Scenes from South African Life

R.W. Johnson

The thing that really got to me after a while was the prostitutes. As I drove back from Cape Town city centre to suburban Mowbray at night along the old Main Road, I would see dozens of them beckoning to motorists, and sometimes as I waited at the traffic-light at Mowbray bus-station, the pimps would genially slap the side of my car to attract my attention to their Xhosa or Coloured charges. Going to a late-night café in Mowbray, the somewhat mixed area in which I was staying, meant threading my way through clusters of begging small boys and prostitutes who ranged in age from schoolgirls to quite old women. The ambience was such that after a while you got to be curious about how safe it was to be a white café-owner (they’re invariably Portuguese or Greek) in such a district. After all, loitering round their shop doorway, however good-humouredly, are a lot of decidedly poor people; the shopkeeper is, at night, the only white face to be found in quite a large area; and the shop’s goods and till represent not only a tempting but almost the only target around.

Such cafés, I gradually noted, favoured very high counters which served a definite security function, only the owner’s head and shoulders being visible above them. Further investigation revealed that most such café-owners not only keep guns behind the counter, but fully automatic weapons at that. And since the whole family works in the shop, even the children have been trained in the use of this Ramboidal technology. Given the extraordinary crime rates in and around most South African cities, some of these small shopkeepers are understandably a little trigger-happy. Recently one shopkeeper, looking out of his shop, saw his parked car slowly moving away. Concluding that it was being stolen, he grabbed his rifle and came out of his shop blasting away – shooting dead the policeman who was moving his car off a double yellow line.

This sort of barely contained suburban violence (and near universal gun-ownership among whites) is a basic feature of the way South Africa lives now – I am electronically frisked every time I go to my local shopping arcade and re-frisked at the door of the supermarket inside the arcade. People have easily absorbed these new parameters of everyday life and are generally pretty sure-footed about staying out of the way of trouble. There is, for example, a pub in Carletonville, near Johannesburg, where the bartender, a certain Siggie, keeps behind his counter no mere submachine gun but a real machine-gun, replete with bullet belts. It is really quite surprising that anyone would want to trifle with Siggie (short for Sigmund), a gigantic German ex-Legionnaire whose massive forearms are the more pronounced for the tattoos they bear of favourite characters from Wagnerian opera. Siggie’s first line of defence against late drinkers who refuse to leave is a pick-axe handle, the gun his ultimate weapon (and the pockmarked rafters over the beer-garden attest to the fact that he has occasionally, as he puts it, ‘had to give a few squirts’). When, demonstrating his craft, Siggie lays his monstrous gun on the counter, there is a noticeable stir of unease among the drinkers – though it is only early evening – and several men look in anxious surprise at their wristwatches. It is really very striking how flexible even the most ingrained social habits become in the face of a well-oiled machine-gun.

To get back to the question of why so many prostitutes: the reasons lie in the tidal wave of demographic growth and urbanisation which are together transforming South Africa before one’s very eyes. This wave is not so much destroying apartheid as simply overwhelming it. The perfectly correct notion underlying apartheid was that all power and wealth were ultimately centred on a few great urban citadels: apartheid was, at heart, a system for ensuring white predominance in the cities by making sure that as many Africans as possible were kept in the rural areas – on the farms or in the ‘homelands’. Albeit at a terrible human cost, this did work more or less as long as the African population remained relatively small. Odd though it already seems, 1980 was the first year in which, in the cities of South Africa, Africans outnumbered non-Africans (i.e. whites, Asians and Coloureds; Africans outnumbered whites alone by 2:1). And those 7.6 million urban Africans represented only 36 per cent of 1980’s total African population. By the year 2000, however, the African population will have increased from today’s 25 million to 36.2 million and the African urbanisation rate is set to increase from 36 per cent in 1980 to 75 per cent then. The bottom line to all this is that while there are today perhaps 9.5 million urban Africans, by the year 2000 there will be 27.2 million of them. The projections for 2020, for what they’re worth, are for around fifty million urban Africans. Today whites constitute a quarter of all urban dwellers; in 2000 they will form a seventh; in 2020 perhaps a twelfth. (And by 2000 there will also be 1.3 million Asians and 4 million Coloureds.)

