Tag Archives: ex-pat

Saying my Farewells to South Africa

In the same week that South Africa commemorates the funeral of former president and national icon, Nelson Mandela, it seems that I, personally, will be remembering the country itself – only from afar.

Which is a shame as, before returning to the UK my Beloved and I had hoped to spend a final happy Christmas together here in Johannesburg, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of relaxed African downtime.

But, sadly, it seems that bureaucracy has got the better of us. Despite a trip to Namibia, advised by two alleged experts on all matters immigration in order to obtain a 90-day visa extension, I found that on returning from a weekend away in the capital Windhoek, the said extension was arbitrarily denied.

The only way I could get one apparently was to fly off to the UK and back again. Namibia, despite being a sovereign nation these days, simply didn’t cut it – even though Namibians are just as entitled as subjects of Her Majesty to enter the country for three months on a visa waiver. Go figure.

So what all of this means is that I’ve now had to change my flight from early January to this Saturday, or risk being blacklisted and not allowed into the country again. Charming.

But I must admit that this apparent making-up-of-new-rules-on-the-fly without anyone ever seeming to know about them is one thing that I won’t particularly miss about the African way of life.

Another is load shedding, the name given locally to the scheduled, rolling national power blackouts that are designed to keep South Africa’s national grid from collapsing, and which are the talk of the nation at the moment.

For one, they take place at all hours of the day or night, which is deeply inconvenient at a personal level.

On the other hand, there is lots of concern, especially among small companies unable to afford generators, about the damage being done to their businesses, the inevitable worry being that the situation, if it continues, will kill them eventually.

A question of power

To put a price tag on the debacle, some economists have pointed out that power outages cost the economy a huge ZAR6.8bn (£37 million), or 0.2% of GDP, last year, with conservative estimates indicating that the situation this year will be at least as bad.

Indeed, state-owned monopoly Eskom may have promised that the lights should more or less stay on until January, helped by generally lower power usage during high summer.

But it has also warned South Africans to brace themselves for ongoing power supply problems for at least the next 18 months until it can bring two new power stations online – a situation that, I among others, find deeply worrying for the future financial health, and related long-term social stability, of the country.

At the end of last week though, President Zuma took the interesting step of denying that the country’s energy challenges had anything to do with years of government underfunding or mismanagement. Instead he chose to blame Eskom’s current difficulties in supplying demand on the apartheid regime, which collapsed 20 years ago.

The utility, he informed delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town, had been structured to provide electricity exclusively to the white minority, “not the majority”, which is where the foundations of the problem lay.

But unlike hospitals, airports, mines and Parliament, it seems that the President’s official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town are, luckily, insulated from power cuts themselves due to “technical reasons”. Therefore, he is in the fortuitous position of not having to share the majority’s pain.

But all of this raises two salient points about South Africa. One is the desperate, grinding poverty that most of the population still, very noticeably, lives in once you leave the well-heeled, predominantly white suburbs and business districts.

A land of contrasts

The disparity between the prosperous and the poor in this beautiful, resource-rich country is the greatest in the world. But it is this very inequality, which drastically bumps up average per capita income levels, that means South Africa fails to qualify for all too many donor programmes from bodies such as the United Nations.

As a result, the country all too often fails to get the financial aid it so desperately requires to help its needy population – an obvious wrong that should really be righted somehow.

Another distinctively South African issue raised by President Zuma’s comments is the thorny one of race, in this land still so deeply scarred by the brutalities of the apartheid regime – and one that lives on to this day, in fact, through the economic and social structures introduced by policies such as forced resettlement.

As a result, I can quite honestly say that I’ve never lived anywhere where race appears to form such an undercurrent to so many conversations, and where so few people of different heritage seem to mix socially – a culture shock after living in multi-cultural Britain, and especially London, for so long.

Despite this, what did give me huge hope – and not just symbolically – was seeing young students at Stellenbosch University, the so-called engine room of apartheid, starting to do just that – to learn together, play together and even, in some instances, go out together. And although not enormously widespread, the same is true to some extent of the younger generation here in Johannesburg too.

But in spite of its troubles, South Africa has a lot of plus points. I’ll certainly miss the climate and its balance in favour of warm/hot weather, appalling winters notwithstanding.

