South Africa: The colour of magic in Durban

An encounter with a vibrant herb market in downtown Durban is like going down the rabbit hole

By James Draven
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:39 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 15:52 BST
Photograph by James Draven

Heads turn. From the shadowy gaps between moss-green jars of pickled snakes and desiccated lizards — amid dangling, throttled, white egrets — shining eyes silently follow me through the crowd. 

There aren't many tourists here. The Durban Herbal Market occupies a place between the new and the old of this coastal city. In a place between the gaps in the buildings and the cracks in the pavement, hiding in plain sight but within a cobra's spitting distance of Victoria Street Market, where grey concrete gives way to the ochre of earth, and ramshackle stalls are crammed with lines from a shaman's shopping list.

Jostling with severed antelope heads whose mouths hang open, aghast, are monkey skins still slick with gore, the haunted homes of tortoises, dried herbs, sinuous roots, and dark potions peddled in refilled rum bottles. Locals watch over their wares with red countenances — faces caked with a brick-coloured powder used as a natural sunscreen, rather than something more superstitious. It's a shopping experience from which you'd be unlikely to find anything you'd want to buy — nothing that wouldn't be confiscated at immigration, anyway — but once pulled into its gravitational field, an inexorable orbit of its narrow, meandering circuit is inevitable.

While cities like Cape Town can seem only geographically sub-Saharan, Durban is rich with indigenous culture. With a Zulu population of around 80%, Kwazulu-Natal, in which Durban is situated, is the only province in South Africa to recognise a monarch: King Goodwill Zwelithini, a descendent of the legendary King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation.

Nowhere are the old ways better kept alive than here at the herb market, where potions and panaceas to cure all known ailments, from common colds to growing old, are bought and sold. It's a place smoggy with mysticism even under blue skies and blazing sun.

A man with purple hands is conspicuously ignoring me as he uses a shovel to chop and heap and sift a huge mound of indigo powder, which crawls up his forearms as if sentient, gradually enveloping him.

Someone in the crowd lifts her gaze and shoots me a stare, piercing the manic throng and stopping me dead. A shock of brilliant-white pigment across her face marks her as a sangoma, a traditional healer, a witch doctor who uses these grim ingredients to treat all manner of maladies. Rather than attracting eyes, though, heads dip and voices hush.

In that instant, I feel like a tourist. It's time for me to go, to return back across the street towards market stalls crammed with multicoloured dresses and bootleg DVDs. I feel that as soon as I leave, though, the rabbit hole will disappear behind me, a concealed door will forever shut, and a curtain will draw across a secret world I might never see again.


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