Lawrie, who shares fourth spot with countrymen Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson after shooting 69, got the better of partner Colin Montgomerie by three after an unusual start to their round.
There was a 10-minute delay on the opening green because the flagstick was stuck in the hole and damage was caused in yanking it out.
"I've never seen that before," said the Ryder Cup hero, who then came close to winning a £32,000 excavator when his six-iron tee shot to the 170-yard 15th hit the flag, but stayed out on a day plagued by rain.
Jamieson knows only too well what the weather can be like in the city. It was only last month that he won at nearby Royal Durban in an event reduced to 36 holes because of rain.
Meanwhile, ex-paratrooper Thongchai Jaidee jumped into a three-stroke lead over Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen at the top of the leaderboard at the Durban Country Club.
However, it was not the Thai golfer's superb seven-under-par 65 that Els found himself mostly talking about afterwards, but one particular shot from Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts.
The Open champion could not believe his eyes when Europe's biggest hitter launched a drive of 419 yards at the downwind third hole.
"I've been coming here since 1986, I think, and I've never seen a ball there, nobody has," Els admitted.
"They should put a plaque down. I was coming from a different zip code. And I've got to compete against these animals."
Els had the last laugh, though. He matched his partner's birdie and outscored him by five to keep his victory hopes firmly alive.
Jaidee, part of the 33-strong winners-only field thanks to his victory at the Wales Open last June, was out on his own from the time he birdied six of the first 10 holes.
The 43-year-old did lead by five at one point, but that was cut to three late in the day despite the two South African stars having to contend with heavy rain.
"We probably got the bad side of the draw, but that's part of golf," said Oosthuizen, who faced similar conditions during his runaway seven-shot win in the 2010 Open at St Andrews.
While the trio of Scots who lie in fourth place along with Jeev Milkha Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Jamie Donaldson and Danny Willet keep up the pace in Durban, Caledonia's other representative, Montgomerie, languishes three shots further behind.