I’ll also miss the friendliness and courtesy of the people – being called “Tannie” (Auntie) by Afrikaans speakers or “Mami” by black Africans whose gorgeous smiles could light up rooms, despite past and current circumstances. Such terms, employed as a mark of respect for age, show a civility forgotten long ago in the UK.

But I’ll also miss learning about the country’s fascinating cultures and traditions and the ways of a nation in some ways so viscerally linked to Britain and in others, so vastly different.

So all in all, it’s been a blast. Thank you, South Africa – for everything. I’ll remember you always.

If you’re interested in finding out about the social and cultural mores of the UK, feel free to catch up with my new blog entitled www.mygreatbritishadventure.com.


Gandhi’s Satyagraha Philosophy Forged on Joburg’s Streets

Like most big cities, Johannesburg has had its fair share of famous residents at one time or another.

Probably the most well-known is Nelson Mandela who lived, among other places, in the nearby township of Soweto and the upmarket northern suburb of Houghton, depending on his fortunes at the time.

Then there was L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial founder of the Church of Scientology, who made his abode in the affluent neighbourhood of Linksfield Ridge for six months in the early 1960s in order to get his South African operations in order.

But another world-renowned denizen who also graced Jozi’s streets for a good 12 years or so was Mahatma Gandhi.

The human rights activist first arrived in Durban as a young lawyer in 1893 to handle the legal affairs of Indian merchants flooding in at that time to serve the needs of a burgeoning Asian population.

But by early 1903, as Gandhi’s clientele increasingly started moving to Johannesburg in the wake of the gold rush, he decided to follow the money, upping sticks and setting up his own legal practice at 15 Rissik Street in Joburg’s city centre.

There’s even a life-sized statue of him as a young man standing in his legal robes opposite the original offices, in what was one time called Van Der Bijl followed by Government Square but has now been renamed Gandhi Square.

Disappointingly though, it’s scarcely in the most salubrious, or picturesque, part of town. It is instead right next to a big, ugly bus terminal surrounded by scruffy, decaying tower blocks, which scarcely set the statue off to best advantage.

Nonetheless, the location is an appropriate one as it was where Johannesburg’s first court building once stood, a place where Gandhi first appeared as a lawyer and was also handed down various prison sentences for political activism before ending up in prison in the Old Fort.

Liberation figure

Now part of the Constitution Hill complex, which has housed South Africa’s Constitutional Court since 2004, the much-reviled prison, commonly known as ‘Number Four’, housed both common criminals and anti-apartheid protestors such as Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela.

Anyway to get back to the point, apart from a couple of short spells in England and India, Gandhi ended up staying in South Africa for a total of 21 years, only leaving in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

And the place certainly appears to have been key in moulding him into the influential liberation figure that he became. As Gandhi said himself: “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.”

So the country obviously had a massive impact on him – and not always in a positive way. Because the reason that he decided to stay here for so long was to fight the full-on racial discrimination that he, and other Indians, suffered routinely, with the perfectly reasonable aim of wanting to be treated as equals.

Although the noose of racist laws had been tightening for some time, the final straw came in 1906, following the proposed introduction of the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance.

The idea was that all Indian and Chinese people would be required to register their presence in the now defunct province of Transvaal – of which Pretoria was the capital – give the authorities their fingerprints and carry so-called passes as identity documents.

As a direct result, protestors got together at the Empire Theatre on downtown Commissioner Street, now the site of a cinema complex called the Kine Centre.

In fact, it was here that Gandhi first declared the very policy of passive resistance that served to rid India of British colonial rule. Based on the notion of ‘Satyagraha’, which means ‘truth force’ in Sanskrit, the idea is that violence begets violence and therefore ends up being counter-productive.

So, although the peaceful demonstration that followed the Empire Theatre gathering ended up in jail-terms for everyone concerned and was ultimately futile, it also made history, marking Joburg out as the birthplace of the philosophy.

Satyagraha House

Anyway, while it appears that Gandhi lived and agitated all over Joburg at one time or another, one former haunt of his really worth visiting is Tolstoy Farm, now known as Satyagraha House.

Built in what at the time was just empty veld far from the burgeoning metropolis by Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect with whom Gandhi is said to have had a gay relationship despite an earlier vow of celibacy, it has now morphed into a guesthouse and museum in the south-eastern neighbourhood of Orchards.

And it’s lovely. So lovely in fact that it has just won a 2014 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence and was listed as being among the country’s top 50 tourist attractions by leading South African online travel agency, Travelstart.

