OPINION: Why are exclusive clubs still allowed in our cities?


On 17 October 2020, I came across a YouTube video shared by Wandile Mthiyane about his experience and disappointment at not being allowed to order food at the former Durban Under Sea Club, now known as Point Watersports Club which has a restaurant facility.

The club is situated alongside the recently extended public promenade - a development that is linked to the Durban Point Waterfront mega development project. This R380 million development was jointly funded the eThekwini Municipality, through a private, public partnership with Durban Point Development Company.

This video triggered my own feelings around such disappointments and reminded me of my own experience in this very space earlier this year when I was almost escorted off the premises because I was not a member - despite explicitly stating to those asking me to leave that I had come to meet someone who had suggested that we meet in the restaurant. The person that I was meeting, I assumed, was privy to information that the club allowed members to bring visitors to the premises. After trying to explain and negotiate being allowed a few minutes to wait for this person in the seating area, I was declined this concession and ordered to wait outside.

While I watched Wandile’s video, hearing his request for at least a day-pass to be able to eat on that day, I realised that there was more to this situation than just the clubs ‘binding constitution’ and their protocols. This prompted me to take matters further and I arranged to meet Wandile to discuss this experience.

During our discussion he stated that after living and studying in North America for 10 years, he was genuinely surprised that in 2020 he could come back home and find that there was still a space which functions as a white enclave and that such a space could be situated along a public common space - a space that has been paid for by taxpayers’ hard-earned money and that is systematically exclusive in its functions.

Later that Sunday, I emailed the club to inquire about the process of becoming a member and received a prompt response which stated the following:

After receiving this message, Wandile and I then went on to read the club’s constitution, which is available on their website . Here we learnt that there were two membership categories: a water sport membership and a social membership. The requirements to apply for membership are as follows:

  • You need to fill in an application form;

  • submit photographs of yourself as an applicant;

  • you need to be proposed and seconded by two current members of the club who are in good standing; and

  • you need to provide supporting documents of water sport activity if not applying as a social member.

The website further explained that once you have applied, a relevant committee will sit and decide whether or not you are accepted to be part of the club. This is further explained in the club’s constitution, which states that you’re accepted to the club based on the committee's opinion and once you are accepted, only then can you pay for the membership, which will allow you access to eat in the club’s restaurant and use their facilities.

The annual fees to be part of this club are between R1,350 and R2,700, which translates roughly to the monthly average salary of a typical South African. This effectively means that to merely eat in this establishment, you need to overcome severe red-tape barriers that in their current form are exclusionary and function as capital and social preferential tactics - as you would need someone who is a member to co-sign you.

It's no surprise that, despite 26 years of democracy, South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank. In many ways, the rainbow nation is even more divided now than it was in 1994, with more than half of the country’s population (55%) living in globally defined poverty. Out of those living in poverty, in South African racial classifications, 64.2% are black, 41.3% coloured, 5,9% Indian and 1% white. This breakdown underpins the national stratification of singular identities, which are organised and reinforced through capital-based social standing. This spatial racism is reminiscent of the Separate Amenities Act of 1953 , which segregated beaches and many other public facilities based on racial classification.

Lest we forget that in South Africa, and in many other post-colonial contexts, space is a racial issue and racial categories have been a common tool to segregate and subjugate people. We see protests against this exclusion through global movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and alongside many South African protest activities such as #WeSeeYou which advocates for political, social and economic reforms.

Durban, as an apartheid-era city, played an integral role in shaping the nation’s spatial segregation policies that were then deployed across the country. In a post-democratic South Africa, there is, therefore, a focussed expectation that the remnants of the inflicted social engineering, spatial planning, and spatial racism that span from colonialism to the apartheid era should be carefully contended with - especially in how a city’s public space, the beachfront in this case, is experienced.

Organisations such as the Point Watersports Club are not only symbols of our ongoing inequality, but challenge our collective aspirations as a city, while forcing us to question whose vision is really being brought to life in how Durban is publicly developed. Such questions call for a challenge to municipalities to assess whether they should be leasing land to such tone-deaf organisations which are complicit to our country’s complicated histories and suffering.

We are not sharing this story to demand that such establishments do not exist, but that they should operate within a more inclusive, responsible and a proactive manner to the people of Durban and South Africa at large. We question the moral compass of such organisations that create and enforce policies or rules that apathetically disregard the value and dignity of people. We call for values that are inclusive of all. Regardless of their race, identities, and social-economic statuses.

We need a city that will be inclusive, cognisant, and proactive in creating equitable spaces and places which are free from the blemish of passive acts of injustice and exclusion.

Wandile and I write this article while recognising our own identities as able-bodied, pseudo middle-class South African men who have had many privileges. Privileges that cannot be enjoyed by other more marginalised communities and groupings who we cannot speak for – but acknowledge in our own call for access and equality in our home country.

Sibonelo Gumede is an urbanist who holds a master’s in development studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is a research fellow at the Centre for Arts, Design and Social Research. Follow him on Twitter: @gumsheartbeat

Wandile Mthiyane is an architectural designer who holds a master’s in architecture from Andrews University in the USA. He is an Obama Foundation Leader and the CEO of social enterprise firm, Ubuntu Design Group. Follow him on Twitter: @wandileubuntu

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