Attempted Mugging in Durban, South Africa
the BAT Center
"You know, it's places like this that make Durban a great city,"
I said to a friend from my hostel. We'd just left the BAT Center, a funky artist's
studio and café on Natal Bay. "The fact that a place like this exists
for the city's artists, that people patronize it, that they hold free jazz shows
on Sundays – it's a sign of a healthy, tuned-in city."
We walked through city center to the Indian Ocean coast. From South Beach we
walked north down the long promenade, stopping at the piers to watch surfers
and fishermen. We walked past public pools, bicyclists, toy salesmen, and couples
strolling hand in hand, until we reached North Beach. Maybe I should stay
a little longer, I thought as we watched the sun set behind the city's
sprawling skyline. I could learn how to surf, make some friends, find my
::: one day later
public pool at Durban Beach
I wasn't quite sure where I was, but I knew I was heading in the right direction.
It was noon, and I was walking from South Beach to the city center. I was in
a rundown neighborhood; many of the shops were boarded up or under renovation.
Groups of loiterers leaned against the storefronts or sat on the cement.
A young man approached me on the sidewalk with an outstretched hand and said,
"My friend." No chance, son, I thought. I know the friendly
handshake trick; you've got something to sell, be it a trinket or a sob story,
and I want none of it. I maneuvered around him and continued walking.
I sensed something was amiss a half block later. I glanced back and saw the
young man and his friend following a few paces behind. I stopped, put my back
against a storefront, and let them go by. They slowed to a stroll. One of them
nodded to a man further up the sidewalk. Two more men came from the other direction;
they were looking at me.
Something was up. But could all these guys be in on it? Who was who?
I wasn't going to stick around to find out. I made to cross the road right
where I was. I checked for cars and started walking.
A man in a floppy brown hat blocked me. He placed his right hand lightly –
almost delicately – on my left shoulder. With his left hand he flipped
out a rusty four-inch blade and pressed it to my chest. I looked down at the
knife dumbly, and then up at the man's eyes; I didn't really see either.
It was noon – lunchtime – on a beautiful spring day. The sun was
directly overhead. Cars went by. People were all around. How can this be
I felt someone try to wrestle my messenger bag off my back. The man with the
knife said something in English, but his words didn't register.
I wasn't thinking. I was running.
I'd twisted free from the man behind me and bolted down the sidewalk. The man
with the knife and his friend followed and shouted.
Two other men lurched out at me as I ran. How many guys are in on this?
I pushed through them and bellowed, "HELP!"
I ran for two blocks and then dove into a maroon taxi parked on the side of
the road. I looked down the sidewalk. The men had abandoned chase.
"Where to?" asked the taxi driver, a middle-aged Indian man with
spiky white hair.
"Some men… just tried… to… mug me," I panted.
"Are you kidding me? Right back there at the corner?"
"That corner's notorious. This shit happens every day."
"Fuck. Take me to, ah… Take me to…"
"Just catch your breath."
I kept panting. I lifted my shirt and checked my chest; the skin was unbroken.
"Sons of bitches pulled a knife on me!" I said.
"You're lucky they didn't stab you."
"Fuck. Get me out of here. Take me to city center. City Hall, please."
The driver did a U-turn and we passed the scene of the crime. A group of people
had gathered, including several of the assailants. As we drove away I spotted
a police officer or security guard standing among them.
"Hey, there was a cop back there. Should I go back and talk to him?"
"Nah. The cops can't do anything. At most they'll hold those guys for
a half hour and then let them go.
We drove for a while and the driver talked. "There are guys like that
all over this city. They don't want to work. They want to take the easy way
out. These robberies happen every day. Myself, I was shot three years ago."
"You were shot?"
"Yeah, I got shot in the mouth."
"In the mouth?"
"Yeah. But I'm okay now."
I kept thinking about all the people gathered on the corner.
"Hey driver, let's go back and see if that cop is still there."
"Sure, sure." He turned the car around.
the scene of the crime. Click for a larger picture - you'll see two of the assailants pointing at the camera
We slowed to a crawl when we reached the street I'd just run down. The cop
was gone. A few of the assailants were standing around. I pulled out my camera.
"Now, if one of these guys comes running toward the car, get us the hell
out of here, okay?" I asked.
The driver stopped at the intersection. I raised my camera and took a photo.
Two of the assailants noticed me; unperturbed, they jeered and pointed. One
man folded his fingers into the shape of a gun, pointed it at me, and pulled
an imaginary trigger.
"Had enough?" the driver asked.
"Yep. Get me out of here."
::: later that night
with friends at Durban's Natal Playhouse
I returned to the city center with some friends to see a theatrical production
of Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country", a classic story about
race relations in South Africa. It was a solid show performed in a beautiful
I still like Durban. The city has a lot going for it. I don't want to let one
negative experience tarnish my impression of the place. But I think I'll take
my surfing lessons elsewhere.
Posted on October
17, 2003 09:51 AM
I feel the same way about Chicago.
Glad to hear you're OK and nothing was stolen.
