South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Durban and its link to greatness

The city of Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city and supposedly favorite holiday destination (as opposed to Cape Town, the favorite of international visitors) is where I’ll be spending most of my time in this country. It’s not as famous or glamorous as Cape Town or as prosperous or dangerous as Johannesburg, but it has some good attributes as this article says, despite the writer also describing it as grimier than Cape Town, which is unfortunately true. The nice weather aside, Durban has great ethnic diversity and is near to many historic and natural wonders including the Drakensberg mountains, St. Lucia wetland park (these two being United Nations World Heritage sites), and many famous Anglo-Boer and Anglo-Zulu battlefields.

A major historic aspect of Durban’s past concerns a global icon who was not South African and matches the stature of Nelson Mandela. On the past weekend I was fortunate enough to go to the Phoenix Settlement, where Mahatma Gandhi spent over 20 years living and developing his peaceful resistance philosophy, as well as starting a printing press. Located in Inanda township, the settlement was damaged in riots in 1985 but renovated and reopened in 2000, as the province hopes to maintain this valuable historical heritage, as well as attract more visitors. This area is home to more legacies as not far away is the Ohlange Institute, where Nelson Mandela cast the first vote of the 1994 election, South Africa’s first-ever democratic election. Now, why did Mandela go there to vote? Because none other than the founder and first president of the ANC ran his educational institute there. John L Dube was American-educated and was inspired to create an institute to educate the poor masses. His office is now an “interpretation centre” that features information and mementos including his desk and piano while on a nearby mound, he is buried along with his wife and two of his children. These two places form the main parts of the Inanda or Woza eNanda heritage route, which also includes the largest church in KwaZulu-Natal province Shembe church, and Inanda Seminary, one of Africa’s oldest and best known school for girls.

When I went to the Gandhi settlement with a relative, we ran into a grandson of John Dube, who chatted with us briefly. He was just on his way off to do something but would later meet us at the Ohlange Institute. A warm and personable character who was educated in Europe and then then-Soviet Union, this Dube talked to us about the work of his grandfather who studied in the U.S. and was inspired by Booker T. Washington to try to help his people through education. The Ohlange Institite and the Phoenix Settlement are located in the midst of poverty in Phoenix, which is next to the major township of KwaMashu. Formerly an Indian area in Gandhi’s time, Phoenix had been resettled by blacks during the ’80s. For all their history, these places probably need more renovation, specifically for the Phoenix Settlement and more exhibits, but there were signs in the settlement that more work was being undertaken.

The building at the entrance of the Gandhi settlement used to house a printing press started by him.

I’m really not sure why it’s painted so green, but it’s a reconstruction of Gandhi’s original house, as the plaque below makes clear. 1985 was a turbulent time that saw a lot of blacks move into this area probably in an attempt to find more places to live nearer the cities. The harshness and unjustness under apartheid means it’s necessary to understand separate events as part of a greater whole.

A short drive away to a nearby hill was the Ohlange Institute where a founder of the ANC (African National Congress) was buried. Below is the interpretation centre which features some displays about his background and houses some of his personal possessions such as his desk.

In 1994 in an auditorium in one of the school buildings next door, history was made when Nelson Mandela cast the first vote in the first ever free election in South Africa. The statue below of a proudly beaming Madiba commemorates the act.

The statue is very recent, as the plaque shows.

JL Dube, his wife and several of his offspring are buried here in a small mound next to the interpretation centre.