Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

WHOONGA WARS

September10

 

In May this year I was tasked with heading up a writing and theatre-making workshop with community theatre participants from in and around KwaZulu-Natal. To generate material for the plays we were creating together, I asked the students to come up with a list of current social concerns that young writers should be confronting in their work. The drug whoonga was unanimously voted in first place.

It wasn’t the first time I had come across the concern or the word: Swahili onomatopoeia that allegedly refers to the sound the user hears when the combination of B-grade heroin and rat poison rushes into the system.

Whoonga certainly has a ring to it – say it a few times and it’s likely you won’t forget it. Whoonga. See? It leaves the lips (just as it enters the system) with an elongated ‘whoosh’.

For years, friends of mine had been complaining about the cadaverous looking whoonga boys (dealers) who hassled them at taxi ranks, while the media had devoted front pages to stories of junkies either robbing clinics or contracting HIV in order to obtain the antiretrovirals that were said – but not proven – to form part of the insidious heroin cocktail.

When I asked the group of community theatre writers to take to the rehearsal room floor and share a personal story related to our chosen topic, 22-year-old Phumzile Ndlovu was the first to accept my challenge.

She stood before the group and launched into the story of her cousin, Jabulo, and his five-year struggle with whoonga.

“My cousin was 21 when he moved from Johannesburg to my aunt’s house in Umlazi D section,” she told us.

“When he first arrived, we were excited to see him. He was very handsome and charming, but shortly after he came to Durban people in the community began to complain that things were going missing from their homes. It was learnt that Njabulo was not only stealing from us all, but using my aunt’s house to smoke and deal whoonga. When the neighbours found out there was big trouble. They threatened my aunt, telling her they would burn down the house unless action was taken. As time passed and the problem got worse, my family were left with no other choice but to evict Njabulo from the house.”

When I asked what became of him, Ndlovu told us he had joined the burgeoning ranks of whoonga refugees in Albert Park: a leafy inner-city refuge for addicts just a stone’s throw away from the Durban harbour.

“It was tragic to see what became of him,” she said, recalling how on trips to Durban she would occasionally pass the park and catch glimpses of him through the fence.

“I’d see him sitting there like a hobo, no longer a handsome young man but aged and filthy.”

*

It was around the same time that Nomusa Shembe – a senior manager for Safer Cities, community crime-prevention initiative – was assigned to look into the Albert Park situation.

There had been rumblings in the media about a nasty new drug on the scene and a brewing confrontation between fed up taxi owners and addicts – most of whom were thought to be foreign nationals.

Through Safer Cities, Shembe and her team set up a project to profile the park’s inhabitants. Of the 254 people they interviewed, 90% turned out to be South African nationals, and the majority of them admitted to frequenting the park because it provided easy access to whoonga.

As media and public attention intensified, city officials began floundering over what measures to take. Sure, Durban has faced a range of social catastrophes in the past, but a substance abuse problem of this scale and complexity, it seemed, was largely unprecedented.

Shembe and her team initiated  the Qalakabusha programme for Albert Park: a pilot intervention whereby a tent was erected in the park and a series of ill-fated outreach and rehab programmes activated.

The Safer Cities team might have had more success evaluating the strategies and lessons acquired by the neighbouring Indian community of Chatsworth, for whom whoonga is really just an old problem marauding under the guise of an exotic new name.

For Sam Pillay – the head of the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum – the drug’s implosion in the city centre is something he claims to have warned city officials about years ago.

Pillay was one of the first locals to address the problem of the “sugars” (also known as whoonga, nyaope and tie white), which exploded in his community back in 2005. After a public meeting was held at the Chatsworth Youth Centre and more than 1 000 irate community members packed into the hall, Pillay and a team of volunteers decided to establish the Chatsworth Anti-Drug forum (FDR).

When I asked how the forum initially set out to tackle the crisis, Pillay chuckled at their gung-ho naivety.

“In the beginning we thought it would be simple,” he recalls. “We would hand over the dealers’ home addresses to the police and that would be that, but we quickly learnt that the police knew exactly where these guys lived. As the FDR delved deeper we discovered that this was hardly a drug concocted by a few opportunists with a chemistry degree, but rather something similar to a massive corporation: with a CEO at the top, upper and middle management beneath, and the many distributors and dealers operating at the bottom.”

The local police force, Pillay told me, were only ever scoring minor victories at the bottom of the pyramid rather than gunning for the honchos at the top. The reason Pillay gave covered a range of familiar narratives, including corruption, bungled evidence, underqualified cops and numerous cases where specialised police units had been dispatched and drug busts heralded, but few convictions ever made.

“We soon learnt,” Pillay said, “that the only real success we could have in this struggle is in devoting all our energy into getting rid of the need for the dealer and treating addicts on a social level.”

“Why” I asked, “are the users themselves are not facing the brunt of the law? Surely the substance is illegal?”

The situation seems absurd: several hundred people permitted to smoke heroin joints in public parks when one can get thrown in prison (and given a criminal record) for being caught toking on something as innocuous as a spliff.

The answer, offered by Safer Cities’ Shembe, is that the problem has reached such an extent that local police simply aren’t equipped with facilities to deal with it.

But Pillay sees the discrepancies as a result of major gaps in policies and processes when it comes to making arrests.

“If you just catch a guy with either whoonga or sugars, it’s not like you’re catching them with dagga, because dagga is illegal. With whoonga you have to send them for a toxicology test and then wait for a toxicology report to come back, and, well, when there are several hundred of them at one time, where do you begin?”

Where and how the heroin is entering the province seems to be another area of dispute, with Pillay insisting most of it is coming from Chatsworth, while Shembe claims whoonga is produced and sold exclusively by Tanzanian cartels. 

Dr Lochan Naidoo – a Durban-based addiction consultant and president of the international narcotics control board – tells me South Africa and the southern route from Afghanistan and Pakistan has recently been identified as a major new route for the illegal Afghan heroin trade.

“South Africa,” Naidoo says, “was supposed to be the transit point via the Durban and Eastern Cape ports for heroin to travel onwards to Europe, but now what we are seeing is that every transit point is becoming a user point. Durban is a clear example of this.”

At a meeting held at the beginning of July by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, Naidoo did little to calm city and public anxieties when he warned that the worst is still to come.

“White heroin, ladies and gentleman, has now also arrived in the city of Durban.”

“The difference” Naidoo went on to explain to the room full of scribbling journos and slack-jawed suburbanites, “between brown and white heroin is that brown heroin is smoked while white heroin injected. As tolerance increases for brown heroin, users are forced to start injecting the drug instead.”

“So what are the SAPS and Metro police forces doing about this?” I asked Shembe, who paused for a short while to consider her answer. I got the sense that criticising any of the departments with which her organisation is currently trying to co-operate might endanger an already precarious process.

“The police tend to shrug this off as a social problem,” she said diplomatically, “and we keep saying to them, ‘But what about the dealers?’ They respond by telling us they are on it, that there are intelligence units working on the ground, but I’m saying we need to start seeing the results, because until the root causes are tackled we will forever be going around in circles treating the symptoms.”

She has a point. Too often the cause is attributed to the addicts themselves, folks whom up-in-arms suburbanites and news-hungry media tend to demonise without really understanding that these are simply the harrowed faces fronting the crisis. As I embarked on three months’ of research into whoonga, I discovered that this was a social problem whose subterranean tentacles extended far wider and deeper into the strata of our fractured society than most would ever care to imagine.

