Freeing the beaches to unite us

Oct 16, 2014

In August 1989, as part of a campaign across our country led by the United Democratic Front, we donned our T-shirts, yellow peak caps and marched from Addington beach along the beachfront to free the beaches.  More than 10000 people of all shapes, sizes and persuasions took part in that action to rid ourselves of the apartheid beaches. As we walked, hundreds if not thousands of riot police tried their level best to intimidate the marchers but we held firm.  From that day onwards few dared question why the beaches should not be open to all.

However, with the degeneration of the city in the 1980’s and 1990’s,  and with white flight from the city centre to places like Umhlanga, Durban’s central beachfront soon became one of the most unsafe places to be in Durban.  Not a weekend went by without muggings, stabbings and rapes occurring on the “Golden Mile”. Elderly residents on North Beach were almost held captive and subjected to blaring music, braaing and disorderly conduct right outside their apartments.  Young people gathered at a few drinking spots along the beachfront each weekend (usually Friday nights), bringing their own liquor and creating their own party.  This became a regular occurrence where they seemed to delight in smashing the bottles on the ground.  Every Saturday morning the Durban Solid Waste workers had to then pick up the broken glass.

We cordoned off these areas and tried arresting those behaving in a delinquent manner.  Sometimes our police were beaten back as they faced an onslaught of drunk men.

While that enforcement happened, though, plans were developed and started being implemented for a better future for the beachfront.  The plans were simple, recognising that public space belongs to all of us, and that well-used spaces would be safer. We decided to build nodes of activity every 200-300 metres, realizing that, for example, if restaurants are located at those places, they will ensure the area is safe.

We started the beachfront upgrade with a set of guiding principles including:

  • Enhancing the importance of the beachfront as one of the city’s key economic assets.
  • Recognising the importance of the social amenity of the beachfront for people living in, working in and visiting the city. To achieve this we creates spaces and for people to picnic and braai and put in play equipment for children.
  • Providing a range of public spaces and facilities for people to use in different ways.
  • Prioritising and encouraging a range of recreational activities.
  • Placing regular nodes for restaurants and other activities every 200 – 300 meters apart to encourage activity and therefore improve safety . We chose four nodes to start with and then had a pilot project to test out what a beach café requires by way of operations.
  • We aimed to create open spaces which allowed for good surveillance, to this end, we demolished many of the old cluttered buildings and smaller structures along the beachfront and improved CCTV surveillance.
  • Environmental issues were prioritised – dune replanting began and many indigenous plants were re-introduced onto the coastal dune.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup provided an opportunity to get national government to assist ratepayers greatly by making available funds to complete the central beach options.  Whilst the requirements of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) complicated and slowed the process of getting tenants into the restaurants, it is great to see that most are now occupied and busy.

Undoubtedly the cycling, sporting and related businesses are also appreciating the spinoffs of getting Durban’s residents onto for the beachfront to walk, jog, cycle and generally relax.

People have come back to the beachfront in droves and the wonderful thing is that it remains probably the only public place in South Africa where everyone — rich and poor, black and white, young and old, from all religious persuasions – can enjoy themselves and appreciate what wonderful people we are.