Dead Ringersby Samora Chapman / 30.07.2013
Poison City is part sub-tropical paradise and part seedy seaside town, depending on your perspective. The beachfront is like an Africa meets Miami Beach mash-up. Beautiful girls glide down the promenade in pink roller-skates as street kids heckle the rich for scraps; muscular herculean men play volley ball on the yellow sand while Muslim women sneak soft serve ice-creams under their burqas and eye naked people. At the same time Zulu Zionists drown each other in salty baptisms and surfers frolic in the perfect curvy waves.
This was the setting as I sat drinking coffee with a local shop owner one morning on the ‘Golden Mile’, as it’s dubbed for marketing purposes. We lapsed into a discussion about the sand sculptures that have emerged all along the beachfront in recent years.
“Those sand artists kill each other over territory,” he told me through yellow teeth. “That’s why they build weird skeleton men – because it’s a graveyard out there. They bury the bodies of their enemies under their sand castles.”
Now this type of third hand story could be nothing but a rumour. One of those conspiracies white people like to spread about the fearsome, savage natives. Fear of ‘Die Swart Gevaar’ or ‘Black Danger’ as it was known back in the apartheid days.
But hey, this is Africa… stranger things have happened.
Durban has a vibrant informal economy. Street vendors, artists, crafters hustlers and racketeers cover the sidewalks and back-alleys. In a place where unemployment is dire and poverty widespread, this informal economy is crucial to the livelihood of millions that exist on the social and economic margins.
According to a recent Labour Force Survey (Stats SA, 2005), 2.5 million people are working in the informal sector, making up 20% of total employment in the country. The majority of these people earn less than R500 a month.
Now lets narrow the focus of the narrative. There are approximately 40 000 street traders in the Durban metropolitan area. Bunched into this category are about 15 lost souls who eke out a living along the Durban beachfront by building sand sculptures and hustling for donations. They are an integral part of the very fabric of the beachfront scene.
“Themba is the master, he’s better than all of us,” reckons Promise, the keenest spokesperson at North Beach. Themba is the sculptor who creates the Skeleton Man, The Gorilla and the perfectly symmetrical sand castles at the most prime spot on North Beach. He has earned his crown through sheer talent and creativity.
“Welcome to my gallery laarny!” Croons Themba as a flock of tourists stroll past his pit. “Come! Get your picture! Or get a custom design… donations only.”
According to Themba, a sculptor earns in the region of R50 per day. “When business is quiet we have to decide between buying some food or paying for a place to sleep,” he says.
Themba explains the terms of business: “Tourists come and take pictures, and pose next to our sculptures. We never demand money, we just ask for donations.”
While I was working on this story, the sand artists were suddenly catapulted into the spotlight for clashing with the Metro Police and the local authorities over their vending rights.
Each artist is required to buy a permit from the municipality (R39 per month) in order to build sand castles along the beach. This may seem a small fee… but many of the artists are street dwellers, stay in shelters in the inner city or commute from local townships. They are surviving on the breadline.
In April, the Metro Police made a sweep of the beachfront, flattening several sandcastles when the ‘owners’ could not produce permits.
“We don’t care if they destroy our sandcastles 100 times,” said Thabiso in a news report (The Independent on Saturday, May 27). “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) even came forward, paid the outstanding fees and sponsored permits for several of the artists.
But the whole debacle is just a drop in the ocean of a familiar discourse here in the Rainbow Nation. The leaders show a greater commitment to dangerous economic coalitions, gratuitous self-indulgence and hosting extravagant international events than saving the poor from the gutters they piss in.
Here we have 15 artists clawing at the margins of survival, whilst being taxed by the government for moulding the beach sand into shape and form for everyone’s enjoyment.
Of course there is a flipside to every coin. Further investigation reveals a plethora of strange rumours surrounding the sand artists; – stories of territorial warfare, criminal side-jobs and even murder.
