Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose
Bob Gosani, Dolly on the Beach, 1955. Courtesy of BAHA Archive
The past and current resistance and policing of black seaside leisure is directly attributed to the history of the Durban beach and its archives, which established and continues to sustain the ideals of leisure. While doing my research on black life and black leisure at the Durban beachfront, I came across the photograph of trailblazing actress and jazz singer Dolly Rathebe photographed by the acclaimed Bob Gosani at the Durban beach, often mistakenly credited to photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. This portrait speaks to black seaside leisure, black cosmopolitan life, and was the cover of the July 1955 edition of Drum Magazine.
Archives directly influence individual and collective memory and are grounded in national identity, which informs our values, norms, and beliefs as a society. Drum Magazine was established in March 1951 and primarily targeted black readers. The editorials, news articles, and reportage reflected the vibrancy and nuance of black aspirations, struggles, and life and culture. “Cultures do not exist outside of how they are represented” (Hall, 2008), and Drum played a significant role for a generation of black creative practitioners who shaped the way Black people were represented in society.
The Durban beach, like many beaches across apartheid South Africa, marked a site of colonial- and apartheid-state-vested interest in control, separation, and domination. One of the core functions of the colonial project was to make daily existence of black life, apart from labour, as invisible as possible to the white ruling class. Between 1950-1980, apartheid maximised invisibility. Mainstream popular culture and media exclusively served the white ruling class, and black life and black stories were largely disregarded or misrepresented (Maylam, 1986). The construction of seaside leisure at the Durban beachfront took place within a political ideology that created and maintained rigid ethnic boundaries. Consequently, for white beachgoers, it created and sustained fears between groups that enhanced the ‘We’ of shared identity and exacerbated the perception of ‘Others’ as outsiders (Crang, 1998).
The history of Durban’s first ‘African’ beach (which opened September 1929) can still be located in archival documents. However, visual records are underrepresented in official records. Rancière argues that the political is always aesthetic, in the sense that regimes of representation and perception delimit ‘the visible and invisible’ and ‘speech and noise’ in ways that shape ‘the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience’ (Rancière, 2004).
The photograph of starlet Dolly Rathebe by pioneer Bob Gosani depicts a significant archive of black seaside leisure. Drum Magazine, July 1955: "When the Jazz Parade arrived in Durban, the artists all wanted to go to the beach. And they did too – after rehearsals! It was a singing and swimming afternoon, though it had its exciting moments for Dolly'' (Aspire Art, 2020).
Campt writes about vernacular photographs, which hum with a quiet intensity, drawing viewers to listen. The sound which we register, circulates on a lower frequency, a haptic temporality which cannot be heard unless we develop a particular reading practice attuned to feeling the presences and absences that the photograph records (Campt, 2017). This live-giving image hums to the contemporary use of the beachfront, specifically by black people during the festive season, anchoring our place in the history of beach archives. It invites us to listen to a melodious song of black joy, black tenderness, black beauty, black leisure scored by Rathebe’s infectious smile and Gosani’s tender gaze. This ensemble reverberates every time we visit the beach, “to giggle, to splash in our black tights and Shoprite plastic bags” (Putuma, 2016).