Although the House’s disconcertingly suburban approach makes you wonder what you’re going to find when you get there, once you move beyond the functional, little reception area, a tranquil haven of peaceful serenity and calm awaits you behind.

Set in a pretty, well-tended garden, the white-washed main house-come-free-of-charge museum, with its thatched roof, two bedroom rondavels and charming dining area leading onto a stoep, is simple yet stylish. It’s all about wooden tables, woven baskets, black ceramic pots and little panels with Gandhi quotes on them.

Run along similar communal lines to a kibbutz, at its peak, Tolstoy Farm was home to 50 adult satyagrahis and 30 children who tended the fruit trees, grew their own vegetables and lived an ascetic life of personal and spiritual discipline.

These days though, the museum and nine-bedroom guesthouse is owned and managed by Voyageurs du Monde, a French tour operator that invested about R20 million (£109,000) in purchasing and renovating the place, which opened for business at the end of 2011.

And it’s been careful to keep the spirit of Gandhi at least nominally alive. So the double rooms are all TV-, alcohol- and cigarette-free, although there is a smoking area out the back and WiFi on tap. The restaurant, located in the museum, serves only organically-grown vegetarian food and there are morning yoga and meditation classes for those keen to get into the vibe.

But with accommodation starting at E175 in low season and rising to E590 for a family cottage in high season, it isn’t exactly cheap and cheerful. Gandhi, presumably, would turn in his grave.

Getting Arty in Downtown Jozi

I’ve never been a huge fan of art galleries – or museums for that matter.


Although I know lots of people disagree with me and are horrified by my philistine notions, I find them a bit sterile, full of too many pictures or artefacts stuck on walls or in cabinets with no real context and very little explanation.


Because I’m a big story girl – I really do like my narratives. Tell a story around something and you can make even the most boring facts or abstracted objects d’art seem interesting.


The thing is that, to me, art is all about communication. Which means that to get it beyond a simple, gut-instinct-based ‘I like it or don’t like it’ thing, you need to understand the context, the ideas behind it and where things fit together. Otherwise you’re just gawping at random things with arbitrary values assigned to them by often capricious ‘experts’.


So, with that in mind, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the story-telling nature of the ‘Migrant Journeys’ exhibition held at Wits – short for the University of Witwatersrand – Art Museum in Joburg’s trendy downtown area of Braamfontein this National Youth Day (16 June) weekend.


Youth Day, which like so many of South Africa’s public holidays is Struggle-related, happens to be particularly poignant in that it marks the start of the Soweto Riots in 1976. The uprising was sparked by an edict from the apartheid government that all teaching in black schools had to be undertaken in Afrikaans.


But it ended up in international condemnation of the regime after an iconic picture of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead by police during a peaceful protest march, was beamed all around the world.


Although 16 June was associated with resistance for many years, the message has now thankfully been turned into something more positive, with the holiday meant to remind South Africa of the importance of its youth.


Decidedly bite-sized


Anyway, given all that, the multimedia-based exhibition at Wits Art Museum about the lives of migrant workers who built the country’s economy from the sweat of their brows, seemed strangely appropriate.


Because, it seems that the whole thing came about through social engineering anyway. The colonial authorities, on deciding they needed cheap labour to extract the gold and diamonds discovered across southern Africa, imposed a so-called ‘hut tax’ on black communities.


The tax not only raised revenues to fund colonial activities, but also forced people to leave their rural homesteads and move to urban centres to find work in order to pay it – a migration that still continues to this day.


But what struck me most about the exhibition was just how, despite the ugly treatment metered out to them, people still found it within themselves to create beautiful things.


In fact, the geometric patterns of Zulu and Xhosa beadwork laced into everything from pipes and necklaces to jackets and belts, reminded me very much of the designs found in Native American Navaho arts and crafts. Amazing really when you consider the distance between the two continents.


As for the gallery itself, being billed as the “leading Museum of African art on the African continent”, I’d expected it to be massive. But, refreshingly, it was decidedly bite-sized. So doable and relatively petite, in fact, that we thought we’d missed something.


We even came back next day to see if we had, but were reliably informed by the guy on the door that the decidedly white-coloured, three-storey space was definitely all there was. So we took his word for it.


Our second cultural experience of the weekend, meanwhile, took place at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Again grandly pitched as “the biggest gallery on the sub-continent”, my Beloved and I were expecting the equivalent of the Tate in London or the Louvre in Paris.


Instead what we found was a lovely neo-classical building designed by British architect, Edward Lutyens, which seemed at once both remarkably empty and distinctly marooned.


Downtown art


Built in 1915 when downtown Joburg was at its peak, the beautiful building now appears abandoned to its fate in the middle of rundown Joubert Park – despite the security gates surrounding it.


The Park, established in 1887, is the largest and oldest in the city and was once home to an open-air theatre, little lakes full of fish and a Christmas theme park. But the theatre is now abandoned, the fishponds empty and the grass covered with poor inner city residents, sleeping it off in the sun.


It doesn’t feel particularly safe, with the whole dodgy neighbourhood in distressingly marked contrast to the grandeur of the sandstone cultural edifice only a few steps away, a place where even the rather dowdy paintings seem careworn. I wouldn’t recommend it.


Much less depressing though is the site of our new, favourite market and lunch spot. Market on Main at the Arts on Main centre is located in another downtown regeneration spot, the Maboneng Precinct, a stone’s throw from Braamfontein.


Formerly a bunch of dilapidated warehouses and offices dating back to the 1900s, Arts on Main has now been transformed into an airy complex, housing everything from art galleries and private studios to boutique-y shops selling designer gear and homeware.


It’s even got its own microbrewery called Smack! Republic and plays host to German cultural organisation, The Goethe Institute, which puts on different plays there.


And of course, there’s Sunday’s Market on Main, with its ground floor food extravaganza and upstairs clothes and hand-made jewellery stalls.


It’s fab. Lively and buzzy and quirky and bright. Definitely a case of urban culture by the living rather than art by the dead.






Conservation: South Africa’s Last Stand

South Africa really does have some stunning birdlife.


Since arriving here, we’ve been lucky enough to spot everything from pretty, yellow weaver birds of elaborate, woven nest fame; a rarely-viewed African goshawk and eye-catching pin-tailed whydahs with their striking black-and-white plumage and red bills.


And then, of course, you also can‘t fail to notice the seemingly ubiquitous hadehas, a type of ibis with a penetrating squawk that would wake the dead.


But in fact, these avian gems are only really the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that South Africa, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, has a huge 846 species of birds either on shore or out at sea, about 8% of the world’s total.


Sadly though, about 133 of them – the equivalent of about 15% – are threatened by extinction, with the main problem, as ever, being habitat loss.


Grasslands, which make up a mere 16.5% of the country’s landmass but act as home to 350 of its bird species, are particularly important but also particularly threatened due to widespread agricultural and mining activity. To make matters worse, only 2.8% of such habitats, mostly in the Drakensberg mountain region, are currently protected.


As a result of all of this, Daniel Marnewick, manager of Important Birds and Biodiversity Areas Programmes for conservation charity, BirdLife South Africa, believes that the country is approaching its “last stand” in conservation terms.


“Habitats are so fragmented or lost now and so few remain pristine that we can’t afford to lose any more,” he explained at the Sasol Bird Fair organised by the charity last weekend. “We can do species-specific work, but the issue is that if we’re not protecting habitats, it won’t do any good long-term.”


But so far only about six per cent of the country’s total land surface is actually receiving the protection required – although the government has promised to up this figure to 10% at some unspecified point in the future in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s recommendations.


One of the problems is that the necessary resources to create formal national parks and nature reserves are scarce in developing countries such as South Africa.


Biodiversity stewardship


Therefore, BirdLife SA focuses mainly on promoting “biodiversity stewardship” these days in collaboration with provincial governments and other non-governmental organisations such as WWF and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.


To this end, some 122 ‘Important Bird Areas (IBAs)’ – protected areas recognised as being globally important bird conservation habitats – have already been created across the country, with another in the shape of Greater Lakenvlei in Mpumalanga expected to come online within the next six months.


Three IBAs have also recently been assigned priority status in a bid to try and protect endangered specis: Memel in the Free State, and Chrissiesmeer and Steenkampsberg in Mpumalanga, a poor rural province to the east of Johannesburg where 70% of the land is deemed to have mining potential.


As for the actual Bird Fair itself, meanwhile, this was held against the lovely backdrop of the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, about 30km to the west of downtown Johannesburg.


