All posts by Harvie

Flowers to Vleisfees

I don’t really do flowers. I could walk into a room full of dead flowers and not notice – and I felt the same about veld-flowers until I saw Namaqualand.

We were there in a good year. That was the talk at the bar of the rather alarming Masonic Hotel in Springbok, along with the weather, which on that Thursday afternoon was definitely not playing ball. We were gathered around SABC2 to find out the forecast for Friday. “Dis en lang pad van Pretoria om reen te krye” was the ongoing whine of the ladies from the Le Roux Toere bus, “en mere sal dit weer r’en.” Oh dear.
Fortunately, contrary to the predictions of Johan Schutte, Friday dawned clear and lay-bys at especially colourful vantage points filled up early with enthusiasts climbing onto their vehicle roofs better to capture the scene.

They greet one another, these flower-spotters, with wild floral enthusiasm. “Is julle van Mpumalanga? Dis en ander woreld, hierdie, nie?” They lie in the sand – oblivious to the primary bladder-relieving purpose of a lay-by out of flower season – to get a side-on-in-amongst-it view of the radiant verges. Flower fetishists will go to any lengths to get the best angle of dangle on a daisy. Pancake stalls open up on the roadside to fast-feed the followers. It is another world indeed.

At Vanrhynsdorp we turned east up the escarpment and onto the Bokkeveld Plateau to Nieuwoudtville, where proud boards told us we were in the Bulb Capital of the World. Correctly presuming this to be a reference to flower-bulbs, not light-bulbs, we were dazzled. There are a few regions that might dispute it, Belfast, Mpumalanga for a start, not to mention Amsterdam, Holland, but how fantastic that it should be true enough for Nieuwoudtville to claim this title unashamedly. And what a lovely town.

Still we were surrounded by veld-flowers. By the time we got to Calvinia where, by chance, we arrived at the opening of the Vleisfees, my jaw was tired from wowing like a goldfish.

You could tell immediately that there was something going on in Calvinia because there were people awake on a Friday afternoon. A police combi, emblazoned with the SAPS badge and the words Booze Bus, blocked the main intersection. I was liking Calvinia even more if the cops were selling dop until it dawned on me that this vehicle was for performing blood tests on suspected over-limit drivers. Calvinia came back into focus.

The khaki-clad, side-armed booze-bus driver signalled that we should turn left but, emboldened by my certainty that I was sober, I ignored him and carried on down the main drag, pulling into a petrol station. Thus it was that we had the best possible pump-jockey’s-eye view of the show that followed. This was Calvinia dressed, like the rest of the Karoo, in all its finery.

It started with a classic car or two and it wasn’t until the first float, a low-bed truck with a few strings of tinsel and couple of laaitjies in the uniform of the Primore Skool, that we woke up to the fact that we were witnessing a carnival procession and not just a couple of Ooms coming in from the farm in their jalopies for a brandewyn or two.

It got better. A string of old tractors followed the children, steered with great effort by lined, old men clenching their teeth to stop their cheeks wobbling as they bumbled down Hoop Street. The tractors were spotless, dated back many decades and had obviously been lovingly restored and polished for this annual outing.

Next, centre stage, ahead of the Senior School float, came the Queen of the Vleisfees, MEJ CALVINIA 2006 emblazoned on her blue sash. Perched on the back of a bakkie, she was flanked by her two princesses, one blond like her queen and the other smaller and somewhat darker. (Calvinia is nothing if not politically correct). These girls were keenly accompanied by an escort of about thirty teenage outriders, mounted on quad bikes and delightedly leering at their monarch-for-a-day whilst simultaneously revving their oupas on the tractors.

It lasted all of five minutes, this microcosm of Karoo life. The pump jockeys cheered loudly and suddenly it was over. As we pulled out of town there was a strong smell of burning meat. There was going to be a groot opskop, and that’s for sure.

We hadn’t been able to find anywhere to stay in Calvinia – the town was fully booked as if for Nagmaal, and it’s a long road to Williston at dusk, especially when you’re sober, but the rivers were running and the flowers went on for ever. We could cope.

A colour-blind South African

It’s good to be home. Or is it?

I have always been pleased to return home to South Africa. In fact I have been known, embarrassingly, to kiss the tarmac at Johannesburg International (regardless of the political colour of its eponymous historical leader) on reaching the bottom of the steps from the plane. But after one hundred and ten days on the road, visiting eight Southern and East African nations, driving 26,000 kilometres, this time was different. Coming home was a time for reflection and contrasts, doubt and even despair.

On driving across the border from Namibia, the first South African radio news broadcast I had heard in three months was a depressing reminder of the issues we still have to resolve in this country. After months of newscasts detailing the comparatively parochial issues faced by communities in nearby lands, our own news came across as racially-polarised, self-obsessed, point-scoring and very unsettling.

Tony Yengeni was carried shoulder-high into jail, to serve his sentence for corruption, and backed up by the presence of leading members of government; statistics again revealed the disparity between the standards of living of South Africa’s various ‘population groups’; a black man’s rape of a white woman raised once again the question of whether the case would have been given such a high profile had it involved a black woman; vehicle hijackings were up; the government’s record on AIDS was criticised from Toronto; Jacob Zuma’s latest trial was due to begin and he was being championed from all sides; the Land Claims Court was blaming white farmers for standing in the way of change.

I think I had genuinely lost all racial awareness after so long out of the country but these headlines brought it back to me with a jolt. I had been pre-prepared a few days earlier by an incident in South Luangwa in Zambia when I was accused of racism by a black South African overland-truck mechanic, in asking him to turn his kwaito down in the national park campsite as he was scaring the animals away. “Let the black man play his music; leave me alone and go and look at your bloody birds” was his response. What would a German or a Brit have made of this? He or she would surely have been very puzzled that this was somehow a racial issue?

In East Africa, if you break down (which you do), you wait on the roadside, flag down a vehicle or stop a passing pedestrian and they help you, in our case, to give two examples, three Maasai helped us remove a damaged shock absorber in Tanzania and a Ugandan taxi driver (and his passengers) helped us change a tyre when our wheel spanner broke. In South Africa the best advice is to lock yourself in your car and call the police, or better still, a friend.

In East Africa, if you see a policeman, as with most countries in the world, you assume he is honest and that he is protecting you, preventing crime, would tell you the time if you asked or explain the route to you if you are lost. In South Africa the tendency is to assume that anyone in a policeman’s uniform is corrupt, about to extract a bribe from you and probably behind the latest break-in at your house.

As a result of my new-found relaxed attitude towards my fellow-Africans, I spent a very happy four hours in their company in the queue for a new driver’s license in White River the other day, sharing a joke at the undoubted inefficiencies of the system that led us all to be there for so long. I bought King Pies for my neighbours in the line at lunchtime and gave them a lift to Pick’n Pay at the end of the day. It didn’t seem strange to me and I can’t speak for them but wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were usual, not unusual behaviour?

We South Africans, of all colours if we must stipulate that fact, are perpetuating our own hang-ups by thinking in colour all the time. Them and us. ‘They’ broke into my car last night. ‘You people’ don’t understand. We are haunted by our preconceptions to the point of paranoia.