I hate to say it, but after following your trip for this long and seeing that you hadn't had any incident like this, I was afraid your number was up. You were gambling against the odds.
Glad you made it out OK, though. And you didn't even lose any of your gear! You had to know you were a very tempting target, and that doesn't look like such a nice neighborhood. But your photos of Durban do present it as a very enjoyable city.
I am so glad you're OK! Must have been scary.
You know, sometimes when I'm sitting here in my cubicle at work, I feel like there's someone holding a rusty knife to my chest too. Especially on Friday afternoons.
Glad you got out okay. From the picture the neighborhood doesn't look so bad, I've probably been in worse. When people tell me it's too dangerous to travel I remind them that Chicago has the highest murder rate in America.
don't you kinda wish you got just a little cut up??? so when you get back to your chums in Chicago you can say, "lookie here boys, got this scar fighting off a band of street tuffs..." or get into a scar show-off like the classic scene in the movie "Jaws"!
Whew-----that was too close for comfort. Keep safe.
wierd seeing your pictures, i was in durban about 1.5 years ago, during the winter. went on the boardwalk and took the same pictures. never had the mugging problem, it was COLD and no one was out. plus we took taxis whenever we could; the exchange rate was $1 to R10, great rate.
make sure you go to the stables if you can, it's on wednesday nights, by the natal sharks stadium, if i remember correctly.
Sorry about the incident. I am from South Africa and it's sad that incidents like these happen, especially to tourists. However, poverty and poor employment rates are a reality here. Transition takes time. I have only come across your site recently and with all my Uni stress I haven't had time to really gorge at your site. It’s really nice though. I hope your stay here in C.T will be better. If you need a place to upload your goodies you are welcome to visit or perhaps make a turn at my Uni. Now all sounds rather forward, just consider it a reflection of the friendly “mother city” you are about to venture into. Ps. Don’t 4get to visit Table Mountain, Robben Island, and Cape Point and the beaches …
I am glad you are ok - but know that there are parts of nearly every major city where you could have a similar experience. Certainly in LA, Paris, London - the city in which I was raised.
Stay safe Mike. You acted smart. Don't make yourself a target.
So glad it all turned out ok, and who knows, your publicity may do some good in the neighbourhood. It's true, everywhere has areas like this. I moved to the Canary Islands 16 years ago to be able to bring up my kids somewhere safer, but now it's as bad as anywhere, or even worse than some. I don't buy that poverty and unemployment line, (though I appreciate that SA has very unique circumstances) I think it's just greed and laziness. I watched crime grow here, like a cancer. But you describe yourself as an optimist so I am sure you will mark it down to experience since you got out unscathed. Good luck and stay safe.
Glad you are ok. Its things like this that can really taint how people view certain countries.
Three words; conceal and carry
Wow, I'm really not sure if I would've had the knowledge to get away as fast as you did, or the courage to go back there and get their picture, so double-bravo to you! Stay safe!
Bat Centre was a gentle experience for me, too.
It is really nice of you awakening my memories; I made the same route from Mozambique, Swaziland, SA, only backwards. Never had such trouble :-))
My warm advice: go inlands, try to meet "real" people, Transkaai, Little Karoo...
I am curious to see which is your next destination?
GEEZ MIKE!!! Be safe and hurry home.
What is this Hegre guy jabbering on about? I wish he and his ilk who have been stalking this site of late would bug off!
What the poster above is referring to is the comment spam that has plagued this weblog (and thousands of others) over the past months. Basically, the same turkeys who send spam to your email accounts devised a way to automatically leave comments on Movable Type weblogs. The messages are nonsensical in content and usually link to porn sites. On average, I get five of these comments each day. But a fix is on the way. In the meantime, just ignore these morons.
I am happy that all ended well. I've gotta hand it to you for doubling back after "the incident". I would have left the country - quickly.
thank you mike for a thrilling year, boy did it ever go by fast. i am only one of a gazillion people that you have taken around the world on your shirt tail. i wish to say that i hope your landing isn't to hard...and that we are all here for ya. happy home coming and i'd sure love it if you could sorta blog us along until your next adventure. miss ya already. heavy heart and happy memories. x0x
I am sick and tired of people making exuses as to why bandits attack innocent tourists. All this BS that it could happen in any city mentioning London Paris Chicago ect. Shit, I live in NYC (18 years and counting) and have yet to be attacked here and if I were, the robbers would not be just standing there on the corner. The cops would be all over them liek flies on .... Stop this PC BS about poor people and poverty in general. Just because you are poor does not give you a right to try to rob another human being. I understand that some poeple want others to think that most first world countries' big cities are as unsafe as places in the third world. That is such a BS, stop lying. Ciao !
I am so happy to hear you are safe. That was crazy quick thinking! I don't think I would have come out so well.
I also have to say thanks for sharing your trip with us. I have been following you on the web site for a while and have enjoyed every bit of it.
Although I now live in Sweden I am originally from Durban and was there last year.
