On the eve of something in South Africa

Dan Jacobson

The last time I had visited the Newtown Market in Johannesburg was during my final year at the local university. I went to the market as a member of a group collecting food for the families of African strikers; others in the party included a man who is now a professor of sociology at an English university (he was the one of us who had a motor-car), and a girl with a wonderfully clear, fine brow for whose sake I had become involved in the whole undertaking. Amid the usual disorder of porters, hawkers and shoppers, of crates and wood-shavings from crates, of spoiled fruit and the smell of spoiled fruit, we went from stall to stall, soliciting contributions. Many of the stallholders were Indians; they were not noticeably more responsive to our requests than their white competitors. We managed to get together a few bags of potatoes, a sack of oranges and a basket or two of cabbages, which we carried back to the car. Later, we delivered the stuff to a piece of wasteland behind a corrugated-iron fence, grandiosely entitled the Bantu Athletic Club, where some sporting and educational activities, and much illegal drinking, used to take place.

Thirty years later the market in Newtown no longer houses any stallholders. The long, be-knobbed building has undergone the fate of similar markets in other cities, and has become a kind of arts centre: it now contains two theatres, a museum and open spaces for the hanging of pictures. The revolution which we vaguely expected to take place before we had grown as old as we are now has still not happened. But there have been some changes. Thirty years ago, the only theatre in town to which black, Coloured and Indian spectators were admitted was the Great Hall of the Witwatersrand University: now several theatres, including those in the market, are open to them, and blacks made up 90 per cent of the audience for the performance I had come to see. Thirty years ago, it was impossible for a black man or woman to drink spirits lawfully: now he does not have to frequent a shebeen to do so. Thirty years ago (or even three years ago), it was not possible to hear a black theatrical group singing songs and reciting poems about the revolution which is for ever just-about-to-happen: yet that was what we had come to hear. As to whether such singing and reciting will actually bring the mirage-like revolution nearer or not, heaven knows; I don’t. It could be argued – and the explosions of the last week or two would certainly confirm the suggestion – that the revolution has already begun: it is any other view of the country’s condition, then, that is really mirage-like.

The troupe consisted of nine men and boys, whose ages ranged from about 15 to 35. Between them they must have played two dozen instruments of various kinds: waist-high African drums, an electric guitar, a jew’s harp, bunches of seed-pods, a Mchopi xylophone, a bow and string with gourd resonator, whistles (police and referee), tambourines, mouth organs, animal horns. All the performers sang solo or chorally, in addition to performing on their instruments; all took part in the passages of recitation and sprachgesang. The originality of the orchestrations; the intricacy of the ever-changing rhythmic schemes, and the affecting melodies woven within and around them; the subtle use of dying chords and of minor-keyed soliloquising voices singing themselves into silence, as it were; the non-stop inventiveness with which one number followed directly on another, and the cunning contrasts in mood between each – all these were evidence of a high degree of professionalism and self-assurance. However, there was a striking contrast between the music and the words: not only because the music was so accomplished and the words were often so inept (sometimes to the point of nonsensicality), but because the music was melancholy and intimate in tone, while the words were all as strident as they could be.

Well, perhaps not quite. There were no direct attacks on whites, as whites; no explicit incitement of violence against them. ‘I came out of the womb/Into the tomb/Of oppression....’ ‘Native, Bantu, Kaffir, Plural, Operative – what am I? ... ’ ‘The ghetto where we exist/Chained in manacles so that we cannot resist....’ ‘Tears, spears, blood....’ ‘Revolution will not be televised/It will not be broadcast on SABC/It will not be announced on Radio Bantu....’ ‘Black theology needs a guru/I am the guru’ (this was sung to a particularly catchy tune rather than recited or chanted, like most of the others) ... ‘We have lost the rights to navigation....’ ‘Think revolution/Whisper revolution/Speak revolution/Shout revolution/Shit revolution ...’

