ZA 7: Karoo

“Karoo’ means ‘arid place’. With A as translator, I tour Prins Albert with Isaac, his gardener and handyman, driving A’s BMW. We drive slowly down the main street and around the white part of town, pointing out the school – mixed white and black here, though all are paying to attend it (cheap for most whites, but a deep sacrifice for the black parents). Included is a hostel for the kids who come in from way out of town, and need somewhere safe to stay for the week.

In driving by, I seem some inter-racial play and interaction, but as in American schools, each group mainly stays somewhat separate on the playground. There is no formal rule, of course, that makes this the white part of town, and a few blacks in fact live here, mostly imports – policemen say – who came here from the city or other provinces. But very few can afford this side of town. I saw them pouring in from their side on foot when I went for breakfast at the café at 7:30 – the cooks, cleaners, and maybe some shop assistants and drivers. No blacks would go to the traditional-looking Afrikaans church in town here – Isaac laughs at the thought.

(It is only with great difficulty – I finally have the museum director call someone at the ‘municipality’ – that I find out the population of Prins Albert. No one knew – not the waitresses or owners of the restaurant, not the owner of the hotel, not Isaac, because they are unused to counting the whites and the coloreds together. It is 9300, 6000 coloreds and 3000 whites – more than I would have estimated – but the point being the mentality that no one had a clue.)

Water pours down sluices in the town, piped down from springs somewhere in these desiccated hills, headed for orchards of peach and fig. As we stop at the ATM, a thin man in a white shirt is handing out slips of white paper: Call Dr. Abraham, the Specialist and Spiritual Advisor, who assures us ‘The future can be bright’, and offers:

– Do you need specialist Herbs for Bad Luck problems?

– For professional cleaning of business, vehicles, houses, and farms with special medicine.

– Do you need a strong, long, and stiff erection? Max-Herb does it.

– Problems with demons, tokoloshe and short men?

– Experiencing problems with marriage?

– You don’t have peace of mind? Come for special counseling.

– Palm reading – we do house service.

The whole thing is repeated in Afrikaans: Verlang u’n sterk, groot,& stywe ereksie? Max-Kruie sal u help.

At the other end of the main street, across a broad gravel swale that must flood when it rains – we are in the equivalent of Nevada or El Paso – we turn into the black half of the village. The range is from house-proud lower middle class ranch houses that sit at one literal end, to abject squatters in rusted tin shacks at the other, for whom a series of stark toilets have been built, but no houses. The majority of the town is little identical breeze-block single-story duplexes with corrugated metal roofs, built close together by the apartheid regime. The residents have created what privacy they can with bushes and small trees to act as visual fences. There are a few smaller and more squat houses built by the ANC, but little has changed here for the blacks in the 14 years since the end of apartheid.


There is the occasional car or lorry, but mostly people are walking. Walking to the gas station, where LOTO tickets are on sale, walking to the ‘municipality’ where they can get their state pension checks, walking to the butcher’s, where someone has put on music and the men are softly dancing with each other, a few beers the better.


Echoing a little of our black community and Obama’s exhortations, the women seem to be non-stop working, carrying groceries, sweeping the yards, walking a child home. Unemployment is 60% or so, and the men walk aimlessly. The empty areas on the edge are trash heaps – not smelly, but with acres of glittering glass. The whole thing is presided over by the stark wires and sodium lamps we can see from the porch at night, giving an electric sheen of minimal safety and livability. A woman is raped in South Africa every 24 seconds, I am told – of course this is mostly in the deracinated population in the cities.


The state school – located over here and clearly underfunded – is entirely black but for a few white teachers. The overwhelming impression is of these heartbreakingly beautiful and beatifically clean children walking animatedly toward school, and of the host of grown men walking dejectedly back into this township.

Scattered around the town are churches – looking like our apolstolics, but they belong to many denominations. I ask which church has been the most helpful to the town (‘faith-based initiatives’) but he snorts and smiles, “Nei, Nei” – none of them. Their money comes from abroad, but their interest is only in building the churches – once the church is done, there is no more aid.

What these folks need is not the liberal answer of aid, in any case, but the conservative solution of jobs. But what jobs would there be in a tiny Nevada town, 50 miles from anywhere, 2 hard hours to a city of any size?

“Black empowerment” – South Africa’s version of affirmative action – had a much tougher task than ours. We had to integrate a minority of our population into the mainstream, and a population that, despite its horrific history, had decades of inculcation in our (meaning white, western, European) values via radio and television, whereas in South Africa we are talking about an 80% population, a vast underbelly that will vote tribally before all else, whose attitudes and values have always been at odds with the powerful invaders on their aboriginal lands.

An informed middle class will be necessary to the practice of democracy in this possible jewel in the African crown. Right now a lot of early adjustment is going on – self-serving and bombastic politicians, the playing out of tribal rivalries on a national stage, and people placed in positions totally beyond their skills and experience, dumbing down the whole social machine. Yet for all the practical problems, brain-drain, and complaining, there is hope. Look at Europe 100 years ago – what hope was there then for the European Union?

And so the hope goes to the enterprising blacks like Isaac, and the sorrowfully few native whites who dedicate themselves to their country by trying to build bridges rather than erect fences. The guy John in Cape Town who took me sailing had an egalitarian ease with his builders. Brett the Vet, farms a large and wonderfully chaotic permaculture project under a row of cypresses by a river, trying to interest the local farmers in natural pest control over poisons.

My friend A tells me of having hired one company to put the picture windows into the lanai where I sleep. The man (white Afrikaans) arrived and introduced his black crew, worked with them, and ate with them. The windows – large and awkward – are set perfectly. Another builder arrived for another job and introduced only the white workers. A became inwardly incensed, and pointedly asked the black workers their names. A few hours later the Afrikaaners quit the job, saying they were ‘far too busy’ to take it on.

It’s a trickle against a flood, but I will say my prayers in hope of the miracle of the parting of the waters.

Isaac is a proud and capable man, and though he appreciated my curiosity and my questions, it must have cost him something to take me through his village, especially on the day when the welfare checks arrive, so many people were letting off steam. I search my suitcase and find my Leatherman tool as a gift for him. Build, my friend, build and repair your new South Africa.


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