*

Durban motorists would often refer to their fleeting glimpses of the whoonga hordes in Albert Park as something resembling a scene from a postapocalyptic zombie film. This was in early 2013 when the problem was largely relegated to the leafy and concealed confines of an inner-city park.

Back then, motorists could take an alternate route home and pretend the problem didn’t exist. But then the police, tired of being called lazy and apathetic, finally got around to evicting the vagrants and sealing off the park with a barbed wire fence.

 

Where exactly the whoonga colony would go after the eviction didn’t seem of much concern. What mattered was that something had been done and that the notorious “Whoonga Park” was no more.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the dazed addicts regrouped, first decamping to a nearby Metro railway line before finally re-establishing themselves in Botha Park (which is more traffic island than park) on the corner of Leo Boyd and Anton Lembede streets, which is also on the periphery of the Glenwood suburbs.

Now the wretched mass was no longer a sight one saw in passing or heard mentioned (with a shudder) at dinner parties. When you stopped at the Glenwood traffic lights, you were forced to scrutinize the full extent of the squalor, to stare the addiction in its vacant, sallow eyes.

With this relocation came new waves of crime and hysteria.

There were smash-and-grabs at robots, a series of violent house robberies; a woman was raped in a suburban park while another was found murdered and mutilated in a Florida Road gutter. An underground network of tunnels linking the suburbs to the city was discovered by the police, which caused further anxiety.

The tunnels, built in the 1930s, were reported to extend for 6km and enable the drug-addled underworld to pop into affluent neighbourhoods (through manholes) whenever their cravings necessitated it – which, for whoonga addicts, is said to be between four and six times a day.

Outraged letters were penned to newspapers; petitions the length of telephone books barricaded politicians’ office doors. A mass of Glenwood residents united under the unfortunate – but rather apt – acronym of SOB (Save Our Berea) and spent weekends waving placards outside Durban City Hall.

Suburban parks became no-go zones and unsuspecting locals using them for recreational purposes soon became suspects. A group of teenagers playing soccer was accosted by police after an online forum suspected they were smoking whoonga. “WHOONGA!” wailed Facebook forums in caps lock. The drug sent subscriptions to private security firms rocketing – until it was discovered that many of the security guards employed by these firms were addicted to whoonga themselves.

It was the whoonga gevaar and no one was safe. Hell, even white kids had begun dabbling.

*

From the rooftop of Durban resident Raul Quintas’s office building, situated opposite the Botha Park whoonga colony, I scanned the contested site from a distance. Polystyrene food containers circled the bare feet of a few hundred people who warmed themselves around fire drums. In one corner of the island, a gazebo flapped dismally in the wind – this, I was told, was the city’s idea of a rehabilitation centre.

Quintas sat at the head of his boardroom table, surrounded by his employees..

Without much prompting, the office ladies launched into a series of stories about the decline of the area, explaining that the rot set in after the whoonga addicts were relocated.

I was told of a lady from the neighbouring funeral parlour who had her earrings torn from her ears. Female students were being assaulted on their way to the University of Technology’s city campus. The chorus of disapproval rose with each new declaration.

“We can’t run our business in this area any more.”

“It’s unhealthy what they’re doing!”

“It seems the city is providing them with toilets and feeding them from the park. It’s almost as if they want them to feel more at home here.”

“I see them every morning just squatting there, doing their business in broad daylight.”

“Even the street cleaners arrive wearing gas masks to clean the area! Tell me of another city in the world where this happens? “

When I asked what Quintas and co intended to do about the situation, his secretary unveiled a wad of paper containing several hundred signatures from fellow gatvol business owners in the area. The petition urged city officials to take immediate action against the “invasion” or face legal action.

When I mentioned whoonga, the boardroom exchanged a few anxious glances, as though it was the first time they had encountered the word.

“That’s not our business,” growled Quintas, thumbing through his reams of signatures as proof. “All we know is that we have a right to be protected. We have a constitutional right!”

*

Quintas and his staff are not the only irate citizens who have been seeking action from city officials and politicians – but apart from popping down to Whoonga Park for the occasional front page publicity opportunity, the authorities are yet to release any sort of tangible plan of action.

Perhaps they are still reeling from one of their Whoonga Park safaris, when one pin-striped honcho was accosted by an addict who turned out to be the estranged son of ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu. If anything, one would think such an incident would have driven government to prioritise the issue.

Instead the responsibility of coming up with a plan has been left to Safer Cities’ Shembe, who is scrambling against time, bureaucracy and limited resources to implement an ambitious seven-pillar strategy that will focus on aspects such as rehabilitation, skills development, the placement of the homeless population in shelters and the reintegration of addicts back into their communities.

But the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum’s Pillay is not convinced, dismissing Shembe’s proposal as an attractive option on paper but destined to fail in practice.

“You can’t go integrating people back into their communities if you haven’t had success with the rehabilitation component, which they still don’t,” he huffed. “I’ve tried to help them in this regard but they are governed by the department of health, which means they can only do what is written down. What I’m telling them from my 10 years of experience is not yet written down.”

So while authorities and experts deliberate over policy and implementation, SOB, Quinta’s business and countless other organisations sit anxiously awaiting a response.

In an open letter to Durban Mayor James Nxumalo (published in the Daily News on June 3), SOB cautioned that that unless urgent action was taken, the city would find itself teetering on the edge of a precipice.

But a week later there still had not been a peep from the mayor’s office. Now the city, it seemed, was no longer teetering but rather tumbling headlong into the forewarned abyss.

A week after I spoke to Quintas, a violent clash erupted between residents from the nearby Dalton Road hostel in Umbilo and the Botha Park addicts.

Dalton Road hostel dwellers, it turned out, were equally frustrated with the city’s inability to take action. They were tired of falling prey to criminals, tired of taking flak from police for crimes they hadn’t committed, tired of being marginalised and ignored. A group of 30 or so irate hostel dwellers descended on Whoonga Park with sticks, knobkerries, whips and bricks to mete out vigilante justice.

Mahala editor and journalist Samora Chapman – armed with his skateboard and camera – was one of the first reporters on the scene, and wrote in his article, titled ‘Whoonga attack’: “The mob caught up with the man directly across the road from me. They beat him as he ran and swayed and zigzagged. He took five blows and kept going like a wounded animal until eventually they overwhelmed him and he dropped in the middle of the road. He took several more blows on the ground. Thuds and crunches. Then the cops came screaming down the road. And the mob just kept running, hitting a left down towards Sidney Road. Like wolves.”

 

Chapman’s article on the Dalton Road attacks went on to rack up thousands of hits across social media platforms.

*

I met Mahala editor Samora Chapman a few weeks prior to the Dalton Hostel / Botha Park incident. I was hoping to learn a little more about his experiences following the Durban whoonga scene for the past few years.

 

Whereas most journos have approached the story with trepidation, skirting the fringes of notorious hangout’s like Albert  Parkand Botha Park, Chapman has braved the front lines, befriending addicts and dealers in the process. While his pop-culture approach (Harry Potter and the Ninja Turtles all make appearances) has irked more sober-minded readers, he has managed to grow a substantial and eager following on the Mahala website.

During our meeting, Chapman bemoaned how he had become the go-to guy for journalists and researchers looking for an angle on the issue.

