“When the whites came, they had the Bible and we had our land. Now we have the Bible and they have our land.” -Quote from a display at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
From Yeoville to Melville: A Well-Traveled Line of Flight
One of the difficult but intriguing things about South Africa is the in-your-face nature of socio-economic difference. No matter where or how you live, you are never more than a heartbeat away from the polar opposite of your small reality. Nonetheless, there are few who traverse those narrow but deep divides. Those who do are mostly educated, upper-middle class blacks living in the suburbs with family in the townships. One such friend told me once that she hardly ever goes to Soweto anymore since she can get “the vibe” in Yeoville now.
People talk of Yeoville ten years ago as an upscale art, style, and social mecca. It was the perfect combination of city pace and tree-lined trendy suburb: a liberal haven. Parents went there with their kids for an afternoon ice cream and a stroll. Artists filled the outdoor cafes. These days, Yeoville has become mostly graffiti-covered inner city, complete with empty and boarded-up storefronts and the smell of ghanja wafting past streetside vegetable stalls at 11 in the morning.
Despite the fear that I’ve felt there, my old neighborhood keeps drawing me back. The Milky Way internet café has an open balcony on the third floor above the poet-infested Time Square Cafe. Aging computers with black and white monitors, cheap web access, and the occasional DJ spinning live music draw students from all over the city. The crowd is a mix of educated youth and unemployed locals, both drinking potent coffee and displaying Important Books while chain smoking and talking about the weekend. Young women run things, doling out free internet time to regulars. I can go to read the New York Times online and end up at a table helping a stranger with a business plan. Downstairs at the café, Melville artiste-wannabes slum it.
Melville, where I live now, is only about four miles away. The local internet café consists of four new computers at the back of a quaint antique bookstore owned by a graying, bespectacled white man named Mervin. Mervin likes to dole out homemade vegetable soup and chat about politics. He’s always asking me whether I think the Levi’s he gets from a black vendor look authentic. They usually don’t, but I reserve judgment because I know he’s paying less for his pants than I’m forking over to check my email. At over four times the cost, I find that internet time in Melville is limited, and usually lonely. No one can afford to stay long.
When I was searching for a safer neighborhood where I could live affordably and without a killer guard hippo as a pet, I simply followed the line of flight of the “beautiful people”. Instead of gunfire, the only noise I hear at night comes from the clubs and restaurants lining 7th Street. There are no gangsters, no self-proclaimed rasta prophets, no unemployed people washing cars on the street in the middle of the day. There are no Orthodox Jews who couldn’t afford to move out five years ago walking their dogs past Nigerian druglord headquarters.
There is a thriving gay community and a self-consciously artsy café society. Walking for five minutes in any given direction, I can reach a Thai restaurant, a sushi bar, two used bookstores, one of the best jazz clubs in the city, and a high-end hair salon. Grocery shopping, like haircuts and internet access, is about four times more expensive than in my old haunts. There is no outdoor African market, only a very clean grocery store franchise with a full selection of wine, ten different kinds of pre-washed salad greens, and a nice hot sauce display.
The young, hipster, weekend crowd in Melville is multiracial but hardly diverse. It’s high fashion or bust: Gucci, Guess, tight pants, big belts, tiny bags, orange hair, kiss-kiss. During the week, domestic servants and garden workers are the darkest faces on the streets and in the shops. A pristine, New England-style Methodist Church marks the turnoff to my small, one-room cottage home. I often pass it on foot, even after dark.
I took a white South African friend to lunch at the Time Square Café in Yeoville one day when he was dropping me off to work at People Opposing Women Abuse nearby. Thanks to the secure parking in the back, we sat at an outside table, relaxed, munched on crisp Greek salad while sipping freshly squeezed juice. Various regulars passed by, still as jobless and complacent as they were two months ago, and waved hi. Any one of them could have been involved in the robbery at my house, but at the café everyone is a friend. I’m no longer “regular” enough to be asked for bites of my lunch—something of a relief.
If I find myself in the ghetto when darkness falls these days (and it’s winter here, so that happens fairly early), I can’t walk home anymore. Getting to know the metered taxi drivers who work in Yeoville, I’ve discovered that most of them sleep elsewhere when their shifts are done. Many of them—even the ones who look intimidating enough to be gang leaders—cite personal safety as their primary reasons for moving on.
Wouter Basson, head of the Apartheid government's clandestine chemical and biological warfare programme in the 1980s and early 1990s, walked free of 46 charges against him on April 11, 2002. The transcript of proceedings from the start of the trial on October 4, 1999 until the last day is over 30,000 pages long. Nearly 200 state witnesses and thousands of pages of supporting documents supported the prosecution’s case. Eighteen of the counts related to murder, conspiracy to murder, serious assault, attempted intimidation, obstruction of justice and possession of classified documents.
“Dr. Death’s” testimony infuriated many who followed the case closely. He glibly told tales of his “adventures” traveling around the world with American and British secret agents in hot pursuit, looking for information and materials he needed to build a chemical and biological weapons program from the ground up. These yarns were infused with talk of patriotism and international espionage, and painted a picture of Basson as a World War II-style hero fighting for his country’s glory.
