Slow Durban: January 2011

In front of my flat there is a jacaranda tree. Since I am on the third floor I look straight out into the upper branches. The first blossoms begin to appear in October. By November the tree is covered with purple flowers. Gradually the green leaves take over, and today, in early February, there are only two sprays of flowers. The rest of the tree is a verdant green. The birds enjoy it, constantly flitting in between the branches. I have slightly mixed feelings about the birds. I am woken up by the dawn chorus, which begins at about 04:30. By five o’clock it is light. I generally get up soon after this and make my breakfast.

For the last week I have been at my office by 06:30. This has its advantages. One is that the world seems clean and bright at that time of day. Driving up through the bush and nature reserve surrounding the University the other morning I saw the largest gathering of monkeys I have ever seen in Durban. I suspect that a number of troops had joined together, because with all the rain we’ve had food must be abundant. A few minutes later there were two mongeese next to the road.

I have even seen a legavaan. As an aside I note that my computer does not like the word mongeese. What is the plural of a mongoose? Mongeese or mongooses? Nor does it recognize legavaan (a species of monitor lizard) the link is:

I got back to Durban in the middle of January, having spent four nights in Johannesburg at a Global Poverty Dialogue. This was organised by the Brooks World Poverty Institute of Manchester University. The out of town delegates stayed at Melrose Arch in a very nice hotel, and the meeting was in Turbine Hall in downtown Johannesburg. This was once the city power station, coal fired and huge. It has been turned into a spectacular and historical conference venue and it was great fine to be there, although having to board buses and go backwards and forwards in rush hour traffic was not so much fun.

I have rather enjoyed Durban. January, February and March can be very difficult months as it is often hot and humid. So far, touch wood, this has not been the case. We’ve had a fair amount of rain but also there have been cool breezes blowing. This was just as well as the air conditioner in the lounge was not working. I noticed a small bird nesting in it just before I left last year. When I switched it on it just blew hot air. Today one of the chaps from the gym came up and pulled a mass of twigs from the inside of the unit and gave it a service, so room is cool and it did not cost me a fortune. I had not switched it last year on as I did not want to disturb the fledglings.

This past month has been marked by two sad events, the deaths of two people who were very much part of our Durban experience. The first was Dinah, who lived in the servant’s quarters at Manor Drive. She had been there for a long time when we bought the house and we allowed her to stay there, as she worked in the neighbourhood. It was a real eye-opener to see how people were treated under the apartheid regime. The room had no ceiling, only one window, no electricity, and no hot water. The walls were of a thinner brick than was used in the main houses. We put in a ceiling, a second window, and ran a power supply to the khaya, as these little houses were called. Dinah retired about six years ago and moved back to her home in the Transkei.

She was in regular touch with her last employer. Apparently he phoned her couple of weeks ago. She asked after his ancient parents. He replied, “they are very tired”.
She said, “yes I am tired too”.

The following evening Dinah went to bed and simply did not wake up. This is not a bad way to go.

By contrast the death of my past time domestic helper has been difficult for everyone. About three years ago she got TB, which was I learnt, because she was HIV-infected. Fortunately in South Africa people with TB and HIV go on to antiretroviral therapy earlier, and although her CD4 count was about 350 she got the medication. Unfortunately some of the drugs have side effects and she was one of the unfortunate few who experience this. In particular a drug called d4t causes difficulty for the peripheral nervous system and makes it very difficult to walk. This affected her. It was clear that she would have to stop working and her other employer and I were discussing what pension arrangements we could make.

Before Christmas she had a bout of flu and never really recovered. She was bed ridden and extremely unwell. Early in the new year the person one whose property she lived took her to a nearby private hospital where they diagnosed dysentery, TB and pneumonia. She was relocated into a government hospital and a few weeks ago transferred to a TB hospital for recuperation. Unfortunately she did not recover. Her daughters were able to visit her the day she died and learnt that the plan was to send her back to the main hospital. She was just not doing well.

She was one of those powerful women who held the family together. She got her two grandsons into good local school in Manor Gardens and was very ambitious for the grandchildren but less patients with her two daughters. I was appalled to learn that her eldest grandson, having had the benefit of an excellent primary education, is currently not in school because his parents have been unable to find a place for him. Had she been well enough she would never have allowed this to happen. While the proximate cause of death may have been TB, I suspect she was simply exhausted. She was about 54 years old, two decades younger than Dinah. You will have noticed I have not written her name, the stigma surrounding HIV means I am very reluctant to identify her.

I had intended to spend my first Saturday of February working. This did not happen. I went to the gym at eight o’clock, and met the person who was to fix my air conditioner. He came to the flat after he had trained, worked out that is – he knew what he was doing with the units. This meant I only left for my office at the university at about 11.00. I discovered that the air-conditioner there was not switched on, and it was far too hot to concentrate.

I came back to the flat and decided to go to the beach with my body board. On the way there I went to the voter registration station. At the moment the government has a campaign to register voters and since I have moved I needed to get on the electoral roll. There are local government elections coming up. This registration was surprisingly painless: an interesting combination of high and low technology. The form was filled in with a pen. Then the identity documents of both the person registering me and mine were scanned by a hand held device. The machine spits out a piece of paper and this is glued (prit) in the ID book, to prove that I am registered and have the right to vote.

I headed for the beach and discovered that there was no one else even thinking about going into the waves. The sea was incredibly choppy and unfriendly. Not a great end to the day.


Malla Nunn, Let the Dead Lie, Simon and Schuster, 2010, 382 pages.

This author lives in Australia, was born in Swaziland, and writes about crime in 1950s South Africa. This is her second book, the first was set in an area just north of Swaziland. The story in this book takes place in Durban. Many of the areas are familiar to me. The key character is working undercover in Durban’s docks and witnesses a murder. The story is about how he solves the crime. The book is set at a time when the apartheid laws are just being introduced and the classification of Emmanuel Cooper, the hero, is ‘coloured’, although at the end it seems he regains his status as a ‘white’ South African. Nunn is an excellent author, she astutely observes the tensions of the 1950s, the rise of the racist regime, and the complexities of relationships in this setting. I look forward to her next book.

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Hodder and Stoughton, 2010, 469 pages.

This is a complex and fascinating book. It is set in Japan from 1799 to 1817. It is the story of the Dutch trading center and the interactions between the Dutch and Japanese men and women. The heroes are Jacob, and the woman he falls in love with, Orito Aibagawa. In the course of the book they meet perhaps half a dozen times before she is sent to a monastic order. Mitchell has clearly done a great deal of homework and his depiction of life in Japan in the 1800s is deeply fascinating. The story is initially slow but engrossing.