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Durban: Cultural Melting Pot

by Richard Newton

Dec 1, 2016
December 2016

We live in an age of acronyms, and on the face of it this is just another: GQOM. Except it isn’t an acronym; it’s a word. The first two letters are pronounced as a back-of-the-palate click; the awkward four-letter moniker represents the resurgence of South Africa’s second-largest city. Gqom is the new sound of Durban.

Originating in the city’s townships, gqom is a strain of electronic house music, composed and recorded on cheap equipment and played at high volume at nighttime venues. Simple chords and vocals are overlaid on complex rhythm tracks evoking the chants and footstomps of Zulu warriors. A range of influences — ancient and modern, African and international — blends into something unique.

In that respect, the music is much like the city itself. Ever since British settlers founded it in 1835 (and named the city in honor of the governor of Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin d’Urban), this port city on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast has been a melting pot.

eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality

eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality © CHECCO | DREAMSTIME.COM

The original inhabitants were the Zulus, who traditionally referred to Durban’s sheltered bay as eThekwini. Since majority rule in 1994, that name has been adopted for the municipality, though the precise meaning tends to be glossed over. Referring to the bay’s shape, eThekwini means “bull’s testicles.”

As the British developed the settlement into a thriving port in the 19th century, they imported thousands of laborers from India. Their descendents now number more than 1 million, making Durban the largest Indian city outside India.

Although African, Indian and European influences entwined to make Durban what it is today, the city has not been untouched by South Africa’s troubled racial history. In the 1890s, Durban’s Indians protested against their lack of basic rights and were represented by a young lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, who would subsequently lead India to independence.

More recently, the unrelenting influx of immigrants from other African countries precipitated a series of xenophobic riots in 2015. Although the tensions continue to simmer, the cultural melting pot continues to swirl. Many of the musicians contributing to the emergence of gqom are first-generation immigrants.

Durban’s transition from the apartheid era to the new South Africa in the 1990s was not easy. Initially, the Central Business District experienced a crime wave, and the economic center of gravity began to shift 10 miles up the coast to the swanky town of Umhlanga (pronounced Um-shlanga) as businesses translocated. Concerted redevelopment (not least, the building of the International Conference Centre and the unveiling of a smart new aquarium) helped reverse the decline. The city’s famous seafront, the Golden Mile, has begun to recapture some of its former glory.

Through all the recent upheavals, an endless procession of tankers and container ships continued to flow in and out of the narrow channel that forms the entrance to Durban’s harbor. Handling 31.4 million tons of cargo each year, the Port of Durban is the busiest in Africa.

As they come and go, the ships bear witness to the evolution of the Point, the once derelict industrial area to the north of the entrance channel which, steadily, is morphing into a leafy district interlaced with canals and attractive commercial and residential buildings.

Inland, Bridge City, an ambitious public-private initiative, intends to transform a neglected industrial estate into a flourishing town center, providing a positive focal point for the troubled KwaMashu township.

Work is also underway on the Integrated Rapid Transport Network, intended to revolutionize the city’s public transport system with new roads, an improved rail network and state-of-the-art transport hubs.

The most significant development of all is the King Shaka International Airport and Dube TradePort, which links the new airport to the ports of Durban and Richards Bay. The 60-year master plan, already well underway, aims to create a futuristic “aerotropolis” that will serve as South Africa’s trade and business gateway.

Gqom, therefore, is a natural evocation of a city that continues to reinvent itself, a rhythmic, dynamic, multicultural, infectious expression of a place that never stands still.

Things to Do in Durban

The Golden Mile, the stretch of hotel-lined beach on the eastern flank of downtown, has long been Durban’s main attraction. In its heyday, the seafront bustled with rickshaws pulled by men in Zulu dress. Today only a few rickshaws remain, but taking a ride remains one of the quintessential Durban experiences.

The Big Rush Big Swing at Moses Mabhida Stadium

The Big Rush Big Swing at Moses Mabhida Stadium © CHRIS VAN LENNEP | DREAMSTIME.COM

Two of the city’s top attractions lie at opposite ends of the Golden Mile. To the south is uShaka Marine World, a world-class aquarium and water park. To the north sits the Moses Mabhida Stadium, which — when there are no sporting events being held — offers adventurous activities such as climbing the stadium’s trademark 347-foot-high arch and swinging on the world’s highest swing across the length of the playing field.

Victoria Street Market, with 160 stalls packed into a pink and white building, remains one of the epicenters of the city’s sizeable Indian community. It’s a great place to buy spices, curios and Asian fabrics. As in any crowded place, watch out for pickpockets.

The Indian Ocean is perhaps the city’s biggest selling point. In the early years of tourism, shark attacks were common, leading to the creation of the Sharks Board to pioneer methods of reducing attacks. One form of defense was to create a line of underwater shark nets offshore. These have to be serviced regularly, and visitors can join the Sharks Board boats on their inspection trips, departing Durban harbor at 6:30 a.m. Monday to Friday.

