This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 17, April 2014. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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Nelson Mandela died last night and Durban fell quiet. This morning in Warwick Junction, a patchwork of markets jostling against the CBD, the quiet has given way to work. Traders sell neatly arranged punnets of tomatoes and barrowmen push carts stacked with produce. Bead sellers sit beside their wares, threading small glass beads into intricate patterns. Women polish balls of lime clay so they glow white.

On television and online, Mandela’s death is sweeping across the world. Here in Durban, no businesses are closed, no crowds have yet gathered to mourn. Customers and traders exchange sad shakes of the head and murmur words of loss.

Grief is deep but life presses on.

South Africa has come a long way in the last twenty years, but still has far to go. Part of the nation’s future progress will rely on how it builds its cities, in part because those cities still bear apartheid scars. Politically and socially much has changed, but the very fabric of cities such as Durban must change too. A new Durban is emerging, but what should it look like? How will it work? And for whom?

*

Durban clambers up low hills from its harbour on the Indian Ocean. Colonial neighbourhoods of low brick houses, punctuated by shopping malls, apartment complexes and sudden shanty towns, give way to estates of identikit cottages and ramshackle townships, in turn sprawling through the highlands towards the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg.

Urban renewal, that favoured buzzword of city planners, has met with mixed success – even with the new investments made in the lead-up to the World Cup in 2010. Tired office buildings sit squat in the hazy air with little glitz and no glamour. Back behind the beach, crowded on summer weekends, stretches of bustling shops and cafes alternate with derelict warehouses and disused freight yards.

Thousands of years before Vasco da Gama named this coast Natal in 1497, Bantu peoples migrated down from central Africa to establish tribal homelands. By British settlement in 1824, King Shaka had built a strong centralised Zulu state that fought bravely but in vain against colonisation. Afrikaner settler-pioneers, the voortrekkers, chose not to contest British rule, the sugarcane industry boomed and Durban became a crucial trading port. Indentured labourers from India gave the city its shape and a cultural diversity still present today – while Durban proper is home to just 500,000, the wider eThekwini. Municipality governs some 3 million, of which a quarter are of Indian descent. With 60 per cent black or ‘coloured’ and 15 per cent white (South Africans speak matter-of-factly about race, and still use this terminology officially and colloquially), Durban is the country’s most racially diverse city.

Despite this diversity, Durban was already segregated when apartheid was formally enacted in 1948. Whites occupied the downtown and first line of hills, Indian and coloured zones were next, with the black townships consigned to the periphery. Warwick Junction, a trading and transport hub since the 19th century, was a rare exception. Indian and black traders clung to their livelihoods despite various attempts to move them out.

With the abolition of apartheid in 1994, integration slowly transformed Durban. Black and Indian families moved into white neighbourhoods, and many whites left for Australia and elsewhere. But where race once divided the city, wealth now does. To prevent the flight of money and expertise, Mandela allowed white farmers to keep their land and mining magnates their gold and diamonds. But his decision also entrenched wealth inequality; while the ‘black diamonds’ of the new elite are very visible, a strong middle-class has yet to emerge. Drive north along the coast to the wealthy enclave Umhlanga and the divisions are stark. Scattered shanty towns teeter on the steep hills while Audis roar between downtown offices and modern homes gazing onto the Indian Ocean. Some see this inequality and are angry, but many more see signs of the nation’s potential.

On my first visit to Warwick I saw a small Zulu boy wearing a Springboks jersey, the rugby team once the sporting embodiment of apartheid. At dinner a few nights later, I mentioned this to a Zulu friend.

‘Go Springboks,’ she laughed. ‘I love rugby. We win all the time.’

*

Don’t drive with your windows down. Always lock the car doors. Never leave bags on the seat. Don’t walk at night.

Crime is South Africa’s national obsession. In wealthier neighbourhoods, every building is fenced by high walls topped with metal spikes and barbed wire. Security company logos warn potential intruders of rapid armed responses – and advertise their services as part of the booming security industry.

If economic inequality is apartheid’s less cruel successor, crime is its ghost. Crime works socially to reinforce distinctions of wealth; a spectre of fear that divides the city socially and geographically where such divisions were once defined by race.

