Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Durban”

The Times – Let’s stay off Resentment Road

Jonathan Jansen writes about visiting Durban recently and finding that many of the streets had been renamed, and questions the wisdom of renaming places to commemorate political party hacks.

The Times – Let’s stay off Resentment Road:

Imagine, for example, naming a street after Julius Malema, the youthful idiot who found a way of remaining in the news by threatening to “eliminate” or “crush” the enemies of his campaign to seat Jacob Zuma in the presidency.

As the Sarah Palin of South African politics, he is a dangerous demagogue rescued from obscurity and not sure what to do with his new-found power other than display his limited vocabulary with words like “kill”. Apartheid taught him well.

I have to admit a certain amount of sympathy. I too visited Durban recently, and had the problem of finding myself in Problem Mkhize Road, and wondering what Problem Mkhize had done for Durban. Though I have to admit that I didn’t really know what Mr Cowey (after whom the road was previously named) had done for Durban either.

One of the nice things about the 1990s was that after our first democratic elections a lot of places and buildings named after politicians got renamed with neutral names. The Marais Viljoen Building down the road from us was sensibly named Compensation House (it houses the offices of the Workmens Compensation Commissioner). The Hendrik Verwoerd Dam was renamed to something neutral. Jan Smuts Airport became the Johannesburg International Airport — that was a bit silly, because it isn’t in Johannesburg, it’s in Ekurhuleni. Now it’s the O.R. Tambo International Airport, so it doesn’t really matter where it is.

I liked the idea of removing the names of politicians (especially living ones) from the names of places, because naming things after politicians smacks of totalitarianism to me. In Moscow, Kalinin Propekt is now Arbat again, and Kaliningrad is back to being Tver.

One of the last acts of the last Nationalist city council of Pretoria was to rename Kilnerton Road to C.R. Swart Drive. Part of it has been re-re-named back to Kilnerton Road, but the rest remains with the name of C.R. Swart. That, it seemed to me, was a calculated insult to black people. The Kilnerton Institute was a well-known educational institution in eastern Pretoria, run by the Methodist Church. Many black South African leaders received their education there. In the 1960s it was closed down as part of the ethnic cleansing that took place to implement apartheid, and renaming the road seemed to be a deliberate attempt to remove even its memory. C.R. Swart, however, was Minister of Justice in the 1950s, and presided over the introduction of some of the most oppressive and racist legislation ever to disgrace our statute book. I would not be at all sorry to see his Drive go.

I’ve got nothing against O.R. Tambo or Pixley ka Seme, or Rick Turner or Alan Paton. They were certainly not repulsive like C.R. Swart and worked for freedom and justice rather than to oppress people. But I wonder how happy they would have been to have things named after them?

But the Nationalist City Council of Pretoria has gone too. Pretoria joined with twelve other local authorities to become part of the megacity of Tshwane, and Pretoria no longer has its own city council; it is only part of a bigger city. There is now only the council of the City of Tshwane. I’m quite happy about that. Nobody seems to quite know who Tshwane was, except that he is said to have once lived in the area. That’s a bit like Cowie’s Hill. Unlike Mr Cowey of Cowey Road, Mr Cowie lived on his hill.

The amalgamation of municipalities and local authorities seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. As Jasper fforde, the author of the books about Thurday Next, the literary detective, points out, the Cheshire Cat of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books is now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat. And “City of Tshwane” is much easier to say than “Unity Authority of Warrington” or “Nelson Mandela Metropole”.

Now suddenly we seem to be back to the 1950s, when the Nationalists were renaming everything after their party hacks. As Bob Dylan once sang, “Oh no, no no, I’ve been through this movie before.”

Wireless hotspots

We’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and have been without Internet access for much of the time. Then we went to stay in the Formula I hotel in Durban, which had signs in every room saying that it was a wireless hotspot on the Vodacom WirelessG network. I thought we might be able to catch up with e-mail and do a bit of blogging, but that proved to be a snare and a delusion.
Most of the time the signal ranged from “very weak” to nonexistent, and so all that one could see was a lot of messages saying that servers could not be found or had timed out. Eventually after two days of trying I’ve managed to connect, but how long it will last is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps Vodacom need to beef up their transmitting power before they advertise their wireless hotspots.

Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

Evocation of a Durban childhood

Yesterday I went to the Unisa library and found a novel by Barbara Trapido, called Frankie and Stankie. I saw it on the end of a shelf and was intrigued by a review quote on the cover that said, “There aren’t many novelists whose stories one doesn’t want to read, but Barbara Trapido is one of them.” It seemed a strange enough recommendation, so I took it out.

In the evening I read the Barbara Trapido book, and read bits aloud to Val, because it was a very good evocation of a Durban childhood, and actually some of the people were real too — it mentioned people I knew or knew of, like Ken and Jean Hill, who were members of the Liberal Party, and Eileen Krige, the anthropologist, whom I had heard of. I checked the cover blurb again, and found that it was not what I thought it was — it said “There are very few novelists whose books one doesn’t want to end”, not “doesn’t want to read”, so I’d taken it out under false pretences. But I was glad I had; it brought back a lot of childhood memories, like this

Dinah continues to be a non-eater throughout her childhood. When one of her dad’s colleagues visits with a packet of biscuits, he says they’re ‘for Lisa to eat and Dinah to play with. The biscuits are called Iced Zoological but the girls call them Animal Biscuits. Each biscuit is a scalloped rectangle with pastel icing on the top and an animal piped on to it in a contrasting colour. There are yellow giraffes on rose-pink icing and white tigers on sky-blue icing.

And this:

By eight Lisa is judged too big for the sleigh-ride through Santa’s grotto in Greenacre’s department store, and has to walk around to the exit to collect her present from Santa, just as Dinah comes helter-skeltering to conclusion in a cloud of fake snow and piped jingle bells.

Both Val and I remember the sleigh ride in Greenacres, though it belonged to Father Christmas rather than Santa; but that could be explained in the book by Lisa and Dinah’s father being Dutch. And then

The school wash basins are all furnished with shiny pink chunks of slimy carbolic soap that look like sections of human lung.

I haven’t seen Lifebuoy soap for years, but its appearance after being left in a wet soap dish can never be forgotten.

I think I spotted a few anachronisms, but they were minor ones: Cadbury’s Crunchies appeared later on the scene than the time described in the book, as was the girl Julia Painting being bitten by a shark.

The name of the author, Barbara Trapido, sounded vaguely familiar, so I Googled, and found she was born in the same year as me, 1941, so it’s no wonder her evocation of post-war Durban as seen through the eyes of a child was so familiar. I also checked my diary, and found I had actually met her once, on 19 August 1973:

In the afternoon there was an incredible party where there were 12 kids and 19 people altogether in the house, having separate little tea parties. Andy Argyle arrived with her children and Barbara Trapido, and Roger Aylard came round with two of his boys, and Gill Browne was there with her children. In spite of the numbers, it was amazingly peaceful, and it could hardly be noticed that so many people were

And at the time I was banned, and not supposed to attend any social gatherings. Of course it was my landlady’s gathering, not mine, but still. And at that time my landlady’s children also attended the Berea Road Girls School, described in detail in the book.

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