Shit revolution? Perhaps that is what the Government thinks these people are creating; all they are creating. Perhaps that is why they are permitted to express their sentiments in the heart of ‘white’ Johannesburg, as well as in the black townships around it, where this particular group and others have formed themselves into musical and poetry-reading clubs that have been drawing large and enthusiastic audiences. It is true that some members of these clubs have been banned, and so have two issues of the magazine, Staffrider, which publishes much of their work; but still, one does not know whether to be more struck by the phenomenon itself, or by the fact that the Government seems for the moment to be turning a half-blind eye towards it. ‘Zimbabwe is free today,’ the troupe proclaimed loudly at one point, ‘and we shall be free tomorrow.’ What inner and outer necessity, one wonders, compelled them to seek an ‘aesthetic’ as well as a political form – and response – for a declaration of that kind? At the end, which was a rather subtle, sombre affair, with the members of the group laying down their instruments one by one, and joining the others in a plaintively sung finale, the audience responded warmly. On that particular Saturday night it was composed of a single party of Indians, a couple of groups of whites, and various identifiable factions among the blacks: some in business suits; some in the blue denim of students; some in the dark glasses and checked shirts of the tonton macoutes – with flash girls to match.

Then we went into the city centre to find a restaurant. In some ways, that hadn’t changed at all from my recollections of it as a student. Eloff Street, the main commercial thoroughfare, had been prettied up into a mall, and now had wide pavements, low lamps and trees in tubs. But these amenities had not succeeded in attracting anyone to it after nightfall: the entire length of the street was deserted, apart from two small groups of thuggish young whites, with long hair and thick bare arms, who were yelling at each other across the distance of a city block. Plein Street, running across the bottom of Eloff Street, was rather more populous. There was a queue outside the restaurant at which it had been proposed we should have dinner. Behind the closed, plate-glass doors of the Chicago Disco next door, a large white woman sat on a kitchen chair and conversed with a black man who did not have a chair to sit on. From within, strobe lights flashed and disco music whined and thundered. On the pavement, two barefoot African urchins, aged about eight and ten I would guess, jived enthusiastically to the noise until they were chased away by a man in a chef’s hat who emerged from the restaurant. Some revellers sat jammed in a car with Brakpan number-plates; all of them, including the two blonde girls in the back, were drinking beer out of cans; every now and again one of the young men would go and exchange signals and shouts in Afrikaans with the woman in the Chicago Disco, and then return to the car; as far as I could make out, they were trying to get the woman to give them a special discounted rate of admission. But she would not open the glass doors to them. All the shop-windows around were jammed with goods: every concrete canopy that jutted out over the pavement had a multitude of names painted in thick letters on its brow; neon signs winked and whirled above the cars parked bumper to bumper all the way down the street.

Eventually, a few blocks further on, we found a quiet Italian pizzeria which had room for us. We had been there only a few minutes when a neat, scrubbed Indian family, containing many wide-eyed children, entered the place with great caution. It was obviously not the kind of five-star establishment that might have been given a licence to go ‘multi-racial’, and parents and children alike were clearly anxious about the reception they would get. However, no one objected to their presence (another great change there!), and the children were soon coping as best they could with the long strings of melted cheese that came off their pizzas.

The silence and emptiness after nightfall of Kimberley’s city centre, as well as of its suburbs, was positively uncanny. It had rained shortly before my arrival, so, as I drove about in the car I had hired at the airport, steam was constantly rising from the tar and drifting away in the light of the headlamps. This thin mist made me feel more than ever like a revenant in a Hollywood movie of the 1940s: the man who had lost his memory, or something like that. Only, I seemed to have all too many memories. There were entire blocks of small, low, tin-roofed houses, near the house I had lived in as a boy, which I could repopulate with the families that had once occupied them: Eriksens, Templetons, van der Westhuizens, Mareskys, McCarthys, McCanns ... Above every stoep, where those families had sat on such warm evenings, lights still burned; moths and other insects were circling and zig-zagging crazily around each light, exactly as they used to: but there was nobody to be seen. Nothing could bring back the people I had known. But where were their successors? Only after some time did it occur to me that they were all indoors, watching television.