My wife Zoe and I visit a doctor in Durban’s new International Conference Centre. Indian and in his fifties, the doctor asks what we are doing in Durban.

‘I’m working in Warwick Junction,’ says Zoe.

‘In Warwick?’ His eyes widen in disbelief.

‘Yes, in the markets.’

He shakes his head, ‘You’ll be killed!’

‘It’s actually quite safe,’ Zoe tries to tell him, but he’s not listening.

‘Can you believe it?’ he says, addressing the clinic’s two receptionists. They both shake their heads.

‘Have you ever been there?’ Zoe asks.

‘Are you crazy?’

Warwick is just a handful of blocks from where our conversation takes place.

*

One blinding February morning, I tag along with Zoe’s workmates, Richard Dobson and Phumzile Xulu, as they take a project partner on a tour of the Warwick markets. The pair work for Asiye eTafuleni, a small non-profit at the intersection of urban planning and community development – I’m in Durban because Zoe is working with them over the summer. The name means ‘bring it to the table’ in Zulu and reflects their collaborative approach to improving Durban’s urban environment.

Warwick is a complex ecosystem from which nearly 8,000 people earn their livelihood from the almost half a million people passing through its thoroughfares and markets each day. Many are commuters using the transit hub around which the markets cluster, but others come seeking distinctive coloured uniforms to wear to church, traditional muti that many still use as their primary medicine, or the pinafores that, along with cattle, often must be bought in bulk as part of dowries.

Businesses here are often informal, meaning they operate without registration, but traders still pay rent to the city and trading sites are closely, if imperfectly, regulated. For all its vitality and the income it generates for the municipality, Warwick has been the flashpoint for debates over what Durban can or should become since the first markets were established in the 19th century. A few years ago, traders at the market, with support from Asiye eTafuleni, fought off a mall development that would have displaced thousands of informal workers. Today a further development is back on the agenda, this time on the station at the heart of the markets. Private ownership makes development almost inevitable in some form. The question now is how it can be geared towards supporting informal traders rather than threatening their existence.

As we walk, Richard and Phumzile peel back the surface of the markets to show their fascinating inner workings. Generic shopping malls are scattered across Durban, but these markets were born to the city. For the municipality and its leaders, Warwick could become one of the most compelling reasons to visit Durban – and a model for an approach to urban development in the global south that embraces vibrant local tradition rather than the sameness of American suburbia.

On a street corner a man sells ears of corn, the ‘mealies’ packed in fifty gallon drums and fast-boiled to stay sweet, crisp and moist inside their husks. Burn scars mark his arms, evidence of the need for better cooking facilities and health and safety training, but this work is also a microcosm of the potential of these markets as the nexus of farms, families and affordable healthy food for city workers. Below the motorway, women in hairnets sell succulent braai, the famous South African barbecue, from meticulously clean tables. Across the road, a Zulu grandmother runs a storage facility where traders lock their goods at night. An Indian flower seller in the Early Morning Market has a son who is now a judge. On a vaulting walkway above the railway, medicine men and women dispense advice and muti among baskets of crushed bark and stacks of dried reptile skins. At the Bovine Head Market women with axes split the skulls of cows, the rich meat eaten with salt, pepper and spices.

Warwick is nothing like familiar tourist traps such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. While more tourists come here now than ever before, the markets remain a deeply entrenched part of everyday life. Working people stop for curry at an eatery near the station entrance, buy neatly stacked potatoes at the Early Morning Market instead of queuing at a supermarket, or have their hair cut in one of the artfully decorated barbershop tents beside the taxi stand.

Yet for all their importance, the markets are being left behind again – a kind of economic segregation of the traditional from the new. Despite the municipality collecting rent, infrastructure maintenance is largely ignored. Deep potholes and cracked asphalt make thoroughfares treacherous, barbershop kiosks rely on makeshift power, bovine heads lie discarded in the gutter, and by afternoon some parts of the market are cluttered with uncollected garbage. Some solutions are complex, others simple. ‘If there is one thing that can help people in a city like Durban, it’s well-maintained sidewalks,’ says Richard, waving at a collapsed section of pavement. ‘Easier for transport, better for cleaning, safer for pedestrians and traders.’ But the market, it seems, cannot compete with the city’s appetite for rapid development; while crucial economically, sidewalk traders lack the glamorous appeal of brand name stores.

