/ 27 October 2017

One last, exhilarating swim with true rebel Peter McKenzie

Lust for life: Peter McKenzie looked beyond the obvious to reveal his subjects’ complexity. Photo: Reedwan Vally
Lust for life: Peter McKenzie looked beyond the obvious to reveal his subjects’ complexity. Photo: Reedwan Vally

Tuesday. The Durban air is thick and heavy despite the early hour. The sun is invisible behind a sad grey blanket of cloud. There’s a spit of rain, but it’s indecisive, half-hearted and will flee at the first sight of the sun.

The funeral conditions are appropriate. We’re off to Vetch’s beach for a last swim with Peter McKenzie.

Peter’s funeral was on Sunday. Peter wanted to be cremated and not buried. Peter wanted some of his ashes scattered in the Indian Ocean that he loved so much. He also wanted some of them to go to France, where he lived for part of his life. A third section of Peter’s remains is destined for Reedwaan Vally’s farm at Machadodorp, where Peter loved to go fishing and where he spent much of his battle with cancer.

It took a bit of juggling to make sure that all of Peter’s clan members who wanted to be at Vetch’s made it, hence the Tuesday sendoff.

The crowd at Peter’s funeral was as eclectic as his life. Wentworth Calvinists rubbed shoulders with the township’s gangsters. Academics and photographic geniuses were seated next to boilermakers, professional drinkers and ganja merchants. The French contingent hung with the bras from Chesterville.

Durban music legend Steve Fataar rocked a few numbers for Peter. Jah No Dead, all suited-up and black-tied, ran a three-Glenlivet-bottle boot-bar complete with proper whisky glasses and ice. Respect.

The post-funeral wake at the Bat Centre, where Peter’s Durban Centre for Photography was based, was proper. It continued until Monday.

The mobile rings. I go cold. Of late, early phone calls mean somebody I know has died. Part of getting old.

The news is bad, but at least nobody’s dead. Wednesday’s interview in Jo’burg with Sihle Zikalala, the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, has been brought forward by a day. I need to move my ass and get there by early afternoon, otherwise the sit-down with Mister Rapid Economic Transformation that I’ve been trying to get for weeks is dead in the water.

Zikalala’s not the only reason I want to get to Jozi. The Amandla Freedom Ensemble are at the Orbit this weekend, and they are the real thing. Mad, run-at-the-wall, free jazz. Cool cats, even if they did get me thrown out of the Chairman during their last tour.

The lahnees who go to the Chairman to do business deals and drown out the band with their chatter don’t dig free spirits. Security couldn’t throw the ensemble out, so they bounced me instead.

We make our way to Vetch’s. The beach is Durban’s heart of whiteness, courtesy of the membership policy of the club based there, ensuring the only black faces are those of waiters.

Scattering Peter’s ashes at Vetch’s is appropriate: a last finger in the eye of the white privilege that enraged the man so much. It’s also in defiance of city bylaws, which make Peter’s burial at sea illegal, a final act of rebellion by a true rebel.

We say our final goodbyes on the shore. Peter’s widows, Moeneefa and Caroline, and his sons, David and Issa, walk into the water. They tilt the urn. The grey ash that was our brother spills out. Some of it is carried by the wind. The rest hits the water in front of me. There’s a grey swirl on the surface for a millisecond and then Peter is gone. It’s a moment of great beauty and grace.

We push deeper into the ocean. It’s time for a last wave with Peter Mack. There’s a beautiful, glassy left running in the bowl where Peter loved to bodysurf, just south of the pier.

It’s low tide and the water’s shallow. A hard kick off the bottom and two strokes and I’m up on a wave. For a few seconds I’m flying, screaming with joy as I drop down the face of the wave, my eyes and mouth full of spray and life as death is forgotten.

I kick out of the wave, tucking my chin into my chest and throwing my hips over my head. I land on my feet and move towards land.