In and Out of Africa

Three Months In Johannesburg

We had now arrived in South Africa, a vast nation as rich in natural resources, and cultures as it is in controversy. The wedding, catalyst for this whole crazy undertaking, was still two and a half months away. Our early arrival forced a change in pace, from rushing headlong through Africa, desperately seeking somewhere peaceful and relaxing with a supply of Landrover brake parts, we came to a dead stop. Our timing could have been a lot worse though.

"Where is the best man?", "I don't know, he left home months ago and should have arrived by now!". As everyone starts looking nervously at their watches a Landrover plows through the church doors, the brakes finally giving in completely at that very moment. Out of the cab leaps a scruffy looking individual with a shaved head in a muddy 'T' shirt and torn Rohan trousers. "Sorry I'm late, got a little delayed in a large Zaire pothole". Everyone starts to relax, until. "...with the exchange of rings". "Oh no! I left it in England.

Both Fiona and myself had been looking forward to South Africa and we were intending to stay for a year or so. This is a land of opportunity and now was, perhaps, the right time to be here. A few years previously I left University with a degree in Geological Sciences, which has always been a fundamental interest in my life. When I graduated the worldwide economic recession of the early '80's had finally hit oil exploration. There was almost no employment available for graduate geologists, except in South Africa. In those days I was young, foolish and had a political conscience and made a noble decision. I stayed in England and learned how to program computers instead. Pete made a different decision. We had the same passion for geology, a similar moral viewpoint and yet made wildly different decisions. Mine was based on a mass of anti-apartheid rhetoric, his on a field season in South Africa.

Now that the spectre of apartheid had been lifted from the country I had no longer any intellectual reason not to live and work in South Africa. Maybe I could make up for lost time and return to my intended career path. Fiona had friends here and also wanted to live and work away from home for a while. Our funds were now reaching a serious low point and looking for a semi permanent job was high on our list of priorities.

Our first priority though was getting the clothes into a real washing machine and onto a real clothes line, closely followed by the purchase of a large bar of chocolate. Pete and Michelle took us to the Carlton Centre in the city centre, which has a large tourist shopping centre. We were happy just to wander around the Mall looking into real shops with a selection of goods at marked fixed prices. It was several weeks before we stopped being excited merely by the thought of a shopping centre and another couple of weeks after that before we took them for granted again.

Johannesburg is a large modern city with little soul., city of gold. From the top of the Carlton tower you can still city laid out before you. THe utilitarian grid pattern of streets show that this is a city with a purpose and no time to waste. The spoil heaps from the mines, brown and sterile, are a reminder of what that purpose is. Gold. This is a City whose purpose is to generate wealth, as fast as possible, from some of the richest and deepest Gold mines in the world. Only recently has any attempt been made to clear away these piles of waste, as if any effort not directed purely to the extraction of the Gold itself was a waste. The wealth has been made largely possible by the use of cheap labour in the form of black Africans. Poor though these wages might have been in the past they still represented wealth to the poor migrant workers who came here to work in the mines. This is the social paradox of South Africa today. In their haste to reap the riches of the nation the European Africans encouraged Black Africans to uproot from their homes in surrounding lands and provide cheap labour in the search for gold and diamonds. Now they represent about 75% of the population and are quite rightly demanding a voice in government. Over the last century the Afrikaaners and the British have been happy to exploit the mineral and human wealth of Southern Africa with little regard for the future of either. The improving wages in the mines and the gradual removal of the spoil heaps are both, perhaps, part of the changing attitudes in the new South Africa. A time of hope and uncertainty for all of the people of South Africa.

Having washed the clothes and bought the chocolate we could start going to interviews. There were plenty of permanent jobs available for people with our qualifications, especially as many qualified people seemed to be quietly leaving the country. The main problem was convincing the prospective employers that we were going to stay.

During the first week it became increasingly difficult to give that assurance. Tension hung like a fog over Johannesburg, the rapid break up of apartheid had made both whites and blacks uncertain of their future and of their position in society. Violent crime was on the increase, fuelled by uncertainty and mistrust. On the second night I realise that Pete owned a handgun for self protection. He had bought it the second time thieves broke into the house. The hollow nose bullets were even more disturbing. For nearly a century the Geneva convention has considered this type of bullet unsuitable for use in wartime yet these were supplied with the gun.