It is an obsession and we need to shake it off. In all the time that I travelled, in all those kilometres, I had not one item stolen, I was never threatened, no-one (with the exception of the above incident with the South African in Zambia) was rude to me, no-one mentioned bribery to me and no-one mentioned colour. I was South African, so we were all Africans and therefore distant cousins. That was good enough for them and more than good enough for me.

I talked about ‘the man in the purple shirt’, ‘the mechanic’, ‘the owner of the restaurant’, ‘the bus driver’. In South Africa, telling the same stories I would probably have specified that the first and third were black, the second Indian and the last white, because it would somehow have painted a necessary picture for my audience but, in fact, this tells me only about myself and my probable audience.

We expected, somewhat arrogantly I suppose, that the people we met would be slightly impressed that we were South African. Big economy, masses of tourists, Eskom, DStv, Vodacom, good roads etc. It was sobering indeed that the most common reaction was ‘South African? You have a lot of crime there don’t you?’ and, sure enough, within two days of coming home, R500 and a cellphone were stolen from my hotel room in the Karoo and I had to leave the vehicle in Secure Parking for the first time since I left home in case the roof rack was emptied in the street.

Most of our fellow East and Southern Africans have had more than forty years of independence, social revolution and nation-building. They are way ahead of us. (The notable exception is Zimbabwe, which, maybe like South Africa, ploughed ahead with a new dispensation without looking carefully enough at any issues which might arise later). We need to ask ourselves crucial questions and formulate government policy on the basis of the answers.

Do we want white people here or don’t we? Are we serious about reducing crime or aren’t we? Are we going to save the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS or aren’t we? Should we be giving away land to unqualified farmers or should we let market forces decide who farms? Are we going to have provincial government or aren’t we? Do we need to be wary of tribal divisions in the 21st century or should we abolish ten of our official languages? Should we employ on the basis of qualifications or colour?

We have another twenty years of social revolution ahead of us but we could cut that short now by straight-talking and honest action. Then we can look our neighbouring countrymen in the eye and tell them that we, like them, know who we are and where we are going.

Dogs Bite Blacks and The Young are Colour-blind – two South African truisms. Surely we are more intelligent than our dogs and can make a judgement that is not only more than skin-deep but is not based on skin at all? And if the young are colour-blind, let’s remove our ‘old’ struggle-obsessed politicians and let the young run the country before they develop cynical, partisan views.

It is very good to be home, but why can’t I always feel here the way I felt amongst our neighbours? Why won’t my government let me be African? What does colour, be it political or dermatological, have to do with it? Why are we such a sad, self-obsessed bunch? Can we move on please? The rainbow is irrelevant if it draws attention to our colour. Let’s be people.

Fit for a Queen

As readers are no doubt aware Freddie Mercury would have turned 60 years old in September this year, had he survived to see it. It is a mind-bending exercise to hazard a guess as to what the diva might have chosen from his wardrobe as he headed out to join the party planned for Saturday 2nd September on the beach in Zanzibar, as it is there, surely, that he would have chosen to mark the occasion,
It is the one fascinating fact about Zanzibar that every islander will tell you. Freddie Mercury was born in one house or another in Stone Town. (There appears to be some doubt as to exactly which one). He stayed there, apparently, until he was six years old and his real name was Farrokh Bulsara. One wonders why he changed it.

From the celebrations planned, you would have thought that he had lived there all his curtailed life. A few despotic politicians apart, Freddie remains the Spice Island’s most famous son and the party of the decade was to consist of big screen videos and Queen’s music until dawn on the beach in front of the eponymous Mercury’s pub. This fine establishment is, for now anyway, despite its impending demolition in a land reclamation project, the only monument to Freddie on the island, complete with moving tribute at the front of the menu, naff T-shirts and terrible coffee.

Just down the quay, however, another party takes place every evening of the year, where the beautifully dilapidated Forodhani Gardens are transformed nightly into a huge walk-through seafood restaurant. Ignore the out-of-place Maasai selling bracelets, carry on past the ubiquitous curio dealers and head for the front, stopping only for a chilled glass of maji wa sukari, made from freshly squeezed cane with ginger and lime, on the way.

The lawns and benches are strewn with people and the kanzas and bui-buis of local fashion, interspersed with the odd bemused French tourist, add even more colour to the already exotic scene. The sun sets behind a perfectly-positioned-for-a-photograph beached dhow. The heady, local taarab music plays in the background, interrupted only by the call to prayer and the buzz of Vespas. The scene is lit by dozens of kerosene lamps and the air is thick with the smell of fresh spices, sizzling prawns and frying chapattis.

At first sight the dockside kitchens can be slightly off-putting. Table after table is laden with dead crustaceans and staring fish of every description. Everything is cooked in front of you on a charcoal burner and served up on a paper plate whilst a bored youth uses a spare plate to wave away the flies.

But Ali and Juma are masters of their art. Their newspaper-covered stall is decked with sosaties of calamari, shrimps, white snapper, lobster, shark, clams and mussels or you can choose grilled langoustines, marlin steaks, sea perch, bean fritters, samoosas or crab claws with baked cassava.

Everything is delicious, cooked to a turn, juicy and lightly splashed with their excellent pili-pili sauce. It was the best meal I had on the island, finished off with a thick Swahili coffee, flavoured with cardamom, from a nearby stall. The whole meal set me back only R40.
Ali and Juma will have been in the Forodhani Gardens on 2nd September, selling their octopi and prawns, probably blissfully unaware of that great tribute to a legend going on just up the beach. I know where I would have been – but I am sure there will have been plenty of fat-bottom backpackers to make their rockin’ world go round at the other venue.

Maji wa Sukara
(Cane juice with ginger and lemon) Makes one glass

Ingredients:

18 inches raw sugar cane
1/2 lime or lemon
1-inch thick slice of fresh ginger

Method:

Peel the sugar cane with a knife or a potato-peeler until the white is exposed. Squeeze the cane with an old mangle, if you can find one, passing it through the squeezer again and again and occasionally passing the lemon and garlic through with it. Catch the juices in a glass, straining carefully two or three times and serve with ice. (If you cannot find a mangle, or if your rollers are too close together to accommodate the ingredients, you could use a food blender instead, in which case chop the cane into manageable pieces and throw it in with the other ingredients and blend on a slow speed, sieving several times before serving).

Going bananas in Tanzania

It seemed that we had arrived in the Usambara Mountains in the middle of the harvest festival. From every hilltop and slope, every shamba and stream of this misty range in NW Tanzania there poured forth fresh produce. A tantalising sight for these dust-choked travellers from the South.

The capital of the region, Lushoto, was chosen by the Kaiser as the putative capital of German East Africa in the early part of the last century. He had a spectacular house built for himself, on a crest looking down to the Maasai Steppe below, and employed a German housekeeper or ten (naturally).

Sadly he only managed to stay in his African Alpine schloss for one or two short visits before the perfidious British, for totally irrelevant European reasons, hoofed him out of his colony and then foolishly established their capital on the sultry disease-ridden coast instead.

That was the problem with the British. No sense of the romantisch or the praktisch. Out there in the midday sun, beavering away building colonies and stealing other peoples’, when even the hard-working native was sheltering in the bananas.