I tracked down the municipal manager in charge of the beachfront area. Unfortunately she wished to remain anonymous due to the fear of losing her job for consorting with a troublemaking journalist, but she was able to give an articulate response from within The System.
“The permits are a way of regulating the beachfront vendors,” she said. “Because 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,” I ask.
“There are many benefits… We offer them jobs at all the city’s big events. Just this year, the sculptors have worked at the BRICS Conference, the African Cup of Nations, the Tourism Indaba and the Newcastle Air show. They get paid good money when they work at these events. We also offer them training and business support AND we are planning a World Championship of Sand Sculpting – where we want to invite artists from all over the world and offer big prize money.”
The municipal manager is a passionate woman, who strongly believes in the potential of the informal economy and the notion that it helps offset unemployment. But it is strange that the sand artists aren’t showing any visible signs of up-ward mobility. If they are being given opportunities and support then why do they still live in shelters, survive 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 told me. “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.”
So perhaps our beloved sand artists are really just desert gangsters, slaying each other over a slice of beach, fighting cops and using their sandcastles as a guise to lure tourists in while their homies snatch purses and i-phones.
In a statement, Metro Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Eugene Msomi claimed that the sand artists are a troublesome bunch: “We have received a lot complaints about them sleeping under the pier. Also allegations of them being involved in criminality during the nights they spend sleeping there. We will definitely not allow lawlessness and will continue to enforce law. It is in their interest to ensure that they obtain permits and find places to stay,” said Msomi.
Yes it is in their interests Mr Msomi. But it is easier said then done, especially when your house is built on the sand not on the rocks.
It is almost impossible to ascertain who the real artists are unless you actually witness an entire sculpture being built, which seems never to happen.
“This is the place of the horse,” says Henry, who claims to be the 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.”
So here we have the conundrum. The ‘artists’ who are actually building the sandcastles, carving their own unique styles and pushing the scene along the beachfront cannot man their sand sculptures 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 artists 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 piece of paper for his next piece, because he can’t read or write. “Write me the words: Without You I am Nothing,” he asks shyly.
He tells me it’s a love poem… but it sounds more like a suicide note.
My favourite sculptures along the beachfront are infamous skeletons at North Beach. I ask Themba where he gets the idea to sculpt skeletons. “I get the idea out of my mind,” he answers evasively.
“Well, I’ve heard this rumour,” I put in tentatively. “It’s probably just a big story… but I heard that there are bodies buried under here. And that’s why you build skeletons.”
Themba just looks at me with his red, sun beaten eyeballs for a few long moments… and then he laughs. A long, deep, rasping and unashamed laugh.
Its almost like he’s inviting me into his grave to see for myself… dead or alive. There’s only one thing left to do: a midnight ‘grave-digging’ operation is in order.
On a dark windless night, I rallied two of my bravest men and went down to the beachfront to have a dig at the ‘graveyard’. We dug frantically around the skeleton keeping an eye out for rogues or graveyard sentinels. But when it came down to it, we didn’t have the heart to break down any of the artwork, so our excavation was doomed – and our grave digging was fruitless.
If there are bodies under there, let them rest in peace… manifesting only in the form of eerie sand men lounging on their thrones for all to see.
As we sat contemplating the saga, one of my gravediggers told me about the myth of the ‘Dead Ringer’. In the dark ages they used to occasionally bury people alive… either by accident or to get rid of the half-dead. A system was designed whereby if a ‘dead’ person regained consciousness they could yank on a string inside their coffin, which would ring a bell, thus alerting whoever was hanging out at the graveyard that their was a survivor.
Before we left the graveyard, I dug in my wallet and stashed a R20 tip for Themba the Dead Ringer – the great Skeleton Man sand sculptor of Poison City. Hopefully he can buy himself some breakfast when he arrives in the morning and keep the Durban sand sculpting culture alive for generations to come, despite being left for dead by the system that supposedly protects and serves him.
* All images © Samora Chapman
**An edited version of this story was first published in iMAGAZINE / CITY PRESS. Raw and UNCUT here on Mahala.