“Look man, journalism is my livelihood,” he said, doodling on his arm with a ballpoint pen. “I can’t really tell you anything that you wouldn’t already find by reading my articles on the site.”

I returned home to read the entries in the Mahala archives, some of which begin with  declarations like: “If you want to live to see tomorrow, don’t go to Whoonga Park. It’s the scariest place on planet earth.”

Chapman’s  woolly descriptions often send him veering into problematic realms of sensationalism and even science fiction, but he does seem to empathise with the folks he has dubbed “whoonga heads”.

In most of his expeditions, whoonga users are depicted as otherworldly and alien, a sort of subhuman species, while the writer casts himself  as an “interloper from the mainland” setting out to explore and record the remnants of this “lost world”.

In one episode Chapman notices hieroglyphic graffiti scrawled across the walls of an inner-city drug den and ponders: “Could this be a clue – a pure, unfiltered form of expression from the people of Whoonga Park?”

Chapman’s adventures seem to abide by a standard action-adventure formula, with most of his accounts culminating with him narrowly escaping death. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of this Tin-Tin in Whoonga Land sort of reportage. Needless to say, the comments section on the site is full of zealots offering up suggestions along the lines of: “Why not issue free bags of whoonga laced with arsenic to solve the problem?”

For the most part, the “whoonga heads” in Chapman’s posts come across as seething, vomiting, delirious, bewildered, buzzing herds, ghouls or mobs (his choice of metaphor veers between animals and supernatural creatures). He even signs off one article with “Just another day in the jungle” – as though he is about to retire home from a day’s hunting trip to sip on a G&T.

In one of his most incriminating flights of fancy, Chapman enters one of the city’s “forbidden zones” and describes the ensuing assault as: “A naked lunatic burst out of a plastic tent, wailing like a werewolf and wielding a six-foot sjambok. He came running at us with intent to kill and we fled into the night. But he wouldn’t give up chasing, hunting us through back alleys and whipping the air like demon sent straight from hell to drink our young white-boy blood and drag our bodies back to his den.”

It would seem such descriptions might not be out of place in the pages of the latest  Walking Dead screenplay. One wonders what the constant zombification or pop-culture packaging of this crisis is doing to further the plight of the misunderstood user, the addict who, beneath the incessant denigration, is a really just a human being in the grips of a terrible affliction.

For Durban activist and journalist Vanessa Burger, the knee-jerk condemnation throughout the Durban press and social networks is doing nothing to aid the cause, but rather further contributing to what she calls “Durban’s latest and greatest humanitarian disaster”. 

In her damning and insightful article – ‘Whoonga Park: The bigger picture’, written in the wake of the Dalton Road attacks – Burger cautions how thoughtless comments, deep-rooted prejudice and the promotion of personal agendas is contributing considerably to an already volatile situation.

“It is not helpful and it’s extremely irresponsible,” she goes on to caution, “for members of the largely middle- to upper-class community to sensationalise and condemn out of hand the violent reaction to a humanitarian crisis that has been growing on their doorstep for years but which they were mostly too self-absorbed, too ignorant or too careless to bother about.”

*

A few blocks up the road from Botha Park, on the second floor of a breezy block of flats in Glenwood, I chatted to Prudence Dlamini , who works here twice a week as a domestic worker. Prudence sat among heaps of freshly ironed laundry, her eyes darting about anxiously as she recalled her son Damon’s year-long struggle with whoonga.

Damon, she told me, was staying at the Newlands rehabilitation centre for three months – part of Nomusa Shembe’s Seven Pillar Programme. Until recently the programme had a dismal success rate.

“How is he doing?” I asked.

“For the first week he was in terrible agony and unable to sleep,” she told me, “but we pray the worst is over now.”

Dlamini told me she was fully aware that the most daunting part of her son’s rehabilitation still lay ahead. She acknowledged that it was a malaise of boredom and disenchantment that led him to experiment with the drug in the first place, and that unless she could secure him employment before he is discharged from the centre, it was highly likely he would fall into the same cycle.

When I asked what had been the hardest part of the process, she cited the drug’s effects on her son’s personality as particularly distressing.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t recognise him any more,” she said. “The child I raised would never try to get money out of me like that. The child I loved would never use force on me like that.”

The aggression shown by Damon, I was told, arises from the addict’s need to alleviate the debilitating stomach pains whoonga causes. The pains are related to the use of Rattex, or strychnine, which is mixed into the heroin to prevent the user’s blood from clotting. Strychnine helps to keep the blood flowing, preventing embolisms and ensuring the user lives on to purchase their next hit. As the body builds an immunity to the substance, the blood begins to form small clots in the veins, which often causes whoonga users to scratch compulsively.

With mounting pain and rising tolerance levels come further cost implications: what starts as a daily expense of R25 soon rises to R125; as the cramps intensify so too does the need for the next toke, and it’s at this point that many resort to violence to obtain it.

“Their whole personality just changes,” Pillay told me. “They just become different people and the greatest tragedy of this situation is that they have absolutely no control over it.”

Pillay recalled the stories of a young man he knew who, in a fit of desperation, and pain brutally murdered his grandmother, and another teenager whose exasperated parents chained him to his bed for a month of involuntary cold turkey. 

For Shembe, the failure of Durban rehab centres (out of the first 25 patients referred to Newlands Centre, only five were able to complete the programme; of the second group, only two made it through) can be attributed to a variety of factors, but many problems come from youngsters being taken off the street and placed directly into the rehab programmes without the correct mediation. In these structured environments, many of the patients prove violent and disruptive.

Community theatre participant Phumzile Ndlovu’s cousin Njabulo was one such patient. After he had returned to her family home from Albert Park stricken with HIV, his aunt had forced him into a hospital programme. But Njabulo didn’t last longer than 24 hours after it was discovered that friends had smuggled whoonga into the ward.

A few tokes of the drug had revived him to the point where he was able to rob nurses and patients in the ward. He was discharged the following morning.

For many patients, it seems the withdrawal symptoms are too intense to tolerate, and Shembe admits that the Newlands facility does still not offer the correct drug aid to assist weaning users off whoonga. It’s a problem she claims needs to be passed at a national level, and it is an agenda she is trying to get the department of health to take more seriously.

Pillay, however, is not convinced by the city’s proposed three-month rehabilitation model, dismissing it as “unnecessary” and “unsustainable”. For Pillay, the city simply doesn’t have enough beds or time to deal with the scale of the problem.

“When you look at the number of addicts who are successfully being rehabilitated, the number is dramatically less than the number of guys who are getting addicted each day,” he says. “And what does that do for crime? What does that do to the economy? What’s the social impact on families? It’s a far-reaching catastrophe, this.”

From Pillay’s experience with the Anti-Drug Forum, he has learnt that to wean users off the substance in five days to two weeks. But it’s a long-term process, and crucial to it is a tablet called Naltrexone, a drug the state still refuses to implement in local treatment centres.

For Dr Lochan Naidoo, the president of International Narcotics Control Board of South Africa, the government first needs to acknowledge that the treatment of heroin addiction is a specialised field that requires a highly trained task force to tackle it. He dismissed Shembe’s proposal to enlist the help of social workers and Unisa students to deal with addicts as an insult to those in need of help.

“What we fail to understand in this country,” Naidoo said, “is that a large portion of people turning to whoonga do so because they have problem with abandonment and poor engagement with their families.” 

Such is the case with Mbali, an addict in her twenties who had been sleeping in Botha Park for the past four months and who agreed to attend a meeting hosted by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology.