That’s what they do around here. Bananas. A bit of mieliemeal from time to time and a spot of cassava here and there, but basically it’s bananas. Not, though, those sweet, yellow bananas we all eat at home. These are unripe green plantain bananas that form the staple matoke here, boiled and then mashed to a grey pulp. And they taste as awful as they sound. Bland doesn’t begin to cover it.

But luckily this is not all that is coming out of the hills. Tanzania may not have a huge variety of produce but after good late rains such as these, the streets are filled with food.

Beans, red onions, peppers, brinjals, chillis of all shapes and sizes, sweet potatoes, huge shiny tomatoes and avocados the size of rugby balls are overflowing from the stalls in the market and travelling down the hill in bowls on heads. (The occasional truck comes up for the cabbages, which don’t balance too easily, or in great numbers, on a head).

The market also boasts stalls of fresh herbs, spices, seeds, lentils, coconuts, cashews and groundnuts. There is no meat to be seen although there is a rather alarming butchery – not for the faint-hearted – nearby.

The Tanzanians make the best coleslaws (I know nobody really likes coleslaw but these are really good) and ratatouilles and shebas; they make wonderful tomato and avocado salads doused with a tangy onion vinaigrette and a spicy shredded salad with chilli and lemon called kachumbari; they make clever use of groundnuts, chilli, ginger, garlic and herbs. They make so many diverse combinations with so many baffling flavours out of so few ingredients that there is a never-ending line of bowls of spicy, toothsome side-dishes to supplement the matoke, which, let’s face it, is a good thing because matoke needs all the help it can get.

As local celebrity Father Peter Kelly of the Rosminian Mission in Lushoto explained in a philosophical Irish moment “the good Lord has torned a dairsert into an ooaysis, a famine into a feeeast; Oy don’t know whether it was intentionally good work by the Lord but it was good work anyway”.

In other words, as the food flows out of the Usambaras and into the markets of Arusha, Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam, the local Sambaa people know that whilst this is a time of plenty, they must eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’re dry.

The best recipe was picked up at the Marangu Hotel at the foot of another Tanzanian mountain, Kilimanjaro. Contact details may be found at www.maranguhotel.com.

Jackie Brice-Bennett’s Marangu Groundnut Sauce

(Any number of known and unknown uses, but especially recommended in a roll with avocado and boerewors).

4 medium onions coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves
6 red chillies
350gms skinned, roasted groundnuts/peanuts
4 tblsps sunflower oil
2 tblsps Soy sauce
1 tblsps tomato puree
2 tblps water (optional)
300-500 ml coconut milk
2 tblps brown sugar
Salt (taste first)
Blend, onion, garlic, chillies to a paste in a food processor. Scrape out as best possible and, without washing the bowl, grind the peanuts in the food processor.

Heat oil in wok or large flat bottomed frying pan. Add onion/garlic paste and fry for one minute.

Add peanuts and stir until combined – you may want to add the water here to loosen the paste. Add all other ingredients, except extra salt. Gently cook until all flavours combine and a thickish sauce is made. (I actually put in as much liquid as it will comfortably absorb). Then taste and see if you need to add the extra salt.

The Great Escape

December is a time of demographic shift in the Lowveld. The population of Bushbuckridge doubles. Toll plazas on the N4 sport queues of Gautengers and Vrystaaters heading for the National Kruger Wild Garden. The Lowveld is seething with aliens.

So what does the Lowvelder do? He vats his goed, treks away from Ferreira Street and invades the outside world. Or he stays at home and hibernates.

December 15th. N4 West. 200 Nelspruit mechanics are speeding away in their highly-polished Colt twin-cabs with the latest Gypsey woonwa hitched on. Have you ever tried to get your car serviced at Christmas? Forget it. Hannes is op pad, with sokkiejol on the CD-player, Ouma squeezed in the back with 4 kids and Ma in the front dishing out the padkos. He’s driving through the night, stopping only to refuel and to make sure that the roof-mounted fishing rods are still twice the length of the bakkie. He’ll spend 2 weeks on the rocks near Port St Johns, vying for the best spot. Braaied fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That is Hannes’s holiday.

December 15th. Lebombo borderpost. 100 Onderberg farmers are driving their dusty Defenders with trailers full of quad bikes, skottels and coolboxes in tow. Or rather they are sitting in a 10km queue, waiting to corrupt an official before joining the line of traffic down to Punta d’Ouro. Oom Piet’s holiday is a brandy and coke, watching the grandchildren doing doughnuts on the Mozambiquan beaches and complaining that the prawns get smaller and more expensive every year.

December 15th. Beaufort West. 50 Lowveld lawyers and accountants in their BMWs are refuelling for the last stretch of the long road to Cape Town. The boot is filled with swimwear in the latest summer colours. Two weeks lie ahead in an expensive cottage on the beach at Llandudno. Keith’s holiday consists of reading, spending quality time with his Uplands-educated family and rounding his vowels to fit in with the locals. Heaven forbid that anyone should take him for a plaasjaapie. Next year it’ll be the Côte d’Azur or Florida.

December 15th. Johannesburg International Airport. 6 Hazyview medics and their families are heading for England, followed by a week’s skiing in Verbier. They are wondering whether to leave, like every other doctor the town has ever had, and put up with the rainy Cotswolds in exchange for pockets full of pounds and rugby at Twickenham. Britain has South African shops these days and you can get boerewors and tinned snoek in every supermarket. This holiday is a voyage of discovery. And all their former colleagues are living there already.

December 15th. Riverside Mall, Nelspruit. Gerda is frantically searching Pick’n Pay for mince pies, chocolate and steak, Toy Cave for a Play Station 2, Game for a tasteful plastic Christmas tree with pink flashing lights and CNA for stocking-fillers. The factory’s closed and Liefie is home until New Year, so Bokkie’s stocking up on presents, food and beer and preparing to play the home-maker.

December 15th. Any Lowveld pub. Grant and Linda are bent over a clipboard designing Christmas menus. They are now the backbone of society as they struggle to ensure suitable celebrations for their deliriously demob-happy fellow-citizens. Their waiters have all gone inexplicably missing but it’s Christmas Party time so they are lining up the shooters and the Jeyes fluid, ready for a deluge of punters.

December 15th. Bester Street, Nelspruit. All the umlungus have hit the road for anywhere else and everybody’s just been paid. The pavements are lined with litter and blocked with people, Black Label in hand, Boxer-rolled-in-newspaper ablaze and there’s kwaito belting out at full tilt from every shop and stall. Loud conversations can be held, across 100 yards of traffic, with oncoming friends. Nelspruit has come alive and will stay alive until the last person has been scraped into the last taxi and delivered home to Kabokweni. This is Isaac’s holiday. Pretty will look after him when he’s ready to go home. He’s waited 50 weeks for this moment and nobody’s going to deprive him of his annual two weeks of noise, mayhem, late nights and hangovers.

Merry Christmas.

