Durban’s delightful sand sculptures are one of the city’s most popular attractions. But who are the artists that create these fantastical pieces?
Durban’s Golden Mile is like Africa-meets-Miami Beach. Beautiful girls glide down the promenade on pink roller-skates as street kids beg for scraps and Zulu Zionists dunk each other in salty baptisms.
Surfers frolic in the perfect, curvy waves and muscular Herculean men play volleyball on the yellow sand, while Muslim women sneak soft-serve ice creams under their burqas.
Along with the surfers, cyclists, swimmers and sunbathers who congregate on the beachfront, there are the sandcastle artists who create wondrous figures under cover of darkness.
‘Welcome to my gallery, larney!’ says an artist named S’bo, who specialises in environmental issues and always has a ‘save the rhinos’ sculpture in his sand pit.
A little further down North Beach is Themba, who explains terms of business: ‘Tourists come and take pictures, and pose next to our sculptures. We never demand money – we just ask for donations.’
According to Themba, a sculptor earns in the region of R50 a day. ‘When business is quiet we have to decide between buying some food or paying for a place to sleep,’ he says.
Durban has a vibrant informal economy and there are approximately 40 000 street traders in the metropolitan area. Bunched into this category are 15 or so artists who eke out a living by building sand sculptures and hustling for donations. They have become an integral part of the colourful beachfront scene.
But it’s not all going swimmingly. In April this year, the ‘Sand Gang’ clashed with the Metro Police and local authorities over their ‘vending rights’.
They are required to buy permits from the municipality (R39 per month) for the right to build sandcastles on the beach. This is a bone of contention for the artists, many of whom live on the street, in shelters in the inner city or commute from local townships.
Metro police recently made a sweep of the beachfront, flattening several sculptures when the ‘owners’ could not produce permits.
‘We don’t care if they destroy our sandcastles a hundred times,’ an artist called Thabiso was quoted in a newspaper report. ‘We won’t pay for permits and we’ll keep re-building our castles until they get tired of breaking them down.’
The incident was followed by a public outcry and widespread support for the artists. Two organisations (the Institute of Plumbing SA and Pather & Pather Attorneys) paid the outstanding fees and sponsored permits for several of the artists.
The municipal manager in charge of the beachfront area is happy to comment on condition of anonymity. ‘The permits are a way of regulating the beachfront vendors,’ she says.
‘If we don’t regulate the area, the whole beachfront would be flooded with vendors selling everything from vegetables to pangas. Also, if we have the artists’ details on file, we can question them when we get reports of criminal activities, which are frequent.’
How do the artists benefit from buying a permit? ‘There are many benefits… We offer them jobs at all the city’s big events. Just this year, the sculptors worked at the BRICS Conference, the African
Cup of Nations, the Tourism Indaba and the Newcastle Airshow. They get paid good money when they work at these events. We also offer them training and business support.’
The municipal manager strongly believes in the potential of the informal economy and the notion that it helps offset unemployment. But the sand artists aren’t showing any visible signs of upward mobility. If they are being given opportunities and support, why do theystill live on the breadline and claim they are unable to afford the permits?
‘One of the problems we have had is identifying who the actual sand artists are,’ the municipal manager admits. ‘When we offered them work, about 30 came forward claiming to be artists. But, actually, some are poachers of sandcastles, some are assistants and others are just criminals.’Senior superintendent Eugene Msomi of the Metro Police claims the sand artists are a troublesome bunch. ‘We’ve received a lot of complaints about them sleeping under the pier – and allegations of them being involved in criminal activities during the nights they sleep there. We will definitely not allow lawlessness. It is in their interest to ensure that they obtain permits and find places to stay.’
It is almost impossible to ascertain who the real artists are unless one actually witnesses an entire sculpture being built, which never seems to happen.
‘This is the place of the horse,’ says Henry, who claims to be the creator-owner of the ‘Running Horse’ sculpture at North Beach. ‘People love horses, so I make a horse. When I need to go home or go somewhere,
I leave my assistant here to protect the horse and collect the money. Otherwise my place will get hijacked.’
This is the conundrum. The artists who actually make the sand sculptures, carving their own unique styles and pushing the scene along the beachfront, cannot be with their artworks 24/7. They have to sleep sometime, wherever that may be. So they have their minions, who work on a rotation system guarding, maintaining the sculptures and collecting donations.
Xolise, the artist that ‘runs’ Snake Park beach, tells me he builds his sculpture at night. ‘It takes me all night to build my castle. I sleep right here if I need to rest.’
He asks me to write a message on a scrap of paper for his next piece, because he can’t read or write. ‘Write me the words: “Without You I Am Nothing”,’ he says shyly. He tells me it’s a love poem.
My favourite sculptures are the skeletons at North Beach. I ask Themba what inspired him. ‘I get the idea out of my mind,’ he answers evasively, with a rasping chuckle.
Later – much later that night – I dig in my wallet and leave R20 for Themba, the great ‘Skeleton Man’ sculptor. Hopefully he can buy himself breakfast when he arrives in the morning, and keep the Durban sand-sculpting culture alive for years to come.
According to the most recent labour force survey (Stats SA, 2005), 2.5 million people work in the informal sector in South Africa, making up 20% of total employment in the country. The majority of these people earn less than R500 a month.
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