Heard on the road in South Africa
by Ron Singer
[ places - september 10 ]
On March 29, 2009, after five weeks of traveling around South Africa to interview people for a book, my wife, Elizabeth Yamin, joined me for a two-week vacation. In each place we visited, people said things to us that seemed to express salient truths about this part of the world. Liz refers to our whirlwind tour as "the tasting menu."
Kroonstad, Free State
We went back to Free State so Liz could meet one of my interviewees, Puleng Motoseneng, the dynamic Director of Free State Operations, Ntataise ('To Lead a Child by the Hand'), the first organization in South Africa to train teachers and parents of poor infants and toddlers. It all started on three Free State farms: one, where Puleng was raised; a second, where a woman named Jane Evans started babysitting the children of farm workers so they would not have to ride around on their mothers' backs in the sun all day; and a third, where, newly married to an absentee gold miner and marooned on his parents’ farm, Puleng began working with young children, herself.
RS: What’s the most important thing to remember in starting an organization like Ntataise?
PM: It must be something people really need, not an idea of what you think they might need.
RS: What’s the biggest mistake you can make in developing such an organization?
PM: To become so educated and knowledgeable about what you are doing that you leave behind the people you are supposed to be serving.
Liz suggested both these questions.
At a B & B, also in Kroonstad, when the proprietor was told we had walked up a dirt track to a two-room school (deserted for the Easter vacation), she commented: "Oh, but that's a Black school."
Puleng: "The farm school!"
At a wonderful resort guest house established by a geologist and his family in the Drakensberg, a mountainous escarpment that forms the spine of South Africa, one of the managers comes to chat at our table, then poses a riddle about a cricket we happen to hear: "What's the difference between a black and a white cricket? The black ones are noisier." (Are there really white crickets?)
Being driven around in an open truck at night viewing animals in this wonderful game park in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a young man on a bench behind us: "My father was a crocodile scientist who developed the crocodile population at Santa Lucia Wetlands Park [a nearby World Heritage site]. I grew up around here. I love it here. I worked for a publishing company in South Africa, but I stopped when I realized that soon I would have to train my [Black] replacement. That would be good, but what would happen to me? So I left, and now I'm doing graduate study in Environmental History at Oxford. I'm studying fire in Africa. I come back about once a year for field research and to see my family. It's too bad, but a lot of educated young white South Africans are leaving."
"I don't usually keep historical documents," he adds," but one that I have kept is the cover letter for the referendum asking whether I, white and franchised, was for or against expanding the franchise to black people [before the 1994 elections, which established majority rule]. This one, I kept."
There are four couples, plus the driver-guide, in our truck. The young scientist and his psychologist wife are from London; the second couple, from Paris; the third, from Delhi; and Liz and I, New York. "What are the chances of that?" I ask. "Four couples, four of the world's great capitals." Only later does it dawn on me that New York is no longer the capital of the United States. "But," says Liz, "it's a world capital."
The Drakensburg (2)
In an English-style hotel pub in Van Reenan, a mountain pass, also in the northern Drakensberg, near the battlefields where the British, Boer, and Zulu spilled each others' blood, we have a beer and a chin wag with the proprietor, a refugee from Southern Rhodesia (before it became Zimbabwe). A soft-spoken older man, he brings up the grisly murder the previous day (April 3) of Eugene Terre'Blanche, who had been head of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a racist white organization, by two of his farm workers. The murder came on the heels of a populist demagogic minister, Julius Malema's, having publicly sung a song from the apartheid era about the need to murder white people - specifically Boers (Afrikaner farmers, which Terre-Blanche was). What may actually have happened was this: when the two workers approached Terre'Blanche for their wages, he told them to bring the cows in first, then said he had been unable to withdraw the money for their wages from the bank. (This was the start of Easter weekend, so the bank was closed.) Farm workers here are typically paid about 300 rands per month (about US $40). A rumor has also circulated about sex between Terre’Blanche and the men.
The proprietor: "It's terrible, I hope we can help each other and work together."
Said to us at two restaurants:
#1 (a TV producer): "People's biggest worry now is corruption." (The newspapers seem to break a new scandal daily.)
#2 (a server): "'New York?'! That's my dream, to write for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I do stand-up here."
The last stop on our whirlwind tour was three days in the epicenter of this land of a thousand travel posters. Rather than add our own amateur shots of sunsets and thunderstorms, of mountains and animals, or of spectacular Table Mountain and historic Robbin Island (where Nelson Mandela and many others were incarcerated), I'll append to this essay a gallery from the District Six Museum, a smallwonderful place in the heart of Cape Town.
Until 1966, when the apartheid regime decided to level it, District Six was a vibrant community of 55,000 people of different races (predominantly "coloured," or mixed race). Following Le Courbusier's maxim of "surgical" urban renewal, the entire neighborhood was bulldozed, the idea being to create a new, sanitized "whites only" housing development. The poorer, non-white inhabitants of District Six, the people with nowhere to go, were moved en masse to the now-notorious township known as Cape Flats. There they were dumped, without any provision for basic services, such as clean water, electricity, or sewage disposal. When a huge outcry ensued, the open ground was never "renewed.” Today, it remains a flat wasteland in the midst of the city, which the majority government is starting, at last, to develop. The Museum is the historical record of the life and death of District Six.