The Lowveld has it all (but we are happy to share)

We Lowvelders know, without a glimmer of doubt, that we live in the best part of South Africa. There is a ring about being a Lowvelder – so much more meaningful than being a Gautenger or a Capie. We were never Vaalies. Vaalies were the other Transvaalers…

As naturally hospitable people, Lowvelders can easily identify the origins of people from other parts of the country. This ability allows us to tolerate their unintentional bragging and gently point out our assets at the expense of those strange icons of which buitelanders are so proud. That comical little mountain in Cape Town, for example…

Capetonians talk funny. They say “Marntin”. But our “marntins” are bigger than theirs and mountains should have views over scenery like the dam at the Three Rondavels, not of polluted air hovering over the Cape Flats with an occasional tantalising glimpse of the relatively unimposing Hottentots-Hollands. And we know what a shark looks like, even if the sea-sozzled southerner can’t tell a rhino from a warthog.

Who needs lighthouses? We don’t have freezing cold mists rolling over us all day or horrendous, gale-force winds hurtling across our landscapes. Our hills are green and they are home to copious different flora and fauna, not rough and rocky with the odd ostrich and the fearful circling of bloodthirsty raptors in search of sustenance.

The oldest families of Kwa-Zulu Nataaaaal have nothing over us either. We have a Drakensberg too; we keep horses (but, with our sound respect for animals, we do not dragoon them into playing polo); we don’t have cane rats and our dogs have books written about them; we too have bush, berg and beach, but spreading over three countries, and we can leave the mountains in the morning, take a game drive, and still be in Maputo, eating prawns on the beach by lunchtime. (When did you last have a fresh mussel in Durban? Durban mussels come from New Zealand).

Those poor Freestaters and Northwesters squint in the highveld glare, staring out into nothingness from their sad Swiss-style chalets on the banks of the Hartebeespoort Puddle and over the achingly dull miles of mielies and sun-dazzled heliotropes. Our scenery is unspoilt by power stations and our thunderstorms are the best in the land.

Oh yes, and sorry, Slummie, or Blown-away Friendly Person, with your bouffant hair and your caravans, but those are not game reserves – our back gardens are bigger than that (and contain more wildlife). Lowvelders know that a game reserve must be bigger than Wales or it doesn’t count. Our elephants are bigger and stronger (and less aggressive); our river gorges are just as gorgeous as yours (and ours have waterfalls). Your Garden Route is, well, reasonably attractive, but where are all the gardens?

Gautengers, in their spotless, neatly ironed khakis and their shiny BMW X5s, tell us that they have not been to the Lowveld since veldskool. Why? It’s because we are so tantalisingly close. Paradise, three hours down the N4, is a constant reminder that there is more to life than a GANGSTA1 GP number plate, Emmarentia Dam and Gilooly’s Interchange. They ride on our tails in their big, shiny cars and overtake us on blind rises.

The Lowvelder’s slow lifestyle is real living. Hence the name of this publication…
Who needs dunes and dusty deserts? Who needs malls and movies? Who needs perlemoen and penguins, waterfronts and whales? We recognise and love people from other parts of our country. We welcome them because we Lowvelders have it all. We know that. They know that. It’s great isn’t it?

Who has been drinking in my pub

Take the Hysterical Hornbill, in Hazyview, for example. Youth chic meets artisan in overalls. Or The Keg and Jock, in Nelspruit, where urban sports fan drinks alongside governmental gravy train passengers. Or Bagdad Café, in White River – the Old Lowveld looks askance, across its glass of Sauvignon Blanc, at the khaki-clad Land Rover jockey.

Lowvelders fall into a multitude of categories and we have called in a local anthropologist to assist our readers in the identification process. Here are some of his observations:

The young fall into several camps. (In fact they often fall into car parks, loos, dustbins – anything into which it is possible to fall). Shooters, or more specifically, Bugz – a luridly-coloured instant hangover – are the binding factor here. After a couple of these, whatever the imbiber’s home language or cultural stance, everyone is speaking the same incomprehensible drivel.

Uniform is broadly Mpumalanga-grunge – baggy jeans or ankle-length shorts, hanging at half-mast and exposing untanned and frequently unidentifiable parts of the anatomy, and T-shirts with subtle slogans such as SUIP AFRIKA and I LOVE MY BUSHVELD. Dreadlocks and pony-tails abound amongst the males. Females frequently have almost no hair at all or bizarre extensions which look like pineapples. They are only distinguishable by their choice of music, which can be anything from Groot Treffers to Bump.

The medium-aged (never middle-aged) are the backbone of Lowveld society. Their pub is a restaurant and they are most easily identifiable by the menu they prefer. There are the Surf’n’Turfers, dressed in brightly-coloured shirts and dresses (often with a dragon motif or heavy with red flowers). The clothes are chosen exclusively by the female of the species and worn, with great tolerance, by both sexes. (The men only wear dresses in private and occasionally when braaiing or attending government functions where they pass them off as Madiba shirts). Natural fibres are not a priority, despite the fire-risk when cooking. The music is provided by Jakaranda 94.2.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Deep-fried Brie and Cranberry Brigade male tends towards look-young cargo shorts and Woolworths seasonal 100% cotton shirts, which he believes to be genuine Ralph Lauren. His wife (or lady-friend) wears bottom-hugging jeans and a tight white T-shirt, which she calls a “top”. She is often crowned with a baseball cap sporting the name of an exclusive private game reserve (usually one for which she has done some interior design work or owned by “old friends”). The music is Fleetwood Mac and Watershed. The Nouveau Noir subcategory fits all the above stereotypes but the music is more likely to be Senegalese.

The ageless form a fascinating Lowveld culture. Khaki-clad in veldskoene and more often than not male, this group, which includes more and more up-and-coming entrepreneurs, breeds a character with a unique-to-Mpumalanga number of red blood cells, causing him to concentrate his heart-breaking intentions on innocent pale-faced visitors from further afield.

Tanned and Chesterfield-smoking, the ageless are to be found hurtling across the region in canvas-topped vehicles, specially adapted to snare the affections of unwitting tourists who have previously only ever been in love with their dogs and their ski-instructors. Most easily found at the airport, bidding moving and apparently reluctant farewells to attractive young female clients, the ageless man plays no music, preferring to woo his public with the mellifluous tones of his own cigarette-deepened voice. The comparatively rare ageless female is almost identical, in similar tight shorts, with Oakley shades and a ribald commentary on the mating habits of animals. She differs only in that she is unlikely to smoke Chesterfield.

The comparatively old Lowvelder drinks only where eating is de rigueur. This might be a gin-and-tonic get-together at the country club, a Sunday picnic with loud gospel music at Bourke’s Luck Potholes or in the Forest Falls car park, an Opskop with Windsurf-dancing at the Boeresaal or a meeting of a Christian Cell in a Pancake Bar. This group is the most culturally-aware and traditional. They do not listen to music, but they love to complain about the pronunciation on SAfm or RSG and the use of the word Lekgotla by presenters who mean Bosberaad. The men buy their clothes at Nevill’s in Nelspruit, where they are still offered a cup of coffee whilst the debate continues as to whether it should be a plain light brown or a plain light blue shirt and the women shop only on their regular trips to see their offspring who have emigrated to the Highveld.