The utter emptiness of the town centre could also be explained simply enough. Once upon a time it had boasted no less than three cinemas: now it had none. In the centre, as in the suburbs, I was passed by another moving car no more than once in every four or five minutes; pedestrians were even more infrequent. No wonder the girl from whom I had hired the car had spoken about the town with such despair. For me it may have been thronged with ghosts (and even a ghost, one couldn’t help thinking, would have difficulty in surviving amid those flat, meagre streets, on that sandy soil, under that high sky); for her it was just dead. ‘You know: dead!’

Her name was Sally, It said so on a plastic name-badge pinned to her blouse, the top button of which was undone, revealing not her breasts, but the childish, bony, sexless hollow between them. She had a starveling face: brown hair carefully arranged around pallid, drawn cheeks, a pointed chin, packed teeth. Her voice was the voice of any white, English-speaking South African girl: but it lacked the complacency one heard in most of the others. She told me her story while we waited for the red-shirted ‘boy’ to fetch the car. She’d come to Kimberley to visit her cousin, a geophysicist with ‘Anglo’ (the Anglo-American Corporation): ‘Then I had bad luck. I got sick and I lost all my money. So I was stuck here. I couldn’t get out until I’d saved some more money ... But now – I can’t get out because I’ve got this good job, you see, and I don’t want to lose it.’ She stood in the car-hire booth, with a banner bearing a world-famous name over her head: a position she could not afford to lose. ‘I’m hoping they’ll give me a transfer. That’s all I’m waiting for.’ Had she let them know she wanted a transfer? ‘No, it’s too soon. I’ll have to stick it out until the end of the year.’ And then? ‘Anywhere, as long as it’s not bladdy Kimberley ... Or Bloem.’ (Bloemfontein, 100 miles to the east.) Hadn’t she made any friends in Kimberley? ‘Well, I got some friends in the Anglo crowd. But you know what they’re like. They’re in town for a couple of days, and then they’re back into the bush.’ (This was a figure of speech: there is no ‘bush’ of any description for hundreds of miles around Kimberley.) And the De Beers people, had she made any friends among them? For the first time a shadow of reserve or pride crossed her face: she did not want to admit quite how friendless she was. So finally she settled upon a bland, grand, mysterious formula: ‘Well, I am in touch with them from time to time.’ At that point her African assistant returned with the keys of the car; she gave them to me, and offered me a map of Kimberley. No, I said, I did not need it; I’d grown up in the town. ‘Oh hell, then you’ll know your way around. Have a big ball while you’re here!’

Later that evening, having had my big ball by driving around in solitude for an hour and a half, I sat in the dining-room of one of the town’s hotels. Another conversation. This one was with a jaunty, wistful, black waiter of about seventeen. He was folding paper napkins for breakfast the next morning, at a counter close to my table. He told me that he’d been born in Kimberley – in Galeshewe Township, Kimberley’s own version of Soweto. His father and mother had also been born there. He had reached Form II at school; then his father had ‘gone away’, so he had to ‘stop school’ to get some money for his mother and two sisters. Where had his father gone? There was click in his throat, and he made a vague, distressed gesture with his head. ‘He did leave us ... He is dead, boss.’ His voice was small and high, yet there was room within it for a tiny scrape of hoarseness. If he’d been able to stay at school, he went on, then maybe he could have ‘done something’. Now the one sister was in Form III, and the little one, so big (showing me), was in Form I. But it was a waste of time to send girls to school. ‘My sister, she reaches Form III, but now she sits at home, she does nothing.’ Nothing at all? ‘No, she just sits at home.’ And she expects you to support her? ‘I think she is waiting for a baby, boss.’

