I arrive in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, and it’s not as warm as most South Africans know it to be. But the weather is not going to dampen my spirits or stop me and my colleague, Lubabalo Mashiqana, from scouring the coastal city of Durban for stories.
Landing at King Shaka International Airport, hungry, I phone a friend, Thomokazi Bunjana, who we call Tom. I know her from Soweto in Johannesburg, where I reside, although she now lives in Durban.
We ask her to direct us, and our first stop is Chicken Licken, a South African fast-food fried chicken outlet in town. Our hunger sated, we bid her goodbye, and drive 40kms north in our ever-beeping Renault Clio 4 to Ballito, a holiday town located in the province, to what will be our lodging for the next two nights.
The next morning, it’s pouring – a rarity for sunny Durban. I am surprised but mostly worried about whether I will get to do justice to a story idea I had on rickshaws, the two-wheeled passenger cart only found in Durban.
The rain does not deter our mission. We have breakfast, take a shower and drive to the KZNSA Gallery to meet photographer Niamh Walsh-Vorster, the co-founder of award-winning online e-zine, Ja. I expect to see a much older, white European lady. Walsh-Vorster is young, African and accomplished. She had started Ja. with friend and writer Dave Mann in 2014.
She says they are endeavoring to shift the power dynamics in editorship “because it can be problematic”.
“As much as we do the admin and organizing and have the vision for it, we cannot run without contributors and the creatives that still believe in the ethos of it,” says Walsh-Vorster.
They would rather call themselves the Ja. Team, and the idea is to get writers and photographers who may not find it easy to be published elsewhere. So the team created a platform to generate such opportunities, not just for Durbanites, but all Africans.
The interview is over and I ask Walsh-Vorster for other newsmakers and story ideas in Durban. She suggests Gcina Shange, a choreographer who also teaches young girls to express themselves through dance, and who agrees to meet me later in the afternoon.
Walsh-Vorster hugs me goodbye. Walking back to the car, I am still worried: “Will the rickshaws be at the beach in this weather?” It was midday, grey, and still drizzling.
I call Tom and ask her to take us to the rickshaws at the Umhlanga beach front. On arrival, I see white car guards. This sight is unusual in Johannesburg. I have never ever had a white man direct me to park the car. I handed him the R2 for the service like I would in Johannesburg.
We head out and see the subjects, the rickshaws. I take out my camera and start shooting. I approach one of the rickshaw drivers and he tells me I need to pay for the interview, the picture and the ride. I think fast on my feet. I use the weather to my advantage – business is not good for the day. I approach an idle rickshaw and offer to pay R50 ($3.6) for the ride and a quick interview, knowing I am going to be able to shoot pictures. Seemingly shy, Nkosinathi Dlamini, the driver, offers to talk.
“My father taught me how to ride; I couldn’t get a job so I came to work as a rickshaw driver. We make around R600 ($43) a day during holiday season and on a bad day, you can go home with R0,” he laughs.
Suddenly, the sky clears and customers come near. Dlamini gets impatient and wants to take my colleague Mashiqana for the ride so he can return for more riders. I could see Mashiqana was having the time of his life riding the rickshaw.
In the end, for a small fee, I managed to get him a ride, got a few words out of Dlamini for my story and a defining picture of my Durban experience.
Time was on our side, as we strolled to the shops for a six-pack for the after-work hours.
It is now time to meet Shange at The Playhouse Company, a theater house in town. Parking is a nightmare here because of all the municipal buildings in the area. I finally find one less than a kilometer away from the venue. I rush assuming I am late.
“Hi,” trills Shange. “I thought you would be older.” We laugh.
Shange was born in a village in the south coast of Durban, and moved to the city as a teenager to finish high school. At the time, in 1997, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) dominated parts of KwaZulu-Natal and one had to mind what they said, she says.
She used to write poems and didn’t know there was a performer in her.
“The first poem I wrote was about education and this poem put me in a dangerous space in terms of the politics I didn’t understand at the time,” Shange recalls.
Her mother suggested she move to the township and that’s where she fell in love with theater. She never looked back, finding herself in Johannesburg writing scripts, acting and later dancing. She has since traveled across South Africa performing.
The interview continues until closing time at the theater at 6PM when we are asked – rather rudely – to leave. The husky-voiced, dreadlocked Shange and I humbly stand up and thank them for letting us use the space although we aren’t happy about the situation. But life goes on.
Saddened, my colleague and I drive back to Ballito with my six in the boot to cheer me up on the last night of our assignment. I was done with work and had the freedom to indulge.
It’s Friday morning and the weather is better, I have enough time for a walk on the beach before breakfast. I am in my track pants and running shoes like I am off to the gym. Locals can tell I am not from the coast, but I don’t care.
After packing and breakfast, we drive back to the airport. We drive slowly but arrive early, and the only thought in my head is to return to the province on holiday with a girlfriend. The hustle and bustle of Johannesburg is not where I want to be.