Friday, 6 December 2013

South Africa, great memories, anxious times

It was one of the great holidays, the two weeks we spent in South Africa nearly a decade ago. 

It was wonderful pretty much from the beginning. We stopped for lunch an hour or so out from Johannesburg, at what had once been a mission station, and I was absolutely enchanted to see a Vervet monkey swing between two trees just low enough to grab part of my meal. 

Vervets. Cheeky enough to try to nick my meal
But I didn't like it that much, and liked them a lot more
The staff were profusely apologetic, but I was delighted: what else could possibly say so clearly, ‘you’re in Africa’?

That evening we were being fed from a 
‘potjie’, the traditional cast iron pot in which a great stew is cooked over an outdoor fire, in our case being prepared by a congenial hostel owner who liked to feed his guests and tell them stories of the old days of the Transvaal

We were there at the right time of year. May’s the ‘cold season’ when tourists don’t turn up much, even the internal ones. We were able to ring the Kruger Park and get accommodation for the next day, in a glorious hut which, at 4:00 in the morning, had impalas lying outside our door, practically close enough to stroke.

Why were we up at 4:00 in the morning? Because we’d manage to enrol for a bush walk, which you usually needs you to book a year in advance.

These days, when I hardly ever seem to be away from the sounds of traffic, to be in a place of miles of plain rolling to the horizon and hear nothing but an occasional insect and a few birds, was nothing short of bliss. Add to that the herd of Kudu – antelopes with glorious twisted horns – through which we drove on the way back, the leopard we saw eying them up lustfully but without the slightest hope of tackling one, the giraffes, the zebras, the rhino, and the rest, and you can imagine how magical the whole thing was.

Kudu. Simply majestic
We even met a friendly Afrikaner couple who took us a little under their wing. But I was amused by his complaint about the lack of ice for a gin and tonic in the bar. The message was clear: the Blacks running the bar were simply not up to the job and things would not have been like that when... well, when things were run more effectively, by the right people.

Funnily enough, I didn’t even want a gin and tonic.

Danielle had shown the good sense to plan our journey economically, and we stayed not in hotels but in hostels – and what hostels! They were luxurious. And the great thing about a hostel is that you meet the other people staying there.

A few days after the Kruger Park, we met a Canadian woman travelling round the country on her own. She explained to us that she’d been walking back along a country road; a group of young black people had been walking in the same direction; sometimes they would overtake her, sometimes she would overtake them.

But then a middle-aged white couple stopped their SUV and offered her a lift.

‘No, thanks, I feel like walking,’ she told them.

‘I think you should get in,’ they said, casting meaningful glances at the group of black youths.

When she still refused, they shrugged and told her, ‘well, on your head be it,’ before driving off.

The Blacks had heard the exchange.

‘I’m sorry Whites can be so stupid,’ she said to them, apologetically.

‘No,’ they said, ‘we don’t think you’re stupid. We need you. So it doesn’t matter.’

Our own experience was like hers. Black people mostly avoided talking to us, giving Whites their space, but if we spoke first, they
’d stop or even walk out of their way to have a conversation. One father had to break off a chat with me, to race down a country path and catch up with his rapidly receding family.

In Durban, Danielle and I tried to walk to the Indian market. We were stopped by a gloriously rainbow mixture of policemen at a tiny kerbside police station: one White, one Indian, one Black.

‘Stay on the waterfront,’ they said, ‘don’t try to walk to the market.’

By then, we were beginning to realise how near the surface the racism of the place lay. We were soon to discover how near the surface the violence bubbled too.

We met up again, in Johannesburg, the same Afrikaner couple we’d got to know in the Kruger Park. As they were driving us back from an excursion, we came across a screaming woman, bleeding copiously from a terrible gash on her arm. A few metres on, a man was walking away rapidly, carrying a blood stained knife. Both were black, neither was young.

‘What should we do?’ Danielle and I asked.

‘Nothing at all,’ was the simultaneous response, and we drove on.

Two Whites felt so threatened at the idea of even stopping to help a wounded Black, while the man who’d attacked her was still around, that they left an injured woman to sort herself out. They wouldn’t even ring for an ambulance.

It’s a glorious place, South Africa. I’ve been back, for work, on a couple of occasions, and I love the country. But it’s riven, from top to bottom, with shocking, vicious and sometimes blood-soaked tensions. And I’ve seen so many Whites who have retreated into gated communities with walls and barbed wire to keep the Blacks out, that I have little sense of progress towards bridging the divides.

In fact, a great many of the Whites I met were busy finding themselves some kind of link – any kind of link – to a European ancestor who could provide them passports as a get free ticket out of the place.

Nelson Mandela was the man who held the place together. He embodied the ideal of a rainbow nation. And now he’s gone.

I suspect South Africa will survive and will, ultimately, prosper.

But boy, has it got its work cut out for it.

He held the place together
Now South Africa needs to find another way


Anonymous said...

We hear that South Africans are praying for Mandela; I think they ought to be praying for themselves, now that the great leader is no more.


David Beeson said...

I made that point on Twitter and had a response from South Africa: they're praying in gratitude for Mandela. I suppose they can deal with the future next.