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Durban’s popular front

So often overlooked in favour of Cape Town and Jo’burg, Durban is South Africa’s fun city – and good for business too, as Roger St. Pierre reveals


Self-billed as ‘The whole world in one country’, South Africa certainly offers a kaleidoscope of opportunities as both a business and a leisure tourism destination.

There’s an amazing variety of scenery, from gentle plains to towering mountains, crashing surf to waterless deserts, from bush country to lush winelands.

People-wise it’s kaleidoscopic too. The so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ has no fewer than 11 official languages – English, the Dutch-based Afrikaans and nine native African tongues.

There’s also a strong Portuguese and French settler heritage and the languages of the Indian sub-continent can often be heard out on the street, especially in Durban – the pleasant city where Mahatma Gandhi practised law and fought in the courts for civil rights before returning to his native India and immortality.

As a city, Durban has a population of 2,117,650, making it second in South Africa only to Cape Town, though
Johannesburg is a lot bigger than both of them when it comes to greater metropolitan area statistics.

As the capital of KwaZulu Natal, Durban is located not just in one of the prettiest regions of the country but facing the tumbling surf of the Indian Ocean.

Though it has its townships and poor areas, much of Durban oozes wealth, with its municipal council commanding a coveted AA+ credit rating and having an operating budget of close on R150b (in excess of US$2b).

There’s an overwhelming air of wellbeing in a laid-back city where the climate is idyllic and ‘lifestyle’ is the key word on everyone’s lips.

KwaZulu Natal’s economic growth rate of just over six per cent is higher than the national average and pundits are predicting the figure will be closer to 9 per cent before the decade ends.

Based in Durban, the KwaZulu-Natal University is rated as one of Africa’s very best and educates more than 45,000 direct contact tertiary students drawn from all the nation’s races – black, white and Asian.

More than 60 percent of the province’s GDP is generated in Durban. The infrastructure is rated as South Africa’s best, with state of the art communications and transportation networks, including superb highways. Here too is Africa’s busiest and most modern seaport.

Vacant land is still available for development at realistic prices plus there’s a large pool of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour with a good work ethic.

Almost half-a-billion Rand is currently being spent on expanding the footprint of Durban’s ultra-modern International Convention Centre, already rated among the world’s finest.

Durban is also a sports paradise, for participants and onlookers alike, with some great watersports – including the famed surfing – and such major events as the highly-rated A1 Grand Prix.

Such events as the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup will play a role in the build-up to the 2010 soccer World Cup and following that the city will set its sights on hopefully hosting events in the Commonwealth Games and Olympics.

Though there are still a few rough areas, Durban has avoided the inner city dereliction from which Johannesburg is only now recovering.

Showcase development schemes like the Point Precinct and uShaka have been helping to drive property prices upwards around the central business district and the trend, especially among young professionals, is increasingly to seek to live close to the workplace.

Says Richard Dobson, who heads the municipality’s iTrump inner city regeneration programme: “Our role is not just to provide housing but to ensure a full range of economic participants, including shops, schools, hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and public parks. Our challenge is to mix people from different income levels in a symbiotic relationship.”

There’s a delightful old-fashioned seaside resort air to Durban’s ever-popular Golden Mile beachfront, with visitors protected year-round by attentive lifeguards and enveloping shark nets. Then surf’s up and the scene really takes off.

For visitors, it’s the warm sea, shimmering sands and lush sub-tropical vegetation that are the prime draw but there’s a lot more to Durban than just sun, sand, sea… and the other thing.

Close by are the battlefields of the Zulu and Boer Wars, and those battles fought by the Afrikaner voortrekkers as they headed East from the Cape into native lands to maintain their independence from the British Empire.
The name Blood River lives on with a rare resonance, as do Rorke’s Drift and Spion Kop.

Then there are the great safari parks where the famed ‘big six’ game animals can be encountered at close quarters. The mighty peaks of the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains look down on it all while the Sugar Coast and the rolling green countryside of the Valley of 1,000 hills delight the eye.

Back in town, everything bursts into life after dark, with a surfeit of trendy clubs, funky taverns, elegant lounges and pulsating discos. The proud Zulu nation meets East and West at Durban Metro. Fire-eaters and dancers entertain, music throbs and the aromas of the finest curries outside of India permeate the air.

Downtown, day-glo graffiti is the only reminder of the dreaded Durban Central Prison, swept away with apartheid and all the ills of the old South Africa. And close by are stridently modern, confidently styled buildings whose sparkle and gleam stand as testament to the new dawn of a country with so much potential.

Yet the old times have not been swept entirely under the carpet and there are some more benign memories of a colourful past, like the handsome city hall, an Edwardian masterpiece closely modelled on the one in Belfast, and the attractive old railway station that now serves as home for the tourist information centre.

If you aren’t so keen on crowds, set out early for the quieter sands of Tekwini Beach, Laguna Beach, Country Club Beach and Blue Lagoon Beach, the latter beloved by anglers. Indeed, there are more than a dozen different beaches to choose from.

There are also many options when it’s time to eat. The perfect street food is a bunny chow – the local version of curry, smeared into a large piece of tasty bread.

Seafood is a standout. Lobster in pungent piri-piri sauce is demonic. Wonderful too is the distinctively flavoured lamb from South Africa’s Karoo Desert. Or you can choose Chinese, Malay, Thai, French, Portuguese or a multitude of other cuisines that reflect Durban’s polyglot ethnic mix.

Accommodation wise, Durban offers everything from B&B to five-star and while few of the major chains yet have a presence, they are certain to arrive soon.

Some final not-to-be-misseds? Grayville’s 1890 racecourse; the Botanic Gardens, also established in 1890; the striking art deco Surrey Mansions; the Killie Campbell Museum of African artefacts; the multi-functional BAT arts and culture centre and the world-renowned Sugar Terminal, a reminder of the mighty industry that first brought wealth to this place.

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