Despite what certain doctors say, Warwick is highly organised and far from lawless. Each market area has its own committee and elected leaders, and often a trading association. Traders have pooled resources to set up a Neighbourhood Watch-style anti-crime patrol and say the area is far safer than it once was. As with any city’s thriving commercial zones, petty theft does occur and secure storage is a crucial concern for traders. The lesson of the markets is not about crime, but rather what they reveal about the possibilities of thinking outside the typical frame of urban development.

An architect by trade, Richard worked for many years at eThekwini Municipality, but left to form Asiye eTafuleni with a colleague from the city. At the Brook Street Market, he shows us how alternative approaches to new infrastructure can vastly improve public spaces. Here, an elegant curve of umbrella roofing stretches the length of the open space between the train station and the city’s old cemetery, protecting traders and customers against rain and sun but still bright and cooled by the breeze. From the station’s mezzanine with its food court and clothing stalls, we look down on ordered rows of traders on trestle tables, cleverly designed to be made cheaply from old packing pallets. Its very functionality gives the space its vitality – it sustains and supports the daily life of the city.

But these markets, even spaces like Brook Street, aren’t everyone’s idea of a contemporary city. Naturally enough, many South African officials and planners look to the West for their models – and Warwick simply doesn’t fit their image of what a city should be. Air-conditioned shopping malls symbolise prosperity and modernity. Markets are relics of the past. And yet all over the world, cities like Sydney or Melbourne are now looking to local markets to revitalise urban spaces in which the human scale has been eradicated by towering skyscrapers and mirrored shopping centres. Ironically, the International Union of Architects will hold its tri-annual conference in Durban later this year to think in new ways about architecture and development. Warwick will be a key site of learning – but international interest doesn’t necessarily translate into local protection.

In the development plans for the station, the traders who currently use its spaces are out of sight – and out of the flow of pedestrian traffic that is so crucial for business. It is understandably difficult for some to see outside the urban utopia of modern imagination: glass lobbies and department stores framed by decorous public spaces. New York and Tokyo aren’t templates, but emergent from their own histories, cultures and geographies. Instead of mimicking others, Durban might look harder for what makes it unique and nurture that to become not just a prosperous city but one of richness founded in difference.

*

Watching Mandela’s memorial service on a screen in front of Durban’s neo-baroque City Hall and under the stony gaze of its colonial rulers, I was struck once again by just how far South Africa has come. After the memorial, we went with friends to see the biopic A Long Walk to Freedom at our local cinema. Late in the film, Mandela appears on television to urge South Africa to choose forgiveness over hate, peace over violence. Quiet until now, affirming murmurs rolled through the largely black audience. These were sounds of agreement, but also of reaffirmation – people on a rocky path reminding themselves that, for all their travails and the challenges still to come, the way they chose was the right one. Here, forgiveness was neither easy nor a singular act but something that must be repeated daily, a way to both master anger and burnish hope.

I’ve thought about forgiveness often while in Durban and I do again as I walk through the markets on that hot February morning with Richard and Phumzile, witness to the countless small acts that make Warwick a community and a place to value. There is a word for this spirit and strength of togetherness that unites South Africans: Ubuntu, the mortar binding this nation of forgiveness. With the uncertainty of new developments hanging over parts of Warwick, Ubuntu is the source of the pragmatic optimism that gives the traders and the barrowmen, the mealie cooks and the barbers, the determination to keep pushing the city to embrace and not shun what makes it unique. If the developments occur, the markets will live on, but their vibrant difference will be lessened, and many traders will struggle. As the future unfolds, Durban will face more questions about Warwick and the kind of city it wants to be. Rather than look to Western models, Durban might instead learn from the people who have already made it remarkable, and pursue their vision of what a South African city should be.

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