The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.

 

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You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

I don’t understand

Having travelled around Cuba for over a week staying in family homes or rather in rooms attached to homes, we spent two nights in a resort on an island (Cayo Santa Maria) connected to other islands and the mainland by a road, built for the purpose. All I can say is thank goodness there were as few people as there were – that was bad enough.

We’d been warned that food in Cuba wasn’t very good. Now we know why – although meals were a bit hit and miss elsewhere, the quality was better outside the resort. Intriguingly, the dishes which weren’t all that good outside were the best inside. I wonder how much the fact that things like lobster, shrimp and beef are restricted to tourists accounts for this?

What I don’t understand is why come all the way to Cuba to stay in a resort cut off from the local population, society and culture. And it’s not just Cuba – we have spent a night or two in similar set-ups at the start/end of holidays in The Gambia, where people ventured out to the local beach two minutes’ walk away to encounter the local touts. We did a ‘beach holiday’ early on after moving to the UK – we spent a Christmas in Tunisia. That in itself was fascinating. Two South Africans in a predominantly German-focused resort for a week. Three days in and we were chomping at the bit having seen all in the local neighbourhood.

What is it that attracts people to such places – where everybody tries to outlook the other in body or clothing (or lack thereof) lying in the sun turning the colour of lobster depending on your original skin colour, or developing a brown so dark you could be missed if standing amongst some trees. I can’t get my head around people wanting to sit in straight lines on lounges crammed up against each other in the only bit of shade available – either on a beach where if there’s only one line you do get to see the ocean, or around a swimming pool – with the music blearing.
Solace was found on the room balcony, looking into natural vegetation where the birds and cicadas dominated the music scene and not a person was to be seen.
The only consolation I have with a place such as this is the import duties which must be paid on the drinks and ‘Pringles’ brought in for those missing ‘home’ comforts and presumable, as the Cuban resort is government-owned and run, the money made from the residents in the resort helps keep other parts of the economy going.
But what irks is the inequality and the shutting off from reality.

In Tunisia, I remember the resorts being behind high walls, the locals working there having to travel miles on cramped buses to get to the set of six-foot walls which allowed them a basic standard of living. Somehow we found ourselves outside these high walls across from a local village – it was life at its rawest. Scrawny dogs and children ran around on stone ground littered with broken bottles and plastic packets. The houses across the road in the distance rickety wood and brick constructs barely able to stand upright, yet we were in beautiful (? the eye of the beholder) air-conditioned, brightly painted, stable buildings with bar, dining rooms and swimming pool.

Gambia was similar, although we were more used to the Sub-Saharan traditional African village way of life. The starkness though, of the two environments was still jarring.

In Cuba, it wasn’t clear if the staff stayed on the premises or if they travelled over 46 kilometres each way to get to and from work to the nearest town. If their accommodation is on site, I hope it’s better quality than the ‘squatter’ or shanty town development I spotted in the state run hotel/resort at Playa Largo – near Plaza Giron where the Bay of Pigs incident took place.

It shows how conditioned we get to our environments. In a couple of places we stayed – Trinidad and Playa Lago in particular, I wondered to myself what we had got ourselves into as we were driven down the dilapidated, dusty, pot-holed streets between run-down buildings and others being constructed. Only to stop outside the most recently renovated or colourful building on the street – luxury awaited. In Santa Clara, it was slightly different – down the main road through town to an exterior which reminded me of colonial buildings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi as well as in Moscow which had seen better days. Yet, again, behind a door, a library in a court-yard with air-conditioned comfort of city standards. In all these places, family life continued either in the residence or around, children playing with their parents, babies out and about at 9.30pm in bars and restaurants, barbers and hairdressers cutting hair on their verandahs or in their front rooms. A neighbour sticking her head in next door to ask for the TV volume to be turned down – all in good friendly nature. Another serving mohitjas from a grill which replaced their front window and when we asked to sit down were directed inside to tables just behind the grills. Grandad coming up to us, a towel wrapped around him telling us in Spanish there was a ‘banjos’ at the back where we could ‘pipi’. Priceless experiences missing from the ‘meat processing’ resorts.

(And hopefully now, those I was travelling with can understand why I was so grumpy for the last two days.)

A hot train

In the centre of Cuba lies a town called Santa Clara. Here, the revolutionaries under the guidance of Che Guevara derailed a train carrying military equipment and soldiers. In memory of this event, a museum has been created using the train wagons captured on the day. Inside each closed wagon, a part of the story is told. Visiting this at 4pm, when we thought things would be cooler, proved how much we underestimated the heat.

A step inside the first wagon, was a step into pure airlessness and I couldn’t help my mind wondering to another train derailment – that by the Germans of the British line in Tsavo in 1915. And whilst writing this yet another sprung to mind – the derailment of the Whisky Train near Val during the Anglo-Boer War. The soldiers in all were in an unenviable position and stood no chance against those ambushing the train.

