Story By: Themba Khumalo
The City Hall may no longer be the most imposing building in town, as it was when it opened some 100 years ago, but it’s still the pulsating heart of Durban’s civic life. Many of the Municipality’s departments have relocated to buildings across the length and breadth of eThekwini, but the Mayor and City Manager’s offices remain firmly ensconced in the City Hall, which remains the venue for meetings of Council committees and of the full Council. The City Hall is also an important hub of the arts and education, home to the Durban Art Gallery, City Library and Natural Science Museum, which draw crowds of tourists and locals. Anyone who grew up in Durban will have fond memories of at least one school outing to the building. And it is outside the City Hall’s Church Walk steps that crowds invariably gather to make their point, whether in protest or celebration. The structure was designed in 1903 by Stanley G Hudson, based on the City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was completed in 1910 as a near faithful reproduction of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, complete with towering pillars, soaring dome, surrounding moat and dozens of stone figurines.
Although it looks like one building, behind the ornate facade it is actually three: the Municipal chambers; art gallery, museum and library; and the main auditorium. Joseph David, Head of City Hall Administration and Secretariat, said it was important to celebrate the building’s centenary because it represented a milestone in the city’s rich history. “My fondest memory of the City Hall has to be when I was a young high school pupil and I came to the City Hall to watch a famous guitarist. “The visit by Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela are fond memories too,” said David. He believes that the building deserves to be preserved because “it is a monumental structure with great sentimental value to the city of Durban”. David’s view was shared by a number of visitors to the City Hall canvassed by the eZasegasini Metro recently.
Siyanda Khumalo, a rifleman with the South African National Defence Force, described it as “a great building with lots of history attached. It looks amazing now that it is being cleaned. I was worried that it was being neglected. We need to start taking care of our historical buildings and history. It is only by remembering our history that we can ensure that history is not repeated. This will also help us economically as these buildings attract tourists,” Khumalo said. About R45-million has been spent on refurbishing the City Hall, including cleaning statues in Francis Farewell Square, opposite the Church Walk entrance. The renovation work is expected to continue this year, and other celebration are planned to mark the centenary.
Mikhail Peppas, a member of the South African National Society, which works to preserve objects of history interest and natural beauty, said the building stood as a testament to transition. “The City Hall and its surroundings are steeped in history. The hall has seen the British Empire, the apartheid government and, now, a multiracial Council. It has seen the city grow and change around it to the point that the two roads flanking it have changed names,” Peppas said.
Do you have any interesting memories of the City Hall? E-mail your stories or copies of historic photographs with captions to email@example.com and we will publish a selection.