Mere numbers are not the whole of it. By the year 2000 no less than 60 per cent of Africans will be aged 20 or under – while the white population, like its counterpart in Western Europe, is a notably ageing one – ads for retirement homes and even whole retirement villages are prominent on all the newspapers’ property pages. This age structure – lots of old and very young – means that a relatively small economically-active population will have to support a very large number of dependants. But, most important of all, there will simply not be enough jobs for all these people. The best estimates suggest that the number of employed persons would rise from 7.7 million in 1986 to ten million in 2000 if there were no sanctions; but that if the present economic sanctions against South Africa are maintained, employment will grow only to eight million in the same period. The extra two million unemployed will, of course, be overwhelmingly unskilled and black, which is one reason why not a few black trade-unionists and Marxist ‘workerists’ – as well as the Government – are opposed to sanctions. Still, sanctions there will undoubtedly be, and probably tougher ones than at present, so it would be fairly safe to predict that by the year 2000, of a potential working population of 17.8 million, 9.8 million will be unemployed. In depressed areas this 55 per cent rate of unemployment has already been reached. At the height of the 1984-86 urban insurrection, unemployment in Port Elizabeth reached 56 per cent; today it is at 57 per cent and the result is seething townships and massive outward migration to less blighted cities. But by 2000, with a national unemployment rate of 55 per cent, there will be nowhere much to go. Meanwhile Port Elizabeth operates with a permanent curfew.

The result of these trends is already visible – those child beggars and schoolgirl prostitutes are the vanguard: a flood of humanity, much of it unemployed, is pouring into the cities and the townships and squatter camps around them. Those that can, seek work in the modern, formal sector; others participate in a burgeoning ‘informal’ black economy; but an ever-growing number can live only by preying on others. Thus a huge army is forming of beggars, burglars, muggers, pimps, prostitutes, drug-pedlars, protection racketeers and so forth – many of them children. Mainly, of course, they prey on employed blacks, the target group most accessible to them in the townships, but already more and more whites are reacting to this threat of growing insecurity by living behind virtual stockades. Strolling nostalgically round the areas of Durban where I grew up, I found I could hardly see houses I had once known so well – they are all hidden now behind high walls and remote-controlled iron gates. A pollster friend in Johannesburg told me he’d had to give up trying to carry out surveys in the affluent northern suburbs: his researchers found they could seldom establish any form of human contact with their interviewees and were having to put all their questions to intercom boxes in garden walls.

In addition to the fortification of their homes, whites depend for their security on a still impregnable police and military establishment and on the fact that African townships and squatter settlements have been placed at some distance from white cities. For the moment this is enough and the mayhem which reigns in those townships (by far the world’s highest crime rates, dozens of murders every weekend, vigilantism, warlordism etc) finds only a faint echo in the white city. But it is difficult to see how this separation can be maintained. Over the last seven years the economic growth rate has averaged 1.3 per cent; the population has grown at about twice that rate. So the population increases, per capita income falls, the number of unemployed swells at a steady rate of 1000 people a day (with no dole), and there are more and more desperate, hungry people all the time. We have really seen nothing yet, but as the 1990s progress, great waves of humanity are going to wash into the white cities. The children who will make up those waves are already born. I doubt whether the distance from the white city or the power of the state will be enough in the end. People can walk and guns can’t stop a tidal wave. Blacks, incidentally, understand extremely well the unstoppable power of these demographics, which is why Aids is a topic of such obsessive concern amongst black radicals – it is seen as the only phenomenon capable of robbing blacks of their decisive power of numbers.

For the moment the black city and the white city remain different worlds. The contrasts this engenders are breathtaking. Thus, for example, as I sit typing this on my PC at the University of Natal, I can look out at the Valley of a Thousand Hills which forms Durban’s hinterland. Among the black townships I can see is Chesterville. Now not long ago, in the Inkatha v. UDF fighting which has so terrorised the townships, the traditional Inkatha elders of Chesterville decided that they would teach some of the UDF militants a good old-fashioned Zulu lesson. So they tied them up to trees and cut pieces off them – fingers, toes, genitalia and so on. Apparently it took all day for them to die. A single glance takes in both my Taiwanese PC and the scene of that ‘lesson’.