The meeting was called to discuss the whoonga crisis in the city, and organisers were adamant that the discussion take place based on principles of respect and constructive engagement.

Mbali sat at a table beside representatives of the metro police and South African police service, as well as academics, drug specialists and city officials. She agreed to attend the meeting in a bid to voice the concerns and views of the people living in Botha Park.

When it was her turn to speak, she rose sweating, wincing uncomfortably under the sterile glare of office lights.

“Can you tell us how we can help the people of Botha Park, Mbali?” a journalist called from the back of the room.

“Describe to us what life is like inside the park?” implored another.

When Mbali spoke, the frantic scribbling of pens almost drowned out her already barely audible responses.

“Most of us living at the park don’t have employment,” she told the room. “But we are not all criminals. Those who are criminals and try to hide in our group are pointed out to the police. Things are hard enough for us as it is. We don’t want to be associated with crime.”

Mbali went on to describe how she used to visit Botha Park daily to score whoonga and started living there after she was kicked out of her family home. She spoke of the sleeping conditions at the park, the cold winter nights, the terror she felt during the Dalton Road assault where a friend was paralysed in the attack.

Although Mbali welcomed the city’s assistance, she set out to remind the room of the social circumstances that fuelled her addiction in the first place.

“They city is trying to help us. They came yesterday and took some of us from the park to rehab, but what about after? Most of us don’t have homes to go back to. Many of the kids in the park have lost their parents and their houses have been sold. We need shelter, places to stay. We need jobs.”

A factor often overlooked on the tenuous road to recovery is what happens after the rehabilitation programme is completed. As Naidoo suggested, most addicts have been kicked out of their  homes and communities, and are not welcome back. There is a great deal of mistrust and betrayal that many family and community members are not prepared to endure again.

To counteract this, Shembe has been working with the department of correctional services and a veritable army of substance-abuse councillors, so that ‘rehabilitated’ individuals are accompanied by a person from correctional services when braving the risky return trip home. But for Shembe it’s the lack of existing post-care community support structures that is the greatest failure of her proposed model.

“It is crucial that the recovering patient is able to consistently check in with support structures, and until such programmes exist, our department is simply wasting valuable resources and time.”

The only solution, Naidoo suggested, is to call on a common body of knowledge that exists on this area. Over the past few years the city has called him into various meetings, but − as with the FDR’s Pillay − failed to act upon any of the insight shared.

“All we can do as a society is put structures in place that are meaningful and address the needs of the people taking this drug,” said Naidoo. “One of the primary issues we have to acknowledge is that not everyone out there on the streets wants to stop taking drugs.”

After the meeting I introduced myself to Mbali over a soggy plate of cocktail sandwiches. She was far more animated and at ease outside of the formalities of the conference and told me that one of the drug counselors at the meeting offered to treat her for free.

“I’m so excited, I want to get rid of this thing in my life,” she beamed, wiping the sweat from her brow with a snack-tray serviette before asking if I was able to give her R20 before she returned to the park.

I brushed over her request, attempting to change the subject, but she touched my arm gently and persisted.

“If you really want to help me like you say you do, then please can I have R20!”

*

But barely a week after the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting, it seemed the positive outcomes of the discussion and co-operation pledged between police units, addicts and activists had amounted to very little.

The SAPS and metro police launched a joint raid on the Botha Park island, sending the whoonga population once again fleeing into the night while setting fire to their meagre belongings. Those who were arrested were dumped back in their respective communities.

While politicians, police and Berea residents celebrated a minor and belated victory  local newspapers were already reporting on a variety of new satellite colonies mushrooming in parks and public spaces around the city.

As I drove past the vacant Botha Park island, I thought of Njabulo and his tragic end. I thought of Damon and his re-entry into the world after rehab. I thought of Mbali and the raid, and regretted not having given her that R20.

I thought about Shembe’s Seven Pillar strategy, a plan that is being implemented to deal only with the thousand or so vagrants who congregate in city spaces – a mere handful of the population currrenlty in the grips of this addiction.

As Botha Park retreated in the review mirror, Naidoo’s closing statement at the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting lingered in my thoughts.

“This is just the beginning,” Naidoo warned. “What we see going on here in Durban is not going to get any smaller – it’s about to get massive. South Africa, I’m afraid to say, is set to become the next South America.”

*

For Phumzile – the community theatre participant – not even Njabulo’s death was to occur without incident.

“He was 25,” she said, drawing her monologue to a close.

“He had been addicted to whoonga for more than five years. That’s five years that my aunt and family had to deal with this problem. When they brought his body from the mortuary to our house for the vigil, we noticed immediately that there was something odd, something strange about it.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“His body it was … how do I put this … soft. You see, it’s not supposed be soft when a person passes on. In Zulu culture this means that the person’s spirit may come back and take somebody from the family, or worse, one of us might inherit these problems from him. So the following morning we all took turns to talk to him and calm him and clear the passage for him, but while we were doing this… his… his…”

She paused and took a deep breath before continuing.

“He started moving his head and hands like a person who is still alive. It seemed as if his spirit wasn’t ready to leave. And so, under the guidance of our elders, my cousins and I were made to take sticks and beat the body.”

“You beat the corpse?”

“Yes, we took turns hitting him. I was scared to do this because even if a person was bad while alive, we have always been taught to respect the dead. But we had to hit him. In order for Njabulo to not come back and torment us, we had to hit him. We had to defend ourselves and so we hit him – we hit him, we hit him.”

Despite the family’s best efforts, Phumzile explained that the body would not keep still. It was at this point in the proceedings that her aunt was made to transport the body back to Albert Park.

“The park was the only real home he knew, and we imagined he would find peace there. At the park my aunt bought whoonga from one of the dealers and began to sprinkle it over Njabulo’s corpse, touching some to his lips until his body finally softened and surrendered. At the funeral we all sprinkled whoonga into his grave. We did this so he would be at peace.”

Phumzile concluded by clasping her hands together in what seemed a combined gesture of relief and prayer.

“We did this so he would never visit us again.”

 

Neil Coppen would like to thank The CON where Part 1 and Part 2 of the article were first published, Loyd Geyde,  Ricky Tucker and Jason Chung

 

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Abnormal Loads Interview with Sihle Marcus Mthembu

April16

 

What were the early days of performing like?

 I never trained as an actor so I learnt largely by doing– flailing in the deep end so to speak. Durb’s was very kind to me and provided a great platform for launching my career. I loved performing but there just came a point where I wanted to communicate stories in a different way, channel and depict the world as I saw it. I think acting is wonderful training for anyone who wants to be a writer. As a writer you are inhabiting characters in the same way an actor might. I suppose the difference is that the writer is tasked with channelling and keeping track of several voices at one time. My head tends to be a noisy place.

You’ve won critical acclaim for acting, writing and directing – which do you find comes more easily and why?

To me these different crafts have so much in common. To be a director one has to understand the mind and requirements of the actor and it has certainly helped to have worked as an actor myself. In the same way writing is an extension of acting: understanding the psychology of characters, their motivations and sub-texts, how they might interact and respond to one another. When writing a new work I am always visualising the design and staging concept, so my process you could say is pretty inclusive of all theatre -making aspects.

What initially made you want to become a writer?

