February 02, 2006

Travel Report: Apartheid geography in South Africa today

Follow-up to Travel Report: Eating mud in the Karoo from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

1) Meteorology

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The land of southern Africa is more clearly than most the product of an ongoing confluence and dissipation of flows, both great and minor. Two ocean currents run into its coastline: the cold Benguela from the west and the warm Agulhas from the east. Pulled with them are the streams of weather and humanity that determine the fate and fortunes of both the coast and the interior.

As with most flows, obstacles are met with. They act to deflect, cancel-out, or filter the matter carried upon them. In the case of South Africa's weather, these filters include the mountain ranges that run along most of its coastline. So great is the effect of these mountains that climates may vary dramatically within just a short space.

Vanrhyns Pass

Over 200kms, riding between the west coast plains and the Karoo plateau to the east, I experienced this geography closely and directly. To pass eastwards across the Bokkeveldberge range, I filtered through its high ridges along the slow and sharply twisted Vanrhyns Pass. At times this necessitated dropping down into second gear at a mere 30kph. There was an irresistible tension between looking out far into the distant views and negotiating the difficult road immediately under my wheels.

And all of the time, I could feel the weather moving along with me. The strong winds from the Atlantic, 100km to the west of the pass, followed me upwards. And then as soon as I emerged onto the plateau, their potency was lost. Solid banks of cloud follow the same route, only to be dissipated as they brush the peaks. To a motorcyclist the effect is quite the opposite, being concentrated into the onward flow, channeled into something more intense, rather than dissipated into the terrain. The drive is to seek more encounters with this vast geography, whilst getting close enough to the harshness of the conditions to feel one's trajectory shaped by its grip. A great road like this sucks you in, washes you about, and then spits you back out.

Vanrhyns Pass

This transition, from the low lying west to the high plateau of the centre, also marks the shift from the winter rainfall zone, in which the rainy season centers upon August, to the summer rainfall climate, with its rain expected towards the end of the year. I had already on this trip experienced a reversal of these expectations, with my tent being doused in rain while camping in the Cederberg Mountains. As I was to be told by many that I met, some other force must be interfering with the patterns, thus seriously upsetting the usual weather – that force could just be the bad luck that I personally carry, or perhaps a more general misfortune: climate change.

As the meteorological flows found their consequence, it was more than just my tent that felt their effects. All life in these parts depends upon their vicissitudes. To the west, the rains result in the most spectacular of wildflower displays. Desert plains become rich with life and colour instantly, until cruel desiccation returns. Sheep farming is also at the mercy of the interaction of meteorological flow and filter. When the rains came, my new friend Pieter the farmer celebrated, even though it meant that I had to battle through the mud.

While I struggled in the morning's swamp on the road to Brandvlei, I passed another result of the interaction between rain, land and life. Dead young springbok antelopes lay in puddles. These animals flock towards rainfall, often traveling great distances to meet with a shower on the horizon. I'm not sure what had caused these unfortunate deaths. They looked as if they had drowned in Pieter's bounty.

And finally at the remote dorp of Brandvlei, I came to a more disturbing intersection of flows and filters. On the back-road to the old Boer republics, alongside a vlei (shallow depression in which water gathers), someone had taken the distributions of people and cultures sedimented out of the geographical flows, and applied alien rules to separate and segment their arrangement on the surface of the Earth: apartheid.

2) How did he get here?

People flow, or rather drift if one considers generations. And out of the flows they gather like sediment. Those that are too weighted with possessions and affiliations sink to the bottom and form a relatively solid bed. These foundations in turn attract and catch more individuals from the flow, offering a place to rest and shelter. This is how tribes and villages form – distributions of aggregate created when flows of people meet obstacles that filter and form. Most places in South Africa lie on top of such rocks. However, their geology is often folded and re-distributed by more violent, terrible and urgent forces than those of sedimentation.


At Brandvlei, I found the political geology of South Africa exposed on the surface for all to see, with its contortions and fractures. As my new friend Jacob set to work on washing my bike, a commonly fat Afrikaner man stepped out of the hotel's side door to give me a warning.

"Be careful, watch him closely."

He said this with some menace, reminding me of the Cape Town taxi driver who told me not to go out after 5pm. The message was clear: Jacob was a black African, in need of supervision and deserving of suspicion.

In reality, forgetting the colour-fearing reactions of the wealthy white man, Jacob was entirely trust worthy and self-sufficient. When I asked of his bike washing fee, he didn't seem bothered at all. As we talked it became clear that the bounty that he sought was primarily contact with the outside world, and secondarily some payment for his enterprise.

We talked about England, Tony Blair (universally disliked) and Manchester United (universally popular). I tried to explain the location of Kenilworth, my home town. And as usual I shared a fact about the UK to which the response is always pity: 08:30 sunrise, 16:30 sunset, overcast gloom all day.

But what of Jacob? He explained his most important principle:

"I believe in delivery not promises."

This was, I guessed, a sharp retort to South African politics, and implicitly, the corruption ridden ANC. In such obscure places as this, as in many more significant settlements, progress has been slow, with politicians taking only an occasional and well timed interest. A segmentation of the population is still clearly visible: the black third world on one side of town, the white first world on the other. Many towns even have a second poorer twin, euphemistically called Sometown-Wes. Brandvlei seemed too small for such an arrangement, but the contrast was there all the same.

Jacob explained the current situation, the disappointment and confusion, the corruption case of Deputy President Zuma and the forthcoming elections. He seemed positive despite all of this. As an attempt to fuel his optimism, I explained how Botswana, Africa's oldest and most successful democracy, had just been rated as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. This pleased Jacob, although he seemed to know very little of the black African nation just to the north, his knowledge of Europe being greater than of Africa.