An intriguing feature in another Cuban wagon, one pock-marked with bullet shots, contained a section inside showing how the wagon was protected. A board was placed around the inside of the train and between that and the outer casing, sea sand was poured in. This created a protective layer which deflected the bullets as evidenced by the marks on the side of the wagon. It’s unlikely the trains in Tsavo had such protection but similarly, Batiste’s army hadn’t realised the value of having a wagon or two at the front of the train to provide a buffer for mines and to lure hidden gunmen into giving themselves away.

While there was much fraternising when the contents of the whisky train were offloaded, there was little in the Cuban scenario. Guerrilla fighting continued in the town as evidenced by the bullet holes in the walls across the road from the 1726 church. Apparently the rebels moved through the houses and scaled down walls from the second storeys in order to make it difficult for Batiste’s soldiers to hit them.
The final wagon was dedicated to the women who had served the revolution. Interestingly all the info was only available in Spanish – this was the case for all the wagons except the first overview one and those showing weapons and the bullet marks (is this what most English speaking visitors are interested in?).

One thing I found intriguing in all the places we’ve visited in Cuba is the absence of AK-47s – weapons of choice (used) by the Angolans and Umkomto uSizwe during the struggles in southern Africa. The rebels had very few weapons, hence the need to derail a supply train. But what was rather startling – with the Bay of Pigs incident was that the invading army (Batiste’s men) were using 1897 and 1903 US weapons: this in 1961 and it has generally been regarded that the 1870 black smoke rifles used in 1914/18 Africa were outdated! One almost got the impression that the Americans did not expect Batiste’s men to be successful and so set them up to fail with poor quality weapons. The absence of Russian weapons for use by the rebels suggests that this relationship only developed after Castro and the rebels were successful and by all accounts the derailing of the train in Santa Clara was the turning point which saw the rebels gather support and succeed.

It’s cultural – masculinity

In a conversation with Cuban artist Vladimir Rodriguez at his studio in Cienfugos, Cuba, the topic of masculinity came up as we were taking our leave. We’d spent some time talking to him and on leaving he gave us a Cuban farewell – a kiss on each cheek. Looking at my husband he said ‘and one for you too. Here in Cuba, showing emotion and men hugging each other is a sign of masculinity, not with all the connotations it has in America and Britain. Handshakes are also more gentle – not a showing off of power.’

How refreshing!

Recently reading Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Johannesburg, the same point was raised. African men don’t cry says one of the ANC stalwarts to his young mixed-race nephew. When the young lad witnesses two men in a relationship, his mother cleverly guides him along the lines of respect for people rather than the social/moral rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships. It’s often struck me rather odd to say ‘Boys don’t cry’, as it’s not a manly thing to do, yet often you will see black African men walking down the road fingers interlocked. I’ve seen this in south, central and east Africa. In no way is this intimacy a sign of sexual preference – it’s a sign of friendship, trust and being comfortable with one another. In Africa, and as recently discovered in Cuba, touching and showing emotion is far more natural than in Europe and particularly Britain and America. Where people in Africa do keep apart such as in Tanzania, where holding hands and kissing is a ‘no-no’, it’s been the result of religious teachings.
Why is it in these hotter climate territories, men are more affectionate than in places where it’s colder? Naturally one would assume, at least I do, that colder temperatures would lead to more physical contact in order to keep warn, yet it’s the other way round.

In this increasingly global community where cultures are mixing more – I wonder which masculinity is going to win through. I certainly hope it’s one which shows more respect and empathy for others, irrespective of strength and power. What’s also rather fascinating in connection with this topic, comparing Cuban men to white South African men in general (I distinguish here as this is the dominant culture I have experienced), is that Cuban men are more gentle than the white South Africans who tend to be more ‘macho’ – both groups in question having had compulsory military service – some Cubans having served in Angola against South Africa in the 1980s. Military training is therefore not a great determining factor in the formation of the macho male identify – there is something else at play…

Sheep

This arrived in my inbox this morning as I was trying to decide what to share. It reminded me of our trip through Calvinia, a few years back now, when we discovered they have an annual sheep counting competition as part of the Hantam festival. Here’s what happened in 2011 (in English) for those interested. This could be a bit of a challenge for those suffering from insomnia if there are such limited opportunities to ‘count sheep’. There are some opportunities in Australia too by the looks of things and New Zealand have taken Counting Sheep to new levels – a little more accessible in this format.

I rather like sheep, along with cows, pigs, camels, elephants and warthogs (not necessarily in that order). And this week, two South African-made sheep made it into our garden. They’d been waiting in-doors for the English summer. (For anyone interested, they don’t know how many breeds of sheep there are anymore – too much interbreeding?). I first developed a liking for sheep back in 1995 when I first visited the UK and noticed that the sheep in England had longer faces than those in SA. (I shall resist the temptation of expanding on long and fat faces in the current political climate of both countries). I recall Geography lessons at school where we were taught about fat-tailed Merino sheep living in the Karoo (ie the Calvinia area). I think we covered sheep farming as often in Geography as we did ‘die Groot Trek’ (Great Trek) and the Boer War in History. For some reason, I took a liking to the sheep whilst reluctantly developing an interest in the last two subjects because of their implications in a post-Union SA.

