Shades of Separation

Mpumalanga district,

South Africa

August 20, 2016

“How should I put it?” said the owner of a guesthouse in Graskop. I had asked her about the minibus combi to Nelspruit. She started out saying how they weren’t ‘official’, followed by a long winded explanation of how they lacked ‘papers’. She took pains to explain that she would not recommend it and certainly not take it herself.  A member of her staff standing nearby nodded sagely. And then she dropped her voice a few notches and whispered “It is for black people”.

You could have knocked me down with a feather but for the fact that I had been hearing the same tone and sentiment in every town in this area from well-meaning white owners of lodges. I had not rented a car as was the norm but was riding around in minibuses.

In Nelspruit, the owners cautioned me against walking anywhere and recommended taxis that they had on call. “They will slash at you with a knife” she said. And continued “Easy access you see, and then they run”. They helpfully added other choice dire prophesies for my benefit. There is probably more than a little truth to it, given that every house is surrounded by high walls, barbed wire atop the walls and as if that were not enough, electrified fence on top. Prominently displayed on the fences are placards of security companies that warn of twenty-four hour monitoring and armed responses.

In Hazyview at yet another guesthouse I was subjected to a long-winded dissertation on the impossibility of travelling without a car. Small towns like Hazyview, Sabie and Graskop lack taxi service and I had asked the owner about means of getting to the bus station.  At the end of some twenty minutes of oft-repeated sentences he suggested I ask other travelers for a ride. Yet, with the bus station a mere four kilometers away, it did not once occur to him to provide a ride on one of their vehicles that routinely go to town for supplies.

In Sabie I asked a couple of men who stood talking outside the supermarket about transport to Graskop. I got the response “You really need a car to travel here”. “Oh no,” they continued, “we never get on the minibus taxis”. With that pronouncement they turned and walked away toward their cars in the parking lot.

And yet, it is those much maligned people who were kind to a lone traveler. Asking around at one bus station, a local man led me to the owner of a dilapidated pick-up truck. A conversation commenced where several of the people nearby joined in.  An occasional helpful hint was sprinkled in among a host of not-so-helpful suggestions. Despite not knowing the whereabouts of the lodge, the old man agreed to give me a ride for a few rands.  The young man who had led me to the truck promptly got in as well and we drove off sardine-like in the cab of the truck. It was the kind of truck where you have to beat on the door to get it to open. Once open, you have to cling to it like a limpet to hold it shut for the duration of the ride.

I have not travelled extensively in South Africa but in the areas that I have, I received help each time I needed it from the passerby on the street and more often in minibuses. On more than one occasion when I got myself hopelessly lost in town, it was the driver or the conductor who helped, once even driving a bit out of the way to drop me off at the correct bus stop.

Was I simply lucky? Or had I not taken enough rides? Perhaps as a grungy traveler hauling an even more grungy backpack, I was not a promising enough target? Then again, perhaps this is a continually perpetuating attitude because those others never bother to take these forms of transport.

I have no answers but this stark separation extends to every sphere of life here. In buses, in the choice of neighbourhoods, in the cafes and restaurants, in supermarkets and in the workplace; it appears to be inextricably entwined into the very fabric of this country. Two different worlds that continue along separate lines rarely if ever spilling onto each other. It seems unutterably sad that apartheid may be over in principle, but remains very much a way of life.

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