I had expected that Jacob would have some tribal or linguistic connection with the world beyond the Afrikaner dorp. Perhaps he spoke Setswana, the language of Botswana and northern areas of South Africa. But he knew nothing of it. Perhaps Xhosa, the most popular African language? No. Zulu? No. Pedi? No. The language of his limited schooling was that of the apartheid overlords, Afrikaans. English, the language of Beckham and Scholes, seemed to be his adopted preference. Despite all of the attempts of the old regime to prevent him, he was quite fluent, and enjoyed using it.

Jacob then offered an explanation for his lack of an African language. His reasoning was to me quite surprising. He claimed to be neither "black" nor "African". He is adamantly "coloured". Whereas in England this is a rather old fashioned polite term meaning "black", in South Africa it has a complex political root. Further south, in Cape Town, there are a group of people known as Cape Coloured. They have their own fascinating history, including some appalling treatment from the old regime. Despite this, or perhaps as a result, they have a friendly character unequalled anywhere.

But Jacob is not Cape Coloured. Rather, his "classification" is the result of the old regime's hypocritical abuse of the term "coloured". To understand this term in its context beyond the Cape, one must first know a little of the regime in which it sat uncomfortably but irreplaceably.

The core idea behind apartheid, its pseudo-scientific excuse, was that each distinct race benefits from living separately from all others. A kind of simplistic ecological evolutionary thinking underpinned this. The black Africans were claimed to have descended from the north, deposing the native bushmen in a recent, primitive and brutal invasion. They were said to have settled in lands suitable to their iron-age cattle keeping simplicity. And from the south, with technology to conquer the seas, the mountains and the deserts, came Europeans. Being more sophisticated and capable of exploiting a different range of resources, the settlers found lands for which they were specifically adapted, principally those suitable for modern farming, and more recently, those containing the ores and gem stones that could feed their natural enterprise and industrial tendencies. Thus apartheid claimed to be an encoding in law and politics of the naturally occurring distributions of people into the territories, according to principles of evolution and adaption. So confident was the regime in its theories, the flow of people and history was to stop with its final solution.

But of course this was an inaccurate model of the flows and sedimentations that formed pre-colonial South Africa. A much more complex and dynamic world is closer to the truth, with well established trade routes and inter-dependencies between cultures and localities. More fatally for the dream of the apartheid theorists, it proved to be an inaccurate and unfeasible vision of modern South Africa as well. The flows of capital and the expansion of industry demanded a more mixed and closely knit society. Enter the people designated as "coloured".

As a vague and artificial classification, the term "coloured" neatly addressed the contradiction within industrial apartheid: how to create a mobile controllable black workforce that is neither hindered nor empowered by links to tribes and territories? Take away their language, culture and even their link to Africa, and you have them as a controllable force on tap.

Jacob then is at least in some small part involved in this context, although I suspect that he is finding his own way out. The population of Brandvlei, I suspect, is even more locked in to the failed segmentation, coding and ad-hoc classifications of apartheid. I heard it said that the owner of the hotel had been trying to establish a better relationship with the local community and his workforce. This, I was told, was met with disapproval from local whites. He seemed a pragmatic and welcoming character, with only a hint of Basil Fawlty as he struggled with the sprawling establishment. In a bar room conversation, his elderly father revealed a nostalgia for old cars and his native Rhodesia, as well as a nauseous response to inter-racial marriage. This was said after I talked of my links to Botswana, the first president of which was famously married to an English Lady.

Brandvlei Hotel

Despite all of this, Jacob proved to be friendly, talkative and wise. Cleaning the bike took around 15 minutes, during which we talked about all kinds of matters. As I seemed eager to get back on the road, he wisely concentrated upon removing the thickest layers of mud, especially the deep layer stuck to the wheel rims and spokes. This would improve the bike's handling somewhat. As the job neared completion, an incident occurred that indicated that he was more than just an itinerant odd-job man. I began to suspect him of some kind of higher standing in the local community. As I rummaged through my wallet in search of Rand notes to give in payment, another man approached us, perhaps sensing an easy opportunity. Despite being a much younger man, he addressed Jabob as his "brother", which I know not to take too literally. In fact Jacob seemed not to approve of this claim to familiality. The second man was trying to muscle in on Jacob's enterprise, with an almost comical spot of mirror wiping and dust brushing. Jacob became more displeased, but stayed calm all the same. When it became clear that his ploy was doomed to fail, the man resorted to shameless begging. Jacob's response was impressive in its clarity and firmness. He said to his illegitimate brother:

"Do not cross the border".

The meaning was clear: keep your self-respect, do not become a beggar. But there was also a degree of embarrassment, perhaps in that a "relative" would lower himself to this, or perhaps in the return to the old days that it suggested. More fundamentally, it demonstrated that Jacob has taken control of the racial segmentation, set his own borders clearly, and is prepared to defend his ground.

I decided that the best solution was for me to get moving as quickly as possible. I said goodbye to Jacob and Brandvlei, thanking him for his help and good conversation. Thanks to him, an unplanned stop in an unpromising town had in fact taught me much about South Africa and its people.

Part 4, Out of the wet season and into the dry

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Brilliant piece Rob.
    You reminded me of my time in SA, when white locals looked on with horror as I walked through parts of Joberg to get to the nearest shops, obviously facing daylight robbery from the other pedestrians (all black) just going about their daily business.
    Really ought to get back out there, it's such a beautiful country, full of amazing people and stories. I'll always have a soft spot for it!

    02 Feb 2006, 08:38

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