Joni (black Zimbabwean/Zambian, 18 years) and Emma Higden(white 16 year old) first meet at a Sunday craft market on Durban beachfront. Both have to learn practical survival skills when each is hit by catastrophe: Joni, having lost all his money to muggers outside Johannesburg station, now finds his aunt is arrested on immigration charges, while Emma’s tycoon father is charged with money-laundering. They meet again at the police station where Joni’s aunty is released, but Emma’s mother is horrified to be told that her “international financier” husband is charged with drug trafficking. In an emotional scene with her husband at the police cells, she screams at him for jeopardizing their family. During the next week, humiliated by publicity, she and Emma make plans to leaves their Kloof mansion and rent a cheap flat on the beachfront. Joni meanwhile is lodging with Zim wire-workers, and earning money with the street mechanics who are harassed by police and angry local residents. After meeting again at the rainy Sunday market, Joni drives Emma home and then offers to help the Higdens with transport. Next day, after a lyrical scene of Mrs Higden saying goodbye to her garden, Joni drives them to their new life, via a brief stop in the Greyville yard where Emma’s younger brothers get fascinated by the car-mechanics, and Emma’s mother by the wire-craft. This leads to a new enterprise of making candles to fit the wire-work.. The snobby Kloof wife becomes a hippy candle-maker, while her children get used to life on the beachfront.. Emma helped by Joni makes some extra money selling their old clothes in the raucous market pen, while her mother’s candle stall is a sell out, so there is enough cash for Christmas meals. But when her mother refuses to visit the jailed Mr. Higden on Christmas Eve, Emma goes alone to talk to her father through the bars in an emotional “non-contact” visit. The day after Christmas, Joni and his aunt leave Durban, waved off by the family.
Although this plot appears to hover around inter-racial romance, a stronger theme is resilience,as the main characterse adjust to sudden shocks and changes. There are sub-themes of inter-ethnic tensions as the African migrants struggle with formal restrictions ( customs officers, local police) as well as hostility from locals, both white and black. Around the tycoon father, there are questions of guilt, blame and denial about sources of wealth. The films catches the contrasts of rich-poor life in Southern Africa: the hawkers travelling 3rd class by steam train , and the tycoon flying in by private jet; the Kloof mansion, and the cluttered warehouse where the hawkers stay; leafy suburbs and shabby back streets. The 1996 teenage novella, “Durban Connections” was written to fit Macmillans criteria of an inter-racial plot, and the version re-cast as the film, “African Christmas Journeys” highlights both the contrasts, and the potential for collaboration across the social and ethnic barriers , which should inspire teenagers, with a vision of how individual catastrophe can be softened by practical acts of kindness.