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Assaulted by South Africa – but in a good way

It is hard to know where to begin with depicting a visit to South Africa. The suggestion to people tends to provoke a reaction one way or another. Its projected image steeped in a brutal history, Spitting Image had never met a nice South African, peoples strong perceptions terrify them. People overlook the fact that the Afrikaans people were dictated to; controlled through drips of information and a fascist regime. Through Anglo-Saxon eyes pockets of experience can appear intense. From nowhere arrives a moment and South Africa has you in its grip. One minute you are deeply in love with the beauty of its surroundings and the resilience of every day life, the next something happens that feels like reality punching you in the face and bringing you back down to earth. Reminding you that life is fragile, you are not immune. The westernised soul needs that punch in the face once in a while to make it stop and think about itself.

Durban from the sea

Durban in KwaZulu-Natal tends to be overshadowed by the celebrated Cape Town and the boisterous Johannesburg. The fourth busiest port in the world, this Indian Ocean city welcomes you with a swarm of heat across your tired face. Cars are essential as there is no bus infrastructure and no apparent rhyme or reason to the taxi bus services you’ll see flying about. Take the bus service on if you want to, but this world is governed on different rules. Rules your westernised eyes won’t believe. This is Africa.

The greatest thing you can do for yourself in South Africa is to lose the English sense of seeing the world. Things happen, and they will happen when they do and that will be it. There’s more important things to concern yourself with in this place.

The skill of driving takes on a whole new meaning in South Africa. Driving through Durban one night the car in front of us flung its back door open still moving, the police pulled up laughed chatted and drove off. Speed limits aren’t adhered to and over the last few years the ANC have changed many of the road names. In theory not in practice this is an understandable symbolic motive for a country fallen to European colonisation. Maps have not been updated, the road names have been taken from powerful people but it’s their whole name including their title. Many of the names are unpronounceable to most. Beggars do not sit on the street, they stand in the roads; an action which will get your attention. Here everything demands attention. Sand-sculpturers on Durban’s UShaka beach aren’t just providing some works of art as light street entertainment, they demand your acknowledgement through necessity and creativity.

Sand sculpture on the beach

A man explained to me that his sand-crocodile devouring a sand-person was depicting the politically far-right Julius Malema being eaten. A year before, back in South Africa I had seen a news programme showing Malema riling up young black men chanting to kill the Boer, the white farmer. An organised protest that contradicted the direction the country needs and what the the world’s Madiba had symbolised during the people’s fight for freedom. A view that is misplaced and unbeneficial in today’s South Africa.

The rolling southern African hills stand ahead as you drive out of Durban inland towards Pietermaritzburg and the Valley of 1000 Hills entrances. The land is different here, the shades of green are new the red dust from the side roads a dew of something else. When you find a moment of peace here, even sitting in a car watching it go by, your eyes are beckoned in. There is nowhere else. The combination of humanity’s Mother Land in front and the constant reminder of its survival reminds you that there is only now. The African gaze will penetrate the mind leaving moments that cannot be erased from the subconscious.

A friend and I borrowed his uncle’s bucky, a yute, a van… one afternoon and headed away from the coastline. We wanted to see what was out there in the wilds. Unbeknownst to us our vehicle had a leak in the petrol tank. As he stood there filling the tank up the smell of petrol permeated the air, “I smell petrol” was my outburst, we were in a petrol station, of course I smelt petrol. Once we had finished with unknowingly pouring oil into a never ending hole, we tipped the petrol station guard and pulled up at the side to have another look at the map. The petrol smell loomed, this time it was not something else. In the few minutes we had been sat on the side road a puddle of petrol had already appeared. Workers at the station came over in a group to see what was going on, why weren’t these strangers moving on – we were now hundreds of kilometres outside of Durban and its suburbs, all around us was untouched southern Africa. It was delicious. There was nothing they could do, eventually they dissipated off and watched these blundering English fools from the sidelines. We were in between cities in wide open Africa with a van that could just implode when it decided it had had enough. Phoning the uncle the only advice was to fill it up to a bare minimum so to not put pressure on it.

KwaZulu-Natal landscape

Adventures like this are once in a lifetime for most, we were not about to drive the same distance back to where we had started when opportunity was ahead of us. On we went to Pietermaritzburg, a bustling city business district that is chaos epitomised. This is Africa. There is no middle ground it’s one extreme or the other, you continue or you give up.

Emerging into the city we found ourselves instantly caught up in the slip stream of cars darting about everywhere and people seizing every opportunity to keep moving, keep going, keep being in that slip stream – it becomes a necessity. You’ve got to be quick. Around the main roads we went until we found the entrance to the Natal Museum in the heart of the city. Opened in 1904 this museum is the largest research library in South Africa focused on KwaZulu-Natal. The history it paints is breathtaking and equally gut wrenching. It depicts the timeline of all groups of people who have come to South Africa up to present day. Telling you of the Indian slaves brought over by the Portuguese and concentrated in Natal; of the Afrikaans’ migration from Northern Europe and across South Africa from the Cape; the Zulu migration from further Africa; the myriad of tribes that exist in South Africa’s history and an exhibition goes into detail of the horror of daily life for African people during apartheid, from the entwined marriage laws to simply walking down the street. And what about the people who are known as Cape Coloured? A mixed race of people whose roots stem from the integration between the Portugese, European and African groups. The complexity of the doctrine of apartheid despite its black and white rules was not clear.

Rural KwaZulu-NatalOn the walls around me I saw an exhibition laying out the rules that people had to live by and I learnt of the English involvement in this. One of the triggers that caused apartheid was the appearance of the English. In true British colonial style as soon as they saw the Dutch, the French and the Portuguese benefiting from South Africa they crawled out of the woodwork and demanded it for themselves. The British were the first group of people to set up concentration camps, their act of war was to round up Afrikaans women and children to be sent to the camps whilst the men had their farms and land removed and were forced into fighting the English upper classes. Winston Churchill gained some of his first experiences of war as a soldier playing a part in this. Ghandi was a young medic, the future King of England was there. The Afrikaans and Zulu groups fought the English together. Eventually the lilly-livered blue-blooded ones gave up and left but only after two wars. They left a country that they had established civil war in, as well as destroyed its intricate social infrastructure and government. Divide and conquer.

As we drove out of Pietermaritzburg we continued going north, stopped at some robots (traffic lights) when a young man threw a piece of paper through our window, a leaflet advertising a Witch Doctor’s remedies to every sexual ailment imaginable. Lights changing quickly with no time to think we went towards Howick Falls. One noteworthy former resident of the town is Mandela, here immediately before his imprisonment. A white Communist couple had allowed him to hide out here, their family coexisting with him until he was arrested.

As we arrived at the town’s waterfalls a solitary Rastafarian was playing a guitar quietly singing Three Little Birds. Until we arrived there had been no one else about except for this one man and a few African women manning stalls of African bric-a-brac. Here the air was permeated with the freshness of the water cascading below us, the afternoon sun on us there was some relief to the dense Indian Ocean heat. There was nowhere better than right now.

Piling into the sea, KwaZulu-Natal

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