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.)

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in