All of which sounds and is very dire. The feelings of doom and gloom among whites have to be experienced to be believed, but the atmosphere in UDF/ANC circles is not much brighter. Amazingly, in 1984-86 many radicals, black and white, talked themselves into believing that the revolution had really arrived. That this was an illusion is plain enough now, with the resistance movements in pieces all over the floor and bitterly divided against one another in today’s exhausted calm. The situation, which is bad now, is undoubtedly going to get worse. It is beginning to dawn even on some of the radicals here (and South Africa is the only country I know where Marxism is spreading like a forest fire) that even ‘after the revolution’ these problems are not going to go away. Putting the ANC in power – which even many whites are beginning to assume, however reluctantly, is the future shape of things – will hardly solve the problems of the demographic explosion and growing insecurity.

Yet despite all the doom and gloom I find myself pulled back to this country, to its natural beauty, the wonderful complexity and variety and drama of life here. I utterly love being here, will always come back.

The present calm could last quite a while as far as blacks are concerned; Govan Mbeki, the released ANC leader, says he has never seen the black opposition more fragmented than it is now. But the world of white politics will reach a major watershed with the municipal elections of 26 October. There will be elections in Asian, Coloured and African municipalities too, but the recent assassination of one of the African candidates apart, these are not really of much interest. The Asian and Coloured contests are generally one-horse races, and with the parties that count either not allowed to stand or boycotting the occasion, the main interest of the elections in the African townships will be whether even a 10 per cent poll is achieved and whether any more candidates get killed. The white municipals, on the other hand, will really count, for there is no doubt that Andries Treurnicht’s far-right Conservative Party (CP) is poised to make sweeping gains. Indeed, the CP has made such remarkable progress in recent months that the idea that the ruling National Party (NP) could actually be voted out of office no longer seems fanciful – though whether P.W. Botha would hand over power in such an eventuality is another question altogether. The NP-CP split has divided Afrikanerdom in a way not seen for the last fifty years. All over the country little Afrikaans-speaking towns are facing the first real political competition they can remember, and in many of them the NP is so frightened of defeat that, rather than put up its own candidates, it is backing independents. In some platteland towns, indeed, the CP presence has already become so overwhelming that the NP simply can’t find candidates. There is no doubt that any white supporter of the ANC should vote CP, for nothing would do more to hasten the demise of white power than a Treurnicht government or, alternatively, a pre-emptive NP coup against it. At the moment, the CP is predicting victory in not less than 60 of the 84 towns in the Transvaal – the heartland of South African politics. Already, fear of the CP’s advance has brought Botha’s programme of reform to a complete halt. If the CP makes anything like the gains it is predicting, the present period, with all its difficulties, will seem like a lost golden age.

The NP-CP split has taken spectacular form in the rival celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Great Trek. South Africans have a highly developed sense of humour and there is wide enjoyment of the way in which, in the name of history, the Trek is being commemorated, of the quite wonderful tastelessness of the occasion and the blatant lack of respect for any sort of real history. The Government-sponsored wagon has already left Cape Town on its 2500km. trek to Pretoria. The original trek took place over a period of years, not, as is now pretended, in one specific year, 1838. Nor, of course, did the Trekkers go straight – or even mainly – to Pretoria: they wandered all over the sub-continent. They didn’t start from Cape Town, but from the Eastern Cape, hundreds of miles away. And they did not, of course, travel on tarred roads which the 1988 Trekkers do quite exclusively.

Today’s Trek is led by a couple called Flip and Martie du Plooy, who seem to have grasped this idea of historyless history with relish. Apart from stopping for no less than 350 festival dinners at towns on the way, Flip and Martie have decided to do without the tent-and-campfire life, living off microwaved take-aways during the day and staying in motels at night. The idea of actually sitting in the bumpy wagons has, of course, been set aside: Flip and Martie drive alongside the wagons in a Combi van. Well, not quite alongside: Flip goes ahead to meet the reception committee in the next town, while Martie sets up sales points for Great Trek memorabilia. The wagon train is linked by radio and TV to Johannesburg, with one Gracelle Gerber, a Potchefstroom communications graduate, providing the wheel-by-wheel commentary. (Thanks to the Californian glop which fills South African TV screens, there are not a few Gracelles, Charlenes and Chantelles even among the staid young ladies of Potch nowadays.) The only real trekkers in all this will be the 12 black labourers who will walk alongside the wagons all the way to Pretoria and sleep by them at night, just as their forebears did. If the symbolism of this was not enough, three of the oxen were injured on their way to the start and another died at the start. One trembles to think of the possible symbolism if the 1988 trekkers, for all their advantages, don’t make it. The rival CP wagons (which will start later) are taking no chances and have dispensed with oxen altogether: their wagons will not be wagons at all but outsize – and motorised – carnival floats.

