Monday, December 19, 2005

Pretoria is Tshwane

One time when I was staying at a hostel in Cape Town in 1999 I overheard a young woman pretentiously dismissing South African cities as not being African at all, but rather too European. It was a pretentious thing to say from someone who, come to find out, had spent all of three total weeks in Africa, but felt fully comfortable pontificating at length about the fundamental nature of Africanness, urbanness, and African urbanness.

That said, I guess I get a sense of what she was saying without saying it -- she had some sense of what is and is not African, and Cape Town did not seem to be it -- too white, too cosmopolitan, not tribal enough. In sum, she revealed her own stereotypes about Africa, but couched them in dismissive platitudes. She had her images of what African cities should be, some exotic idea fixe, and when Cape Town fell short of her Heart of Darkness view of Africa, it was Cape Town's failure, not hers. And of course what better way to solidify one's credentials as a fan of all things Africa than to blithely dismiss one of the world's truly great cities by referring to it as "too European"? Then again, I'm the sort of retrograde anachronist who LIKES London, so I am contemptible to begin with.

I could not help but think of that vexing conversation when I spent all day wandering Pretoria, or Tshwane ("We are all one"), as it is also known now. Pretoria was the bastion of Afrikanerdom. It was the heart of Paul Kruger's Zuid Afrikansche Republiek, later the Transvaal, and Pretoria was the administrative capital of the country, and still is. So it is shocking to wander Pretoria's streets and look around and think, much like that young woman who so fetishized Africanness, "this is an African city." I don't think I meant it in the same way that she did, and a little part of me lamented that white South Africans seem to have forsaken the city that still is in many ways the emotional heart of Afrikanerdom. It is here in Pretoria that the Vortrekker monument Still draws crowds and evokes tears, as it did on Friday when, sadly, too many white South Africans chose to honor the covenant of the past rather than reconciliation with it. Maybe Pretoria is now a "more African" city than it must have been in 1965 if one adheres to a color by numbers view of African cities. And if this transformation is so, it is, on balance, a good thing. But it says a good deal about too many South African whites that it has become this sort of city not because of the demographics, but rather because of white abandonment. To be sure, whites still work in the city, but they come in during the day, park in protected environments, work during the day, and drive to their posh homes in the suburbs at night.

That said, it is nice to see the bombastic statue of Paul Kruger serving largely as a place on which pigeons shit and African children play, blithely unaware of its symbolic past, save perhaps when bothered, verkrampte Afrikaners wait for these cildren to move when they make the pilgrimage into the city to get their photo of their great founder of the Boer republic. I took a picture today of two young black children playing on one of the four Boers that serve as part of the foundation for the sturdy base. I hope it comes out. The picture, that is, not the pigeon shit.

I walked many miles today. One of my goals was to see C-Max, the notorious Central Pretoria prison, which hosts some of the most dangerous, violent prisoners in the country. But I did not walk an extra three miles or so through heavy traffic and otherwise dull areas in order to see just any other prison. I went because Eugene De Kock, whose nickname, "Prime Evil," came FROM HIS PEERS in the 1980s South African security forces, is also in C-Max. I have written extensively about De Kock and have another journal article under consideration in which he features extensively. I just wanted to see the place. For while De Kock was given amnesty for every application he made save one, he is likely to spend the rest of his life there, barring some sort of presidential intervention. De Kock was a notorious apartheid killer. He also was one of the few members of the security forces who went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and fully revealed his secrets. It would barely be an overdramatization to say that I have spent a lot of sleepless nights dealing with my ambivalence about De Kock, whose colleagues and foes alike gave him another nickname: "Fok Fok De Kock" (in this case "fok" is not a false cognate).

On the way to C-Max one passes the headquarters of the South African National Defense Force's (formerly just the SADF) military police and the headquarters of the South African Air Force. Today these might be good and essential places, but knowing that these were also in place during the apartheid years raised some goosebumps of loathing because of the role that the military played in buttresing apartheid.

But those chills were just the beginning. C-Max is imposing. Interestingly enough, it is not daunting because it seems like the most formidable ediface on the outside. Given its proximity to center city, and given the nature of the crimes the C-Max inmates have committed, I was surprised that there were not higher outside walls, more menacing guard towers, electric fences, barbed wire, and so forth. But at the same time, I tried to imagine what a night in C-Max might be like. I did not like what I imagined.

Not far from C-Max is a museum devoted to South Africa's Correctional Facilities, but its hours and days are limited, and it will not be open when I am here. I also would have loved to have tried to arrange an interview with De Kock, who is legendarily camera friendly, but the bureaucracy would have been nightmarish, and I would have needed to have made the arrangements ages ago. Plus, these guys get limited visits. I tend to doubt that De Kock would grant one of those to me in a post-TRC era.p
In the meantime, I am staying at a lovely bed and breakfast on the hills 3 or so kilometers from the city center. My room is built so that it is almost a sun room in the trees, part of a leafy canopy, perhaps a tree house sleepily looking out over Pretoria. The room is windowed on two sides and is positioned to look out at transcedent sunsets. The swimming pool uses the surrounding materials, plus made made ingenuity, so well that being down there (I can look through leaves to see it three floors down, though there are but two guest rooms here) is a bit like being in a private lagoon. The next time you are in Pretoria, I strongly suggest that you stay at the Sunnyside B and B. The Steynbergs will treat you better than you deserve(Hey, I know some of you people and can surmise about the rest).

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