Black December

Julia Paynting was dragged onto the beach. Her arm mauled beyond repair by a shark; her blood painting a macabre scene on the Margate shoreline. She was an aspiring medical student but as her dreams bled out onto the sand, in a tragic twist of irony, another man found his calling.

A regular visitor to the South Coast — a doctor by trade — was wont to spend his days on the veranda of his beach cottage. But on this fateful day he travelled to the beach with his family and was able to save Julia’s life by crimping her artery with a pair of pliers — Doctor Macgyver.

These horrific scenes were surely enough to scour an indelible mark on anyone’s memory. But for Peter Liddle — a young 20-year old lad employed as the sole professional lifeguard on Scottsburgh beach — this was not the first attack he had seen and it certainly would not be the last.

One week later, a family man from Theunissen in the Free State decided to take a final swim in the Indian Ocean before heading back to his landlocked farm life. Fifteen minutes later, his son had to sit and watch helpless while Peter frantically tried to stuff big wads of cotton into his father’s terribly mauled stomach. Peter had waded into the waist-high water, dragging the man back to shore as a 200 pound, six-foot-long Lazy Grey continued to maul his legs, Peter feeling the shark’s fins scraping his own legs. A rural ambulance — the back of a bakkie — transported the man as quick as they could to the closest hospital. A desperate nurse with universal donor blood hooked her own arm up to the bleeding patient, trying to siphon her own vitality into this dying man. Alas, it was in vain.

These were but two attacks that occurred in the span of one month along KZN’s South Coast during December of 1957. Nine attacks and six deaths earned this period the ominous moniker of Black December. Steven Spielberg would later go on to use the fear-gripped people of the South Coast as inspiration for his own retelling of a town ravaged by shark attacks. But the KZN tourism board had to find a different response and one that would quell the fears of the tourists that the local economy was so reliant upon.

When Peter first joined the South Coast lifeguards, his uniform and equipment issue was simple: a red Speedo, a whistle, and a .303 rifle. Sitting in his paddle-ski he was instructed to take pot shots at the murky forms that swam through the waters. The lifeguards of the time not possessing the marksman skills of wartime snipers, the authorities decided to implement other measures. The Navy was enjoined to drop depth charges along the backline: this only served to attract more sharks who were enticed by the legion of dead fish that bobbed up to the surface. Strong wooden pylons were driven into the seabed with wire strung in-between in a Sisyphean attempt to separate man from nature. These too were a spectacular failure because as soon as the first major swell came in, they were left in a mangled wreck on the nearby rocks — an all too pertinent metaphor for the authorities’ attempts to curb the “shark menace”.

It was only the enterprising suggestion of a would-be philanthropic local businessman that would prove to be a lasting solution. He hired a helicopter to fly over the bay and lay down 200 m of cotton netting held up by buoys. Any visitor to KZN’s shores will not find this out of place but these were one of the shark nets at that time. Peter and his troop of lifeguards were tasked to haul the nets out after a week to gauge the success — if any. As they inched along the length of the net they soon realised just how “successful” this new measure was: the smell of rotting shark invaded their nostrils, permeated their pores, stained their hands. By the end of the day, a stinking pile of 80 or 90 sharks sat rotting on the rocks. If the mangled remains of the wooden pylons were a metaphor for man’s failure, what did this symbolise?

Like a futile Lady Macbeth, Peter and his cohort could not rub off the stench of dead shark from their hands. But unlike Shakespeare’s tragic hero, the guilt of the death of so many animals was washed clean by the boyishness of lads on holiday.

As Peter recounts it, in those days they were “utterly reckless”: after hauling out that many sharks, they were back to surfing the next day. In fact, one of the only things that could get them out of the water was the sinister silhouette of a shark rising up in a nearby wave.

Though Peter’s outlook is very much changed by time and maturity today. A self-described ecologist, he decries the usage of nets today given the availability of so many other shark repellents. This is a debate that has raged on between municipality officials and residents, and one that is particularly poignant when you consider that the probability of being bitten by a shark is 0,00002%. In fact, you are more likely to die from fireworks during your lifetime! Though to the writer’s knowledge, no nets have been erected over Durban’s skyline on New Year’s Eve to protect residents from raining pyrotechnics.

The events of Black December were horrific — that cannot be denied — and they have certainly left a stain on the memories of those involved. In fact, over 60 years later on a chance encounter, Peter met the same nurse who vainly tried to drain her own blood, living just a few houses down from him in their retirement village: together they were still able to relive the sombre events of that day. But the events of Black December were Strange Times. Events with such a low probability that similar occurrences have not been repeated elsewhere.

The Strange Times experienced in December 1957 are but a small slice of life of the South Coast community. But their echoes resound to this day and beg at a much broader question applicable to all society: should we allow the unlikely events of a “strange time” dictate our policy choice for decades to come?

About the author

Bradley Mallett is a fourth-year University of Cape Town student studying towards a business science — finance with accounting — degree.

Born and bred in Pietermaritzburg, he was educated at Merchiston and finished his education at Michaelhouse. When he isn’t studying, he can generally be found reading theological essays or watching highlights from the weekend’s sport. As a student and Millennial he is, of course, vegetarian and concerned with conservation but his friends don’t give him too hard a time about it.