June 2010 Volume 7

South Africa: Post-apartheid as I saw it.

Ray Ford
Text Size
  • -
  • +
  • reset

The FIFA World Cup will soon kick off down in South Africa, and heaven knows, Jamaica could use the distraction.

At the time of writing, there has been loss of life in Kingston, and our thoughts and prayers are with those families and friends of the victims left behind. Coincidentally, this past March 19th marked 50 years since the massacre in the township of Sharpeville, 30 miles south of Johannesburg, South Africa took place. On that day in 1960, blacks who were demonstrating peacefully in front of the local police station, in protest of carrying pass books, were shot upon. Sixty-nine people were killed and scores injured. The callous act turned the world's eyes on the country, and some say, signaled the turning point in dismantling the wretched system of separate and unequal - known as apartheid. Will the events in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston, Jamaica where some seventy odd people lost their lives, be a turning point for Jamaica? Only time will tell.

An Open Mind:
When I visited Pretoria and Johannesburg, back in January 1999 – five years after the first free and common elections were held, I went with an open mind. The West Indies cricket team was touring the country, and I fancied it a good opportunity to see some cricket, and to at the same time, learn a little about the country that in the 1960’s had conjured up such horrible images of black-and-white, both in photos, and in reports.   

Settling in Pretoria:
Physically, the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg could have been anywhere else in the world - the former sleepy and trendy, the latter cosmopolitan and bustling. At times, both could be suspiciously still, much like the Rio Cobre River in Bog Walk, St Catherine, which camouflages treachery in beauty.

Pretoria or Tshwane as it's now called lies 31 miles north of Johannesburg, and going by coach up the Highway 21N from the then Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg, reminded of travelling the Ferry Road leading out of Kingston. Subconsciously, I would continue to make comparisons between Jamaica and what I saw in South Africa for the rest of my visit.   

I had opted to stay in bed & breakfast accommodations instead of sterile hotels. Because, I was interested in seeing how every-day people lived, and also hearing what they had to say. Before I went though, I felt no compunction not to have forewarned that I was black. It might have therefore been a bit of a surprise to Errol and Desiree Pieters proprietors of Bed & Breakfast in Hatfield, when I rang their gate-bell on Arcadia Street in the tree-lined suburb of Pretoria. I was a little concerned as well when Errol came out with `Bud’ their humongous family dog, and had the beast give me a good sniffing over. “Don’t worry,” Errol said, “he’s just getting used to you.”         

In the end, I couldn’t have stayed with a nicer couple. They were Afrikaans (white South Africans) of Dutch ancestry and both were hospitable to a fault. I was just as lucky with Marie Nell and her father Joe, when I moved down to Johannesburg and up to their bed & breakfast in the suburban subdivision of Observatory, called Rambling Gardens.   

Moseying around town:
Pretoria founded in 1855, was elected capital of the Republic of South Africa in 1910 and thus became the power center of the country. It’s also home to the University of Pretoria and so bears striking similarity to any university town in the United States, with trendy bars, restaurants and intellectual oases lining the main drag - Burnett Street. As is my custom I had to find a watering hole to cross my paws. I quickly settled on Cool Runnings Café  –  a bamboo-front open-aired bar with the Lion of Judah emblem emblazoned on a red gold & green rock out front. It was from there that many-a-evenings I watched the town go by, while listening to Bob Marley and Burning Spear music.   

As expected, the country's capital has its share of state(ly) buildings and monuments. First on my list to visit were the Union Buildings where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president on May 10, 1994. Built in light sandstone in 1913, they are situated on Meintjieskop Ridge, have lush lawns and gardens and offer a nice panoramic view of the Preotia skyline. Ironically, their two wings represent only the Boerish and English parts of the South Africa population, even though blacks hold the majority. I recall the grounds being quiet, almost eerily so, on the day I visited. Then in Church Square in the middle of town there’s a monument of Paul Kruger who held the belief that only whites were chosen by God to lead the people of South Africa. He led them into a losing war against Britain in 1899, and took exile in Switzerland as a result.

Boxed in between Van der Walt and Andries Streets downtown, I stumbled on Burgers Park - Pretoria's oldest, built in 1892. It reminded a little of Hope Gardens with bricked paths crisscrossing well manicured gardens, and still ponds with floating lilies cookie-cut in for good measure. The setting seemed to serve as an oasis for blacks, as I distinctly recall not seeing any whites the couple of times I went there. 

Residential areas around Pretoria reminded of any up-scale neighbourhood in Kingston or Mandeville, Manchester, but with more varied architectural designs. No different from Jamaica, was the fact that all the gardeners I happen to have seen working the lawns were black.

Suspicion in Pretoria:
As expected, a snapshot of daily life in these two South Africa cities was all I had. But in general, I found black people in Pretoria, very quiet if not suspicious. It was too coincidental that on several occasions when I tried to make an approach, the `I-don't-speak-English' flag was raised. I was told that this was a carry-over from the days of apartheid, when the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid movements were infiltrated by blacks working for the South African government, especially in Pretoria. Obviously, no personal sleight was intended. But I was an outsider and the message was clear: `Just get along with your own business.' So it was left to my imagination as to what living in apartheid might have been.