Houses, like many throughout Africa, were generally surrounded by high walls. Here the tops were adorned with razor wire instead of broken glass and adorned with cheerful signs saying "24 hour armed response". The security companies which performed this service were, indeed, heavily armed with pump action shotguns and assault rifles. The walls made the middle class white suburban townships seem more like prison camps than desirable residences. From a background where we can usually lean over the boundary fence to talk to our neighbours we found this all very oppressive.

This casual acceptance of guns as a part of life was also extremely unnerving, even more so than being confronted by drunk border guards with AK47s. At one of the job interviews I was asked what I thought of South Africa. I told the interviewer that I found the guns unnerving. "I have lived in South Africa for fifteen years and have never felt the need to own a gun", he said, "but I'm thinking of getting one now". Near the end of the first fortnight I was offered an interesting and highly paid job, provided I could give them an assurance that I'd stay with the company for at least a year. It was no longer possible for me to give that assurance. I turned the job down.

We now had the task of finding temporary work for three months. This proved to be even harder. The kind of casual labour which normally sustains travellers, fuel station attendants, bar staff, supermarket checkout, building sites, seasonal agriculture, was all taken by an inexhaustible pool of cheap labour. After nearly a month of supermarket food prices we were just about to head off to somewhere cheaper and warmer, like Zimbabwe or Malawi when Fiona managed to get some temporary secretarial work. This allowed us to stay in Johannesburg until the wedding. Although there were minor problems like cashing the pay cheques. As non South African residents, without a work permit between us, we weren't theoretically allowed to open a bank account. Eventually, on the pretext of wanting to cash all our travellers cheques at once and promising faithfully not to break any currency laws the bank manager relented and allowed us to open an account.

We were beginning to feel more like people now. All we needed was somewhere cheap to stay for a couple of months. There is an organisation in South Africa called the 'house sitters service'. They arrange for respectable people who are looking for short term accommodation to look after a house while the owners are away. This sounded tailor made for us, the perfect setup, and we were responsible people used to looking after a household without servants, what more could they ask for? It soon transpired that a little more notice was required, their waiting list was about six months long, by which time we would be gone. They said they would try but after a fortnight we began to despair. Our next option was a campsite. Every town in South Africa has a large well municipal campsite. Every town that is, except Johannesburg. The caravan sites had either closed or had no room. There seems to be a group of South Africans who live semi permanently in caravan sites, some of these caravans have complicated awnings and rival small houses in floor space. These seemed to an alternative squatter camps for the Whites. These were all completely full except for one which had a spare caravan. This looked remarkably like it would collapse at any moment. The roof was obviously great friends with the rain and would happily invite it into the house if it ever asked. The fridge was kept outside the caravan, because there was too little room inside. There was a huge padlock on the fridge door, it wasn't clear if this was to keep out human, or rodent residents. It was hardly surprising that this one caravan was empty in the whole of Johannesburg. We would be better off taking the tent off the roof and erecting it on the ground. There was, of course, no spare room.

The Plot
The Plot
After a couple of weeks of looking at full campsites and hearing nothing from the house sitting people we were beginning to get desperate. Then Michelle remembered that her uncle had an 'office' on a plot on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The building had been intended as a pair of small flats but no one had ever moved in. Dick ran a building contractor business, mainly building schools in Soweto. He kept miscellaneous building materials and equipment at the Lanseria plot. One of the flats was being used as an office for plot, the other was being used as a furniture store for another relative who had just returned from Botswana but hadn't yet claimed their furniture. We moved into the furniture store and, after moving most of the furniture into one of the other rooms we had one room, with beds, a television, cooker and even a shower with hot running water. Luxury indeed.

There were always people at the plot. Some of the workers lived there permanently in a couple of prefabricated iron huts. There was also a guard who opened and closed the gate for us (there was only one key). Every evening the truck would come back from Soweto with any building equipment or material which was not solidly concreted into the schools. Anything not welded into place, no matter how large, would not still be there in the morning. We now had a roof over our heads on a secure plot in the countryside.