Story telling has interested me since as long as I can remember. My grandmother, who inspired so much of what I do, used to tell wonderful bed time stories inspired by her life and I found myself turning them into short stories whenever we were given creative writing exercises at school. The impulse to put into words what I was hearing or experiencing in the world around me eventually surpassed any other aspirations I might have had for myself. This really is the only thing I know how to do or have wanted to do. Not many people have a calling as clear and unavoidable, so I count myself fortunate and only a little bit cursed.

How old are you, and how old were you when you wrote your first play?

I am 30 and was probably six or seven when I wrote my first piece. After my first visit to the theatre I was hooked. I immediately began writing and rehearsing my own stories roping my sister in as a co-star. In standard-six when I arrived at high school I was fortunate to have a fantastic Drama/English teacher who encouraged me to write my own play for an up and coming supper theatre evening. It was called The Seat (was an adaptation of a short play script I had found in the Library) which I rewrote and localised. It was about three pensioners sitting on a park bench reminiscing about the past and received a very positive response (from my mom) on its premiere. The second play was about two hobos living in Durban and in retrospect came off as a light-weight version of Boesman and Lena. It was awful.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal background?

It’s a little bit of a cliché, but I really can’t remember wanting to do anything else with my life. I suppose the earliest memory I have is when my mother took me to see Singing in the Rain at the Natal Playhouse when I was six years old. Particularly memorable for me was the scene where it poured with rain on the stage. I roped several relatives into taking me to see it again and again. I couldn’t understand how they timed the show with this deluge each performance. So you could say this was the beginning of a very long and involved love affair, with my mother taking me to the theatre regularly. From an early age I was exposed to a wide range of styles including children’s theatre, opera, pantomime, contemporary and classical dance, Shakespeare, Fugard, Slabolesky Ngema musicals etc.

During my schooling career I was fortunate to have teachers who recognized my love for creating new work and who allowed me to stage my own material. By the time I matriculated there was no question of which direction I wanted my life to take. I worked as an actor (even dabbling in a spot of contemporary dance) for several years after leaving school, and decided to hone my interest in story-telling by obtaining a Degree in creative writing through UNISA. I threw myself into many strange and varied experiences during this time that no University system could have offered: teaching at a theatre summer camp in New York, as a dialect coach and stand- in on film sets, a producer of a large scale musical project, a researcher on a documentary film, a free -lance journalist and travel writer. All these experiences have, in rather unconventional ways, shaped and inspired the work I do as a playwright and theatre-maker.

How many plays have you written since then and which has most excited you?

I’ve written about six full length plays in total. Each one has been a hugely important learning curve for me. Tin Bucket Drum is perhaps the most enduring and popular of my plays (It finally heads off on tours to the UK and New York this year) and I have a soft spot for it because it never seems to lose its relevance or appeal. Abnormal loads my latest play is the one I have carried with me the longest and is my most ambitious and personal story to date.

What do you think was the most valuable lesson you learned from working as a playwright locally?

It’s hard everywhere in the world being in this profession whether you are a novelist, screenwriter or playwright. Theatre is considered a bit of a niche so one is constantly having to find ways to excite local audiences enough to be able to make a living from it.  This is tricky because one never is entirely sure what’s going to ensnare the collective imaginations of audiences at any given period of time.  I’m not interested in pandering to mass sensibilities in terms of sitcom scenario and stereotype. I have pretty twisted unconventional sensibilities.

I’m fully aware that what I do is absurd, to spend so much time devoted to the imaginary, to caring obsessively about the non-existent. It does however keep me interested in the world, I’m generally excited to wake up each day, to go outside, to engage people in conversation. One never knows where the next story will emerge from. My interests are broad and I tend to cast my net wide.

You have received the Standard Bank young artist of the year award tell us a little bit about that experience and what it was like for you?

It was extremely helpful in introducing my work to new audiences from outside of Durban and opening up future possibilities. Writers are often riddled with insecurity and self-doubt (something that comes with sitting alone in a room for so many hours of the day) one hopes, though is never quite sure, that their story finds acceptance in the outside world. Every bit of affirmation from beyond the writing desk (or rehearsal room) goes a long way in encouraging us to keep on keeping on and try even harder on the next attempt.

What appeals to you the most about being a Playwright?

Being able to apply my imagination to telling original stories as opposed to having to write copy for the back of cereal boxes is a huge plus. The opportunity to spend time researching things which have always interested me. To pursue every thread of my curiosity and spend hours each day grappling with the psychology of human beings (while hopefully learning how to be a better one.)

What appeals to you the least?

It’s very hard to make a living as a writer. I am a natural born procrastinator and have ADD which makes sitting at a computer for extended hours very trying. I’m also not nearly as prolific as I should be, I like to grow my stories over long periods of time—I’m pretty obsessive about doing as much research as I can before I start writing .

 It can also be an intensely lonely and interior process. Over long periods of writing one can turn into a bit of a social reject. It comes as quite a shock having to interact with real human beings when you are so used to imaginary ones.

There are a lot of emerging young playwrights in South African literature, what do you think this signals?

I think there are really exciting young playwrights emerging and perhaps it signals the urgency with which young South Africans wish to have their stories heard. We are all born with and shaped by stories so I suppose until the world ends the impulse to retell, rediscover, or invent them will always be there. Theatre has also been one of the most accessible and effective mediums of story-telling in South Africa. It has immediacy to it that you can’t get from sitting in front of a DVD or film screen.

Unfortunately a lot of live theatre, the world over, is a pretty torturous experience and it’s hard work to try correct the perceptions many have formed about the medium off the back of some pretentious student play they saw during their Varsity years.  I suppose with a DVD you have the option to turn it off, theatre is less easy to escape once you locked into your seat.

The play is a good mixture of comedy and drama, how do you actually find this balance in your work?

I don’t want audiences watching my work to ever feel like they are wading through the Sunday newspapers. Three people I admire for their senses of humour and imagination in this country are Zapiro, Desmond Tutu and Pieter Dirk Uys. Humour, they have taught us, is a South African coping mechanism and that, unlike folks such as Shuster, it’s possible to laugh while at the same time reflecting on who we are and where we’re heading.

I suppose life is never just funny or tragic, it’s an off kilter combination of both. A friend of mine just returned from New York and said a new genre has become all the rage in the States and it’s known as the Dromedy (Dramatic comedy). I suppose if we were to box things into genres you could say I have been dabbling in South African Dromedy this past year.

The idea for this play is partly influenced by you meeting a re-enactment group in Dundee tell me about that experience and how you went from that initial contact to this complex story?

Around six years ago I met a re-enactment group called the Dundee Die Hard’s who were active in re-enacting battles from South African History (particularly focusing on the campaigns fought in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.) I attended a few of their performances and became fascinated at using the idea of re-enactment as a metaphor for exploring our individual relationships to history. There’s something rather telling (if not absurd) about grown men running about dressed up as their ancestors, firing blanks at one another and fighting battles whose outcomes have been pre-determined centuries ago. In many ways I feel we are still fighting those same battles and certainly still grappling with their consequences here in the present.

At the same time I was thinking about writing a satirical comedy set in small South African town. I had met a variety of small town folk over the years who soon began to take life as characters in my head. As the various ideas and story strands began to merge I wasn’t sure if it was a novel, screenplay or play I had on my hands. Initially it felt far too ambitious to fit on the stage but after I won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (and was commissioned to create a new work for last year’s Grahamstown festival) I thought I’d give it a bash.  Before writing the play I went to live in Dundee with artist Vaughn Sadie for three months on a VANSA residency and this first-hand account of small town life gave me the confidence to sit down and finally pen the play.