I did not overlook the fact too, that South Africa has several tribes and thus several languages. As a consequence, I may just have randomly encountered some people who really and truly did not speak English.

Vestiges of apartheid:
I got a sense of the miserableness of what apartheid might have been when one morning I visited the Pretoria Rail Station. Here were these dusty trains rolling in with horns sounding like the mournful braying of donkeys in the dead of night. Inside, the station was dim, unfriendly, and even sad. As the passengers alighted, I noticed that all were black - dressed mostly in an assortment of sweaters and miss-matched clothes and sneakers. They were to my thinking coming in from the townships to work at menial jobs as nannies, housemaids and gardeners in the white suburbs of the capital.  Etched on their faces, was the burden of this every-day drudgery. There were no conversations between them and out of respect I did not try to start any. Besides, what would I have said?

Though blacks now had a vote, the circumstances of this particular lot, have not changed much. But they were being borne with dignity.

I got the same feeling when I took some fresh air one night at a nightclub called DropZone, frequented by college students. There elderly black women in tie-heads and rubber-soled shoes cleared the tables of empties in crates, and in silence. To the white patrons, they were invisible.

There was hope though. Because I saw several black students attending classes at what looked like a local community college called Computer Connection.     

History in the Books:
As much as I hit it off with Errol and Desiree, drinking beer and talking cricket with them late into the night, the topic of apartheid did not come up. Some things are better found out in other ways, and so I supplemented my observations with a visit to a local bookseller I.H. Pintz. There I found a wide variety of books on apartheid and African history. As a sample, I scooped up Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts by Noni Jabavu, White Man’s Justice by Michael Lobban, The New Africa by Ellen and Attilio Gatti, and Africans by John Iliffe. I got a kick out of the owner painstakingly scripting out my receipt, book title by book title, with the help of a ruler underneath to keep things straight, just like I did when I attended Central Branch Primary.

Soaking up Johannesburg:
One would call Pretoria `slow' and so I was glad to move on to Johannesburg when that time came. I hopped on the coach for center-city J’burg, then by taxi up to the suburb of Observatory, site of the city's first meteorological station which was built in 1903. There I felt like I was in the best of both worlds as my new location overlooked the rich suburb of Houghton to the north where Nelson Mandela has a home, and was within walking distance to the south, of the nearly all-black town of Yeoville which is located on the northeast fringe of center-city Johannesburg.

In the 1970s, Yeoville was the cultural center of South Africa attracting artists, musicians, students and political activists. Later on in the 1980s it became a zone of immunity where black and white South Africans mixed, ate, listened music and discussed grand ideas. It is said that earlier on in the 1960s Mandela was given refuge there when he was on the run. Stretching my legs across the line of back-and-white demarcation - Delrey Street, a sign advertising `Jamaican Grilled Chicken' made me feel at home. So too did the sight of an outdoor barber, plying his trade virtually on a sidewalk, his stool shaded by a piece of blue plastic. I employed his much-needed services for R10 (US$1.70).

I found the area more urbane, more relaxing and much more to my liking, than Pretoria. Black people looked freer than they did in the stodgy capital, and I took in a little night life among my kind. On the other side of town was Bruma Lake with its upscale shops and craft market. I would make my way there on foot to do a little shopping. En route I would stop and have a chat with the policemen who were always laying-in-wait to catch the unsuspecting speeder. Mid-way was Cyrildene a small Chinatown district where I would on occasion, dine at Jing Palace Restaurant on Derrick Avenue. I would compare both areas to that of Mandeville in Manchester, Jamaica. 

Moving forward or standing still?
In the eleven years since I visited, South Africa has freely elected three presidents - Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. The latter celebrated his first year in office this past May, and despite being beset by image problems, has been targeting improvements in service delivery, with an emphasis on health, poverty eradication, job creation, quality education, rural development. He has also vowed to root out crime and corruption. With the recent happens in Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston, and after 48 years of independence, one hopes that Jamaica is now ready to claim the same.

As I read recently, Sharpeville has still not yet picked up speed on the road forward. This town south of Johannesburg is still underserviced and is struggling with poverty and crime. But it's ironic that 50 years ago, the residents there who demonstrated in front of that police station, did so for the cause of freedom, and/or to move around freely. Contrastingly, today those in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston who vandalized the police station, were doing so in part, for their rights to remain confined, and dependent on one individual. They had given up on the Jamaica government to delivery services and opportunity.    

Still taking a pounding:
As for the cricket, on that 1998/99 tour of South Africa, the West Indies did not win a single match, whether Test, one-day international (ODI) or cetchi-chubbi, I didn’t think. "It was all about money" their tour manager Mr. Clive Lloyd wrote in his book Supercat released last year. "I was so disappointed that they (the West Indies players) couldn't grasp the importance of the occasion, that this evil of apartheid had finally been smashed forever," he bemoaned.

At the time of writing, South Africa are again routing the West Indies, this time in the Caribbean. And the comments emanating from the West Indies Cricket Board's CEO Dr. Ernest Hilaire, mimic Mr. Lloyd’s of yesteryear. "I listen to our players speak, and they speak only of money. That's all that matters to them," he said recently.

The more things change, is the more they seem to stay the same. 

Top of Page