Durban, the city in the crack!

Durban SkylineIn 1996 very soon after the birth of the liberated South Africa consultants from all over the world descended on South Africa to basque in the ‘miracle’ of the Rainbow nation. The Department of Arts and Culture brought consultants in collaboration with the British Arts Council from the cities of Manchester and Birmingham. Both of these UK cities have re-invented themselves and have re-juvenated their economies through the Arts, so it seemed fit that these consultants would come in and look at three SA cities with a view to exploring this possibility for Johannesburg, Durban & Cape Town. After their visits to these three SA cities they told the gathered (brought together by the DAC to hear the pearls of wisdom) that they felt that Cape Town was “the southernmost tip of Europe”, that Johannesburg was struggling to come to terms with its urban degradation and crime, and that Durban was the ‘city most likely’ to be able to use the Arts in the same way as the UK cities had done. The reasons given were numerous. The interesting emergence of SA sub-cultures in Durban, the integration of traditional and modern entities in the inner city, the confluence of three major civilisations, etc.

Well clearly, over the years this message has not sunk in at local or provincial government level. In all the years since 1994 the City of Durban has failed to develop an artistic policy to take advantage of its plethora of cultural attributes. Funding models are ‘ad hoc’ at best. Civic & Provincial budgets do not even have a recognizable Arts & Culture Cost Centre. Funding for the Arts is embedded in Parks and Recreation, or City Festival budgets. A budget for the development of the Creative industries is not overtly to be found. Year after a year I look for some semblance of the Arts as an entity on its own in the Ethekwini Budget but it is never there. The idea that the Creative Industries could become a major contributor to the economy of the city has clearly not sunk in. We hear politicians talk about using the Arts for – what’s the new buzzword? – oh yes!- “social cohesion” but we don’t see them putting money on the table in their budgets in a  transparent equitable way.

Nonetheless, the artists in the city continue to produce amazing work. Work that is gaining recognition throughout SA and the world. Everyone now recognises that Durban and KZN is the breeding ground/hatchery of many of the new big names. Unfortunately, many of them now live elsewhere in SA.

So why is Durban such a fertile cultural spot? Probably because it doesn’t have a clear one dimensional identity. Recently I attended a PANSA/VANSA arts savvy session about international residencies and was thrilled to hear architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer talking about the city in this way. 37247-750-563He showed us an image of new grass growing in the cracks of a tarred road. This image of how ‘life’ emerges new when least expected and in-between all the well laid plans with which the system has surrounded us.

It is in these in-between places that the new culture will emerge to challenge the old hegemony.

In my student years I had the privilege of reading a dance doctoral thesis by a Hellenic/American academic by the name of Maria Kourros. She was trying to analyse the influence that the legendary Hellenic dance the ‘syrtaki’ had had on American dance forms. She pointed out the dilemma that artists from various cultures face when trying to determine their own identity. She was Hellenic by descent but American by birth and upbringing. Was she American Greek or Greek American? She uses a poem on the front page of her thesis telling us that in the business of paving stones she is not on the Greek paving stone or on the American paving stone but rather living ‘in the crack’ between paving stones. Initially this seems like an untenable position in which to find oneself. Much easier to belong somewhere! Yet, one may argue, this is a great place to be as an artist! There is a freedom to explore all kinds of possibilities. Kind of like, Durban, the city in the crack!

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