What took so long for the production to get from NAF to Playhouse?

This is a pretty ambitious production in its scope and hugely expensive to tour (There are over 15 people in our company). Straight theatre productions (as in non- ABBA- musicals or revue shows) in this day and age are rarely staged on this scale. If AL flops I will be resigned to a decade of corporate theatre hell to recuperate the cash our production company has invested in the show. I suppose I’m not very business savvy in my creative choices. I submit in to the demands of my vision and rarely think (during the creation process) of the long-term cost implications of touring a production of this size.

I get by on the faulty faith that if something is good then people will automatically want to watch it. So we’ll see how this one goes. Speak to me in a few months’ time and there’s a strong possibility I may be writing copy for cereal boxes.

One of the things that from watching the play that I thought was rather risky was the sheer length of the play, most local dramas tend to want to be as short as possible. Is this a decision that you take self-consciously as playwright, to create this very elaborate narrative?

The play is an hour and a half which I don’t think this is an unreasonable duration to ask an audience to sit through. Most films are longer and one seldom complains if they are engrossed in the story being told. AL is a pretty epic tale, with four narratives that develop and overlap over several generations. I tried not to be indulgent but there’s a lot of stuff one has to cover and develop.

I was intrigued how someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude could fit the entire life stories of several generations of one family into a few hundred pages. At the end of the novel you genuinely feel like you have truly lived through a century(without the boring bits) and shared intimate moments with a variety of complex characters. So you could say I tried to set myself that challenge for the stage .The two hander model for theatre is a pretty standard one—two characters in a box-set yakking for an hour and a half.

I wanted to free up the theatre, show audiences that stage plays can be as dynamic and engrossing as the big budget stories they see in the cinema. I adopt various cinematic devices of flashback and flash forward, try to spin the audience through time and history while keeping track of the fated trajectories of four (hopefully) well -developed and believable South African characters. It’s not to say I have succeeded but it’s been a hell of an interesting challenge.  The research took around five years and I ended up with a family tree for each family group that spanned my entire study wall.

Let’s speak a little bit about the creative process this is not just a play in the conventional sense but it is very much an audio-visual experience. What was the idea and the motivation behind that?

I like to think I only work with mediums that contribute and enhance the universe of my story. As a theatre maker I experiment with most of the story-telling modes I have at my disposable, be it text, set design, lighting, music and sound. We live in a visual time and to excite younger audiences (which is a big part of my mission) I’m not opposed to embracing the tools of our age. On saying this I think a lot of audio-visual stuff in theatre and dance is totally unnecessary and distracting and you have to be very cautious with when and how you decide to use it.

A lot of theatre-makers seem to think by projecting a few random images (downloaded from the net) across their stage might help save their play. To my mind there’s nothing more unpleasant than going to the theatre and being bombarded by a wannabe MTV editor launching an audio-visual assault on the audience to try and make up for the non-existent script or concept. I turn on the TV when I want that sort of experience.

must ask then, how difficult it is to direct a play like this because you are essential conceptualising everything from the lighting and the set and directing this thing on stage where everything is moving and no one is standing still?

It’s a mammoth pressure but at the same time liberating to grow the script, staging and design together and see things through from beginning to end. As I’m working on the narrative I am constantly thinking about how this is going to work and move as a play on the stage.

Because I grow plays and story ideas over several years, by the time I get into the rehearsal room I have a pretty clear idea of how the story should move, look and feel and this frees up time with the actors to really experiment and play.

In an interview we did earlier you mentioned the importance of having a good cast, tell us a little bit about the casting process. When you had this script done and you wanted to start looking for actors did you have specific people in mind? Because it must be a nightmare to cast these characters because of the complexities.

Casting a play is everything and I auditioned several times in Durban, Joburgh and Cape Town to settle on the right actors for the roles. I wasn’t just looking for actors who were adept at learning lines and remembering moves (the meat puppet variety) but rather seeking a series of multi-talented co-collaborators who were willing to invest 100 percent in the process. I think people underestimate the challenges that come with creating new work and the difficulties of transferring something from page to the stage. It’s demanding on performers who are tasked with bringing characters to life for the first time while having to contend with me constantly revising and rewriting their lines as we go. We have no reference points to draw from, no movie version or source material to turn to in times of need. I also tend to find so much of theatre acting these days phoney and insincere so I have a tendency to want to work with actors with a more filmic sensibility.

In Abnormal Loads Vincent, my protagonist, was a tricky role to cast. I’m asking the audience to side and empathise with a depressive, anti-social loner with zero people skills. Malcolm Purkey aptly labelled Vincent an existential wimp him after seeing the show in Grahamstown last year and I’m quite fond of the summation.

Mothusi Magano is a respected film and television actor and he brings a wonderful intensity and restraint to the role, he walked in and nailed it in the first audition. It was not necessarily his stream of inner consciousness monologues (which he delivered beautifully) but rather in his silences that Vincent was revealed to me for the first time. Magano doesn’t need to talk to act, he can sit still in a chair and still manage to convey the characters complex inner life and profound sense of detachment. The camera teaches one to do that, stage often expects actors to emote everything to the back of the room which can be incredibly annoying for audience placed on the receiving end. On saying this it could have backfired, too filmy often doesn’t always translate on the stage and I hope we managed to get the balance right.

Jenna Dunster, Vincent’s love interest in the play, is also from a television background and this is her first professional stage role.  She sent a tape from Joburgh and I knew instantly that she was going to play Katiren. She’s balls to the wall, committed, fearless and very funny young actress. She has such warmth that I knew she could help endear this potty-mouthed, promiscuous daughter of a NG Kerk dominie to audiences.

With the character of Moira, I have known Durban actress Ally Cassels (Dame Ally Cassel of Durban we call her) for years and I wrote the role with her firmly in mind.

We cannot talk about the state of South African theatre without mentioning the issue of funding. As a pretty well established young playwright, what would you say has been the biggest challenge you have faced in getting productions of the ground and how do you navigate this thorny funding maze to get your projects made?

I don’t want to whinge because everyone in this industry (any artistic industry) faces the same woes and tribulations. It never gets easier and is often a thankless slog. One writes fifty proposals a year and is lucky if one gets accepted. No amount of awards or acclaim really changes that. I think the bottom line in this country there is loads of worthy talent out there and a very small pool of funding so it gets spread really thin.

I have been fortunate that the Standard Bank Award enabled to initiate a piece as ambitious as Abnormal Loads. In this current economic climate such an opportunity is extremely rare. I don’t reckon I will be given this sort of opportunity again which is why I chose to take on a project of this nature.  Despite the grant it still took months of scrambling around and calling on huge favours from funding bodies, patrons, fellow theatre companies and friends who could assist us in keeping costs to a minimum.

I could never pay my team of actors or crew the salaries they truly deserve (no theatre company could). When you tally up the hours for the time and energy poured into these productions there is very little financial reward at the end of it all. I personally have yet to profit from any of my theatre work. So why do it at all you might ask? Well my answer would be this business is pure unadulterated lunacy and one enters into it fully aware of the fact and with the knowledge that you can only succeed if fuelled by a sort of Kamakazi passion.

You are also adapting this play into a screen production; tell us a little bit about that and how that process is coming along?