The ancient Lowvelder hovers around on sticks or the arm of a younger relative. Ancients frequent pubs very rarely – only when dragged out by the dutiful family for an airing – and then they prefer tea and cake at The Brazilian, where the lavatory is nearby. They don’t drive as they have already had their cars purloined by their grandchildren for the hair-raising trip onto the Escarpment, a trip they last made themselves when the N4 was a single-track road from Lourenco Marques to the Reef. It took the whole day to get from Mataffin to Johannesburg and Ultra-City was a field of Cosmos dating back to the South African War, which they still remember. They are the living history of the Lowveld and they cannot bring themselves to use the words Mall or Highway any more than they can accept that such facilities have reached the land they pioneered.

The essence of the Lowveld lies in its people and their pubs are their personalities. From Shebeen to Cocktail Bar, Bushpub to Nightclub, the opportunities for Lowvelder-spotting are endless and very rewarding. Draw up a checklist and head out today…

South Africa Revisited

About ten years ago I wrote an article, for this prestigious publication, on the transition of South Africa. Ten years on, in celebration of visits to South Africa, simultaneously, by an Aldro Cricket Tour, by the new Headmaster and by one of Aldro’s most dedicated Old Aldronians, Mr James Geffen, I have been asked by the latter to do so again.

So what happened to Post-apartheid Reconciliation, to the Rainbow Nation, to Nelson Mandela and to the Rand? What has happened with Africanisation, Tribalism and the Pan-African Dream – the African Renaissance. How are we doing down here at the bottom of the Dark Continent?

In a word, well. In two words, very well.

Aldro’s cricketers, and their supporters, will receive a welcome here – a welcome which resounds from one end of the country to the other. South Africans love tourists, they love visitors, they love anyone who loves their country. South Africans, themselves, love their country almost as much as they hate Messrs Duckworth and Lewis…

The country has a sound economy. It is one of only a handful of countries in the world with a negligible trade deficit. Mortgage rates are at their lowest in 30 years, we have single-digit inflation (compare this with 138% in Zimbabwe) and our banking sector is consistently rated in the top ten in the world. Not bad for a third world country. The Rand has gained 20% in 2 months.

Our electricity is the cheapest and our tap water is the third best quality in the world. But then who drinks water when South African Breweries is the 3rd largest beer producer in the world and our wines continue to win endless international awards?

And all of this has to be seen in perspective. Only 18 years ago, in 1986, a state of emergency was declared, white men did two years compulsory military service, 641,840 black people were removed from “white areas”, 3,989 people were detained without trial, our economic growth rate was 0.7% (now it is nearly 5%) and 64 countries had sports boycotts against South Africa.

So what happened? Tourism, Sport and Nelson Mandela. The rugby world cup and more recently its cricket counterpart, despite our tragic exit (as tragic as England’s but without the whingeing of the English captain), allowed the peaceful transition of which we all dreamed, we thought, in vain. Obviously there have been many other influencing factors, but sport and tourism are key, along with the wealth creation, which goes hand in hand with economic growth.

We had 8 British Asian cricket-supporters staying with us the other day. Some failed the Tebbit Test, others passed. All were born in East Africa, so when all else failed (England and India) they would support Kenya. They, however, interestingly said, that, after the welcome they had received in South Africa, they would go home to London with a more positive view of themselves. They had braaied (barbecued) with Afrikaners, toyi-toyied (danced) with Zulus – and everywhere they had gone they had been welcomed, not with the confusion one might expect, but with the genuine enthusiasm South Africans have for the opportunity to mix with people of different cultures. I think that says it all.

But obviously the greatest nation-builder has been Mandela’s charismatic approach. Mandela is an icon. I was told recently by one of the British Royal Family’s motorcycle escorts that they had been advised by South African Police, when Mandela came to London, to multiply by ten the number of people expected to line the streets. They did, and they still could not cope with the numbers. I have not met him, but I have been at a rally addressed by him. He radiates forgiveness, tolerance and humility. He is a quite extraordinary presence.

Sadly his successor is not so dynamic, but we are lucky enough still to have Mandela in the background. Thabo Mbeki, the current president, is a dreamer, far from pragmatic; obsessed with his role on the international stage, ahead of his responsibilities at home. Luckily, he is backed by a capable cabinet and a very sound Minister of Finance. Sounds a bit like Britain, under Blair, on the road to war with Iraq, does it not?

Mbeki dreams and preaches the African Renaissance. Africa born again as a powerhouse, with South Africa as a driving force. Sadly, this is hardly likely to become a reality with tyrants such as Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma at the helm of their teetering economies on South Africa’s borders and carrying on uncountered by their powerful neighbour. The other side of the coin, however, is that Mozambique and Angola, embraced by South African business, are going from strength to strength.

So what are our problems? AIDS is a huge problem. Corruption, on a small scale, is a problem, but is checked by countless NGO’s. Tribalism is political but no longer violent. As in all post-colonial societies the more intellectual people, such as the Xhosa, the Venda and the Indians, dominate the more aggressive, such as the Zulus and the Afrikaners. The gravest problem is that we still can’t get Jaffa Cakes.

But the rest of the news is good. Unemployment is reducing. Crime is reducing. (The recent furore over a couple of attacks on tourists has to be seen in perspective – 29 tourists were killed last year in Australia). Crime (principally theft) in the small town of Hazyview, on the border of the Kruger National Park, where I have my hotel, is down 30% over the last year. We have fewer incidents than a Cotswold town of the same size. We have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The world’s largest green canyon is only 20 miles away. I can see the edge of it as I type. And Table Mountain speaks for itself and for Cape Town, one of the ten places that the BBC says you MUST see before you die.

Tourism is up 40% this year. We are thousands of miles from the War on Terror, Jerusalem and Baghdad. Aldro has chosen a great time to be here. Welcome to South Africa. Siyakwamukela!

South Africa in transition

South Africa is a country of extremes; never has the mere name of country awakened such diverse reactions when uttered; and never has a country undergone such rapid change, so peacefully and with such dignity. But then South Africans have always had an innate gift for the dramatic, if not the melodramatic – and this year’s election was too great an opportunity to pass up. Who ever heard of a government voluntarily negotiating its way out of power in order to allow an ex-convict, The Number One Enemy of the State, to take over the reins. It happened here on 27th April 1994.

I have lived in South Africa for 12 years, on and off, and have been privileged to be a part of this extraordinary transition from police state under the iron fist of the Nationalist government, voted into power in 1948 by 5% of the population and remaining there with that mandate for almost 50 years, to the world’s newest and most exciting democracy.

Through thick and thin, I have always loved this land of contrasts. From the rolling hills of Zululand – evoking the legends of the past, of Shaka Zulu, of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana – to the sprawling townships to the South-West of Johannesburg – Soweto, creation of apartheid and home to almost 4 million South Africans.

From the subtropical Indian Ocean Coast – sugarcane plantations and Durban, the Blackpool of the Southern Hemisphere – to Cape Town – South Africa’s Riviera, surrounded by vineyards and crowned by Table Mountain, surely rating with Sydney and Rio as one of the most beautiful cities on earth.

