More than just a sports ground

2008-04-22 00:00

A Durban group is using the city’s cultural heritage to bring recognition to a neglected history and at the same time help forge a post-merger institutional identity.

The more people he spoke to in Durban, the more Leonard Rosenberg came to realise the significant place that Currie’s Fountain had in the hearts and minds of many of the city’s residents. And not just as a sports venue; Currie’s Fountain — or “Currie’s” as it is commonly known — was also a hub of political activity and came to represent a “liberation space” at the heart of a unique apartheid ghetto torn apart by the Group Areas Act and the building of the Natal Technikon.

An architect by profession and now the manager of physical planning at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), Rosenberg is today part of a group of academics and others with links to the area who are keen to draw out the history of Currie’s Fountain and to give the people who lived, worked, worshipped and played in the area a chance to tell their stories.

In conjunction with South African History Online (SAHO), the DUT last year launched a community research initiative called the Rocs (Research Of Currie’s and Surrounds) Project. It covers an area — referred to as the Currie’s Fountain Precinct — roughly 1,5 kilometres in diameter, bordered by Greyville Racecourse to the north, Grey Street to the east, Berea Road to the south and Botanic Gardens Road to the west. The area closely mirrors the boundaries established by the City Planning authorities for the Warwick Junction Precinct which is currently in the planning stages.

While the city’s intervention is likely to lead to a positive emphasis on redevelopment of the Warwick Triangle area, Rosenberg and his colleague, DUT English and communication lecturer Veena Partab, are concerned that the priorities will be focused on easing both vehicular and pedestrian congestion in the area, without the recognition and preservation of the cultural and historical heritage. “We can’t forget the human links to the past,” says Rosenberg. “It’s not just about improving a transport interchange.”

Rosenberg is keen to see the establishment of an extended tourism route which would take advantage of the variety of activities, institutions and transport nodes in the area. “Grey Street and the Botanic Gardens are already tourist attractions,” says Rosenberg. “Imagine a route that would start at the Grey Street complex and move through the traditional medicine markets, early morning markets, the informal trade markets to Currie’s Fountain and end at the Botanic Gardens. There would be many places or buildings of historical significance along the route, for example Sastri College, Beatrice Street, the fire station, St Anthony’s and ML Sultan.”

Rosenberg describes the area in its present state as having a “back-yard quality”. “If Durban had a front yard, it would be the ICC and the beach front. Currie’s is the back yard — the place we don’t take our visitors to. We can change that.”

As part of the Rocs Project, Rosenberg has recently authored a booklet entitled Wellspring of Hope: The Legacy of a Sports Field which he describes as an “appetiser” or a “visual stimulus” to get people out there to make their own contributions to the history of the precinct. “Hopefully, the book is the beginning of a series,” he says.

The book’s collaborators are photographer Rafs Mayet, who used to live in the district and took many of the photographs that make up a large part of the book; Ishaan Blunden, the son of Sunny Blunden, who played at Currie’s for Durban soccer team Young Aces; and Partab who also spent part of her childhood in the area and is the daughter of president of the Durban Indian Sports Ground Association, Ramhori Lutchman.

Partab, who has an interest in oral histories, says that in her experience, people are desperate to tell their stories. “Each feels a passionate link with the area,” she says. For Partab, the removals that took place in the area give Currie’s Fountain a similar significance to that of the more well-known District Six in Cape Town. “People have a need to reclaim their past and their identities,” says Partab. “There are people who vividly remember the forced removals which took away their history. Right now, people can’t show their children what was there. That’s why people want to talk to us. There’s still a lot of passion and pain tied up with the area.”

An important part of the Rocs project is the engagement of all DUT departments in different aspects of research. According to Rosenberg, the precinct offers up a “wealth” of academic opportunities for the DUT. “From biotechnology to health to town planning, this area is a gold mine for an academic institution. We want to encourage other academics to focus research here on our doorstep, in the precinct.” Rosenberg says that while there is some research in the area taking place, it is piecemeal. “It would be great to have everyone on board,” he says.

Partab describes the area as a “unifying force” for the DUT. Six years after the merger of the Natal Technikon and ML Sultan, there are still signs of an us-and-them mentality at the DUT. “But we share this collective history,” explains Partab. “Rediscovering this history as a merged institution can serve as a unifying force.”

With his interest in physical space, Rosenberg also believes that the Currie’s Fountain area is critical for physically connecting the campuses of the former institutions. Students currently pass between the two campuses along a long, narrow corridor. The DUT has plans to develop an attractive walkway serviced by kiosks, ICT facilities and canteens. The historic Scala cinema has already been renovated and is now a modern dining room and entertainment facility for DUT students. Rosenberg says the renovations gave due respect to the original architecture of the cinema, recognising the sloping floor and screen. The Scala flats are now a DUT residence.

As well as photographs, the booklet carries evocative recollections about the district by anti-apartheid veteran activists including Phyllis Naidoo, Fatima Meer, Benny Khoapa and an excerpt from Aziz Hassim’s still-to-be-published second book Revenge of Kali, which describes many of the streets in the Currie’s precinct, known as the “Duchene”.

• If you have information about Currie’s, contact Len Rosenberg at 031 373 2286 or e-mail:rosenbl @dut.ac.za Wellspring of Hope: The Legacy of a Sports Field is available for purchase at R100.

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