I can’t believe how long it has been since my last post and I’d been doing so well having one a week. The simple reason (or excuse) is that life just got too busy with my new publishing venture, part of which includes GWAA now publishing. Spending a month in South Africa added its own complexities to the situation but what a month of encounters it proved to be.
It was quite depressing reading that the country is, according to the World Bank, the lowest on the equality rankings with the gap between rich and poor being the greatest of the countries the World Bank assesses. Also, whilst meeting people across the racial spectrum in the Gauteng area, it became apparent that not only is the economic gap huge, but so is the racial gap in the realms of employment and official positions. There is only black and other – no fifty shades of any colour. BUT despite this negativity, the people I encountered (including those in official capacities), irrespective of racial background were as open and relaxed in ways I hadn’t yet experienced in South Africa, but had in other African countries. It appears the political and social divide is also on the increase. (It made me think of our trip to Mongolia a number of years ago when we were told that the people don’t care about what happens in the political realm – they let the politicians get on with their games and just live life the way they always have. It’s probably easier to do so in a sparsely populated territory than in built up areas where people are living on top of each other.)
There had been a fair bit of concern that the election was going to result in violent outbursts – just my luck. Having been in Britain for Brexit, I was now in SA for the earth-shattering local elections. For both leading parties, neither vote went the way they expected, and having experienced the after effects of both, the people of South Africa have stood by each other in a way I haven’t yet experienced post-Brexit-vote.
On a more personal level, it was wonderful meeting up with colleagues at conferences and talks which I was involved in. The range of topics and approaches followed being refreshing: at least on this front the gap between military, social, political and other history (other than gender) is reducing. Travelling to and from the events was an eye opener. It showed how dependent one becomes on having sisters etc cart one around – having driven the roads of Johannesburg by myself regularly over 20 years ago and despite visiting it every year since, getting behind the wheel by myself and having to navigate the area proved a challenge and eye-opener.
My most incredible experience was early on missing the turn-off onto the motorway and ending up in Hillbrow – initially I wasn’t concerned. My early dating days with my husband had been in this part of Johannesburg, my sister regularly travelled through parts of it with me accompanying her to work or other events, so I felt confident I knew where I was. What I didn’t count on was Friday night traffic, the sun going down at 6.30pm, the reconfigured landscape after years of re-development and entering at a place I hadn’t been before. Now, being a lone white woman in a predominantly black area, with the reputation of Hillbrow, is not somewhere you would want to find yourself. And to top it up, I ended up on a side road, packed with taxis stopped in various positions across three lanes of traffic, car doors opening all over the place and having to drive in zig-zag fashion at walking speed. Horror story time… Time to think logically… get off the side road and back onto the bigger road where traffic was flowing. It’s Friday night and people just want to get home – they don’t care about me and as long as I look confident as though I know where I’m headed, don’t take out my mobile phone to consult Google Maps, I’ll be fine. And so it was. Heading in roughly the directions I thought I should be, I found some street names I recognised and arrived home after two hours (a journey which should have taken 45 minutes).
The remainder of the journey through Johannesburg was one of quiet reflection and observation – how certain areas made me feel more tense than others, was there a link between the amount of rubbish lying on the side of the road or not? Why/how was it that certain blocks were absolutely spotless with people sweeping the streets and pavements whilst almost across the road, the next few blocks were filthy? How many buildings which had been office blocks are now accommodation – bright gaudy colours with washing hanging out the windows and the extent to which bank headoffices had expanded. It’s clearly a city of contrasts.
Not to be outdone, I had to drive through Germiston – Rand Refinery looking resplendent* (1922 photo) having recently had a paint make-over contrasted with the derelection of the remainder of Germiston and opposite what was before an active mine, a squatter camp (I was told these are now officially ‘informal settlements’). Driving past this settlement, one which has a reputation for not being safe (a friend was killed there a good number of years ago dropping off a colleague), I entered a cloud of darkness – the smoke from the fires covered the road so thickly, you could hardly see 2 meters in front even with headlights on. It reminded me of descriptions of London which Charles Dickens wrote about. Past the traffic lights (robots they’re called in SA), and the air was clear again. Boksburg was next on the way, and instead of going round the outside, I thought I’d take in the old CBD (Central Business District). This was my home town. The old women’s prison is now a refuge for children and young adults (this had been the base for General van Deventer when dealing with the 1922 strike; and had seen the last women hanged in 1952). The Town Hall in its pink paint and red brick was looking cleaner than it had for years and although the war memorial had no copper left on it, it and the cannons were looking in a pretty healthy state compared to a previous visit. Vibrancy was evident even at 7pm on a Friday night in an area which would have shut down in pre-1994 years.
And so my visit went on. Encounters with the past and the present. Light and dark moments – both sides of the same coin.
On the research front, discovering death registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) proved a huge excitement – the stories we can glean from these meticulously kept records, including the discharge and desertion registers, will be invaluable to understanding another aspect of the First World War in Africa, and in particular South Africa’s role. Watch this space, as well as the new GWAA medical project, for more on these registers.
No doubt, you’ll be reading about other encounters on this South African trip in future posts, but my experience of ‘getting lost’ in Hillbrow will no doubt stay with me for a while. On the light side of Hillbrow, I have heard (and seen) it is being cleaned up: the residents are reclaiming their rights and their streets. I wish them well – Hillbrow is one of the hearts that is South Africa.
*looking for a photo of Rand Refinery today (doesn’t seem to be one), I found this link which has the old Johannesburg drive-in on top of a mine-dump. Together with colleagues in 1992 we used to run up and round the drive-in at lunch-time.