Lynn Freed reflects on Durban, South Africa

Students at a school in Durban, South Africa, circa 1995. Paul Weinberg / Anzenberger-Redux

My Durban, the Durban I left in the late '60s, and to which, over the next four decades or so, I returned regularly—at least until my parents died and my sisters left, leaving behind them a city transformed by high walls and electrified fences, posses of minutemen, giant stadiums, monster shopping malls, the retreat of whites into gated fortresses, the advance of Indians into their old houses along the ridge and of Africans into sprawling shantytowns—my Durban, by contrast, was a sleepy city in the subtropical sun, a colonial city spread around a large bay and teeming port, its suburbs stretching back into the hills and up the coast between sugar cane fields and the Indian Ocean.

It is changed now, that world and that life enjoyed only by the few. Still, being one of the few, I cannot help looking back on it with impure affection, that city of steep hills, avenues of jacarandas and flamboyants, thick-walled houses, deep verandas, steamy summers, lazy gardens, and the odd band of monkeys looping through the trees to snatch some fruit.

Only during July was the city enlivened to madness by the invasion of inland people, down for the winter holidays. Suddenly the beachfront would be full of them; so would its hotels and holiday flats. And our house, an enormous edifice up on the ridge, would be packed with upcountry cousins roistering our already turbulent life into a fabulous madness, at least for a child who was the youngest among them.

Off we would go in a swarm to the beach, taking two double-decker buses with a change at the post office, a building that would still be quite at home in the heart of London. So, too, would the old City Hall, a vast Edwardian, neobaroque concoction, and the old railway station, which now houses a collection of indifferent tourist shops and restaurants. It was from this station, in 1893, that Mohandas Gandhi began the train journey that would change the history of the British Empire.

Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, were brought to Durban in 1860 as indentured servants to work in the sugar cane fields. Their mosques and minarets and mazes of shops are still in place. So, too, are their temples and Hindu festivals, their fire-walking, women in saris, waiters in turbans, and curries and chutneys and pickles. What is new is the sight of Muslim women veiled head to toe, everything hidden but their eyes.

New, too, is the chaos in the heart of the town itself. Once a quiet colonial shopping district, downtown Durban is now of a piece with other cities in Africa, its streets clogged with traffic belching fumes, and the sidewalks seething with vendors, peddlers, beggars, pickpockets, and worse.

But the whaling station on the Bluff is gone, and with it the foul and acrid reek that blanketed the city when the whales were in, their bloated carcasses floating in the bay. Gone, too, are the bare-breasted Zulu women who would come in from the country in their beadwork and clay headdresses, babies strapped to their backs, to be smuggled into servants' quarters and hostelries to visit their men. Gone, indeed, is the need for these women to come to town like fugitives, now that they can live there themselves if they want to, and, with luck, not in a tin shack or converted sewage pipe without plumbing or electricity, like the more than 3 million squatters who live in and around the city.

Imitations of their beadwork are now to be found, together with fake headdresses, fake African cloth, fake anything African, in the curio shops of the monster malls, and in places like the old railway station. But the beadwork they actually wore—the necklaces, skirts, belts, bangles, ankle bracelets, and the decorative plugs worn in the earlobes, some still smelling of sweat and smoke and primus—these are now on display in museums, and, for a vast price, in galleries trading in authentic Africana.

But back up on the ridge, schoolgirls are walking home in uniforms and Panama hats that seem to have changed little over the past 40 or 50 years. They walk in mixed groups now—whites, Africans, Indians—most of them privileged children going home to houses hidden behind high walls and security gates. The sight of them laughing along in the heat of the afternoon, the singing of the spitting bugs in the jacarandas, the perfume of frangipani everywhere—all this seems to pause the movement of time, past to present, giving the mistaken sense that nothing has changed at all.