From the Karoo – the Great Thirst, as the Hottentots called it, parts of which only see rain every ten years – to the citrus plantations of the Eastern Transvaal, bordering on the famous Kruger National Park – an area larger than Wales or Israel, 19 485 sq. km., and home to 147 species of mammal, 507 birds, 144 reptiles, 33 amphibians and 49 freshwater fish. And not forgetting, the vast 10 000-acre farms in the wheat-growing belt of the Orange Free State – the bread-basket of Southern Africa.

“The World in One Country”, our tourism board calls it; “Cry, the Beloved Country”, Alan Paton called his haunting book, and then, as if to faintly reassure us, named the sequel “Ah, but your Land is Beautiful”; Rian Malan tried to understand his own guilt at leaving the country on moral grounds and returning because, despite himself, he loved it too much and called his book “My Traitor’s Heart”.

My aim is not to judge the system, or to make any political comment. That would be wrong and this is not the place. South Africa’s political system came about for purely South African reasons. I merely want to illustrate the absolute bemusement of a young English boy when confronted with it and how he fell under the South African spell. What is it that makes South Africa?

I arrived here on my 19th birthday, 1st February 1983, with no knowledge of the country, no foreboding; no real understanding of where I was. Nothing but the just-left-school glee of the year-off teenager, travelling the world as a colonist manqué. I had been planning to spend the year in Argentina but was persuaded, in the light of the ongoing Falklands Conflict, that Englishmen were not welcome there. But they were welcome in South Africa. Of course they were. Anyone with a white skin was welcome in those days.

So I arrived, in my naivety, knowing nothing of the history of the geography of the country – Charterhouse must have been applying sanctions – nothing of the people, the languages, the size of the country. Nothing.

For the first three hours I hated South Africa but from Hour Four I think I new that I would live here for the rest of my life. I have been back to England several times in the intervening years but I was there only bodily. I had left my heart, like so many before, in Africa.

Certain episodes stick in my mind, reinforcing the contrasts of the land whilst going some way to explaining its complexity. The first three hours were my first experience of the staggering bureaucracy required to work “apartheid”. It took an hour and a half to clear Immigration. Everyone had to be registered by colour and nationality, which meant knowing where and when all four of your grandparents were born. The thickset Afrikaans immigration officer was pawing away it his highly sophisticated computer, intent on building up my dossier for BOSS (the Bureau of State Security), when I asked him please not to stamp my passport, but to stamp the inserted piece of paper instead. He asked me why and I explained to him that a South African stamp would preclude my visiting half of the countries in the world and most notably the so-called black African countries. His reply was “Why on earth would you want to visit one of those?” I am not sure to this day whether he was being amusing, but I doubt it.

There had obviously been someone fairly high-powered on the plane because, up to this point, we had been escorted by members of the South African Defence Force, pointing their rifles as us and ushering us in the right direction. Before Immigration, all politically sensitive – those likely to undermine the state – had been filtered off for a more extensive grilling. Journalists, servicemen, diplomats and churchmen. We had already signed a clause to the effect that it was not our intention to “overthrow the legitimate government of the Republic by unconstitutional means, force or violence” but where, other than the country which had nurtured Bishop Trevor Huddlestone, could the local vicar be a political threat?
Finally a Customs Official waved me out into what passed for the real world and said “Welcome to South Africa”. I didn’t feel it. Moments after emerging unscathed from the formalities myself, I saw two hulking, blue-clad white police officers launching themselves at an aging black man in overalls and set about him with their sjamboks. I never did know what his crime was. Probably neither did he. Maybe he pushed his trolley down the wrong side of the corridor.

But first impressions can be deceiving and things improved, at least from my point of view. It is amazing (and shaming) how quickly one can get used to injustice when one is not the victim. Just as it is easy to shun the beggars on the London Underground, so one learns quickly not to notice the differences in the living standards of South Africans. One simply does not notice, after a while, the black people walking for miles along the roads between the towns, as one slips by in the BMW. One stops asking oneself where they are going and how far from home they are and whether home was a place they chose or a place they were dumped by the “system”.

And all the while ordinary white South Africans – the friendliest people one could ever hope to meet – subjected one to their own private, conscience-appeasing propaganda. “It was not out fault. It was the Afrikaners in Government”; “The British invented apartheid in Natal in 1873”; “They all had schools they could go to, but they burnt them down”; “The blacks here are better off than anywhere else in Africa”; “They had equal rights from 1652 to 1948 and they failed to capitalise on it”; “ The white man built this country and if it weren’t for us, none of them would have jobs”. And of course it is all true, after a fashion – but still the differences seem irreconcilable and every now and then one would be jolted back to reality by an event, a sight, a comment.

I remember a conversation in the bar of the hotel where I was working. We were asking a young white National Serviceman about his recent experiences on township duty in Soweto. I asked him whether he had killed anybody. He had not, but some of his friends had. Did that bother them? “Ag, no. We’re allowed to” was the reply.

I went into the non-white half of a bottle store – where the drinks were, interestingly, cheaper – and was threatened with a gun by the owner for using the wrong entrance. I became shamefully accustomed to being called to the front of the queue in the Post Office (“You’re in a hurry; they’ve got all day”) and to looking for a Whites Only lavatory or compartment on a train.

Once, when travelling to Cape Town by train, I asked the guard why the Whites Only carriages were in the middle of the train. He explained with faultless logic that the Coloureds (mixed race) and Indians had carriages between the Whites in the middle and the Blacks at the front and back. Thus, in the event of an accident at either end, the Whites would be cushioned from the impact, but also, as the train was being pulled by a steam engine, that when the train was going straight, the Blacks at the front would get the soot and when it was on a curve, the Blacks at the back would get it. And, in this strictly Calvinist society, not only were the different colours separated, but also the sexes. All women travelling alone had different carriages according to their race.

Everything was segregated – shops, living areas, lavatories in the workplace (and this was checked by “health” officers), swimming pools, park benches, beaches, buses, lay-bys. It was a staggering feat of social engineering. I was berated once, on the Cape Peninsula, by a traffic officer for turning my car around in an Indian lay-by, and I have never seen a policeman move as fast as the one who lumbered up to me on an empty beach on the West Coast to tell me to get off as this was a Coloured beach. But where were all the Coloureds? “They don’t like beaches”, he stated. And all I had wanted was a photograph of Table Mountain.

Despite the inhumanity of it all, I have never seen, in 12 years, significant racially-based aggression between individuals. I have never seen civilian South Africans of different races come to blows. On a personal level, all South Africans are bafflingly good to one another. Paternalism, serfdom, call it what you will, but the South Africans, all of them, are incredibly civil both to their compatriots and to visitors. Of course, on a political level, there have been many horrendous, bloody confrontations, but these were always with the system, not between individuals. In a strange way, we South Africans – and I call myself one now – understand one another. We understand one another’s hopes and fears. We have been cut off by the world in this beautiful country for too long not to have learned to get along.

So, eventually, change began to take root. I was staying in a little hotel in a very staunchly Afrikaans part of the Northern Transvaal, near Pietersburg, when PW Botha made his famous Rubicon Speech. The farmers were horrified. He was giving the country away, they thought, in August 1985, when the government conceded to the tricameral parliament. One house for Whites, one for Indians, one for Coloureds. Nothing for the Blacks. But little changed.

