South Africa is a place of stunning contrasts: extreme wealth and desperate poverty, heroic devotion to the greater good and klepto - and megalomaniacal self-interest, exceptional natural beauty and environmental desecration. It is perhaps, not so much a World in One Country” as the official tourism slogan once claimed, but a universe where worlds collide, always jarringly, sometimes violently.”

 – Lynn Berat, ‘Preface to The Fourth Edition’, Thompson, L.M., 2014. A history of South Africa. Yale University Press

The two natural breakwaters of Durban Harbour — the North and the South — jut out and pinch back on themselves like forefinger and thumb, trying to pull a splinter. Fingers that have been tugging and thumbing and pulling ships out of the Indian Ocean for longer than anyone down there cares to remember. You can walk for hours down Durban's mustard beach all the way to The Point. Up the distal phalanx of that forefinger to the tip of its nail, where you can stare out over the pinch of those two pruned fingers to The Bluff. The Bluff, that foolhardy thumb, is an area that outsiders don’t go to without the company of a local. 


And there I found myself sauntering — sweating and swearing, with sand in my jocks and lager in my veins — past Marine World towards the end of North Pier. Tacked high upon the streetlamps that flanked the promenade were battered corriboard signs inviting me to “Vote Steeplechase: Bringing Yesterday Back, Tomorrow.” The fact that The Bluff hides just beyond The Point says something about the underlying mentality of those Durbanites who still use the old names, the name I’d used before I left. Durbanites’ approach to life is largely dictated by which of those two giant fingers they stood on first. The Point or The Bluff. In Durban, you found yourself surrounded by people who were constantly looking for the point to everything whilst trying to conceal the suspicion that they’re being bluffed. Or by people who are constantly being bluffed whilst trying to convince you that they’ve found the point to everything. I’m not sure which camp I’m in, because I moved away and a soutjie like me doesn’t get a say anymore. It doesn’t matter where you are though, Durbanites were irritated by the pace at which I was drawing my suitcase down the promenade while other people’s children ran up ahead, just out of reach. At the end of the stretch, I walked up the pier and looked out over the harbour. I stood there, staring out over the hot bath that is the Indian Ocean trying to remind myself this was where I was from. How little I understood it. How little of it had changed. The tide was coming in and I could hear a hadedah crying out over the harbour mouth. Beyond the railings, down on the mustard beach towards the waxing tide, a route of plough snails seemed retreat down into the sand, turning their backs on the scene. Odd, to have been back in this place. I knew that I’d find them soon enough after sunset. It was nearing lunchtime now, and I wasn’t sure the old crowd would even be up yet, wiping enough of last night off them before doing it again. I had to find Larry, which meant The Smuggler’s Inn, eventually. That old haunt of hipsters and wildcats come in off the sea in search of a good time, the truth or both. Some places never change, never disappear, never dissolve. The Smuggler’s Inn is one of those places, Durban was full of them.  I always knew that I could find parts of the old crowd there. And if I needed to find this Morty, then it was Larry who could put me in touch with him. Look out over the harbour and spot an old man fishing – catch with three eyes and teeth like a man, but he’d eat it. A suitcase with wheels and the midday Durban sun. I needed Larry, but I couldn’t stroll in there unannounced. I’d need an introduction after all this time again, an introduction and a wingman. I like my jaw. It would be considered a favour, for which I would owe more than a few in return. 


Larry and I had known one another for a long time. Our mothers had been friends and we’d done the whole pre-school and growing-up thing together before our paths split. I emigrated to study, and he stayed on after national service. I knew he’d had a rough time of it up on the border and he’d come back with a pension and a stutter. I hadn’t seen him since I left. I had met friends in London a few years back who had told me his stint in the service was hot. They’d mentioned Koevoet, which I knew meant counterinsurgency and with everything that had gone on since, I wasn’t sure how a man like Larry found a place for himself in the world anymore. I think the Namibian government had taken on his pension for a stint, but who knew if that could still be drawn? I knew I could find either him, flush or broke, or someone who’d know where he’d be at Smuggies. Which meant drinking and favours and Tina and all that trouble. So, Tracy Chapman in the Walkman, and a payphone on the point. I’d have to worm my way in. Suppose I knew that, standing there on the Pier, looking out at the waves, coming, and coming, and coming. I turned my back to ocean and lugged my bag into the city. I would call Eugene and I knew it’d be drinks in the lounge and braai, jol, howzit. But it’d get me an in with Larry, and then, with luck, this Morty guy would talk. Christmas would be here soon, and it was so hot.


Nothing seems to change here.


Nothing seems to happen. 

A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens