South Africa – Transiting the Vaal

Still there was a delay.  We seemed to be missing a couple of passengers.  They arrived after a few moments.  Then another delay, the driver had to check off with the inspector that he could go, and the inspector was nowhere to be seen.  Then he shut the door and away we went.  The driver ran through a whole load of instructions about where the toilets were and that we weren’t allowed to smoke, told us our stops and all the times (Pietermaritzburg would not arrive until after five) and turned the video on.  While this was going on we were zig zagging through the city centre streets of Jo’burg.  The very same streets I had been robbed on.  They looked so ordinary again; people rushing about doing business, huge modern sky scrapers and 1920 ‘s solid offices.  I saw no-one being robbed, no-one being killed, no-one being harassed.  Why had I been singled out?

 We accelerated up onto the urban motorway that hugs Jo’burg’s southern side, but turned westwards towards Klerksdorp; the sign to Durban to the left was left behind.  I began to get worried that I was on the wrong bus and heading in totally the wrong direction, but I worked out in my head that the driver had carefully checked my ticket, so I decided to put my trust in him that he knew where he was going.

 We drove down this motorway for a while, then turned off onto a long straight road which led through dingy suburbs and the dirtiest sort of industrial landscape you could imagine.  So far from the salubrious suburbs on the north side of the city, this was where the wealth of South Africa was based.  However, the true wealth was not visible, it was extracted from the deepest mines in the world.  The residues, worth little to most economies, were left strewn on the surface, with little thought to environmental degradation or human influence.  Several townships lay round about, covered in the perpetual smog from surrounding chimneys and in a darkened, unhealthy land of browning vegetation, and the litter of both urban and industrial living.

 We passed out into an open countryside, but scattered with mines and factories, then back into a sizeable town.  Looking around, this was the real working South Africa.  Hundreds of work gangs of black men, covered in coal dust or mud, wandered the streets out of town.  Down in the centre, a wide open shopping area, with 1960’s low style shops, large windows and an almost clinical look to them, had a number of labourers and white collar workers, and a few whites.  I distinctly remember seeing an old white couple, him wearing large baggy shorts, a brown jacket and trilby; his face weathered by many years of grimace, thick black rimmed glasses defocusing his eyes from any interrogation.  And her, also slightly bent in her floral dress that didn’t quite fit, and stuck out from her side at an odd angle.  They clung together, a shopping bag on her left arm, him on her right.  Everyone else ignored them.  And I thought, just from their appearance, that they were typical Afrikaaners.  And I wondered how all the black people around them just ignored them and carried on their work.  Surely, they were supposed to see them as previous oppressors, but no.  I’m not sure it was tolerance or forgiveness that stopped them from taking direct action.  I think it was just the way things were, if every person who was a supporter of Apartheid was now vilified every time they walked on the streets, the new republic would not have got far.  I only caught a glimpse of this scene as I passed through Veereniging but this question puzzled me for long after.

 The conclusion that life was too long, and places were too big and complex to take issue with everything and break everything into symbology recurred so many times during my visit.  These people had lived through the era, and living is more than just conflict.  Our bullet pointed news items of the segregation and struggle hid a much richer country.

 We headed out into the country again, and passed from industry to agricultural scenery.  The vast plain of the southern Transvaal opened up before me, dipping gently towards the Vaal River, the river that gives the region its name.  The huge Vaal dam lay to the west of the main road, appearing half-empty.  And the scenery was as immense as you could want.  Almost flat, massive fields stretched off into the distance, broken only by the very occasional farmsteads or water towers.  Even people were few and far between.  There would be one tractor with two or three guys wearing blue overalls standing around discussing the weather, one man standing at a roadside hitching for a lift.  Perhaps a number of school kids either skiving lessons or getting an early lunch.

 We drove relentlessly forward along this well made but fairly minor road.  Then we joined up with the main highway again from Jo’burg to Durban.  Here it was only single lane, but it kept opening up to a tolled dual carriageway.  The road across the plain was steadily being improved and we had to slow a couple of times to negotiate road works.

 As we headed southeast, the plain began to be punctuated by great white mesas, steep sided hills with flat tops.  The rocky outcrops glistened in the sunlight.  We dropped off the main road and headed into Harrismith, perfect small town Afrikaans.  I realised that this was where I was to rendezvous with Kirsty on Saturday morning.  We headed out again and rejoined the main road.  I was aware that we were approaching the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment.

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2 thoughts on “South Africa – Transiting the Vaal

  1. South Africa – Transiting the Vaal – String Knife and Paper

  2. South Africa – Transiting the Vaal – String Knife and Paper

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