I am currently in the process of adapting the play into a screenplay. I initially conceived this story as a film and am looking forward to fleshing it all out onto a larger canvas. The landscapes of Northern KZN I reckon would provide the perfect cinematic backdrop for such a story. Producers who have circled the project are naturally weary because of the historic scale of it all and obviously theatre allows one to take more suggestive liberties than film does. The film version would be a significant departure from the stage play in the sense film allows one to get away with less talking more showing which appeals to me more and more as a storyteller.

The play also deals with the love affair between Vincent and Katrien, this is still a very ‘toasty’ subject in many conservative communities, this idea of multi-racial couples. But yet you sort of approached it without really taking sides on the matter, why? 

Who am I to take sides? My job as a writer is to present the situation and characters and let the audience draw their own conclusions, which they will automatically do according to their intelligence, upbringing and world- view. I hope that a contemporary South African theatre audiences would find the controversies of such a relationship more passé then taboo. 

I’m certainly not trying to shock. I truly believe there is nothing truly provocative left in this scenario. I think Katrien despite being the daughter of a NG Kerk Doominie father has not inherited his limited worldview. She has formed her own opinions and ideas about the world around her.  I am reminded of a great Zulu idiom which an elderly gentleman in Dundee taught me: “Umfundisi akamzali Umfundisi” which loosely translated means:  a minister doesn’t give birth to a minister. 

I met several teenagers like Katrien in the town of Dundee, who might have been the product of conservative old farmer volk yet were surprisingly free and dynamic thinkers.

It may be hard to believe but not all of us end up as carbon copies of our parents. Many youngsters set out to rebel against everything their parents are and believe. My research pointed me to several teenagers in these sorts of “one-horse dorps” who were in mixed race relationships and who despite the communities tittering were simply getting on with it and living their lives.

The same can be said for sexuality in these places. When I lived in Dundee it appeared that the town had a bigger and more vibrant gay population then Durban and there is surprising sort of acceptance that is forged in the unlikeliest corners of this province. In a weird way this gave me an inkling of hope for the future of our country.

So I suppose I like to focus on character studies which fall outside the norm and that offer more complex alternatives to what we have come to expect as South Africans. I also think it is our duty as writers to work very consciously to subvert stereotypes as opposed to simply pandering to an audiences’ expectation of them.

Vincent may be black but he has been raised by a conservative white colonial grandmother which again confuses the issues, blurs the boundaries and I hope rejuvenates our conversations around things like race and identity. Katrien may have a fundamentalist Afrikaans brother and a Doominie father but she is the antitheses of the both of them.

An audience member approached me a while ago after a performance of Abnormal Loads and said that this was the first grown up South African play they have seen in a last twenty years and I took that as a huge compliment, probably the greatest compliment of my career so far.

You have worked with a number of artists in bringing this play together, how important is collaboration in staging a show like this?

Collaboration is essential. Most of my projects are devised with a huge amount of input from outside talents. I like to learn alongside the people I work with. I suppose the writing part is so intense and solitary that when it comes to making the play you crave the fresh input of others.  When you don’t have a talent yourself it’s really handy (and healthy) to be able to call on the people who do.

One of my favourite parts is collaborating with musicians on the scores of my plays. I have worked with some of my favourite musos (and my sound designer Tristan Horton) holed up in a studio for weeks conceiving the sound and atmosphere to accompany the story on stage. If all goes well on my next project I will hopefully work with Chris Letcher, a musician and have a huge amount of respect for.

 

One of the things that I liked about this play is that it looks at the issue of identity in the social context of a small town and not in the usual upper-class suburban setting. Why did you do that?

Small towns in this county are a microcosm of the South African condition. All that complexity one finds in a sprawling urban cityscape is contained if far more claustrophobic confines, which is often dramatically interesting. I suppose it’s more manageable for a writer to scrutinize things under this sort of microscope.

You have all these cultures living and surviving, clashing (and occasionally thriving) on top of one another. Fear, discomfort, compassion, tolerance, prejudice is amplified in such situations and the playing fields are levelled in the sense co-existence happens across rickety fences as opposed to three story high walls. The thing about my fictional battlefield town of Bashford in the play is that it’s closely modeled on towns like Dundee and Ladysmith which are at the epicentre of South African history in the sense they are surrounded by hundreds of battle-field sites (including Insandlwana, Blood River and Spionkop). Such politically loaded terrains, where various histories and cultures have collided over time, are fertile grounds for new South African stories to emerge from.

Where do you literature is going locally and where can it improve?

This country is alive with stories and I think the one thing my generation of writers often fail to do is grapple with the here and now (I say this because I too am guilty). We are in desperate need for critical yet imaginative new voices to help untangle the present. As writers it often seems we feel safest dwelling in the past – perhaps this is because things tend to always seem clearer in retrospect? We have to embrace the complexities of the now and forge stories which resonate with new audiences.

On saying this we don’t have to omit humour, imagination or originality in the process. The simple fact is there are as many story- tellers out there as there are stories, the way in which the story is told, of course, is what makes all the difference.

What are some of the other projects and initiatives that you are currently working on?

I have several projects and new ideas in the pipeline. I am currently working on the design for a new play called Little Foot which has been commissioned by The Market theatre and is to be directed by Malcolm Purkey. It’s a challenging brief set in the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind and involving really large visual sequences. I am also beginning work on a screenplay version of Abnormal Loads and a short film project set along the Durban Beachfront.

 

 

LIVING WITH(IN) HISTORY- Dundee, Kwa-Zulu Natal

November4

We are about to embark on a three- month long residency to the town of Dundee as part of the project titled Two Thousand and Ten reasons to Live in a Small Town facilitated by VANSA .

There has been an exciting amount of interest shown in our project with folks wanting to know just what exactly we are hoping to achieve there.

So here’s the low down.

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The Tale of two Faiths

August4

Pictures by Paul Fetters

Travelling into Durban’s CBD from the Berea, one is met by two iconic and historic city landmarks. In the foreground the spires of the red brick Roman Catholic Emmanuel Cathedral while just behind, the two gilt-domed minarets of the Juma Musjid Mosque.

The Cathederal

In what can be described as a profound demonstration of interfaith solidarity, respected leaders across the faith spectrum, including leaders of the Juma Musjid Mosque gathered earlier this year to pledge their support for the Denis Hurley Centre project: a community outreach initiative spear headed by the Emmanuel Cathedral under the guidance of Fr Stephen Tully and project coordinat

The new centre will be an innovative outreach facility to better serve the growing number of poor and homeless people in the area.

The proposed centre is to be named after the late Archbishop Emeritus Denis Hurley who served at the Emmanuel Cathedral for 60 years of his life and is remembered for his many and significant altruistic contributions to the city of Durban. Read the rest of this entry »

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SCRUBBERS!

March9

A renowned hip-hop poet and Graffiti artist friend of mine and I recently engaged into a drunken dinner-party debate/row over the ubiquitous tagging of public property going down in Durban.Tagging to my “mother-Grundy” mind, is a creatively hollow pastime appropriated and practised by bored “Banksy-befok” adolescents who like to think of themselves as “urban anarchists”.

The subject of our row was a local Durban tagger who had been recently trialed in court for 850 counts of tagging and now found himself slapped with a hefty prison sentence.

While I would not wish a prison sentence upon anyone, I would imagine that after 850 counts of tagging, one might decide to shift their lacklustre modes of rebellion in favour of a more effective means of urban commentary.

