Human contact floats the boats


Day 152 of lockdown. 

It’s Deputy president David Mabuza’s 60th birthday.

Like most of South Africa, I’m wondering where Comrade Rizla, as Mabuza is known in Mpumalanga, whence he hails, is spending his 60th.

It’s been a while since DD has shown his face in public, or even on a Zoom screen, for that matter. I had assumed that he was taking social distancing to heart. Listening to his boss and staying in the pozi. Mabuza was once a school principal, after all, so he must be big on following the rules to the letter. 

We’ve heard more recently that it’s due to ill-health, rather than a literal interpretation of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, which is sad. 

Let’s hope he gets better soon.

I waited till 8am before I gave the deputy head of state a shout on his mobile number to wish him a happy birthday for his milestone. Just in case he wasn’t feeling well. It must have been too early still. The call went straight to voicemail, just as I started singing “for he’s a vanishing fellow,” to brighten up his morning, which is a bit of a pity.

Next year, baba.

It’s a splendid spring morning at Wilson’s Wharf, where the pleasure boats that take tourists around Durban harbour and the city’s fishing charter industry are based. There’s not a breath of wind yet — the cold front is expected to start hitting after lunch — so it could easily be summer.

Delwyn Verasamy, the Mail & Guardian shooter, is in town for a rare visit, so we’re here to document the return to work of the city’s charter community. It’s beautiful — but strange — to work with another human being again, after five months of remote jobs and on-edge solo expeditions for face-to-face interviews. I’ve gotten used to doing what I have to and heading home to file, no hanging about and socialising, no unnecessary delays, so waiting around while Delwyn exercises his PhD in photography feels somehow novel, although I’ve done it so many times.

The charter operators have just been given the go-ahead to return to work after five full months of being locked down. 

Those who have survived, that is.

The four major operators are still in business. They’ve been hanging on since the middle of March, when the Covid-19 panic first hit and the normal flow of domestic and international tourists dried up, instantly.  Unlike the churches, commercial fishing and restaurants, they’ve been unable to earn a cent until level two. They’ve survived on savings, payments from the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) and food parcels.

Not everybody at Wilson’s Wharf has been so lucky. The Catalina Theatre is gone for good. The Zack’s restaurant, which co-hosted the Durban Blues Festival for years as well as hundreds of jam sessions, is also closed down. There’s an empty beer bottle standing on the bar counter, months later, a memorial to what used to be a place where people ate, drank, sang.

Most of the stalls in the flea market behind the charter booths are empty. A few open on weekends. The rest are gone. Landlord Ithala gave the tenants a three-month break on the rent (they’re still expected to pay it back) but that didn’t help the stallholders, most of whom lived hand to mouth. Or the clothing designers and take­away restaurants that have closed up shop and moved out of the wharf.

Some of the charters have been running since the 1960s. Others are newer, with five to 16 years in the game.

They’ve only had a handful of customers since the move to level two was announced. People still think the whole wharf is locked down. Others are scared.

The regulations governing the number of passengers they can carry under level two of lockdown are still to be gazetted. They’re hoping for 100%, but will accept 70. Right now, with the pitiful numbers of people who are passing their kiosks on the wharfside, 70% occupation would be a blessing. The operators are taking three passengers on a 10-seater, they’re so desperate for business.

Despite this, they’re optimistic that they can survive, even with no international tourists, as the country continues to open up. People have been locked down for five months, so the domestic tourists will come and the boats will fill up.

There’s one major obstacle. The rent holiday from Ithala is over. The provincial government’s development bank wants repayments of a month and a half’s rent every month, which they can’t afford, with hardly any bums on seats yet. They’re hopeful that they will get some more breathing space, but are terrified that they won’t.

I hope Ithala continues to give them a break. They will die if it doesn’t. 

So will a part of Durban.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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