By Agiza Hlongwane
A British couple on trial in Dubai for allegedly having sex on a beach must be wishing they had been caught in Durban instead.
Unlike the conservative Arab nation, the Banana City sees a fair bit of action, yet seems to have a rather limp approach towards beach sex.
Had Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors been caught getting it on at one of Durban's beaches, chances are they would have received a warning, instead of the possible two-year jail term they now face.
Blackie Swart, a prosecutor at the Durban magistrate's court, said such cases were virtually unheard of in the courts.
"It is not a criminal offence in itself, but it's against municipal by-laws. Those who are caught are usually charged with public indecency. It will normally be a fine, suspended for a certain period."
He said sex on the beach was more common in the mid-1980s.
"Back then, we had a lot of people taking off their clothes on the beach and putting it (having sex) in the sand. If the woman asked the man what's in it for me, he'd probably say sand.
"It's a serious offence in Dubai, but here it is treated very differently," Swart said.
Policewomen on patrol along Durban's promenade said sex on the beach was more frequent during the December holidays.
"We get quite a lot of cases on Boxing Day. And usually it is young people, sometimes girls as young as 16, doing it on beach benches or under the pier," said an officer who asked not to be named.
Her colleague, also speaking on condition of anonymity, added, "A lot of people come to the beach on New Year's Eve with one thing in mind: sex. When we catch them, we give them a warning. In cases where they expose themselves to children, we charge them with public indecency."
Another police officer said she once caught a couple having sex under a pier.
"They had their clothes on, and the woman had one of those big skirts - the one shoplifters wear so they can hide stolen goods. Although we could see what they were doing, we could not charge them with indecent exposure, because they had their clothes on.
"The woman was very sharp and she argued that beaches were a place of recreation and she was exercising her rights. So you need to be careful how you formulate charges against such people."
In the end, the couple got off with a warning.
A group of lifeguards working on Durban's beachfront told the Tribune it was not uncommon for patrons of restaurants to take their clothes off at night and jump into the water.
Sexual acts were often a covert affair, occurring mostly at night, they said.
"But sometimes you see couples disappear into the bush near the Snake Park and Oasis. I'm not saying they have sex, but you do wonder what they get up to," said the lifeguard.
He said he was disgusted to see a young couple get involved in heavy petting, including caressing each other's private parts, in full view of schoolchildren from out of town visiting the beach.
"The way they were doing it, you could see that all they needed was a room. And the children were there watching, pointing out to one another what was happening. As the parent of a young girl, it made me very angry. I wanted to go and tell the couple to stop, but you can't. People are dangerous nowadays."
Metro Police spokesperson Superintendent Joyce Khuzwayo said sex on the beach was "not petty, but there are serious issues we have to deal with in the city".
Metro Police did not go out looking for people having sex in public, she said. Nevertheless, she described such acts as "deplorable", adding that offenders were apprehended and fined.
"Mostly it is young people... when they are drunk. These people have no conscience. The beach belongs to everybody and police will discipline them."