It was the second time he had stopped me short with an answer. Again, he was the one who resumed talking after a pause, his head still bowed over his work, his fingers deftly folding the napkins, piling them up, pressing the pile as flat as he could make it. The smooth skin of his skull showed between the tiny curls of hair on his head. Did I know Kimberley, he asked me. I told him I’d spent my childhood in the town. ‘And now you’re gone!’ he exclaimed, with disinterested pleasure in the thought. ‘Me – I’m also restless,’ he said. He folded the last of the napkins, and then picked up the pile and crushed them together like pages in a book, between his brown hands. ‘Maybe I go somewhere one day. Maybe I go back to school to learn, if I get some money.’ For the first time he looked straight at me, with a mixture of helplessness and defiance in his gaze. ‘As long as I don’t get mixed up in the fighting,’ he said. From his manner it was prefectly clear what kind of fighting he meant. He meant political fighting: the ‘revolution’ of which those performers had been speaking from the stage in Johannesburg. ‘And all that sort of thing,’ he added. Then he went off with a dancing step and a little swagger of the shoulders, in his bright green shirt and tight black trousers.

The revolution which one should perhaps most hope for, if South Africa is to be spared much misery, is one in the consciousness of the Afrikaners who rule the country. There are some signs that this has begun to take place: the consent to the theatrical performance I have described might even be considered to be one. During my visit the Prime Minister, Mr P.W. Botha, was actually booed and heckled from the left by some students at Stellenbosch University, the very shrine of the Afrikaner national-intellectual spirit. This is remarkable enough in itself: what is perhaps even more remarkable, given the general authoritarianism of Afrikaner attitudes, is that the majority of the students present did not rise up instantly to ‘donder’ the dissidents. And the Prime Minister himself has been going around the country calling for a rethinking of the ‘entire framework’ of the political system, in the light of what has happened in Zimbabwe.

Yet nothing much actually gets done. Economic concessions are being made more and more rapidly to Indians, Coloureds and blacks alike. There is talk of restoring to the two former groups some version of the attenuated political rights that were taken from them decades ago. But as far as the blacks are concerned, the Government remains stuck in its fantasy of being able to continue to make use of their labour while transforming them all into citizens of the tinpot ‘republics’ which it is trying to set up in various remote regions of the country. From a realpolitik point of view, one might conclude that this policy is worse than nothing: merely a concession by the government that the blacks have no rights where they actually live; and that they, the authorities, feel this to be an indefensible state of affairs. From a realpolitik point of view, again, one might suggest that the best thing the authorities could do in the circumstances would be to say nothing and change nothing: in other words, simply to continue sitting on the lid as firmly as they can, for as long as they can. Given the prosperity which the country is currently enjoying (the results of the rise in the price of gold have now penetrated into every sector of the economy), and given the overwhelming strength, in African terms, of the military and police establishments, they could do it for far longer, I am convinced, than most people outside the country think possible.

But what has happened to the north of the Limpopo appears to make such a simple and old-fashioned policy implausible to black and white alike. The Afrikaners realise that thirty years of applying their apartheid policies have succeeded in making them, their language, and all the institutions of their state, deeply hated by the people among whom they have to live. Does this come as a surprise to them? The answer is no. Anyone who can remember how the Afrikaner Nationalists spoke and behaved when they came into power thirty years ago, and the self-righteous glee with which they subsequently set about humiliating and antagonising everyone in the country with a darker skin than their own, will know that it is no exaggeration to say that they wanted to be hated. The baffled rage of those whom they were humiliating (‘treating like lepers’, to quote the present Prime Minister) made them feel more truly themselves; it made them feel stronger. Now it makes them feel weaker. This is true at any rate of important elements within the Afrikaner élite. Now that the Portuguese, the British, the Belgians, the French, and all the other colonialists whom they claimed to despise, have departed, now that even the white Rhodesians have thrown in the towel, leaving them the only whites on the continent who are still ruling over blacks, they have something of the air of a people waking up after a prolonged debauch. What they would like to do is to start all over again, and end up pretty much where they are now, with all their political and material possessions intact – only, somehow, purged of their grossest prejudices, and not envied and hated at all.