Fiona worked about a twenty minute drive away, fortunately on the same side of town as the plot. June, a friend of ours from New Zealand, would be arriving the week before the wedding and we would be heading off for a six week tour of Southern Africa together. It was almost as if we were marking time waiting for the wedding and the resumption of our travels. My days were spent preparing the truck for the next round of travels. The first task was finding out what was wrong with the brakes. In the final analysis the answer was, everything. The rear brake hydraulic cylinders were leaking, which was causing the warning light to come on. These are housed within the rear brake drums so the leak was not easy to spot. New cylinders would have been prohibitively expensive in South Africa and, although they really required replacement, we could only afford to repair the rubber seals. The rear brake pads were also worn down to the rivets. These had been brand new before we left England. In the trip down we had worn out a complete set of front and rear brake pads and were well on the way to wearing out another set of front ones. The master cylinder also needed reconditioning. Finally the light didn't come on and the brakes worked. No longer would we have to bleed the air out of the hydraulic system every other day. By the end of the experience I knew much more about braking systems than I had before. The rear shock absorbers were also worn out and needed replacing. Apart from that the truck was in pretty good shape. The tyres still had enough tread and the engine was running well, although unhappy about the thin dry air of the Johannesburg plateau. Other pieces of equipment needed renovation but on the whole everything had stood up well to the test.

Meanwhile Fiona finally persuaded the men in the office that she was also a capable computer programmer. She finished off writing a database system which a previous employee had failed to complete. All this and she could answer the telephones too! We might not have been shattering any stereotypes between us but we surely made a few dents and cracks. Travel is about learning from new cultures and perhaps, teaching a little too. When one is in another persons culture it is not really appropriate to force ones opinions on those around you. However it is the simplest things which are likely to get you into the most trouble. In shops we would move out of the way to let a black person pass. Perfectly common courtesy in our part of the world. Here the black person would often look at us with suspicion. In one shop a black assistant filled our can with kerosene for the stove. When he brought it back out from the back of the shop I said 'Thank you". The man looked embarrassed and the shopkeeper and all the other shoppers looked at me with horror. Please, thank you and excuse me are not words which have traditionally been used when dealing with black people. This will change, along with many other attitudes, as South Africa moves towards a more open and equal society. This will take time though, just like it has done in the Southern United States of America over the last thirty years. It is all too easy to criticise a situation which one doesn't fully understand. All the South African peoples are locked into three centuries of status quo. It will take a long time for attitude to readjust, both black and white. The next decade will be a very interesting time in South Africa. It will is important that the rest of the world, so keen to bestow sanctions on a nation, are now prepared to help all the people of that nation to grow together for the good of all.

The Indians from Malawi were also in Johannesburg and we took the opportunity to visit them. Yussuf and Naziha live in what is known as a 'grey area'. This is one of the parts of Johannesburg where the restrictions on race had been lifted less than two years ago. Now anyone could live there regardless of race colour or creed. The area had a healthy cosmopolitan air about it, much less oppressive than the walled white townships we had seen so far. It was a pleasant change to walk straight up to their front door, without having to pass through gates with barbed wire tops.

They took us to visit the others, who live in the Indian township of Lenasia. The part of Lenasia we visited was a pleasant middle class suburb with BMW's and Mercedes parked outside many of the houses. The gardens were well tended and could be seen over the low, razorwire free, walls.

This time the circumstances of our meeting were much more pleasant than when we first met just over a month ago. Now they all seemed to be well on the way to recovery, at this point in time Abdulla's foot was in an external support frame and showed every sign of recovering completely. The others still had aches and pains but no other legacies of the experience.

We visited the Indians several times during our stay and they showed us another side of South Africa. There are 32.5 million people in South Africa. 22 million are black, 5 million are white, 2.5 million are 'coloured' and 1.5 million are Indians. No new non-white immigrants have been allowed into South Africa since the 1940's so the majority of the Indian population are second or third generation South Africans. In the racial tension of South Africa the Indians are caught between the whites and blacks. They are generally more affluent than the average black in South Africa, which does not increase their popularity with these people. Yet the privileged position open to whites under apartheid was not extended to the Indians. Until very recently an Indian could not stay overnight in the Orange Free State. This made crossing the country on a bicycle rather a risky occupation for an Indian. They weren't, for instance, allowed into drive in movies as these are almost exclusively in white areas where non-whites were not allowed after dark without a special dispensation. In fact driving across town to Lenasia would not have been allowed a few years before. When the government of South Africa changes to a more democratic form the group which has most to lose are the Indians. They have little power to control their own destiny under the old system and will be very much a minority group in any future parliament. Let us hope South Africa never falls under the regime of a leader like Idi Amin.

