Durban 1947

May 4, 2008 at 2:43 am 2 comments

By Roon Lewald

1947 was a good time to be a white five-year-old in Durban. The beaches offered halcyon days beside the Indian Ocean. The Durban July turned the town into an exciting tourist mecca. The Bioscope was still the gateway to Hollywood’s dream factory of the world. In that stronghold of English speakers, blimpish super-patriots of Empire basked in the last rays of the setting Empire, and the 1947 Royal Visit whipped monarchist enthusiasms to fever pitch. “Our magnificent Zulu” were complacently thought to be quite content with white overlordship, and one of the few blots on white horizons was the rapid encroachment of increasingly prosperous Indian merchants on previously all-white shopping and residential areas. Yet viewed with later adult hindsight, it was a year at the cusp of momentous things to come. The British Raj was bowing out of India and Africa’s winds of change were starting to puff their cheeks. The very next year, the Afrikaner Nationalists swept Jan Smuts’s English-dominated “Saps” out of power and laissez-faire white supremacism made way for over 40 years of iron-fisted race dictatorship.

1. Beethoven vs. the Bioscope

Concert tours by elderly artistes
from “overseas”
are isolated peaks of culture
in this heat-flushed town
beside a luke-warm sea.
Belts are tight in post-war Europe,
so second-raters flee that shabby place
to feed their faces and their egos
in the grateful colonies.

The Durban Symphony under Teddy Dunn
gives the public all it’s likely to appreciate –
Pomp and Circumstance or the
Royal Air Force March
for the umpteenth time,
or “dit-dit-dit-DAH!”
to herald Ludwig’s Fifth
(Remember, dear, that’s V-for-Victory –
the wartime call-sign of the BBC!)
On the stage, Charley’s Aunt and
The Mikado are always well received.
For the rest, culture-vultures must make do
with local talent.
All these pale beside the “Bioscope”,
the factory of dreams.

At Ye Olde Playhouse, stars twinkle
in the night-sky ceiling
above the Tudor ramparts on the walls,
all in plaster, when the lights go down
for a seven-feature programme.
Between Roy Rogers and the Tarzan serial,
there’s a talent competition,
or a jolly organist is whooshed up
through a trap-door from below,
seated at a giant Wurlitzer,
all flashing lights . On the screen,
a bouncing ball leads the way
from word to word:
“You are my Sunshine…”

By the time the curtain rises for
the main attraction – starring
Shirley Temple, Errol Flynn or Lassie –
the ‘Springbok’ and ‘Commando’
fumes are thick enough to cut.
Non-smokers have two choices:
“Go home – or shurrup!

At “The End”, all loyal subjects
stand for God-Save-the-King.
Poor George the Sixth!
Memories of the Blitz and
the twilight of his Empire
shade his tired, kindly eyes.
He gets no sympathy
From Afrikaners in the audience.
For them, the Boer War never ended
and the Brits are still The Enemy.
They stay malevolently seated,
meeting stare with stare
and lapping up the whispers:
“Just look at them!
Why are the bloody Boers
such bloody bores?!”

2. The Native Question

In this stronghold of imperial sentiment
the Brits yearn for a Home they hardly know
and pray: “God, don’t let the Boers up North
beat good old Jannie Smuts in ’48 – or else
they’ll make us all speak kitchen-Dutch!”

On what they call the Native Question,
they’re laissez-faire,
i.e. marginally less racist
than this overlordship plan
Daniel Malan keeps ranting on about:
“Apartheid”, his Nats are calling it.

Opinion sample:
– “I’m all for decent treatment of the blacks:
if we can keep them in their place.”
– “The difference between us and the Boers
is that they hate the Native. We don’t.
We love the Zulus. They’re OUR tribe –
we grew up with them, so we know
what’s good for them.”
– “They’re a warrior race,
with a soldierly contempt
for bleeding hearts and commies.
Remember Tchaka and the Washing
of the Spears? Magnificent!”
– “Yes, the cops find bodies
near the ‘locations’ every Sunday,
when rival clansmen fight it out
with knobsticks! Well, if a bit
of bloodshed keeps them
busy and amused, let it –
nignog birth rate’s far too high,
I always say!”

3. The Indian Question

The Indians are viewed with
rather more distaste.
Brought here to work the sugar-cane
amid the rats and snakes,
they’re rising as a merchant class
through industry and brains.
They’re felt to be rather like the Jews –
too damned clever for their good.

Opinion sample:
– “That cheeky little bugger Gandhi –
what a plague he’s been to us in India!
We should have cooked his goose
right here, before he left Natal.”
– “Yes, and their shops out in the Coolie Belt
are spreading closer every day.
They’ll be all over West Street soon,
you mark my words!”
-“They’ve several millionaires already,
I believe, and their villas –
gaudy as a brothel,
you know THEM –
but posh is not the word:
all tennis courts
and swimming pools!”

But there’s no denying it,
they’re a tourist asset to the town.
When the nation swamps
the racecourse and the beaches in July,
the country cousins just adore
those piping curries.
And the Indian waiters:
quick as a flash,
and such a SCREAM ,
with their cheeky flair
and that goon-show accent
they put on!

The tourists gawk at Hindu temples
and troop through the Bazaar
to finger saris from Benares
and sniff outlandish spices:
“Madam, please!
Try my “rocket” curry mixture!
You vil find
that it vurks vunders
for your pallid palate and
your constipated mind!”


Entry filed under: Apartheid, Human Rights, Identity, Lewald, Nationalism, Peace and Justice, Poetry, Race and Culture, Restorative Justice, South Africa, Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marianne  |  September 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    How many memories you bring back – kitsch but true. I’m so glad to see someone who sees what I see. Thank you Roon. It’s a wonder we stayed normal – if that’s the word?

    • 2. Roon Lewald  |  September 17, 2010 at 6:16 am

      Thanks for the flowers, Marianne. What a never-never land we lived in – I keep veering between grateful wonderment over SA’s relatively bloodless transition to greater political justice and sadness over the loss of my innocent childhood enjoyment of that bygone white man’s world.


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