Time it would seem to grow up and move on.

“It’s not considered vandalism” my friend had argued, “if it doesn’t break or defeat the purpose of the object. Spraying something on a wall doesn’t destroy its function, the wall still stands. How can you tell me this is a punishable crime” he ranted, “when murderers and rapists in this country get off from their charges scott free?”

While (sub)urban hip-hoppers may consider it an “innocuous” and even “subversive” act, one must pity the grouchy local residents digging weekly into pensions for the buckets of paint to erase the offending marks from their walls.

Offering a refreshing and very welcome take on the contentious art form, is a group of ex Durban Vega Brand and Communications School students, who were inspired by the work of British street artist Paul Curtis (AKA “Moose”) who began pioneering his form ‘Green’ or ‘reverse Graffiti’ three years ago.

Curtis (legend has it) first hit upon the idea while working as a kitchen porter in a restaurant scrubbing mountains of pots and pans. One dreary evening while trying to erase a grease stain on the sink wall before him, he discovered he had cleaned a large white patch onto the grimy surface.

It didn’t take long before the aspirant street artist began conquering the cityscapes of London, applying his vigorous selective scrubbing to more prominent walls and bridges. (see 2 images below)

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Reinventing the Old & Revolutionising the New

February11

Durban based furniture designer and artist Xavier Clarrise is unmistakably French. French ,you could say, in the way film maker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) makes cinema and Marcel Duchamp once conceived sculpture.

He is a tempest of energy, ideas and creativity, speaking with a musical accent and at a rapid pace (his eeees elongated for emphasis.). He is unbridled in his levels of invention and flamboyant in his enthusiasms. Get him on a subject he loves (his interests are many and varied) and he will unleash a torrent of philosophical musings and observations. Get him on a subject he loathes (mention the word ‘Unique’) and he will pace the room, gesticulating like a conductor coaxing his orchestra towards a Wagnerian crescendo.

Clarisse was born in Lyon, France and claims that as long as he can remember he has been obsessed with making things.  He studied mechanical theory and technical drawing before attending the prestigious “L’ecole nationale des beaux art” of Saint Etienn. After specialising in sculpture and product design, he began to travel the world working as a freelance designer. It was in London that he met and married his wife Suzanne, relocating back to her hometown of Durban three years ago.

In recent years, Clarisse has applied himself in many areas and arena’s, working in furniture design, sculpture and installation. He has collaborated on various international and sight specific art projects in between launching a furniture range (vanities and the like) alongside Durban manufacturer Marco Bertacco for ITALTILE outlets.

His more idiosyncratic commissions can currently be found gracing many a trendy Durban household, eatery and more recently,  soccer stadium presidential suite. Read the rest of this entry »

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Anglo-Boer(-ing) War Conference

February8


To kick start each morning of the South African Military Societies International Anglo Boer War History conference, held in Ladysmith two weeks ago, a blank was fired from a British Naval 12 pounder. This I soon discover is the Military equivalent of slugging back a double Espresso first thing the morning. A reverberating shock to attendees’ ear drums and pace makers, prepping us all for the illuminating and often arduous day of battle-speak ahead.

 

Held at the Platrad Lodge, overlooking significant Anglo Boer War battle terrain, the conference boasted a range of international and local speakers talking on topics that ranged from this War’s many myths, tactics and military blunders as well as revisionist takes on controversial and largely misunderstood historical figures of the time.

With one hundred and ten years having passed since the War, it seems Boer and Brit can now comfortably share the same room without wanting to ‘bliksem’ each other every time things get a little heated. Throughout the conference, areas of research and interest were analysed with healthy amounts of objectivity and the atmosphere reminded one of a jovial old boy’s reunion.

The aim of the conference was to provide a new source of understandings around the causes, events and consequences of Anglo Boer War. As organiser and military historian Ken Gillings stated in his opening address: “Such a conference is arranged so we can learn from the past and ensure that such atrocities never again occur in the future.”

Certainly the seminal purpose of any historical gathering– the very hook on which history’s precarious future hangs– is how to ensure that younger generations of South Africans are made privy to such findings. Read the rest of this entry »

Urban Ambling

January29


Working towards a philosophy of architecture without walls, Mauritian born and Durban based architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer’s guided  city- walks  have been  reshaping and shifting perceptions around the cities ’in-between’ spaces. Neil Coppen treads the pot- holed asphalt.

Uniting a love of architecture with art and activism with imagining, Doung (who completed a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the then University of Natal in 1996) labels his city-walk initiative as an exuberant exploration, as well as a humbling cautionary tale, an allegory on the infinite complexities of spaces and timings in the city of Durban.

I have lived in Durbs all my life, yet after a five-hour meander alongside this urban Shaman and his toret’s of inner-city- insight returned feeling as if I had just visited a foreign country. The result is of course an unsettling wake-up call–one that tends to highlight the apathy with which engage the seemingly ‘inane’ everyday. Read the rest of this entry »

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Giant Killer Prehistoric Rubber-Duck on the Rampage

January14

My brother Gregg and his wife Angella (a web developer and illustrator) live on a mountainside in Fishhoek in the Western Cape. Their house overlooks the main swimming beach. On a balmy summer’s day their lounge window frames an idyllic picture: a stretch of white beach lining an azure coastline littered with bathers, surfers, tourists and the like.

From such a height the people on the beach tend to resemble the miniature figurines populating a model train-set or the busy layout of a Where’s Wally picture book.

On Tuesday afternoon, around 15:35 Gregg and Angella heard a commotion on the Fishhoek beach and ran outside to see what was happening. Glancing down at the Fishhoek bay they spotted a giant shadow (of about 150m) gunning towards a colourful bobbing object.  From such a distance they were unable to make out whether this object was a bather, bouy or beach ball?

It’s now pretty well known that the shadow turned out to be a Great White Shark, a suspicion confirmed when they saw the creature break the waves and wrap its jaws around the bobbing lump before submerging itself again and taking the object with it. Gregg being the techno savvy guy he is– with i-phone permanently attached to hip– Tweeted the sighting on micro blogging portal Twitter as fast as it seemed to happen.

His first Tweet read……

Tue 12 Jan at 15:40: Holy shit, we just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person right in front of our house in Fishhoek. Unbelievable.

Seven minutes later he posted a new update……

Tue 12 Jan at 15:47: We are dumbstruck, that was so surreal. That shark was HUGE. Like dinosaur huge.

This was followed by further tweets over the next few hours that included details on the arrival of the emergency services and confirmation that the colourful bobbing lump was indeed a human-being.

What is both fascinating and disturbing to see was how quickly these ‘tweets’ were snapped up by Internet news agencies and how fast news, via the rapid and tangled broadband grapevine, is capable of getting around these days. Read the rest of this entry »

Durban’s Endangered Art Deco Empires

December7

To this day the Art Deco style remains a contentious and oft disputed entry into the Architectural journals and history books. With its penchant for excessive ornamentation, non functional frills and outlandish colour schemes, the style is all too often dismissed by contemporary Architects as a brief and embarrassing rush of blood to depression era architects’ heads.  Certainly the conservative colonial population of Durban thought so, when in 1931 the veritable anti- Christ of architecture reared it unsightly head in the form of Art Deco apartment block known as the Enterprise Building in Aliwal Street. Unhappily for its detractors, the style would flourish like an overly flamboyant fungus in city and suburb across the country before petering out during the outbreak of the second -world war.

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