One of the world’s greatest natural spectacles, the sardine run, takes place off Durban in June or July. Billions of sardines migrate up the coast, pursued by a frenzy of sharks, sailfish, marine mammals and seabirds (and fishermen and tourists). The spectacle has been dubbed “the Greatest Shoal on Earth.”

Durban also serves as the staging post for some of the natural attractions of South Africa’s interior. The Drakensberg mountain range — the “Roof of Africa” — lies a 2.5-hour drive from the city. Dress warmly in winter (June–August), as snow is not uncommon.

Up the coast, explore the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, Africa’s oldest game reserve, where you can encounter elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and a host of other species in the wild.


CEO, Durban International Conference Centre

What opportunities does Durban offer American investors?
South Africa — and Durban, in particular — is one of the most sophisticated emerging markets globally. The unique combination of a highly developed first-world economic infrastructure and a huge emergent market economy has given rise to a strong entrepreneurial and dynamic investment environment.

Durban is the economic hub of the KwaZulu-Natal Province and offers investment opportunities in the following economic sectors: automotive components and assembly, business process outsourcing, information and communication technology, infrastructure, tourism, industrial chemicals, and food and beverages. Durban produces more than 65 percent of the province’s gross domestic product.

What advantages does Durban have over other South African cities?
Durban offers all the conveniences one would expect from a modern convention city, including a world-class airport, an efficient transport system and a wide variety of excellent hotels and restaurants.

Durban is situated on the East Coast of South Africa and benefits from its location on the Indian Ocean. This geographical location opens avenues for trade and investment in the marine or blue economy which includes logistics, fishing and offshore exploration. As a result, Durban is also home to one of the busiest ports in Africa.

The advent of a world-class freight and passenger logistics platform, Dube TradePort, home to King Shaka International Airport, created a highly competitive business operating environment.

What main events are planned for the Durban ICC in 2017?
The Durban ICC will host a range of international events during 2017 including World Economic Forum Africa, INDABA Travel and Tourism Show, the 69th World Media Congress 2017 and the African Ports Evolution Conference 2017.

Which Durban attractions do you recommend?
No trip to Durban is complete without visiting the city’s outstanding beaches. The year-round warm water and excellent culinary offerings all along the beachfront make this a must-do activity.

Also don’t miss out on a trip to uShaka Marine World, which offers water rides; an oceanarium; dolphin, seal and penguin shows; shopping; and beach activities.

For the brave and adventurous, why not visit the Moses Mabhida Stadium and try the Big Rush Big Swing? It is officially the world’s tallest swing and allows you to take the thrilling 260-foot free-fall leap into the stadium bowl, swinging out into a massive 720-foot arc where you soar into the center of the stadium.

Another must-see activity is the SkyCar, which runs up the stadium’s 347-foot-high arch, giving unparalleled 360-degree views of Durban and beyond from the viewing platform.

Durban Info to Go

King Shaka International Airport, 22 miles north of downtown, handles international services from Africa, Turkey, Ethiopia and Dubai. Most international passengers currently arrive via domestic transfers from Johannesburg (JNB) or Cape Town (CPT). Shuttle bus services to Umhlanga Rocks and downtown Durban depart every 30 minutes.

Durban: Just the Facts

Time zone: GMT +2
Phone code: Country code: 27 City code: 31
Entry/exit requirements: U.S. citizens require a valid passport containing at least one unstamped page. Visas are not required for visits of up to 90 days. Anyone arriving from a WHO-designated yellow fever country must have a yellow fever vaccination card.
Currency: South African rand
Official languages: Durban has 11 official languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda and Xhosa.
Key industries: Tourism, import/export, manufacturing, automotive industries, retail, informal sector

Where to Stay in Durban

AFRICAN PENINSULA GUEST HOUSE This cliff-top retreat set in tropical gardens lies just 20 minutes south of downtown. You may see dolphins surfing the breakers close to shore. 599 Marine Drive, Bluff $$

HILTON DURBAN The ideal base for the Durban International Conference Centre, the Hilton offers executive floors refurbished in 2016 and sea or city views. 12-14 Walnut Road $$$

SOUTHERN SUN ELANGENI & MAHARANI Two adjoining hotels converted into one 734-room colossus occupy pride of place on the Golden Mile, Durban’s famous seafront. Enjoy great views of the Indian Ocean. 63 Snell Parade $$$

Restaurants in Durban

AFRO’S CHICKEN SHOP Sample fast food, South African style, at several outlets throughout Durban. The flagship store (occupying a yellow shipping container) sits beachside on the Golden Mile. 2 O.R. Tambo Parade, South Beach $

GREEN MANGO Durban is renowned for its fresh seafood, so where better to eat sushi and sashimi? This popular restaurant has been serving high-quality Thai and Japanese cuisine since 2003. Shop 12A, Avonmore Centre, Ninth Avenue, Morningside $$$

ROMA REVOLVING RESTAURANT A Durban landmark since 1973, Roma serves fine Italian cuisine atop the John Ross House skyscraper. Each 90-minute revolution gives you an encompassing panorama of the city and port. 32nd Floor, John Ross House, Margaret Mncadi Avenue $$$


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