Durban’s maze of markets at the Warwick Junction transport hub is well worth a detour

Just how do you navigate nine manic markets at Durban’s inner-city transport hub, where 6000 traders are vying to catch the eyes and rands of nearly half a million potential customers?

This is a time when you need a guide, and on our informal tour he took the slight, dread-locked form of trader and traditional healer Jabulani Sambo. My daughter and I were on a weekend break, and as we were keen to discover some good spice stores, we’d tracked down the non-profit organisation Asiye eTafuleni, offering tours of the Warwick Junction markets.

Jabulani was waiting at the Queen Victoria Gourmet Café in the faded Anglo-Indian splendour of the Victoria Street Market, established over a century ago.  We stocked up on spices, lured by names like ‘skop en donner’ and ‘mother-in-law’s tongue masala’, but this was just a taste of the sights and smells to come.

“Asiye eTafuleni works with professionals and informal traders to develop inclusive urban spaces.  The Markets of Warwick tour was launched ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup,” said Jabulani, greeting vendors who were busy arranging brass pots, beaded curios, woven baskets, spears and ceremonial clothing.

“We knew that thousands of foreign soccer fans would visit, and wanted to make sure that traders would be included in planning, and could keep on selling.” The tours have been on-going since the World Cup, with growing interest from local and foreign visitors, helping to entrench the informal economy.

We made for the bead market, open on Fridays only. Dozens of women balanced plates of beads on their laps, needling up jewels of colour to create headdresses, necklaces and souvenirs. Jabulani estimated that this market has operated for 15 years, supporting about 600 people.

Next was the lime and impepho (incense) market, situated in a damp underpass with mattresses and cooking pots propped up against the walls. We saw mounds of traditional grey-green impepho, some bearing yellow or white flowers, other foliage bound tightly into grey bundles.

More women oversaw tables laden with dried balls of cream, white and ochre limestone. “The lime is mined north of the city at iNdwedwe, crushed into powder and made into balls,” said Jabulani. “It’s used as sunscreen, medicine, for crafts and limewashing houses.”

We emerged into the densely packed Brook Street Market, walls plastered with ads for Castle lager and washing powder. Seamstresses sewed school uniforms, artists painted shop signs, traders presided over tables of takkies, tracksuits and slip-slops.

Racks of leather belts swayed overhead and women strode past with plastic buckets of socks and woolly hats on their heads.  Customers tucked into homestyle food at tables laden with plastic flowers, fiery condiments and cooldrink pitchers.   Men queued at the In Jesus we Trust hair salon.

It was extraordinary to gaze down on the hectic Brook Street Market, while adjoining it was the serene Brook Street cemetery, boasting a fine example of Islamic architecture. This was a shrine to the local Sufi saint Hazrath Badsha Peer, with additional sections for Muslim, Christian, Parsee and Jewish burials.  You might have been in India, among arches and minarets, as old women in saris stepped delicately among the greenery and the graves.

We left this oasis for the densely-packed Music Bridge market, where speakers blared and vendors hawked leather key rings, scarves, hats and shoes.  Below us, pavements overflowed with kerbside food stands.

“How do you stand out from the other traders?” I asked Jabulani. “You must be one of the first to open,” he replied. “People hurry past on their way to work, but they see your stock and that you are always ready to trade. When they get paid, they come and find you.”

Next was the Early Morning Market, housing the third generation of traders to specialise in fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers. Mounds of cabbages were stacked under a colourful biblical illustration of Mary cradling Jesus. A ray of sunlight caught a still life of lemons in an enamel bowl.

I was apprehensive about the next stop, the bovine head cooking market, and avoided looking down at jawbones of gleaming teeth. Fortunately the meat was already simmering in vast cauldrons, while women slapped balls of dough into shape. For about R65/portion, you’d get a helping of meat and a hunk of steamed bread.

We crossed another footbridge to the muthi market high up on a concrete bridge, where mysterious tinctures, infusions and potions promised wealth, love and potency. Women draped in red, black and white cloths issued curt instructions to assistants who were slicing bark and grinding ingredients.

On the sides of columns supporting the main freeway overpass, we spotted outstanding murals by South African-born, internationally-acclaimed artist Faith47.

A brilliant work showed a careworn yet dignified trader ‒ Ma Dlamini ‒ her head wrapped in a doek, shoulders warmed by a shawl. She gazed down on sacks of traders’ wares stacked at the concrete base, which was plastered with posters. Another mural revealed a roaring leopard, a chakra on his forehead. A white daub of graffiti read: ‘Mind time, no matter how long you are here.’

For thousands of people, generations of traders, the markets of Warwick Junction are proof of survival, making a plan, hustling for a better life, making the most of their brief time. It’s certainly worth taking three hours out of your schedule to explore this fascinating location.

Fast facts

When: Daily tours except Sundays and public holidays. Bead market open only on Fridays.

Times: 9h30-12h00 and 13h00-15h30

Cost: R100/person

Booking: 031-3093880

Good to know: Wear comfy shoes and casual clothing, bring cash.

Images Judy Bryant