All of which recalls nothing so much as last year’s quincentennial Diaz celebrations, which gave much innocent pleasure. A medieval Portuguese ship was rigged out to follow the course down the west coast of Africa that Bartholomew Diaz had taken in 1487 on making the first circumnavigation of the Cape. Just to be safe the ship was equipped with a somewhat un-medieval diesel engine as well as sails. The ship set off in good order, but nervous anniversary officials decided that it was going too slowly to make landfall at the Cape on the appointed date. A South African Navy destroyer was sent to help and, despite the furious protests of the latterday Diaz (who insisted he was making good time), towed the sailing ship along at a speed which would no doubt have startled the good Bartholomew.

The original Diaz, on landing at the Cape, had found a welcoming party of Hottentots. (Well, actually, the welcome deteriorated: the Hottentots stoned the whites, who in turn shot one of the Hottentots dead – both parties were only setting a precedent for what’s been going on ever since. Today, of course, press restrictions would make it impossible to report such an incident.) The Hottentots, or to give them their proper name, the Khoi Khoi, have long since been absorbed into the Coloured population, so appeal was made for a party of Coloureds to assist in a cleaned-up re-enactment of Diaz’s welcome (no stones, no guns this time). Coloured leaders pointed out that the beach in question was a Whites Only beach. The Government promised to make it an ‘Open’ beach for the day. The Coloureds said they’d settle for nothing less than permanent ‘Open’ status. The government refused. Coloured leaders called for a boycott of the whole event and sure enough no Coloureds could be found to participate. In the end, the part of the Khoi Khoi was taken by suitably blacked-up whites. Having to create bogus blacks in a country which, whatever else, is hardly short of real black people seems difficult to beat. This is, though, a land of surprises and it would be foolish to bet that even this symbolic high point will not be surpassed.

To be fair, the old white South African attitude of treating non-whites as so many interchangeable garden gnomes has largely gone. In a host of informal ways blacks are more and more evidently citizens. In the old days the media might report that, for example, a black man had raped a white woman, which had the effect for most whites of making some crimes seem more heinous than others. Nowadays, media reports of accidents and crimes no longer mention the race of either the victim or the assailant, so now all crimes, at least, are equal. Perhaps more striking is the American-style affirmatively multi-racial character of most advertising, including TV advertising. Similarly, the desegregation of public facilities has reached a point where one is positively surprised, certainly in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban, to find any that are not integrated. At the universities of Cape Town and Natal where I have been teaching, nearly a quarter of the students are blacks and it is assumed that black students will be in the majority at both institutions by the year 2000. (Even this calculation is made on the assumption that present political conditions will continue, which of course they won’t.) Black students are treated not just equally but preferentially – for example, in the allocation of places in residences. (The Government looks hard the other way as the Universities break the Group Areas Act.) Twenty-six years ago, as a member of the Student Representative Council here in Durban, I fought hard and unavailingly for a lesser degree of integration than is now easily conceded. It has all taken far too long to come, but the progress is undeniable. The black students, understandably, are slow to trust the change and have a horror of finding themselves in the position of a patronised minority in a land where they are the majority: so they won’t vote or stand in student elections and in Cape Town they are even, madly, demanding separate sports facilities.

Oddly, perhaps the most warming experience I’ve had here was at a lunchtime concert given by Ladysmith Black Mambazo of Graceland fame. The university hall was thronged with a capacity audience, black, white and Asian, students and campus workers, Zulu maintenance men in their overalls, women cleaners ululating in their excitement at the band’s antics, alongside bearded and ponderous white academics. For once, just for once, there was a completely united enjoyment of a single event: everybody, but everybody, was mixed in, and everybody was happy. One had a tantalising glimpse of a common South African identity and citizenship waiting out there somewhere, if only it can be grasped. But to feel that is also to feel the awful tenuousness of the thing, the only too likely possibility that it will not be grasped, that the whites, having come this far, will regret their ‘reforms’ and decide, in effect, that they’d rather the country collapsed back into separate, warring identities. The results in the white municipalities on 26 October will tell us if such a collapse is taking place. It would be wise to fear the worst.