself hurrying to get to a bookshop before it closed shop. I strode towards my destination, oblivious to all around me. Little did I notice a middle aged white woman in front eyeing my rapid approach. As I approached the door of the bookshop, she broke into her a run towards the nearest security guard. Nothing happened though she didn’t say anything to the guard, glad to have escaped yet another mugging. I was also thankful too that she didn’t do anything afterwards. But it left me feeling like a criminal. I actually felt guilty that I had done something wrong.
The book also discusses the sex trade in the city. It talks about the women involved, their lives, how they conduct their business and the trappings of the trade. Henry Trotter’s article is a good investigative piece that unravels the best, worst and most gory underside of the sex trade. One can’t help but admire these young women, who are generally functionally illiterate, but are able to drive hard bargains against the most sophisticated sailors who have travelled the world over. But Faith Ka-Manzi’s article on the same topic reminds us that it is still a risky and dangerous business.
It is impossible to discuss all the interesting articles in this book. For instance, there is Wesley Oakes’ rather revealing article entitled “I am not coloured, I am an African”, which explores the fluidity of identity, belonging, and how the way others see us, reveals what they are. Or Ari Sitas’ play at the end that wraps up the whole book. Set in the more rural areas of the Durban Metropolitan, the play weaves a cauldron of globalization, poverty, government inaction and the poor people who pay the price for it all – and the taste is bitter. But then that’s Durban for you, it’s a bitter sweet taste. And Undressing Durban goes a long way in proving it so.
By Mavuso Dingani
: 2 May 2007
Originally posted on the Centre for Civil Society
Labels: book review