Johannesburg, one can never forget, is a mining town. There are physical reminders – great pyramids of spoil from the mines litter the landscape – but more entrenched is the psychology of the mining town. People usually come to Johannesburg because there is money to be made here and they often go as soon as they have made it. The crassness of the place is, roughly speaking, Texan – South African golfers playing the American pro circuit tend to live in Houston, another skyscraper city in the middle of nowhere. But Johannesburg is changing at a remarkable rate: more and more obviously it is becoming Africa’s capital as traders flood in from Zaire, Nigeria and all points between. The result is high-quality African masks and curios on sale in the streets, Nigerian drug barons running a whole suburb, Francophone accents everywhere and an extraordinary dynamism.

Johannesburg culture – black or white – is all about flashy consumption. The big car generally comes first and people are often judged by what they drive. Indeed, it takes a degree of mental flexibility to measure the depth of the shallowness. Nonetheless the town has zip and brio and many are addicted to it. It is a place where people live on the edge to a degree perhaps unequalled in the developed world. Where else do the police encourage you to drive through red lights for fear of car-jacking? Not long ago I was stopped by a policeman when I tried to overtake a line of traffic on a corner. ‘I really don’t mind how you drive,’ he said. ‘But other motorists do. We’ve already had three shootings this week when people tried to overtake on that corner.’

Material crassness is also father to the almost Herculean political opportunism one sees all around. A journalist I know here – now risen to great heights – told me how, during the constitutional negotiations, he was physically threatened for being ‘too independent’ by a man who is now an ANC cabinet minister. When he later brought out a book of his collected articles, he made sure to invite this minister to be the guest speaker at the launch. To invite the man you are most frightened of is now standard practice. Someone else I know once went to such lengths to keep in with the old apartheid regime that he staged a burning of leftwing books in his garden and later managed to become head of a parastatal by ingratiating himself with the most brutal minister in the Government. Nowadays he is an adviser to a new Communist Party minister and even invites him on family holidays. The man who heads the broadcasting complaints tribunal is the Broederbonder who used to be the old regime’s chief censor. The only real question for such Vicars of Bray is whether they exacted the right price for their conversion. Mining-town psychology again.

It is a tradition among Natalians such as myself (today one should say KwaZulu-Natalians) that their favourite view of Johannesburg is the one they get in their rearview mirror as they drive down towards the coast. Increasingly, I have found myself stealing down the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal to the hamlet of Trafalgar, where all the roads are named after British naval heroes and the only shop is the Victory Tea-Room. The coastline has been ruined for large stretches either by high-rise developments or by motorways and railways running almost to the beach. Trafalgar is a fabulous exception. The bush here is still untouched and one often catches sight of gangs of monkeys or even the occasional wild buck roaming in it. The plot of land I have bought (on Jutland Avenue) commands a 1800 panorama of the Indian Ocean and from it I have sometimes seen whales and dolphins at play and by night the most staggering skies. Trafalgar is a paradise: a short walk along the beach brings you to a lagoon in which you can swim all year round. Sometimes at low tide you can make out the outlines of the petrified forest which lies beneath the waves.

Not far down the coast, I have a friend who seems to have discovered the remains of the Sao João, one of the largest ships in the world when it was wrecked in the late 16th century. The ship gave its name to Port Saint John, where it is believed to have sunk on its return from Cochin China, with a cargo of spices and china, but my friend has been picking up a quantity of cannonshot as well as pieces of willow pattern-like china. Drilling down into the sandbank at the edge of his lagoon, he has discovered huge amounts of old rotten wood. It’s possible that a major marine archaeological find lies beneath the bank on which he and I often walk.

Trafalgar is gradually attracting a band of writers and journalists, but only a few miles inland a savage little Zulu war continues between Inkatha and the ANC, producing occasional and terrible massacres like the one at Shobashobane last Christmas, when 18 men, women and children – all alleged ANC ‘supporters’ – were slaughtered. The two worlds, Trafalgar on the one hand and the internecine Zulu war on the other, are separated only by a highway and a few miles of land but the difference could not be more complete. Everyone who, like me, buys land to build on in Trafalgar has to take a view as to the future of that conflict and to imagine a time when the idyllic calm one now enjoys might give way to a general collapse of civilities and the rule of the gun. It’s a chance I have decided to take.

Down the coast to East London. The town has its charm – wide streets, old-fashioned shops and parking always available even on the high street. I am there to see my old school friend, Gavin Stewart, now editor of the East London Daily Dispatch, the paper made famous by Biko’s friend, Donald Woods. The Dispatch is housed in an old building with cast-iron Victorian balustrades around its roomy verandahs, aged wooden staircases and the sort of desk in the press room at which you stand up to read. It was, I thought, an extraordinary public-relations achievement on Donald Woods’s part to capture world attention while based at a paper which sells only forty thousand copies. Gavin introduces me to a young black journalist who, it turns out, is a product of our old state school. When Gavin and I were there, the notion that such a fortress of segregation might ever have black pupils was outlandish. We all grin with the sheer delight of the thing.

The week before, Gavin had taken his wife and young children out for a picnic in the country. Two young men armed with pistols had sprung out at them from behind a bush and demanded that Gavin get into the boot of his car. ‘I realised that would be a one-way trip,’ he said, ‘and decided that if I was going to die I wanted to die in the sunshine. So I refused to get into the boot. They were very startled and demanded that my wife do so instead. She refused, too. Then they demanded my gun. I answered that I didn’t like guns, including theirs, and didn’t have one to give them.’