Afrikanerdom was up in arms. Out of interest, I attended a rally in Pretoria, held by Eugene Terreblanche – the famous ET and leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging – khaki-clad and waving his pseudo-swastika, my mouth firmly sealed to hide my British origins. He ranted for hours about the Volk, freedom from domination by the native hordes, the land of his fathers, and I went home convinced that he was right – a brilliant orator in the mould of General Franco and Adolf Hitler. I had previously experienced a similar emotion attending a talk by Wedgie Benn in the Godalming Town Hall. Dressed in Barbour and wellies, we had intended to heckle and lob tomatoes but returned to school convinced, instead, that elitist private education should be abolished. Convinced, in both cases, for a couple of hours are least…

Life continued unchanged for all of us ordinary people. We worked on, side by side, trying to respect one another’s customs and speak one another’s languages. Mutual respect, tinged with fear maybe, has always been a strength of relationships across the racial divide. Gradually the pillars of apartheid were chipped away. These changes made little difference to the man in the street but for a few individuals life change dramatically. The Immorality Act was repealed. It was no longer illegal to have a sexual relationship with a member of another race group. The Mixed Marriages Act was scrapped and a white could marry a black without being reclassified black and being forced to live in a black area. The Job Reservations Act went as well and a range jobs was no longer only open to white applicants. (Ironically this Act was originally instituted on the initiative of the Communist Party, who insisted that everyone had a right to a job; everyone white, that is.)

Then, finally, the changes became more than cosmetic. The Pass Laws or Group Areas Act – the very cornerstone of apartheid – disappeared, allowing anyone to live where they chose. By 1989, the system was in its dying throes. No more separate amenities, no more curfews, no more states of emergency.

Then PW Botha, in his homburg, was replaced by FW de Klerk, Gorbachev-lookalike and from the same mould as his predecessors. The accent was the same and the dogma essentially unchanged but gradually a new dynamism began to creep into politics. South Africa was horrified when he suggested that he might be the country’s last white president. What could he mean? Where had this idea come from?
Rumours began to circulate that the president had been meeting with Nelson Mandela – the world’s most famous political prisoner, serving a life sentence for his part in the treacherous Rivonia Plot – who by now had been moved from Robben Island to a “luxury” prison near Cape Town, and that negotiations were under way for his release. Bemused South Africans pondered the implications of this putative event and I thought back to my meeting five years previously with Judge Percy Yutar, who had been the prosecutor at the trial which had sentenced Mandela to prison 27 years earlier, and recalled that Yutar only had one arm. The other had been chopped off by a Mandela supporter with a meat cleaver.

The rumble in the townships and the Bantustan homelands became a roar. Freedom was within the grasp of the disenfranchised masses. All they needed now was the vote – and proper housing, electricity, clinics, water, schools…

The right wing became more active, demanding the right to self-determination. They began to buy up farms to establish all-white towns. Nobody tried to stop them and they failed. In Orania, in the Western Transvaal, white men ended up sweeping the streets and did not like it. So they let some Coloureds in – after all, as they justified it, they spoke Afrikaans – but they did not like it either. So they let some Blacks in. The experiment had failed.

Barend Strydom of the Wit Wolwe – the White Wolves, one of the many arch-conservative organisations to spring up – went berserk with an assault rifle in Pretoria and killed 27 people. A farmer in the Northern Transvaal was fined R50 (£10) for tying one of his labourers to a tree and setting his dogs on him before beating him to death. Apartheid was not dead yet.

Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. I was in Cape Town when it was announced that the ANC – that terrorist organisation, the freedom fighters, the “rooigevaar” or red peril – was unbanned. It was very frightening to walk around the Mother City that evening and to hear the shouts of “aMandla” (power) and the strains of Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika, the forbidden anthem, and to see the hitherto illegal green, black and gold flag unfurled from buildings, floats and jubilantly hooting motor cars. Frightening because the security of the white man, our safe little world, was imperilled. Yet somehow we knew it was right. Nobody slept that night.

Two short weeks later our bemused country was at the centre of the world stage again for a far more emotionally relevant event. Billions of viewers tuned into their television sets to watch an old man take is his first faltering steps of liberty from Victor Verster prison in Paarl. After 27 years of imprisonment, hard labour and rock-breaking, Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner, was free. It was February 1990.

It was then that the real work began behind the scenes. The aim was to prepare for the peaceful transformation of South Africa from White Dictatorship to multi-party democracy; to reconcile the people of South Africa to one another and to their joint fate. Such a mammoth task had never been faced by any government in the history of the world. To try to forge a kaleidoscope of peoples into a rainbow. Descendents of Dutch settlers since 1852, of French settlers since 1688, British since 1775, Irish settlers since the 1820s, Germans since the 1850s, 450 000 people of Jewish stock, Portuguese refugees from Angola and Mocambique, Rhodesians, Bushmen since time immemorial, Hottentots, Coloureds and Cape Malays (with their origins in the Dutch colonies of the East Indies), Indians, both Muslim and Hindu, Chinese descendents of indentured labour, and millions and millions of Bantu people – Zulus, Xhosas, North Sothos, South Sothos, Swazis, Pondos, Matabele, Tswanas, Tsongas, Vendas; and so the list went on. Over 40 million people, forming more than 45 ethnic groups and with more than 30 distinct languages, to be united into one people. It was the last phase of Pretoriastroika.

And we, in our multi-cultural, multi-coloured country towns, watched with nonchalant hope as one attempt at negotiation after another failed to reach any form of compromise. South Africa crept its way towards international respectability and the only time we noticed was when we discovered that we could buy Baileys Irish Cream and Suchard chocolates in the shops. Nothing else changed much, for us or for our black neighbours.

Then we began to see our sportsmen and women competing internationally. The whole world, it seemed, wanted to play the Springboks and everyone including, and especially, the hard-line Afrikaner watched with pride as the Boks took on the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the British Lions.

We had come back in from the cold and, at this carefully chosen moment, President de Klerk held a referendum. Did we want him to carry on with his reforms or did we want to return to the old ways? Whether we liked it or not, we have to concede that the sports boycott, the so-called Gleneagles Agreement, played a major part in the last all-white election. I was strongly against mixing politics with sport but it worked and I can cite an example.

Henkie Wessels, a thoroughbred Afrikaner, was building, with his team, a new room at the hotel. Henkie was a firm No-Voter. He didn’t want reform; he didn’t want his children educated with black children; he did not want blacks travelling on his bus. I asked Henkie one morning whether he was enjoying watching the sport on television and tears came to his eyes as he told of his pride at seeing the Springboks in action. I warned him that if the referendum went against the government he would never see a South African play international sport again. Henkie voted Yes for reform. So did South Africa.

