Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sisulu and zebra

Today I took a good step in overcoming the institutionally-induced paranoia about living here by driving on my own across the Nelson Mandela bridge (very modern) and venturing into Newtown, a no-go area for tourists a few years ago but now - reputedly - much safer than it used to be. I'm used to traffic in European capitals, so driving around here is amazingly easy, even on a Saturday morning - and I was able to park right next to the Market Theatre complex. I went to the Museum of Africa, which was probably very impressive when it opened in 1994 but has been neglected since - many of the displays were supposed to be multimedia, but nothing requiring electricity was still working - which made something of a nonsense of the "musical history of Johannesburg" exhibition. The place was deserted, which is odd, as entry is free (or at least I walked in through a deserted lobby and no-one stopped me). The best exhibition was dedicated to the Treason Trial of 1956-61, well described in Mandela's autobiography - real examples of police documents were on display, including the booking form for Walter Sisulu (above) - you won't be able to read the text, but detainees were described according to shape of head, ears, lips, etc., and their hair was given as "peppercorn", "frizzed out", "bald", "going bald", or "grey", and their "complexion" had to be indicated as "yellow", "brown" or "pitch black" - chilling evidence of the apartheid regime's insane obsession with racial categorisation.

Just around the corner from the museum I stumbled on a restaurant serving African cuisine - Gramadoelas - also a part of the struggle for freedom - and had a wonderful meal - I hesitated over the fried crocodile but decided it was too heavy for lunchtime.... I'll go back. After lunch I wandered around the very colourful market and started negotiations for a large wire-and-beadwork zebra with its friendly creator - another Zimbabwean staying away from his sad country for the moment. He didn't mind me taking the photo above, although, as he said, it's a work of art, not just an artefact.

As I'll have to talk about race here now and then (all South Africans do, it's part of daily discourse; no-one pretends that it's politically correct to be colourblind; this can be a shock to UK sensibilities) I'll add that the people I saw in Newtown were about 95 per cent black - which is a very different ratio from what I've seen so far in the northern suburbs. I should also say that I felt a bit nervous at first (paranoia having been induced, and also feeling that I'm associated, in a way, inevitably, with the people who fingerprinted Sisulu) but I was more relaxed by the time I left. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming. (South Africans never just say "good morning", they always add "how are you?" and actually want an answer - and when you ask them back there's a great variety of responses - my favourite is "I'm first class, thank you.") I need to get out of the northern suburbs more often.

1 comment:

Charles Lambert said...

I'm surprised the Northern League here in Italy hasn't adopted something like this booking form. What a cultural artefact that is!

Glad to see you're getting out and about...