High on the central South African plateau Johannesburg has a pleasant, although dry, climate. Winter is a season of cloudless skies and, although it can get cold and frosty at night, the days are pleasantly warm. In the summer the weather is hot with the evenings broken by impressive thunder storms. Nearby in Pretoria there is a world renowned lightning research establishment. This is an ideal place for this study as Pretoria has probably the most lightening strikes of any city in the world.

During the summer South Africans, like people in amenable climates often do, spend a lot of time outside drinking beer at 'braais'. A braai is a local variation of the barbecue. As usual this type of cuisine is almost exclusively cooked by men, for some reason it seems to be assumed that women can't understand how to cook on an open flame. Having lived in New Zealand for several years I thought I was quite familiar with Barbeques. The great australasian 'barbie' usually involves meat/sausages, salads and bread rolls to put it in. The people who do the cooking generally pride themselves in their ability to achieve a perfectly controlled heat, not so hot that the food is charred but hot enough to cook the meat thoroughly. Often people will spend an hour or more preparing the barbie, getting the right mix of charcoal and wood for the perfect heat before placing the meat on the grill. The braai is not the same. There is always plenty of huge cuts of meat and strange spicy (and in fact rather tasty) sausages, called Vors, which come as one long sausage in a coil. The meat is often marinated overnight in a mixture of herbs, spices and wine or Coca Cola, to make it tender. It is then cooked on an open fire and eaten in a bread roll. Here the similarity ends. First there is always a jug of water on the floor next to the braai. This puzzled me at first but its use soon became apparent. Salads are not considered appropriate and will be left uneaten if any foolish foreigners spend ages preparing them. The approved method of cooking is to build up an incredibly large fire, using as much charcoal as possible, until the braai is glowing a dull red colour and beginning to warp and possibly melt in places. Then the meat and Vors is thrown on top, producing amazing pyrotechnics as the fat melts and bursts into flames before it has reached the coals. The jug of water is then thrown onto the Braai to cool down the inferno, causing the metal to give off tortured screams, occasionally twisting involuntarily and casting food to the eagerly waiting dogs. When the resultant clouds of steam finally part the charred and steamed meat is placed in a bun and consumed. Surprisingly the results are edible and, sometimes, rather nice.

During our time in Johannesburg we had all of the comforts of home, including a television. This meant we could catch up on world news, or rather every other day we could catch up. Three days a week the news was in English and the other four it was in Afrikaans. On those days all we could do was watch the pictures and listen to the few clips where the person being interviewed spoke English. Many of the local television programs were also in Afrikaans, or more frequently different parts were spoken in whichever language was appropriate. For example, in a historical drama about the gold rush, the English spoke English, the Boer farmers spoke Afrikaans and the Black Africans spoke whatever local dialect they felt happiest with. There were no subtitles and it was assumed that all the characters could understand each other and that all the people watching could understand everything too.

The three months until the wedding raced by. As well as all the preparations for the main event, like preparing the marquee for the garden, fence painting and organising a cake with a pop-up semi naked woman, there were old friends to meet and several Braais to go to and pools to swim in. Talking by the pool with Fiona's friends Alfred and Adrienne, invited to lunch by some kiwi's while parked in the street or sitting outside the 'Irish' pub, drinking cold beer in the sun with Liette, Paula and Martin, it was hard to imagine a better place to be. Pleasant friends and summer began to erode the initial feelings of oppression. However the violence seemed to get closer with each passing day. In every nation the news media sensationalise violence and it is easy to believe that the streets in ones home town are not safe. In reality I have always found that the number of people I actually know who have been the victims of violent crime is much lower than the media implies. In Johannesburg everyone knew someone close to them who had been the victim of a violent crime. A woman was found decapitated in a car, she was a close relative of one of the people Fiona worked with, one of the Indians was held up at gunpoint at an autobank machine "Give me the money and the car keys", they handed over the money and keys. Some youths were rolling truck tyres down the embankment onto the highway causing accidents and some fatalities, we drove past that embankment every day. Violence, in a form I could neither control, prevent or defend against, was now much more of an everyday thing than ever before. This was however nothing compared to the risk to life and limb posed by South African drivers, especially the ones in BMW's or Mercedes and Transvaal number plates. Considering that the only vehicles the road where BMW's, Mercedes, Volkswagen CITI Golfs, black minibus taxis or Toyota 4x4's, this made driving an interesting experience. They seemed to consider it imperative to have open road in front or them, after all a vehicle less than a metre in front can really block the view of the road. Leaving a gap of more than a metre to the vehicle in front was, of course, out of the question. Overtaking is a manoeuvre which must be performed at the first available opportunity. An overtaking opportunity is defined as being any time when you can't actually see a car coming the other way. This situation could arise in several ways, a) if the road is straight, clear and there is nothing coming the other way, b) you are approaching a bend where the oncoming traffic is completely obscured, c) you have your eyes closed or d) you are travelling less than a metre behind an enormous slow moving Landrover with a roof-tent on top.