Five anguished, tense and troubled years after Mandela’s release, a thoroughly tense South Africa prepared itself for its first ever multi-racial election. We had walked the tightrope together as the political forces juggled for position. The Far Right refused to take part – the Afrikaner Volk was split. The Zulus fought hard for well-thought-out concessions and, whilst Buthelezi held out, the rural Zulus, where I was working at Rorke’s Drift, said that they would put their cross next to General Constnd Viljoen of the Afrikaner Freedom Front to lodge the strongest possible anti-ANC vote. What a strange source of 6 million votes that would have been for the right-wing leader, had Inkatha not joined the election. But these were not new political parties, not news rivalries and not new alliances. They were all deep-rooted in the turbulent history of South Africa.

Everyone stocked up on their siege supplies. Rumours spread that the electricity was going to go off, that there would be a fuel crisis and shortages of food. Supermarkets ran out of candles. Panic seized us all. The day before the election I found a queue 150 yards long outside the Standard Bank in Dundee, Northern Natal. The Zulus had heard that, if they won the election, the ANC planned to siphon all the money out of the banks, so they withdrew all their savings, vowing that if the bank was still there on Friday, they would redeposit them.

The Independent Electoral Commission said they were ready. They were not, as it turned out, but South Africa was ready.

The day of the election, 27th April 2004, dawned clear and cool over Zululand. The first of the three days was dedicated to the old and infirm and I had the privilege of driving 94-year-old, almost blind Tshabalala to the voting station. He knew what to do; he had done it before more than 70 years previously. His hands shook with his returning dignity. He was not fazed by the police presence or by the bemused German, Canadian and Senegalese International Observers. He showed his ID book, had ultra-violet paint smudged onto his hand to prevent his voting twice and he put his mark next to his traditional leader. “Gatsha Buthelezi!” he cried, as he emerged from the booth. He did not need to vote twice. He’d done it once and that was enough for this old Zulu.

The next day the queues formed all over the land. Some queued for 10 hours in the heat – Blacks, Whites, Indians and Coloureds, standing side by side for the first time in their country’s history. A magnificent moment for all, as the black man shed the yoke of inequality and the white man dropped his burden of guilt.

I was one of only three white people to vote at Rorke’s Drift, but never for a moment did I feel threatened, as I ferried hundreds of Zulus in the back of my pick-up from their homes to the old Mission Station, scene of that great earlier struggle between Zulu and the colonial powers. On this different occasion, dignified jubilation was the order of the day.

I queued up with all the labourers from the farm and we waited our turn. Just as we get to the front of the queue, having had our ID books zealously checked four times, voted suddenly came to a halt. The Zulu three in front of us had pinched all the pencils from every booth and was hot-footing it down the road towards Dundee. Only when he was flattened by an unaccustomed Senegalese rugby tackle did the pencils return and voting continue. A glimpse, I thought, cynically, into the New South Africa?

There was no drunkenness, no jeering, no intimidation, no violence. Nowhere. Bemused Zulus tried to lick the ultra-violet paint off their fingers because it smelled of oranges. Old women were dragged 20 miles across the veld on skins to their nearest voting place. In another more remote part of Zululand a journalist friend of mine took a photograph, which he vowed not to publish to protect he subject, of a black policeman asleep outside a polling station with his assault rifle lying across his lap.

In Howick, near Pietermaritzburg, a friend of mine took his ageing (white) mother, on her zimmer frame, to vote. The grand old lady, relic of an upright colonial family, took one look at the monumentally long multi-coloured line and asked her son “Darling, where’s our queue?” Evidently the significance of the occasion was, after all, lost on some.

In Johannesburg, white madams, bedecked with jewels, drove their Mercedes into nearby squatter camps and townships to vote because the Blacks had, aspirationally, come to town to make their cross and the queues in the white suburbs were too long. Others waited and queued up with their maids and garden boys.

So, in one week, it was all over. The crime rate over the election was one fifth of its normal level and we sat and waited for the results. Banned people re-emerged from the shadows, exiles poured back in their droves and we all waited. And we waited and we waited and we waited. TV and radio pundits ran out of waffle and we waited, while they returned to normal programming.

Stories of irregularities began to emerge. Mystery boxes of ballot papers, never sent out, came in with returns from the Eastern Cape. A box of neatly stacked papers all with the cross in the same place came in from Kwa-Zulu. The numbers sent out and returned did not reconcile. And then, suddenly, almost too suddenly, the result was announced. It was the well-balanced result of which we had all dreamed.

Nelson Mandela waved his arms jubilantly at his victory rally, prompting commentators to quip that we could now hold our heads up high in Africa as we had a president who could boogie. The old impersonators took a step back to allow the new mimics to practise on the new leaders. Winnie Mandela became Deputy Minister for Science and Technology. Everybody laughed. Bantu Holomisa, former tyrannical leader of the now-defunct, barren and violent Transkei homeland, became Deputy Minister for Tourism and the Environment. Everybody laughed louder. And what other country can boast amongst its cabinet ministers a majority of ex-convicts with names such as Peter “Kill-the-Boer” Mokaba and Patrick “Terror” Lekota?

But we made it. Two weeks later, it would have been a hard-hearted man who did not shed a tear as President Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his mbongi or praise-singer, took his oath of allegiance to South Africa and became the country’s first and long-awaited black president. The armed forces, who had fought for hundreds of years to prevent this day’s happening, paid their respects to their new leader; the air was filled with helicopters trailing the colours of the new flag; with whoops and cheers, Nkosi sikilel’ iAfrika (God bless Africa) was on everybody’s lips.

The kaleidoscope, overnight, had turned us into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu, bopping in his pulpit, called the Rainbow People of God. And, as if to reinforce the unique viewpoint of this country, the crowd cheered only two of the hundreds of dignitaries from across the globe who came to pay their respects to our new leader – Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro. Where else in the world?

Ten months into the new dispensation, little has changed in South Africa with one major exception. There is hope in the air and, where previously people of different races might have avoided one another’s gaze, we now look one another in the eye. We have all, including white South Africans, regained our self-respect. We are a proud nation and, now that we are united, we have really achieved something of which to be proud.

The reminders are always there – signposts with no signs; four lavatories side-by-side in public buildings, we still, through force of habit, use different entrances to bottle stores and post offices. I found myself unwittingly standing at the “wrong” part of the counter in the Municipality offices this morning and received a very peculiar look from the new black clerk. But the rules have gone and the signs are down. A “Whites Only – Slegs Blankes” signboard is a collector’s item and receives hundreds of rands at auction.

We will never forget the past and where we have come from. It will take a long time to achieve the aims of the least successful of the 26 parties to contest the election – the Soccer party – whose aim was “to level the playing fields and not to shift the goalposts” (and who, tellingly, claimed that the African Moslem Party had used unfair advantage in being able to offer free samoosas at their rallies).

Time heals all wounds. Grants from overseas governments and institutions speed up that healing process. The country is united in its aim of reconciliation. No more “One Settler, One Bullet”. I know that I am as dependent on my Zulu staff as they are on me to constructively guide one another through this land of confusion.

Rayne Kruger in 1959, in his study of the Anglo-Boer War entitled “Goodbye Dolly Gray”, ended with the words “The real struggle still lies ahead, unless averted by great statesmanship”. That is exactly what we have just witnessed. Truly great statesmanship, not only by our two Nobel Prizewinners, Former-President de Klerk and State President Nelson Mandela, but also, in a small but impressive way, by each and every South African.

Long may it last. Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrica.