GPS: S 29 51.432 E 031 01.469 | pop. 3.5 million | elevation 4 m/13 ft
Durban is the third largest city in South Africa and has a vibrant mix of African, Indian and English people, cultures, architecture and neighborhoods. Visitors from both within the country and abroad come to the city for its year-round sunshine, moderate temperature and stretches of white sandy beaches up and down the coast. Durban’s city center can be a little rough around the edges as many residents and businesses relocated to the suburbs post-apartheid. But while much of the city center today is dead after dark, renewed development is starting to take hold and the greater Durban area exudes a pulse of growth and life. Just a few signs of the times are its new international airport, world-class stadium, and a flourishing restaurant, arts and nightlife scene.
When Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama first laid eyes upon a bay of swampy coastal mangroves populated by alligators and hippopotamus on Christmas day in 1497, he called it Rio de Natal. Sailors and merchants that followed in his wake on their way to the riches of the Indies used the bay as a popular anchorage, but with the more established port slightly further north in Maputo, early Portuguese explorers had little interest in settling the untamed land. It was not until 1823 that a small but determined group of British settlers from the Cape Colony braved the wilderness. They befriended the mighty Zulu King Shaka and in turn were granted a strip of coastline to build their settlement. They named the port after the British Cape Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, hoping to maintain strong ties with the colony and therefore ensure ongoing support.
Durban grew rapidly throughout the 1800s as British immigrants imported Indian indentured servants to work the lucrative sugar plantations and build the city. The descendants of these early laborers, as well as free Indian immigrants, give Durban its distinct Indian character. Today the city is home to the largest Indian community outside of Asia. Yet the growth of this community as well as a burgeoning black population spurred racist segregation laws. Officials became preoccupied with controlling the influx of the non-white population in the urban area while still ensuring their use as laborers. The myriad of laws and the use of passes to control movement and residence gave rise to what became referred to as the “Durban System.” These measures provided a blueprint of the later national agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, who implemented similar systems throughout the country as a cornerstone of apartheid.
Opposition to racial discrimination turned the townships around Durban’s periphery into a battleground in the struggle for equality. Townships such as Cato Manor became overrun with riots protesting the city’s monopoly on beer halls, the profits of which were used to fund the same Native Administration system responsible for their subjugation. When the Group Areas Act threatened to forcibly remove Cato Manor residents to racially sanctioned townships such as KwaMashu for the black populations and Phoenix for Indians, the famed Cato Manor riots erupted in 1959. In the fallout of the riots the township was cleared of all its residents and left barren for years.
Durban was deemed a white-only playground during apartheid, but after the transition to democracy, Indians and Africans have again returned to reclaim the city. The white population has largely deserted the city center, moving into more secluded suburbs. The redevelopment of Durban’s townships, especially that of Cato Manor, is lauded as one of South Africa’s greatest success stories. Social and economic rehabilitation programs have made great strides as the city hopes to replace its history of paving the way towards national apartheid with a legacy of leading the way to restoration.