The first few heart stopping times we were overtaken in this fashion were somewhat nerve racking. Especially as driving a huge Landrover gives a commanding view of the inevitable vehicle coming the other way. Of course the vehicle coming the other way has right of way, being on their correct side of the road and will absolutely not slow down to avoid a collision. This left it up to me to brake and allow the overtaking vehicle in. This was a very risky business, especially as a) I hadn't fixed the brakes yet and b) there would already be another BMW a metre behind the truck. Later we were all driving back in the dark from Pretoria. The bride, the groom, the brides brother, sister and various assorted squishy cakes were arranged on loose cushions in the back of the Landrover. Ahead was a stream of about twenty cars heading towards us, in my mirror I could see a queue of several cars behind us. It was dark so they couldn't see the cars coming towards us. I expected the first car to pass, even though there was far too little room, and was already slowing down as it started to pass. The second car caught me by surprise and the third was a complete shock. I hit the brakes hard, several passengers and squishy cakes bounced around in the back of the truck and the car squeezed through the gap with less than a foot to spare. "I see you've fixed the brakes", Pete said.
"Er, yes", I stammered. The gap represented the extra stopping power of the repaired brakes and the "Family in tragic car crash on eve of wedding" headline was averted.

To make maters worse the black taxis would also behave erratically and would either pull out into the road without looking or rapidly pull over to the side of the road without signalling if there was anyone within 100 metres who might be a potential passenger.

To be fair the South African drivers were completely predictable in their behaviour. A BMW would overtake on a blind bend and a person near the road side would cause the taxi to pull over. After a while one became accustomed to the dangers driving in the Transvaal became a predictable and calculated risk. Very much like every other aspect of life in South Africa.

Our friend June, another Kiwi finally arrived a week before the wedding, she was to accompany us on a lightning tour of Southern Africa before we all returned home to New Zealand. Her arrival meant only a couple of more Braais before we left Johannesburg. One of those Braais was Pete's stag night and I went along prepared with some meat, bowls of salad, a hastily constructed ball and chain made of a plastic ball cock filled with water and a rather special cake. The ball and chain was a great success, although I couldn't quite get the hang of pouring the water on the Braai at the right time and someone else ended up cooking the meat. Then came the time for speeches. I presented Pete with the cake. He leant over the top, looking at curious bulge in the icing. "I'd, er, stand back if I was you", I said. "Why, is a girl going to pop out or something?", he replied. I pulled the release chord and the small, semi naked barbie doll popped out of the top of the cake much to Pete's surprise. At least he didn't have too much to explain to Michelle the next day... Much cake was consumed (it had to be quite large to contain an entire barbie doll and rubber band release mechanism), more beer and Vors and the salad remained almost untouched. A good time was had by all. Then followed the wedding. Pete looked nervous in his top hat and tails, Michelle wasn't late for the church and all the people who were supposed to cry cried and I didn't lose the ring. It rained at the reception, as is required at all the best weddings, although only lightly and it waited until after the photographs when everyone was undercover. Again just like the best weddings. Speeches were made which contained mildly embarrassing jokes mainly at the grooms expense and dancing went on into the night.

The next day the happy couple were off to Malawi for their honeymoon and everything had to be taken down and cleared away. We decided to take this opportunity to have a last beer in the sun at the Irish pub with Liette before heading off into the wilds again. Tomorrow we would be once again rushing through Africa on a tight schedule. This time the pressure being June's plane, which would leave in seven weeks whether we had returned or not.