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Life’s a b(l)each at Clifton, Cape Town


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

I saw this paranoia as a child. Durban of the early 1970s. We would watch white boys and girls playing on trampolines. Indian waiters, suitably servile, in bow-ties, would scurry around and place food orders on trays suspended from the side-windows of cars.

If one were standing on the heights of Clifton Beach during the Christmas period, one might be forgiven for thinking the scenes unfolding below were from the set of a Monty Python film.

Men in camouflage uniforms and designer sunglasses descend with placards calling for the renaming of Clifton Beach and free swimming lessons to boot. Another group arrives with a sheep to be slaughtered in order to cleanse “the demon of racism”. Animal lovers protest that they are against racism but plead “don’t kill the sheep”.

Chumani “Churchill” Maxwele, still dripping with blood after his bruising victory in hand-to-hand combat with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, prepares to take on a mighty sheep. With a feint to the left, he slits the terrified animal’s throat. According to media reports, an animal rights protester shouted, “the only thing you know is how to kill”. She was subsequently attacked by a protester wielding a Jimmy Shoo sandal. Maxwele sees the cutting of the sheep’s throat as a way to awaken the spirit of Makana, the Xhosa chief who famously attacked a British garrison in Grahamstown. Maxwele demands that Clifton Beach is renamed Makana, with protesters shouting that it is time to take back the beach sand by those who were there first.

But was it not the Khoi or perhaps the San that surfed at Clifton first? And should the beach not be named after Chief Autshumao, aka Henry the Strandloper? A man who led a rebellion in 1658 against the Dutch. He became the first prisoner on Robben Island along with two of his followers. They escaped by stealing a rowing boat: the only prisoners to ever escape from the Island. Makana drowned while trying to escape on Christmas Day 1819.

But Maxwele cannot contemplate naming the beach after Autshumao, revealing both his tribal chauvinism and conveniently truncated understanding of history; one that cannot go beyond colonial times. Maxwele might also want to chew on this fact that, as Professor Karim Sadr points out, sheep are not indigenous to South Africa. Indeed, according to his recent ‘research based on a detailed reexamination of stone tools and ancient ceramic vessel shards, it seems that it was the northern San people who introduced the first sheep to South Africa… close relatives of the ethnographically famous Kalahari “Bushmen”’.

More sheep duly arrive in EFF T-shirts. The ANC, worried that it was been out-herded, promises to lower the price of fuel on New Year’s Day so the masses can afford transport from Khayelitsha to take back the beaches. Shacks though will not be allowed on the beach as they might block the view from the houses of the party’s top brass and its funders. The EFF choose to march on a different day as they await a loan from VBS bank for the purchase of inflatable overalls. The newly named “Beach First Land Later” brigade also promise to join the fray but their funding problems are more profound. Money from Thohoyandou clears quickly but Dubai takes a week.

The mayor of Cape Town, Dan Plato, is unrepentant, telling the media that the incident was actually a non-racial affair with people of all races kicked off the beach. There’d been “incidents” in the past and security were helping to enforce by-laws. How the eponymous Greek philosopher must turn in his grave every time he hears Dan talk to the media. The by-law in question was likely number CA4.76.1, to wit: “Every bather not in possession, on inspection, of Sun Protection Factor 50+ or above, shall for their own safety, be asked to leave the tanning area, no matter if it is night”.

The incidents in question were just as real and just as serious, no racial profiling at all took place. What is armed security to do if they notice a flagrant failure by “certain bathers” to apply SPF 50+ at regular intervals as Cape Town public safety by-laws require?

No. There is more at swim than by-laws which private security have no business enforcing anyway. In the midst of apartheid’s madness, Archer & Bouillon wrote that in…

… white social life swimming is subject more than any other leisure activity to… pitiless, indeed pathological segregation. For unlike tennis or golf, swimmers are in direct physical contact with each other, through the medium of water; far from separating swimmers from different races (or sex) water dissolves the physical barriers between them. Innumerable stories describe the ‘pollution’ which white South Africans fear will result from mixed bathing, and the outrage they feel when it occurs.”

I saw this paranoia as a child. Durban of the early 1970s. The beachfront was a mere 10-minute walk away from the Casbah where we lived. But another half an hour to dig your toes in the sand if you were of the wrong hue. We would watch white boys and girls playing on trampolines. Indian waiters, suitably servile, in bow-ties, would scurry around and place food orders on trays suspended from the side-windows of cars.

And there, beyond the trampolines, on the path to the Bay of Plenty, a sign warned: “Europeans Only, Dogs Must be on a Leash”. It was a scene out of a postcard, what Anne Stevenson wrote of “the bodysway of the lovers, a Frisbee caught by a bronze torso/proud golden mums and their lucky cartwheeling young”. And there I was, taking all this in with a “hungry eye”.

My father, keeping me on a tight leash, would slowly unwind the cover of the flask. He would pour some tea. Gently blow on it and hand it to me. The cheese and tomato sandwiches would emerge from the wrapper. All his actions were in slow motion, which only increased the grumbling stomach. The bread was soggy, the tea long lukewarm.

The white kids would leave the trampolines and rush to the side of the car, munch their food, slurp their milkshakes and rush back. Higher and higher their bodies were thrown. My face would be smashed against the windscreen as my wonder somersaulted in this direction and then that.

But I would never leave the car. My father would always respond to my constant pleadings to be let out that he had forgotten the leash. To pee, my mother carried an empty Packo Lime Pickle bottle. Occasionally we would go to Blue Lagoon. There were go-karts. Kids my age charging around as the flag dropped. At least there, I could stick my head out past the ‘Whites Only’ sign and take in the sheer joy of fathers and sons at play. We would only leave when the pickle bottle was full.

There was the annual drive to Tinley Manor. The car would be packed with huge pots. Firewood. The essentials for vegetable biryani. It’s hard to describe the sheer joy of this day on the beach after the monthly agony of watching the wonder of children cavorting on trampolines and go-karts. There were no basic facilities. But it did not matter. At least there you could pee in the tidal pool.

Frank Braun, once president of the South African National Olympic Committee, was of the opinion that: “Some sports, the African is not suited for. In swimming, the water closes their pores so they cannot get rid of carbon dioxide and they tire quickly… but they are great boxers and cyclists and runners”. In this world-view, banning “non-whites” from the Golden Mile was probably an act of benevolence.

When access was finally given to “non-whites” on the Golden Mile, it went like this: whites, coloureds, Indians and Africans. The suitability of the beaches for swimming also followed this scale. On the non-white beaches, there was usually a sharp dip that took away your feet and if that didn’t, the monstrous backwash would.

Hearing the call to arms emanating from Fourth Beach Clifton, I venture on to Durban’s promenade. The old-style restaurants have been replaced by fast-food joints. And down at Vetch’s Pier sea life is on the retreat. Still, it is a place of incredible openness and excitement as the rainbow nation plays. As the sculptors with fast diminishing sea-sand build miniature Nkandlas, replete with fire-pools and chicken-coops, women in full purdah, jog, Shembes engage in joyous water-boarding and black surf instructors teach Germans how to ride the waves, one senses there is something special about this place.

On Clifton Beach, South Africa continues “it’s spinning journey in ever coiling labyrinths/seething uncertainties, flames/and transparent complexities” – Coral Bracho.

On the Durban Promenade, things are simple and beautiful. DM


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