My brother still lives there - his house is a like a fortress, several of his friends have been murdered, some in their own homes. In many cases people are not robbed, they are shot dead and then their belongings taken from their corpse. It is a terrible situation.
You were really lucky and also a little stupid to go back to the scene afterward, it would not have been a surprise for me if they had shot at you as illegal unregistered guns are common.
I have (from a taxi) seen men openly carrying kalashnikov type rifles around in the middle of the day. There are areas where you just dont go walking around, even the police dont go there!
you could have taken them.
Hey Mike, close call brother. Glad to hear you're okay. You did the right thing in my opinion. Kow-towing to these types of people only make them more confident.
On another note: I have a whole new level of respect for you for keeping up your web site while on the road. I'm busy with my travels and climbing in Australia right now and in over a month I've only been able to make one update. I was hoping one every two weeks, now I'm looking at, realistically, one every six. You're a superstar man, stay safe and have fun.
I know that this sort of thing happens all the time and, yes, it could just of easily have happened in any other city in the world, but doesn't it make you sick?
I had a similar encounter with two thugs in Rio. They didn't get away with much, just a pair of sunglasses, and in fact after the melee (on a crowded street in broad daylight - of course) I actually came away clutching one of the mugger's shirts, so I guess it was One-All.
Nevertheless, it inevitably tainted my view of Rio and it'll be a long time before I return.
I think you dealt with the situation incredibly well Mike and it's great to know that you came through it relatively unharmed.
If it's not one thing it's another. If it's not muggers it's f***ing Comment Spammers. The world of the globe-trotting traveller/blogger is not without its obstacles.
Having left South Africa as a 6yr old then returning as a 19yr old in 1999 personally i had the best time of my life there.I quickly learnt that anywhere in the world where crime is rife.You dress life a local.In durban people walked around in sandels/slops shorts and a plain t-shirt.If you look like you have nothing then they aren't going to bother.Most people that get mugged etc walk around in what they would wear at home..ie nice watch ,bag clothes etc.i know that place that you had the run in..its not the best place in town..
I lived in South Africa until I was 19 and the left for the states. Though I hail from Johannesburg, I know how common crime like that is, even where I lived.
Living there I guess you get used to it, though you learn never to venture into the seedier parts of the cities or townships. I am always amazed when I see pictures of American's that venture into the squater camps to take pictures, and the fact that they walk out alive.
As for the police in South Africa, there is really nothing they can do. They even partake in some of the crime as well.
I still encourage people to visit the country, though be careful and be aware while you do visit.
Hi Mike. sorry to hear about your unfortunate mugging. I was born in Durban and have live here for the past 21 years.
Although the crime rate in Durban is high, it is getting better these days. The problem with crime rings in Durban is that most of the criminals are not South African, they're really immigrants from Nigeria, Mozambique, etc.The nigerians control the drug,prostitution and crime rings.
I wish that in the future things will get better and people will start to see that crime solves nothing.
This is for Geoff Parker.
Hey buddy. I think that your little story was a little exorbitant. The chances of someone owning an illegal firearm is pretty slim. My brother is a cop and he tells me that it is very difficult to buy a gun on the black market.
As for your comment on people with AK47's walking around in broad daylight, it is a pity that people like that are not apprehended fast enough. I too have seen something like that recently, but those guys were security operatives working for the taxi association.But not all people go around carrying AK47s,thats really unrealistic dude.
Anyways, Durban is still a beautiful place, with such cultural diversity. It is quite amazing. Like all places in the world, it has its good points and some bad.
I hope this helps to paint a realistic picture about Durban.
It's too bad 1% of bad can overwhelm 99% of good. Atleast in our experience, the bad generally becomes a good story and source of pride for surviving it. Who knows, one might even grow from it.
I am too a South African & lived in Durban most of my life. Although i too was a "victim" of crime while i lived in Durban, i survived to be 26 this yr. The area where you happened to be walking through is a really bad area & as said in a previous post most of the criminals are non-SA pp. I am now living in England & would trade all i have here to go home. For me there is no place like SA & it will always be my home. This has been an experiance for me but i long for SA & South Africans. I have 2 yrs left on my visa & then i intend coming home. I have known ppl all over the world & they say that you may as well have been in any other city in the world, if u venture into the bad areas then yes you are more than likely going to be a "victim" of some or other crime.
I hope also that you will return to Durban & give it a second chance as it is a beautiful city, but please for your own safety stay out of the bad areas & townships.
Crazy - I've had a few close calls with muggers but never had anyone pull a knife on me.
we have crime but so do you dont fuckin cum to durban and talk shit
Durban no worse than anywhere else????? Here's some murder stats of similarish-sized cities for 2002:
Los Angeles (Pop. 3.7m) 656 (17 Per 100,000)
Chicago (Pop. 2.8m) 643 (23 Per 100,000)
Durban (Pop. 3.2m) 2,178 (68 Per 100,000)
I don't mean to embarass anyone from Durban as I have the utmost respect for them, but like Rafal Kowal and Geoff Parker suggested above, Latin American and South African cities are very violent and Durban is no picnic!