At this point, a more senior assailant leapt out from behind the bushes where he had been watching his apprentices dither and again insisted that Gavin climb into the boot of the car. ‘This time I decided,’ Gavin said, ‘to stay very close to him since it always makes people a bit nervous when they are wielding a gun to have someone that close. When I refused to get into the boot, he said “OK” and took aim at my heart. From the time I used to watch cowboy films as a child, I’d always thought that if you find yourself facing a right-handed gunman you must jump to the left, since that means he will have to alter his aim by pulling against his own wrist, as it were. So as he fired I jumped to the left. The bullet missed, going somewhere under my armpit. My family stampeded into the bushes and the man took another shot at me, which I dodged by jumping left again. But my foot hit a tree root and I went down with a great shout – I was furious because I assumed that now he would finish me off. In fact he must have thought he’d killed me: when I looked up the three of them were driving away in my car.’

That evening, the family had a slap-up meal to celebrate their escape. Gavin gave good descriptions of his assailants, enabling the police to catch them within a day. ‘It was a truly South African occasion right down to the fact that all three of the men were out on bail by the next day,’ Gavin added. ‘The funny thing is that while he was shooting at me all I could think as he missed both times was: “My theory works!” ’ The Security Police sent Donald Woods’s children poisoned T-shirts. The physical threats Gavin lives with are more widely shared.

On to Bisho, capital of the Eastern Cape, where I meet with an ANC activist friend, now highly placed in the provincial administration. He is frank about the utter shambles within that administration but more or less optimistic that things will slowly improve. As you talk to him you realise what an enormous emotional distance he’s had to travel in three years. He began his tasks full of euphoric radicalism. Now he sits in an old Bantustan capital fighting with civil servants who are a law unto themselves, who steal money, refuse to answer letters or the phone, and often collect several salaries by posing as phantom employees of other departments. ‘I still believe the people shall rule,’ he says doggedly, adding that ‘the whole future of this country would be different if Chris had not been murdered.’ Laments for Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader, are something you hear more and more often from the Left, where discontent with the ANC’s embrace of capitalism is rife. They blame Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s now inevitable successor, who stands widely accused of Machiavellianism, a trait which breeds respect but little love.

The mood in Cape Town is very different. The flood of affluent whites into this region – the only one still ruled by the National Party – has produced an unprecedented property boom, on the one hand, and an ever more extensive settlement of squatter shacks, on the other, as poor blacks also flood in from the Eastern Cape. Sitting on the slopes of Table Mountain, I read about my former student, William Hague. I remember William mainly for the uncanny way he managed his tutors – all of them men of the left who viewed the approach of this teenage Thatcherite with something less than enthusiasm. There was no doubting his ability, however, nor his charm and amiability: it was quite impossible for even the most rabidly leftwing of his peers to dislike him. I remember pairing him for his African politics paper with a radical American feminist who fiercely declaimed the truths that were self-evident to her, if not to others. William, when asked, would always smile happily and say he agreed with everything she’d said. In the end he was so amiable and agreeable that his tutors started to feel he’d lost his intellectual edge. Gloomily, we began to accept the notion that he would get only a mediocre degree. In fact he got a very clear First. He had, we realised, taken our measure on every count – political and intellectual – and managed both us and his Oxford career to perfection. Some make the mistake of believing William is vague. He isn’t – but he doesn’t mind people thinking he is if it helps him get where he wants to be.

On to Stellenbosch, where a liberal Afrikaner friend is fulminating against the Government’s plans to ram English-language instruction down the university’s throat. This is, for him, fighting talk, particularly since the Constitution guarantees language rights for all. Unfortunately, the Constitution also says that students have a right to be taught in the language of their choice – a quite incompatible and, indeed, impossible notion. Everyone knows that if a student rolls up at Wits or Cape Town and demands to be taught in Zulu – or Afrikaans – he will simply be laughed at. The problem is that the ANC has been happy to promise all things to all men; we have II official languages, all notionally equal. Stellenbosch, by sticking with Afrikaans, has ended up having largely white and brown students, but precious few blacks. This the Government dislikes, which is why it is threatening to compel the use of English. If it does, there will be a constitutional, political, possibly even a physical fight. But the ANC is nervous of waking the sleeping dog of Afrikaner nationalism and will probably back off.

My Afrikaner friend is not so easily consoled and warns of great difficulties ahead. But South Africa has always been a country with great difficulties ahead. All manner of racial, religious, tribal and linguistic groups have been colliding here for hundreds of years. But the great smash-ups that loom do not always occur, and many of the dramas end in farce.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997

R.W. Johnson reports that his ‘liberal Afrikaner friend’ is ‘fulminating’ against the Government’s plans to ‘ram English-language instruction’ down my university’s throat (LRB, 17 July). The real situation is that some members of the Government, notably Professor Bengu, the Minister of Education, feel that the University of Stellenbosch has strategically entrenched Afrikaans as the language of instruction in order to discourage black students from coming here – which it effectively does. To quote from Bengu’s speech to the University of Stellenbosch, ‘the majority of South Africans’ may ‘perceive your language policy as the misuse of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness as pretext or camouflage for the perpetuation and preservation of apartheid privilege’. Indeed, I know quite a few liberal Afrikaner academics at Stellenbosch who share this perception and the Government’s concern about it. They also feel that the legal status of Afrikaans plays into the hands of extremists, like the professor who screamed abuse at a graduate student for answering the telephone in English. There is understandable impatience with conservative English-speaking students who come here because they don’t want to brave the more robust atmosphere of more fully integrated campuses, and then demand that their lectures should be in English – but other than for these spoilt children of privilege, many academics are quite willing and able to use English as a supplementary language of instruction, and are in fact already doing so. These same academics value Afrikaans as a vital language with a flourishing literature. It is the de jure entrenchment of Afrikaans that critics of the university, within and outside the university, object to: I’m not aware of anything being rammed down anyone’s throat.

Michiel Heyns
University of Stellenbosch

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences