White Town Dreaming: 20 years on

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / A little over two decades ago, in 1991, Paul Bell, a suave city slicker with a square jaw and a restless flutter in his eyes, came riding into Colesberg on assignment for the reputable Leadership magazine. His outstanding career in strategic communications with the Independent Electoral Commission and later, the London-based Bell Pottinger, still lay in the distant future. When he arrived here, he was a gifted newspaperman with a brief to cover the tumultuous transition period.

The town, like much of the country, was beset with the paranoia, angst, and anxieties that came with what everyone knew was coming: apartheid’s death knell and the uncertainty of what would stand in its place. As a journalist, Bell had been at the coalface of the ruthlessness. The stonings, burnings, unidentified corpses in shallow graves. And down here, the cosmopolitan journalist might have picked up on some similarities between the platteland and the Deep South of America.

A younger, brooding Paul Bell. Image: Facebook

There was the universal spatial planning of segregation – whites freely sauntering about under a swoon of street lights and tranquillity; blacks flung to a dark misery ironically, if not mockingly, known as Kuyasa – ‘it dawns’.  There stood a hotel wherein, deadpan, the manager Anton Bester would tell Bell that his ‘his bar [was] the only one in town where white men [could] drink without being interrupted by black girls’.

The largely discredited local black council seemed little more than silly stooges, as by-laws that were intended to keep blacks forever in their own neck of the woods were crafted by the real bosses – the white council – from right under their noses. Factor into this the obscene, conceited dialects of racism and white privilege, and the liberal Bell would’ve felt a tad unnerved.

Who did this English soutie think he was interfering with the natural order of a town where white superiority remained the status quo and many of the subjugated knew better than to antagonise the baas, the cynics would’ve thought? This was how things should remain – everybody firmly in their place.

The previously whites-only bar. Today, its story is probably the most miraculous of all. Image: eParkeni

Except, with the benefit of hindsight, the self-delusion had evidently started to kick in. On 2 February 1990, noted Bell, FW de Klerk’s government ‘announced the removal of discriminatory laws as a prelude to constitutional negotiations’. The Liberation Movement, otherwise known as ‘terrorists’ in such company, were unbanned.

In our own backyard, a balding Antony Osler, despite nefarious attempts by some whites to ensure it would never see the light of day, opened up the Karoo Law Clinic (Lawyers for Human Rights). Many black locals would’ve gone knocking on his door expecting to find a medical nurse. Hitherto, things like ‘human rights lawyer’  were foreign concepts in a town where law enforcement often operated with a fascist handbook; assault and arrest first, ask questions in the holding cells.

Meanwhile, Osler’s brother, Maeder, had started the Toverberg Indaba. An unabating opponent of apartheid in his varsity years as president of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), he’d endured the ‘commie’ slurs and suspicious glances enough times not to get all riled up over them. His paper, the first in Colesberg’s long history to accord Kuyasa the sort of coverage as befitting the most populated residential area in town, was met with immediate white consternation and hostility.

More than 20 years ago, the Leadership photographer Herman Potgieter took pictures of Kuyasa from this vantage point. This image was taken on 18 July 2023. Sigh. Image: eParkeni.

Out on township streets, palpable euphoria and anticipation of better days lingered in the air. With the suspension of apartheid’s discriminatory laws, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s chant of ‘freedom at last!’ began taking shape in the minds of residents who ‘came to adulthood accepting that whites were superior, apartheid was unchallengeable, and that politics was for other people’.

But with a resistant white council schooled on the syllabus of a volkstad, as well as a local economy very much a white playground, often the rampant boycotts of the day seemed to hit the black community just as hard as they did the white businesses they were supposed to hurt.

Three years after Bell’s revealing article, entitled ‘White Town Dreaming’, the nation voted. In due course, the lingua franca at the local municipality diversified from almost exclusively Afrikaans to something more reflective of the town’s demographics. A towering Mr Ngantweni was soon sworn in as mayor. A horde of black councilors joined him in council. Light shone on the deflation expressed three years earlier by the ANCs local chairperson about an inability to deliver services to the people. The ‘nauseating’ public latrines disappeared; houses were put on the grid.

Kuyasa township

‘On a good day, it looks like it’s been hit by a meteorite,’ wrote Bell of Kuyasa back in 1991. Image: eParkeni

Amid the flourishing development rose Masakhane township, which, owing to the numerous toilets that were erected almost simultaneously, still carries the moniker of ‘Toilet City’. The first wave of black kids were registered at the previously whites-only school in town. For the first time, talk among older students was no longer confined to bush league universities. Some wanted to go to Rhodes or UCT, and study law or accounting, even though many came from households of ‘garden boys and kitchen girls’, as the South African Communist Party dirge informs.

Some twenty years on, what is to be made of the town’s transition? What would Bell’s take on things be today? By most indications, the adage may somewhat hold – the more things change …

At a social level, institutionalised discrimination may well be a thing of the past, but it’s not like the various races are quaffing down brandy and singing ‘kumbaya’ over the braai. Most of the employed residents of Kuyasa township still commute to what remains the hub of economic activity – the previously white ‘town’.

Interracial relations are often utilitarian in nature; the racial crossover facilitated by business deals and profit. It’s not institutionalised, the divide, only the new way of learning to navigate the subtle game of a de facto ‘separate but equal’ 2.0. Several successful black people have moved into previously white areas, bought businesses there, and are the fortunate handful who’ve realised the EFF dream of ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’.

Geographically, the town, especially black residential areas, have ballooned. A host of new townships have cropped up; Towervallei, Riemvasmaak, this as squatter settlements in the peripheries of the township continue to multiply. Though the Umsobomvu Municipality tries to dispense basic services, the demand for housing clearly thwarts supply.

Where the Karoo Law Clinic used to be. Image: eParkeni

The Karoo Law Clinic is long gone, and the quaint little house from where it once operated has been demolished. Toverberg Indaba ceased publishing in 1997, and is nowadays an archive on the unyielding Maeder Osler’s Toverview site. (For transparency’s sake, eParkeni wouldn’t exist without his support.)

As is the case nationwide, the civil service remains a big employer of the the previously disadvantaged. Government funding has seen a few black entrepreneurs emerging in the area, but it is still whites who control the money game. The contradictions abound; since the advent of democracy, people from the Old Location where Bell’s colleague, Herman Potgieter, took those grim images of stone and mud houses in various states of dilapidation, have been waiting on the promise of new homes. Some 22 years on, the wait continues, while the houses crumble.

But perhaps the biggest contradiction of all is to be found in manager Bester’s once whites-only haunt. The hotel where black faces were kept at bay and where white men could enjoy a dop without suffering the comings-on of beguiling black maidens might be the one place that has undergone the most dumb-founding changes. Today, the infamous bar is no longer; no trace of the high stools, graffiti, and certainly no Afrikaans. Its ground floor now consists of a row of shops. Not a white face in any of them. Most of the tenants are black or brown, and aren’t Christian or even South African, but foreign nationals who’ve found a home in a place where people who looked like them were once rudely turned away.

If only the late Bester were around to appreciate the town’s one true miracle.

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