The 300-hectare reserve is one of the youngest of South Africa’s eight national botanic gardens, having only formally been established in 1982, but it is a deservedly popular local walking and picnic spot for those keen to indulge in a bit of nature.


Rather appropriately, it also happens to be home to a pair of Verreaux’s or Black Eagles, which we spotted soaring above us while eating our lunch at the well-attended restaurant.


These beautiful raptors are simply immense with a vast wingspan of up to 2.8 metres and they nest on the cliffs of the Garden’s centrepiece Witpoortjie (‘White Gate’ in Afrikaans) Waterfall, which was remarkably full seeing as we’re in the dry winter season.


Speaking of water though, another interesting talk that my Beloved and I attended, this one by WWF volunteer and sustainability manager at Standard Bank, Emily Adair, related to ‘Sustainable Fish Choices’ – the rather obscure link being, I think, that the Fair’s theme this year was seabirds.


Anyway, it appears that South African waters are home to 16% of the globe’s marine fish species and 15% of its coastal plant and animal species, with about 12% being found nowhere else in the world.


Sustainable seafood


As elsewhere though, overfishing is a huge problem, with almost half of the country’s marine resources now being fully exploited and a further 15% overexploited, including important commercial species such as rock lobster and yellowfin tuna.


To try to manage the problem, WWF set up the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) in 2004 with a range of partners including the Save our Seas charity.


SASSI’s aim was, and is, to promote awareness of, and support for, marine conservation among all members of the seafood supply chain from wholesalers and retailers to restaurants and consumers in a bid to make the fishing industry more sustainable.


And its sterling work to date has meant that 80% of the South African seafood industry, which includes supermarkets such as Woolworths and national restaurant chain John Dory’s, now offer at least some Marine Stewardship Council-certified products as options.


To its credit, supermarket giant Pick ‘n Pay has also just become Africa’s first retailer to guarantee that all of its seafood will be sourced sustainably by 2015.


Another important programme that will soon start making its presence felt both locally and globally, however, is the Acquaculture Stewardship Council’s certification and labelling scheme.


The not-for-profit organisation was set up by WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative in 2010 to try to encourage the industry to farm seafood in a more responsible manner and, while it may have had a low profile to date, this situation is scheduled to change over the year ahead.


Despite these worthy initiatives though, an inevitable lack of resources means that safeguarding South Africa’s marine life from illegal activity is likely to remain an uphill struggle.


While the country has more than 3,000 square miles of coastline to protect, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a mere four patrol boats to help it do so, only two of which are out-and-about at any one time. And with odds like that, it certainly won’t be easy.



Mixing it at Joburg Music Festivals

I’ve always liked a good music festival. But since my Beloved and I came to South African shores, we’ve not indulged ourselves once.


So, when digital satellite TV service DSTv started advertising its ‘Delicious International Food and Music’ event, we definitely thought we should give it a go. Not only were we promised wondrous sounds aplenty, but “foodie-friendly fun and good vibes” too. How could we resist.


And so it was that on Saturday lunchtime, in admittedly rare fashion for the usual car-bound whites in Jozi, we set off on foot to the park-like Joburg Botanical Gardens near Emmarentia Dam – a mere 40 minute walk or so from our place in Parkhurst.


Just as we were tramping through grass already brown due to lack of rain during the dry winter season, however, we suddenly happened upon a burst of colour.


To our delight, it was a wall covered in bright and beautiful tags made familiar by our downtown graffiti tour and placed there courtesy of Mars, Tapz and the rest of the Demolition Squad, one of Jozi’s most well-known, and prolific, crews.


Just as we were getting over that particular bit of excitement though, we came across another. Following the clarion call of Scottish bagpipes, we found ourselves lured to a ‘Highland Gathering’ in the grounds of De La Salle Holy Cross College in nearby Victory Park.


And there amassed before us were multi-ethnic pipe and drum bands dressed in every shade of tartan known to man; red-haired and red-faced girls dancing competitive reels on a black stage; and multifarious ‘craft’ stalls selling everything from tam-o-shanters to tartan boxers.


A noticeable absence from the proceedings though was the authentic Scottish cuisine. Without so much as a neep or a tattie to be had, the culinary highlight was that old South African staple, boerewors (beef sausage), with the odd cone of chips thrown in for good measure.


Long history


Another thing scarce on the ground was the good, old Scottish accent. Although it seems that the Scots have a long history in South Africa, dating back to at least the 1880s discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold in the Transvaal (a former province in the north east of the country), there didn’t seem to be many people around from the mother-country last weekend.