The reality of his work, by some accounts, involved experiments on innocent people, the development of a bacterium targeted at blacks, the use of anthrax, and attempts to use Ecstasy for crowd control. "One of the things the Basson trial shows is that the apartheid government went to great lengths to put drugs out on the street, to try to poison innocent black people, to infect them with all sorts of chemicals and diseases," says Shadrack Gutto, a professor at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. "We are dealing with a government that was genocidal, that was not just engaged in discrimination."
The judge in the case, Hon. Willie Hartzenberg, also found Basson not guilty of 24 counts of theft and fraud involving close to R46-million, and three of the possession of illegal drugs. Basson initially faced 67 charges. Some were dropped in the earlier stages of the trial because they were found to be out of the jurisdiction of the court.
In this light, top echelons of the former South African Defense Forces, the men in charge of operations that sought to crush all opposition to the Apartheid state, seem somehow above the law. There have been other failed legal exercises, such as the 1990 Harms Commission of Inquiry into state-sponsored hit squads and the 1996 trial of former defense minister Magnus Malan and other top-ranking military officers for the KwaMakhutha massacre. But none were as high profile as this. Judge Hartzenberg opted to act as sole adjudicator, and many are puzzled that he could discard the sheer volume of evidence for the prosecution in favor of Basson’s sole testimony on his own behalf. It took Hartzenberg 1500 pages of judgment to find Basson not guilty on all charges.
Magnus Malan, former defense minister, Constand Viljoen, retired chief of the former South African Defense Forces, and Niel Knobel, former surgeon general, turned out to see their old colleague hug his family after his acquittal. Despite the millions of rand already spent on the trial, the state is appealing the case.
My work spans a range of places, people, languages, and problems. I try to fight the prevailing view that it’s all been tried before. I hear it all the time: nothing can be done about crime, violence, rape, guns, carjacking, inflation, skyrocketing petrol prices. Most of the people who say these things aren’t working on the problems—I think it would be difficult to live in South Africa without either spending a lot of time in denial or spending a lot of time addressing the inequities that plague the country. In this analysis, I understand the many whites who simply go to work every day to support their families and come home for dinner without thinking twice about the begging children they ignore at busy intersections. They have children of their own to take care of. Five rand handed through an open car window won’t make the difference, anyway.
The two offices where I spend my time are filled with people addressing inequities, but the environments couldn’t be more different. The Institute for Security Studies is a well-funded non-governmental organization (NGO) with offices in both Pretoria (near Johannesburg) and Cape Town. Every researcher has a computer attached to a network for 24-hour online access. There is a “situation room” on the second floor with floor-to-ceiling sliding maps for daily briefings on continent-wide issues. A publication schedule is distributed every month so that everyone knows when to get their material to the publications coordinator. Within a few weeks, whatever glossy monographs or high-quality-paper books are in the pipeline appear on coffee tables in the waiting area and at conferences nationwide.
People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), where I spend my Fridays and some weekends, is located in a big house in Berea. The offices are comfortable, and most of them are designed for therapy sessions. There are couches for clients, warm colors, and tissue boxes. Only a few people in the organization have the capacity to print documents. No one can access an outside phone line except the Executive Director and the Strategic Advisor, both of whom have elaborate codes to do so. There is definitely no internet access. The one computer with a modem and a dial-up connection seems to have died. When using the photocopy machine, one must log each page copied in a lined notebook with a dull pencil attached. Publishing anything—even a one-page brochure—is an event that could take months to plan.
I believe in what both of these organizations are doing, each within its sphere of influence. Some days I feel extremely frustrated when I can see a way to take POWA to the next level and have to stifle my enthusiasm because of a lack of funding. It’s incredibly difficult to motivate overworked, underpaid counselors to think about devoting time to developing a volunteer program or working on community outreach. I often get “the look” after suggesting a new idea: the look that says, “Hey, whitey, come back down to earth, where we live. There is no money. There is no time.” One of the women I respect the most at POWA is eight months pregnant and still working a full schedule to see clients and coordinate counselor meetings. She is so absorbed in her work that I can imagine her giving birth and being back in the office the next day.
At ISS, program heads and researchers are constantly running off to Geneva or New York for disarmament/UN/land mine/international crime/children’s rights conferences. When it comes to drafting legislation for dealing with arms in Angola before they flood the black market, the work at an international level can be just as demanding as the work of counseling a battered woman. You see a nation’s children staring out of your “In Box” one day, one woman's survival the next. I travel the bridge between these two extremes. I wish I encountered more traffic along the way. How is it that those who see the direct effects of violence have no voice in the international arena, and those who influence policy spend more time on airplanes every year than witnessing the situation on the ground?
I stay here because I can see bridges that others can’t. I stay because I have the freedom to cross these bridges and bring information from one side to another. I stay because I’ve watched the seasons change from summer to winter, and because the smoky haze that hovers over the world day and night comes from fires in the townships where people are trying to stay warm. I stay because there are people here that I’ve grown to love. I stay because there’s a lot of work to do. I stay because one of the ISS researchers came into my office this morning with a packet of new information about links between international arms dealers, and there is no one else to take it to the next level. I stay because there are elephants nearby, and because sometimes people say “thank you for being here” and because there aren’t enough white people who know how to navigate public transportation.
With love, -Taya