South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Of water slides and racial exclusion: The Durban I remember

Of water slides and racial exclusion: The Durban I remember

Every year, I asked my dad to take me to that water slide, to that section (the part Ms Sparrow et al have claimed as hers – “our beach”) because it looked like awesome fun and I wanted to splash too in a wooden log on a water slide, and every year he gave the same answer “next year, my darling”. By FATIMA HASSAN.

I really do not like holidaying in Durban, well, more precisely I dislike the ever present memory of a once racist city and beachfront, so I still prefer not to holiday there anymore; mainly this has to do with apartheid South Africa, in general, and the 80s in particular.

Rewind to my “Indians only” (or “koolie,” as my family and I have “derogatorily” been called once too many times) childhood; my dad saved for the entire year, to take our family for a one week holiday to Durban, by the beach, by the water, because that is where people went for a holiday, and it was fun to play for hours on the beach, even though none of us could swim or wanted to wear fancy swimming costumes.

He drove for hours with puking and nauseas/ating children at the back, reminding us solemnly on every trip, during my primary and high school years, of the official exclusion letter he got a generation back, from the then apartheid education minister. The Minister wrote to the child of an immigrant/migrant from a small town in the, now, North West – the child of a shopkeeper/hawker – a top performing sporting and academic student – telling him in black and white about 3-4 months into his first year of accounting at Wits “you are no longer permitted to study at Wits, you are now excluded from Wits because you are not white, Wits is now for whites, as an Indian you must now go to Salisbury (Westville, Durban) to study, please pack and go”. Just like that.

I never understood, then, the strength it took him every year to point out “that Island” from the Durban beachfront, his own lost aspirations and ambitions, his dignity squashed by some evil, mediocre, racial supremacist, probably retired along the Garden Route now, because my own school was only Indian, so was my ‘hood (Fordsburg), and because the abnormal single-race world we inhabited, we were told, was “normal”. I did not quite get the gravity of his racial exclusion then, which is why so many families, like mine, who experienced this before will, in 2016, naturally and sympathetically gravitate towards the recent student fees uprising as we did in 2015. And every time my dad showed us “that place he studied at” in Durban, I carried in my heart his own loss, and associated both Westville and Wits with injustice of the worst kind. In my mind, Wits, then, was part and parcel of the apartheid engine of racial superiority and white mediocrity.

And every holiday in Durban, it was re-affirmed that we were not white (like that despicable Facebook post), that I was not white (our world defined in terms of whiteness), and every leisure- and holiday-making decision was based on where we would be admitted. Of course the prime locations, pristine beaches and scenic picnic spots were reserved for whites, then in descending order for Indians, Coloureds and Africans – like everything else.

I quickly learnt the world was divided into white and non-white, our own identity and heritage lost in that absurd definition designed to fuel division among us, designed to artificially create superiors and perfect pronouncers of English. Also, that “not white” meant second class, third class and fourth class. That we had to work even harder for everything that came or was to come our way. Even now. And why I was determined to get into Wits even from an under-resourced, neglected single race school that was threatened with closure every year due to the Group Areas Act – and prove them and the system wrong, even if I got in on an affirmative action racial quote ticket (perhaps), but where average was not an option. Where average and below average for my white colleagues graduating in 1994 was okay, it was not for me. In 1994, I graduated in the top 10% of my law class, and not a single white law firm offered me the opportunity to do articles, the very same ones that are disingenuously and proudly all about BEE now.

So Durban, ah yes. Every year, the same holiday. No inter-generational holiday homes or wealthy grandparents or uncles and aunts via apartheid economic largesse and job reservation for white men (read privilege), no overseas trips to exotic islands for working class non-white kids. No, these were coerced immigrants/migrants – subjects of the British Empire – subsequently forcibly dispossessed of their land, business and memories by racist apartheid officials who bulldozed their way into our family history. We are still trying to claim our land back, many of our documents and photos and records lost forever. Yet despite our dignity always in our boot, stopping at many a Wimpy’s along the way, where we could only order take-aways from the non-white section at the back, and eat in the car, or on the boot (A very versatile table!) because we could not sit at the main whites-only tables, we tried to have fun.

So at the end of every year, for Xmas or Boxing Day, our large extended Indian family, even as devout Muslims, got together to braai or eat home-cooked breyani (yes, all the clichés) at the Durban beach, at the Zoo Lake or Roodeplaat, which had four separate entrances, for four racial groups, and we had to use the Indian, non-white section, of course. In those NGK days, all businesses were closed on Xmas Day and Boxing Day, so this was feasible and possible. It was a tradition, and every Xmas/Boxing/New Year’s Day that I can recall of my childhood involved carting food, chairs, blankets and many, many uncles, aunts and the children of a beautiful and crazy and large family; it is just what we did because we did not have the luxury of walking into any restaurant of our choice and asking for a table for 50 non-whites. Now, presumably we can. Or can we?.

My mom and aunts even made fresh tea and fried koeksisters at these picnics because that is what filled their hearts! We laughed then, but now I see the value in feasting on your heritage, when all else is taken away. And those were indeed fabulous family feasting days sans sunblock. But every year, every drive into Durban after many puke-filled hours (and by the, now, stunning upgraded beachfront that is open to everyone, of all races and nationalities and sexual orientation) we drove past the whites-only water slides, with the wooden log, with the white boy in it, with his fabulous smile as he splashed into pristine pool water, with hardly any queues and only white families picnicking in the shade and drinking cocktails in the gated whites-only water park. And every year, I asked my dad to take me to that water slide, to that section (the part Ms Sparrow et al have claimed as hers – “our beach”) because it looked like awesome fun and I wanted to splash too in a wooden log on a water slide (it was called Splash Mountain, or something like that), and every year he gave the same answer “next year, my darling”. Only in 1989, at my first anti-apartheid protest outside John Vorster square as a matric student, did I understand how hard it was for him to say those words, remembering how my mom would whisper in our home language/dialect to him “it is not for us, only for the whites”. Those words always an echo then, and now, for me and my family.

So why am I sharing all of this now? Who knows – maybe because just once, for a few days in the year, knowing where we came from, what it means for so many families, everyone can just let people braai and picnic and enjoy a splash in the water wherever they bloody well choose to. Because every picnic tells a story. Every braai even more. DM

Note: Some of my best friends are white.

Fatima Hassan is a South African and writes in her personal capacity.

Photo of Durban beachfront, before editing, by Vince Smith via Flickr.


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