Until the 1970s, DURBAN – South Africa’s third-largest city and the continent’s largest port – was white South Africa’s quintessential seaside playground, thanks to its tropical colours and itinerant population of surfers, hedonists and holidaying Jo’burg families. Then, in the 1980s, the collapse of apartheid saw a growing stream of Africans flood in from rural KwaZulu-Natal, and shantytowns and cardboard hovels revealed the reality of one of the most unmistakably African conurbations in the country. The city’s second-largest group is its Indian population, whose mosques, bazaars and temples are juxtaposed with the Victorian buildings of the colonial centre.

Although the beachfront pulls thousands of Jo’burgers down to “Durbs” every year, the city’s main interest lies in its gritty urbanity, a seemingly endless struggle to reconcile competing cultures. However, most people come to Durban because it provides a logical springboard for visiting the region. The city is well connected to the rest of South Africa, and with the opening of the King Shaka International Airport, the city is starting to attract international flights as well.

There’s enough here to keep you busy for a few days. The pulsing warren of bazaars, alleyways and mosques that makes up the Indian area around Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street is ripe for exploration, and there are some excellent restaurants and nightlife around Durban’s photogenic harbour area. Swanky northern suburbs such as the Berea, a desirable residential district perched on a cooler ridge, are replete with luxuriant gardens and packed with fashionable cafés, restaurants and bars.

Durban’s city centre grew around the arrival point of the first white settlers, and the remains of the historical heart are concentrated around Francis Farewell Square. Durban’s expansive beachfront on the eastern edge of the centre has one of the city’s busiest concentrations of restaurants, a surfeit of tacky family entertainment, and a reputation for crime (which admittedly is improving).

Much further afield lie dormitory towns for blacks who commute to work, including the apartheid ghettos of KwaMashu and Inanda to the northwest. Cato Manor, the closest township to the city, provides an easily accessible vignette of South Africa’s growing urban contradictions.

Brief history

Less than two hundred years ago Durban was known to Europeans as Port Natal, a lagoon thick with mangroves, eyed by white adventurers who saw business opportunities in its ivory and hides. In 1824, a British party led by Francis Farewell persuaded the Zulu king, Shaka, to give them some land. Not long after, the British went on to rename the settlement Durban after Sir Benjamin D’Urban, governor of the Cape Colony, whose support, they believed, might not go amiss later.

Britain’s tenuous toehold looked threatened in 1839, when Boers trundled over the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg in their ox wagons and declared their Republic of Natalia nearby. Then, the following year, a large force of now-hostile Zulus razed the settlement, forcing the British residents to take refuge at sea in the brig Comet. Capitalizing on the British absence, a group of Boers annexed Durban, later laying siege to a British detachment. This provided the cue for a much-celebrated piece of Victorian melodrama when teenager Dick King heroically rode the 1000km from Durban to Grahamstown in ten days to alert the garrison there, which promptly dispatched a rescue detachment to relieve Durban.

Industrialization and apartheid

While Cape Town was becoming a cosmopolitan centre by the 1840s, Durban’s population of barely one thousand lived a basic existence in a near wilderness roamed by lions, leopards and hyenas. Things changed after Britain formally annexed the Colony of Natal in 1843; within ten years, a large-scale immigration of settlers from the mother country had begun. The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by the city’s considerable industrial development and major influxes of other groups. Indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the KwaZulu-Natal cane fields, planting the seeds for South Africa’s lucrative sugar industry and the city’s now substantial Indian community; and Zulus headed south after their conquest by the British, in 1879, to enter Durban’s expanding economy. In 1895, the completion of the railway connecting Johannesburg and Durban accelerated the process of migrant labour. This link to South Africa’s industrial heartland, and the opening of Durban’s harbour mouth to large ships in 1904, ensured the city’s eventual pre-eminence as South Africa’s principal harbour. In 1922, in the face of growing Indian and African populations, Durban’s strongly English city council introduced legislation controlling the sale of land in the city to non-whites, predating Afrikaner-led apartheid by 26 years.

With the strict enforcement of apartheid in the 1950s, Durban saw a decade of ANC-led protests. And when it was banned in 1960, subsequently forming its armed wing, the ANC made plans for a nationwide bombing campaign that was initiated with an explosion in Durban on December 15, 1961. Durban scored another first in 1973 when workers in the city precipitated a wildcat strike, despite a total ban on black industrial action. This heralded the rebirth of South Africa’s trade unions and reawakened anti-apartheid activity, sparking the final phase of the country’s road to democracy.

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