Johannesburg Diary

Stephen Gray

By September 1989, State-President P.W. Botha, quivering from his stroke, has resigned before the TV cameras. Already the press joke is out: P.W. stood for Past World. Welcome Future World: new State-President F.W. de Klerk.

I live in Johannesburg in a crumbling, unrestored house, which I like doing because the surrounding mixed-race slum is so cosmopolitan. As it is the oldest house in the street, it is three times the size of any of the neighbours’ houses, and cost half the price. This is the suburb of Mayfair – shades of empire days – and Mayfair, which is packed between Oxford Street to the west and the Oriental Plaza to the east, even under old Past World was rumoured to be due to become the first ‘free settlement’ area in South Africa. It is still rumoured to be due to become a free settlement area. That means that ‘non-whites’ may under some new dispensation be able to purchase property here, which they do anyway in the hope that their stakes will eventually become legalised.

Thus I can hardly get my car into the public street without eager buyers pitching me prices out of all proportion. However, as a ‘white’ I have the right to choose to stay. And thus when a press photographer, who could have been yet another desperately crooked estate agent, stood outside taking his pictures, I drew the curtains and pretended there was no one at home.

Mine is less offensive behaviour than my predecessor’s. He was not noted for his good neighbourliness. When the plot above bored a hole in the wall to allow flashflood water to continue its natural course towards the Limpopo, he fired a shotgun through before blocking it off again. This warlike Portuguese also stripped the residence of many of its welcoming Edwardian features, erecting a mighty criss-cross ironwork fence, painted brown and black and white, to ward off trespassers.

The photographer, as far as I was concerned, could come back next year when I’d stripped down the fence in turn, in favour of a surrounding ten-foot wall with barbed-wire decoration. That is standard for Mayfair in Johannesburg, the home of South African crime. But he persisted at the doorbell. I opened, not to be churlish. Sweating with relief, he uttered: ‘Thank God this house is still owned by a “white” ’ – which I translate from his franker version in Afrikaans.

Did I know that the following day was Future World’s inauguration? I did, and resented the implication that liberal English-speakers remained detached from and ill-informed about the rites of Afrikaner succession. Their power has affected four decades of my life, too, not to mention those of all my non-voting fellow citizens. But did I not realise why he needed permission for his wretched photo? My den of Anglo-Saxon privacy was about to be reclaimed from me as part of the volk’s heritage. The new State President was actually born in this house, did I not know? (Fifty-three years before, when this was the pastoral home of his grandfather, dominie of the Dutch Reformed parish of Brixton.) This I had not realised. So I owned and had sweated to pay for the birthplace of Future World. That snap is now the first in an iconographic album commemorating the life of the man who brought perestroika to Pretoria.

What am I to do? Give guided tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or better still reconstruct the bay-window through which the poor white clientele on the pavement shoved bundles of home-grown carrots in return for spiritual counselling? Get myself declared a national monument and plaster the house’s original name back on the gable? Or go right back to 1916 when the hewn-stone foundations were first laid, deep and intractable in the veld, to resist the nightly tremors of the nearby mineshafts, the deepest in the world, that produced more gold than any others in the British Empire? Then the English settler, avoiding World War One, licensed this plot as no less than a chicken-farm.

My ‘new South African’ neighbours alongside – he is in costume jewellery – have made sweeping changes. They have converted a miner’s hovel into a pleasure palace, complete with indoor walk-in pink bubble-bath that seats six. The corrugated-iron roof has gone in favour of Italian tiles, and the green-polished veranda now has concrete Roman columns, villa-like.

Instead, while waiting to see what style will be appropriate in the new South Africa, I bought myself a TV. Normally there is not much joy in South African television, but it is useful to read for changes of the party line. Perhaps I should become more involved.

So, in the room in which the new State President undoubtedly learned to crawl, I had the strange experience of watching him take the biggest step yet in our history, on behalf of my friends and myself and everybody else: to acknowledge that apartheid was unworkable, had never worked, and never would. No mention of the lives of suffering it caused and still causes. The sitting of parliament was open, the challenge made. He meant it.

And, in the same room, where Future World undoubtedly cut his first tooth, a fortnight later we also saw that photo of Nelson Mandela and him together – the first photo of Mandela in 27 years. They were like two propped-up grandfathers, both smiling awkwardly at the camera. They were disposed as if we were to make a simple choice. Or was that first photo of the world’s most famous prisoner meant to tell us that it takes more than one to climb out of the ruins of our terrible past?

Now the other iconography is also being constructed. As on the following day – Sunday, 11 February – Nelson Mandela made his no easy walk out of prison, live on South African television, holding up scheduled programmes for hours on end, photographers fairly swarmed to his birthplace. So featureless is it in the Transkei that all they could come back with was a road sign: Qunu to the left, Umtata to the right. Without radio or other modes of communication the Mandela clansmen had not yet heard of the release the satellite dishes were beaming out to the rest of the world.

The Weekly Mail of Johannesburg quickly put out not one but two commemorative Mandela issues to celebrate. There his birthplace is described as ‘a bare and windswept site’ – an eroded plot, in fact, between a gravel quarry and a village soccer field. On the TV Mandela’s birthplace is orange by day, purple at dusk ... waiting for him to develop it into something monumental. Surely he will return there to visit his mother’s grave.

In Mayfair a procession of cars and minibuses stops for a second at the traffic lights outside, hooting, cheering, covered in African National Congress banners. At the nearby Grosvenor station, which handles a million commuters from Soweto a day, the Communist Party flag is flying. At the Apostolic church opposite, the last frightened white congregation of this part of the world nips in to pray, unable to do anything about the distractions. The only time the streets are empty is when Mandela speaks; everyone watches that.

As far as the birthplaces of political patriarchs are concerned, I have one of the pair’s in my control. As if that gave me any leverage! Yet friends who have as little access to power as I do nevertheless change their stances a bit once they’ve wiped the muck of the street off on the Welcome mat and enter here. At the frosted glass doorway is a Ndeb-ele beaded doll, upright, staring vacantly – more than my household goddess. Alongside is now a second, equally powerful doll. These are not for sticking pins into, as in the old voodoo, but for receiving offerings. The choice is the visitor’s. I recommend a little for both.

At night in this ghostly residence, when the De Klerk dynasty clears the table before the Art Deco fireplace in the old dining-room with its four chandeliers, I also now have the Mandelas taking their shift. The yard is full of slaughtered stock, the old Aga range going full-time. We the living have forgotten how to do what those old ghosts love: relishing a banquet for all, one that has not yet been held on earth. Many ancestors must be respected; we must learn from all of them. At Qunu a blessing, and also in slummy Mayfair, God help us all.

On second thoughts, maybe my many-roomed mansion should be done up another way. I’ve never much fancied heroes. Out with the Indian colonial bungaloid and the Birmingham pressed-steel; the plaster mouldings of diamonds in corduroy also go.

Functional it will be, and business-like ... with a rest-room in front, for mothers to nurture more powerful babies to save this land.