Derelict clock tower shows Durban stuck in time

2012-02-15 12:40

Durban - For years the rusty arms of the Vasco da Gama Clock Tower have pointed to 12:58, a monument stuck in time, like many areas still left behind in Durban's drive to reinvent itself.

Many who live in its shadow don't know what it is.

"I have no idea what this beautiful shelter is," said homeless man Sipho Themba, who was sleeping near the tower. "I use it for shelter when it rains."

The clock tower was a gift from Portugal in 1897 to the British colonial government to mark the 400th anniversary of Da Gama's voyage to India, when he commanded the first European ships to round the tip of Africa.

The cast iron tower resembles a derelict wedding chapel, its intricate carvings and engravings rusted after decades in the sea air.

Its centrepiece drinking fountain, with a statuette of the biblical Samson, stands dry; chains that once held drinking cups hang limp.

Faded glory

"The clock is electro-mechanical but has long stopped working. Currently, birds have nested inside the clock," said Arthur Gammage of the city's architecture department.

The tower itself is not unique - rather it was chosen from a Macfarlane's Foundry catalogue, a renowned Scottish ironworks which shipped the entire structure to Durban from Glasgow. But the clock feature makes it unusual, Gammage said.

An aura of faded glory hangs over much of central Durban where architecturally striking buildings lie in varying states of disrepair.

The clock tower once anchored the entrance to Point Docks, gateway to Durban's harbour.

As the Point Docks slipped into a seemingly endless spiral of urban decay, becoming synonymous with drugs and prostitution, the tower was moved a few kilometres west to the Esplanade Gardens in the mid-1900s.

"The clock tower was relocated from the run-down Point Area to safeguard its historical value.

Ironically, the original site has been transformed as the Point Waterfront and the Esplanade gardens has deteriorated," Gammage said.

The Point is now an upmarket residential, business and tourist draw, where gondoliers ply the canal between posh new apartment blocks while holidaymakers splash at uShaka Marine World.


The beachfront stretching from the Point has also been spruced up, with a R200m facelift in the run-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The redevelopment projects have pushed the social ills that once plagued the Point to the Esplanade Gardens, where the homeless sleep during the day and drug dealers ply their trade at night.

The clock tower, like the neighbourhoods between the redeveloped strips, has so far missed out on the gains.

Though steeped in history, the clock tower goes unnoticed by passers-by.

"I have worked near the monument for over a year and I have never noticed it. Now that I am looking at it, it is a stunning piece of architecture that has clearly been forgotten," said Caelisha Harris, a 21-year-old graphic designer.

Now the city hopes to complete a R500 000 renovation and move the clock back to its original site next year, Gammage said.

Public consultations are under way on again moving the clock, which is a protected landmark, said Barry Marshall, head of the provincial heritage body which must approve any repairs.

If everything goes to plan, the arms of the Vasco da Gama Clock Tower will finally move beyond two minutes to one o'clock.

  • Sharon - 2012-02-15 12:44

    It just proves the point - even a broken clock is right at least twice a day!

      Johan - 2012-02-15 14:20


  • npretorius2 - 2012-02-15 12:48

    seems like it shows 10:43 on the photo

      Donald - 2012-02-15 13:01

      Its an old photo haha

      eyresa - 2012-02-15 13:02

      I think in Durban 10:43 is actually 12:58 in Cape Town.

      Lyzelle - 2012-02-15 15:16

      The clock is on Africa time!!!

  • STYLEbudd - 2012-02-15 12:57

    Durban certainly has improved a lot in the past 4yrs since coming back from a 7yr breakaway to Cape Town. But sadly Durban has been badly mismanaged , billions wasted on tax payers money on failed transportation systems and who knows what else. Durban has loads of potential and will always hold a place in my heart weather it looks like the back end of Nigeria , or if it ever gets all cleaned up to look as it did way back when..... A lot has improved but there is so much more that still must be done to restore the city to its former glory

      JakesLR - 2012-02-15 13:08

      At the pace that Durban as a whole is deteriorating, it wont amaze me if the clock starts to run backwards soon

  • Adrian - 2012-02-15 13:07

    I think this is just a mere touch on the overall rundown state of Durban particularly the Marine Parade It's bad when hotel receptionists tell you not to venture 100mtrs either side of the front door and do not dare venture onto Point Road The conditon of the old childrens hospital is a disgrace as is the main hospital and not to menation the old market. It appears the council/government are more interested in the newer developments like the casino etc rather than preserving the old. The Marine Parade at night is just horrible with traders/beggars/drug addicts all over the place. It is a sad sight now from a place that used to be a buzz with activity. All the old establishments have either closed or gone so run down you could not venture there, not to mention a franchise seafood restaurant that does not serve alcohol!!!!Durban USED to be great

      theadomm - 2012-04-11 08:17

      Addington Chilrens Hospital is in the process of being restored. It is still in the design stage but you will see work on it pretty soon. They are also opening up an Addington Childrens Archive and Museum with its committee already salvaging stuff from the ruins for display.

  • Brett - 2012-02-15 13:08

    Durban was awesome 30 years ago.

      Ebrahim - 2012-02-15 14:23

      yes, but only for one racial group.

      sewsexy - 2012-02-15 14:44

      @eseedat - at one stage yes, but now it is no good for any race group

  • Sandra Robertson - 2012-02-15 13:15

    I think this is incredibly negative. Durban has shown incredible improvement and is showing more and more. Instead of complaining why don't we ask how can we help? How many people know who there district leaders are and what they struggle with. How many people compliment the council on what they getting right, not wrong. Lets get behind this city and help the Government improve it... After all a city is its people. We are Durban.

      Enlightened - 2012-02-15 16:43

      I'll tell you how many people compliment the district leader, no one because no one knows who they are. If I look at durban as it was as late as 1990 and what it is today, they have gotten absolutely nothing right. People vote these morons in so they can guide us in the right direction which they are not doing (there's Durban 2012 for you)The government is there to help US, not the other way around. Sounds almost like JFK in the wrong place

  • Fanie - 2012-02-15 13:20

    Unfortunately same goes for PE...the once renowned Bayworld Oceanarium stand with its dolphin pool dry - our dolphins are in Hong Kong with the seals now in Pretoria Zoo. The whole beach front feels ...bleak

      George - 2012-02-15 17:01

      Same as South Africa

  • Mpho - 2012-02-15 14:08

    everyone stuck in what used to be, well... Africans are not used in preserving men made things but rather the nature, leave for centuries in this place and the was never a threat of an animal being extinct.

      Peter - 2012-02-15 14:19

      Go to the stadium after a soccer match and see what a wonderful state the "Africans" have left the grounds in. But then I suppose it is all the rubbish brought here by Europeans. what a stupid comment you have passed.

      chasgibbons - 2012-02-15 14:32

      ...and that is why the rhino's are almost extinct....

      Fanie - 2012-02-15 15:52

      Africans are not used to preservation - period

  • Rip - 2012-02-15 16:35

    Durban seems to have something against clock repairs. The one on the old Post Office building isn't working either. Oh, well. We have all the time in the world. Who wants to measure it?

  • Enlightened - 2012-02-15 16:38

    This whole country is unfortunately falling into disrepair, the seemingly unavoidable consequence of africanization, or is there something going on somewhere on this continent that I am not aware of?

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