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Long Walk

This morning I went to the unveiling of a blue plaque in Fietas, a small, increasingly rundown suburb to the west of the old Johannesburg CBD. It was to commemorate the establishment of the Save Pageview Association, and particularly the work of its founder, Adam Asvat, on whose house the plaque had been placed.

Today, twenty years ago, all South African adults were eligible to vote in the country’s first democratic elections. Also, today sixty-four years ago, the Group Areas Act was passed. This piece of legislation had devastating consequences for Fietas and other, similar suburbs with racially mixed populations.

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We remember the agonising destruction of District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, but the attempt to rub out Fietas, its mosques and churches, its shopping street – Fourteenth Street – made famous by Nat Nakasa, and its history of anti-segregation and anti-apartheid struggle is, possibly, less well known. Although eviction orders were sent to Pageview’s residents from 1964 – the area was rezoned ‘white’ – the bulldozers moved in only a decade later. Shopkeepers were required to move to the purpose-built Oriental Plaza in nearby Fordsburg, and families were to leave for Lenasia, a relatively far-away suburb for Indians.

The Pageview Association resisted the removals at every step. In 1989 – a year before the release of Nelson Mandela, and fours years after the declaration of the first state of emergency – a court case initiated by the Association successfully ended the evictions.

Pageview – or Fietas as it is also known – had no happy ending, though. It was not properly rebuilt after the removals. The suburb is desperately poor and crime-ridden. Its streets need renovating and sweeping. The first poster I saw for the Economic Freedom Fighters – a far-left, nationalist organisation purporting to represent the very poor and marginalised – was in Fietas’s main road.

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But today, as a group of people, some in their nineties and others just learning to walk, a few residents and former residents, a couple of students and journalists, a sprinkling of academics and activists, gathered to celebrate the lives of Adam and Khadija Asvat, I was reminded that when South Africans went to vote on 27 April 1994, it was by no means certain that the outcome would be even remotely peaceful.

I was about to turn twelve years old during those elections, and I spent them shuttling between the television and a science project. (The public holidays played havoc with the curriculum.) My parents voted, and my mother volunteered at the polling station in the Paarl town hall, fielding questions from old ladies (‘do I need to vote for the National Party twice?’). I was old enough to understand the significance of the election, but young enough to be reassured by my parents when they said that everything would be alright.

Although we lived in a smallish town in an agricultural district near Cape Town, we were acutely aware of the violence and radical uncertainty of the period, and not only because both my parents were opposed to the apartheid regime. There were riots in Paarl after Chris Hani’s assassination; the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging arrived to protect my white, girls’ school from whatever they believed we needed protecting from (and were told exactly where they could go and put their rifles by our outraged – Afrikaans-speaking – headmistress); the bomb drills; our neighbour who horded tinned food before the election; the threatening phone calls from the police when my mother’s work for the Black Sash drew too much attention to herself; the radio announcer counting the numbers killed overnight in violence in the Vaal Triangle, in KwaZulu-Natal, and elsewhere, as we ate breakfast before school.

Today’s guest of honour was Judge Johann Kriegler, who headed the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1994. He spoke about the chaos of the election: of the difficulties of getting ballot papers and even telephone lines to the very rural parts of the country, and how they had to scramble to include the Inkatha Freedom Party on the ballot papers, after its last-minute decision to participate in the election.

To reduce election fraud and because so many people were scared to vote, the IEC imported invisible ink from the United States to mark the hands of those who had voted. This ink would be visible only to ultraviolet lamps distributed to polling stations. But the lamps didn’t always work, and the ink soon ran out. What to do? Officials were told to continue pretending that the lamps did work, and to use water instead of invisible ink.

And yet things worked out.

I wish the police would stop shooting protesting civilians; that the Department of Education would send adequate supplies of textbooks to schools; that so many officials – from police in my local traffic department to the President – were not implicated in corruption; that there was no need for people to take to the streets to protest lack of service delivery; that there were no attempts to stifle freedom of expression; that the incidence of gender-based violence was not so high.

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But as we gathered in the Fietas Museum after the speeches and the unveiling, drinking tea and eating samoosas and koeksisters and chilli bites, I felt that for all this – for all that we have so much still to do, for all that we never really defined what we mean by ‘transformation‘ – we’ll be alright. It’ll work out. Somehow.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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