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Derelict clock tower shows Durban stuck in time

For years the rusty arms of the Vasco da Gama Clock Tower have pointed to 12:58, a monument stuck in time, like many areas still left behind in Durban’s drive to reinvent itself.

Many who live in its shadow don’t know what it is.

“I have no idea what this beautiful shelter is,” said homeless man Sipho Themba, who was sleeping near the tower in the South African port city. “I use it for shelter when it rains.”

The clock tower was a gift from Portugal in 1897 to the British colonial government to mark the 400th anniversary of da Gama’s voyage to India, when he commanded the first European ships to round the tip of Africa.

The cast iron tower resembles a derelict wedding chapel, its intricate carvings and engravings rusted after decades in the sea air.

Its centrepiece drinking fountain, with a statuette of the biblical Samson, stands dry; chains that once held drinking cups hang limp.

“The clock is electro-mechanical but has long stopped working. Currently, birds have nested inside the clock,” said Arthur Gammage of the city’s architecture department.

The tower itself is not unique — rather it was chosen from a Macfarlane’s Foundry catalogue, a renowned Scottish ironworks which shipped the entire structure to Durban from Glasgow. But the clock feature makes it unusual, Gammage said.

An aura of faded glory hangs over much of central Durban where architecturally striking buildings lie in varying states of disrepair, the economic heft of Africa’s busiest port having moved farther north to fresh suburbs and smaller beach towns.

The clock tower once anchored the entrance to Point Docks, gateway to Durban’s Indian Ocean harbour.

As the Point slipped into a seemingly endless spiral of urban decay, becoming synonymous with drugs and prostitution, the tower was moved a few kilometres (miles) west to the Esplanade Gardens in the mid-1900s.

“The clock tower was relocated from the run-down Point Area to safeguard its historical value.

Ironically, the original site has been transformed as the Point Waterfront and the Esplanade gardens has deteriorated,” Gammage said.

The Point is now an upmarket residential, business and tourist draw, where gondoliers ply the canal between posh new apartment blocks while holidaymakers splash at uShaka Marine World, Africa’s largest water park.

The beachfront stretching from the Point has also been spruced up, with a 200-million-rand ($27-million, 20-million-euro) facelift in the run-up to the 2010 football World Cup.

The redevelopment projects have pushed the social ills that once plagued the Point to the Esplanade Gardens, where the homeless sleep during the day and drug dealers ply their trade at night.

The clock tower, like the neighbourhoods between the redeveloped strips, has so far missed out on the gains.

Though steeped in history, the clock tower goes unnoticed by passers-by.

“I have worked near the monument for over a year and I have never noticed it. Now that I am looking at it, it is a stunning piece of architecture that has clearly been forgotten,” said Caelisha Harris, a 21-year-old graphic designer.

Now the city hopes to complete a 500,000-rand ($65,000, 49,000 euro) renovation and move the clock back to its original site next year, Gammage said.

Public consultations are under way on again moving the clock, which is a protected landmark, said Barry Marshall, head of the provincial heritage body which must approve any repairs.

If everything goes to plan, the arms of the Vasco da Gama Clock Tower will finally move beyond two minutes to one o’clock.