Sheep were not indiginous to South Africa and for those looking to expand their knowledge on this front, the famous Farmer’s Weekly has just the article. This year marks the 200th anniversary of successful merino farming in SA, although the sheep were first introduced in 1789. For those mining in Kimberly, getting lamb was relatively straightforward in the days before supermarkets and freezers. However, it was a bit more of a challenge on the Tranvaal gold fields, until cold storage was developed (article 1, 2). Sir David Graaff played an important role in developing storage facilities, both by rail and on the sea.

And for those who love eating lamb, perhaps Iceland requires a visit – it’s the main red meat on that island.

 

A royal encounter (or three)

I missed the Queen’s Christmas broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Day, but managed to catch it on YouTube later that day. Isn’t technology wonderful? Then a few days later, looking for something else, I came across this documentary Cue the Queen: Celebrating the Christmas Speech  covering nearly 100 years of royal broadcasts. Sitting and watching the Queen’s speech is a very British thing to do but an important part of the speech is the Queen’s link with the Commonwealth, an institution she is fond of and which is important to its members. And in case you question the significance of the Commonwealth, I recall South Africa being really chuffed at joining the Commonwealth again after the 1994 elections brought about the end of Apartheid. Also, more recently Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique joined the Commonwealth making a break with the tradition that it only include what were British imperial territories.

The Commonwealth evolved out of what was the British Empire. Given how African countries regard the Commonwealth, I wonder how the current de-colonising movement reconciles itself with the idea of Commonwealth or does it reject the institution too?

The term Empire conjures up bad and good images depending on your experience and reading, the same with the term Commonwealth and even Monarchy.

In the same way the Queen and her institutions such as the OBE are criticised or welcomed, there are royal practices elsewhere which evoke similar responses.

A recent trip to Rwanda happened to co-incide with one by the King of Morocco. This would have gone by unnoticed except for the fact that the conference centre, opened earlier this year, was decked out in green and red (not ideal for colour-blind sufferers) and that significant roads were closed – one for a whole day and another, the next day for about an hour. The first menat we had to detour in a city not too well known, whilst the second saw us caught in a shopping centre parking lot for the entire time the road was closed. Someone came past to tell us the King of Morocco was visiting the bank he was buying (I haven’t tried to verify this purchase).

I have no issue with such visits, and royalty and other significant people have a right to travel and do business, but do they have a right, without warning to the locals to disrupt business in this way? I later heard the disruptions had been notified through the press – but not all of us read Kinyarwandan…Someone else mentioned that this hadn’t been too bad. The King of Jordan’s visit saw the whole city centre shut off for a week!

And it’s not just Rwanda. We’ve had to wait for two hours on a Ghanaian motorway for the President’s cavalcade to pass by and similarly in Tanzania, we’ve been virtually pushed off the road pending a diplomatic fly-by on tar… eventually. Closer to home, in London, I recall getting very frustrated when teaching as I had to wait at the traffic lights on the A4 for some diplomat or other ‘important’ person to pass by… eventually… before I could get into the college to educate the next generation. And I have to remind myself that the police cordon I had to cross in November 2004 to do my viva was not because George Bush was passing through but rather to keep the protesters from blocking the roads in protest at his visit.

You’d be forgiven if you thought by now that I am anti-monarchy. I’m not, I’m afraid. One of my fondest memories is the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip to the Bank of England when I worked there – the Duke did his walk-about on our side of the welcome gathering and enquired why we’d left our desks to come and see him and the Queen. He was sure we had more important things to do. This was followed by a ‘Thank you for coming to see us though.’ A gentle acknowledgement that there was more to life… Admission time: I’m  a sucker for pomp and ceremony (a form of escapism?) but in its place and time and that doesn’t extend to interfering with the economy or education. In this day and age when equality is being promoted and the safety of leaders is potentially under greater threat than in previous years (a statement open for debate), surely keeping a low profile and blending in is called for?

One of the striking comments in the documentary on the Queen’s Christmas Speech was towards the end when after hosting a huge banquet, she quietly made her way to a train to arrive the next morning in time for her next engagement. No fuss or bother. Given her time on the throne and extent of her reign across countries, I for one hope the Queen has secretly written an autobiography or reflection on her years in office which will eventually be published – it would be another facet in the incredible diamond we call history. It would also, by default, explore how the monarchy has changed and possibly include reasons for the change.

People in leadership positions are doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t. I can’t help but think of how Jan Smuts was viewed during his command of the forces in East Africa in 1916 – some loved him and felt he did the right thing being in the frontlines with the men, whilst others felt he should have stayed at headquarters and commanded from there. There are possibly more similarities between the Queen’s behaviour today and that of Smuts in East Africa than what we see with most African leaders (President Magafule appears to be an exception).

On the pragmatic side, while we are forced to have these ‘time outs’, it’s worth considering why we insist on rushing around, filling every minute with doing something. My world didn’t end and students were still ready for their exams despite all the time I’ve given to waiting for royalty (formal and informal) to pass to who knows where. And it gives us something to talk (or complain) about.