No matter how remote the heritage though, the desire to maintain a Scottish identity does appear to be strong. In fact, there are as many as 15 Scottish Societies spread across the country, an official Highland Dancing Board, and even a 75-year-old Scottish deli in Vereeniging called ‘Wee McGregors’ selling everything from the inevitable haggis to black pudding and Scotch pies.


There are also a good many Scottish place-names dotted around the place too, ranging from Gordon’s Bay and McGregor in the Western Cape to Orkney in the North West Province and Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal.


The connection is even more marked in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg though, with a six-mile belt of Hibernian-sounding neighbourhoods stretching from Blairgowrie and Craighall in the west to Waverley and Highlands North in the east. So the Scots definitely left their mark here.


Anyway, from our halfway stopover point at the Highland Gathering, it was only a short, if amazingly warm 23-degrees, stretch to the DSTv Food and Music do.


As the music blared out from the stage to greet us, the first thing that struck me were the seemingly endless queues – queues to buy food, queues to buy booze, and the longest and most impressive queues of all snaking their inevitable way to the spotlessly clean ladies’ portaloos.


None of your filthy, stinking British festival toilets here, let me tell you, thanks mainly to the hordes of hardworking, and most important of all cheap, labour. But that leads me on to one of the most gratifying, and equally conspicuous, things about the event.


While most of the festivals we’ve been to have so far been relentlessly white with only a handful of other ethnicities present at best, the attendees at this one were predominantly black. The burgeoning black middle classes were out in force, and they were loving it.




Although such a situation would barely be remarked upon in the multi-cultural heartlands of the UK, in South Africa, with its very different history and background, you really do notice it.


Not only do black and white of all classes stick mainly to their own apartheid-induced neighbourhoods even today, but economic power still resides in mainly Caucasian hands, with a per capita income differential of nearly eight times (South African Institute of Race Relations).


This means that, while your doctor or lawyer will most probably be white, the person cleaning your house or serving you coffee in a bistro will almost certainly be black. It’s very noticeable to an outsider.


So it’s no real surprise then that people of different ethnicities still don’t mix much here. The 2013 annual South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey revealed, in fact, that just over two out of five people never or rarely chat regularly with someone of a different race.


As for socialising together, it simply never happens for almost a third, while a further 40% do so sometimes or only rarely.


Despite all this though, my Beloved and I found last Saturday’s festival to be the friendliest we’ve been to here bar none – and we’ve been to quite a few by now. Whether it was chatting with someone about their love of ‘Top Gear’ on hearing our English accents or having a little dance and a joke with the guys standing in front of us, we had a whale of a time.


While I can’t say that the all-British headliners – jazz-funk pioneers, the Brand New Heavies; club favourites, Soul II Soul; and acid jazz combo, Icognito – were quite my musical thing, it really didn’t matter too much.


What mattered most was the optimism and hope that the day inspired in both us for the future of this troubled country.


Jozi’s ‘Little India’: A Place with a Past

If you ever fancy grabbing a curry, or going on a shopping expedition to find material for your wedding dress, then Fordsburg is the place to go in Johannesburg.


Originally a mining village and later the site of multi-racial slums only a hop, skip and a jump from the town centre, the suburb is now home to Jozi’s well-established Indian and Pakistani community – although quite a few Turkish and Syrian people have been popping up there lately too apparently.


But while it may not be one of the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods, it is nonetheless one of its more vibrant ones. The scruffy streets, lined with brightly-coloured cafes and shops selling everything from saris to sweetmeats, reminded me a bit of Bethnal Green in London, in fact.


Filled with chatter, the pungent aroma of food mingling with incense, and, at one point, even an imam’s rather haunting call to prayer, the area not only feels safe, but also comfortable with itself, despite its poverty – and the influx of beggars taking advantage of Muslim vows of charity in the shape of zakat, the third pillar of Islam.


For example, there’s the Delight Bakery, housed in a converted Mennonite Christian church; the Swadeshi one-stop Hindu prayer shop and the guy cooking up betel leaf on a street corner to make paan, a mild narcotic popular all over South Asia.

In this manifestation though, the paan is served with a sweet, syrupy mixture to make it just that little bit more palatable when you chew on it, before spitting it out and turning the pavement red.


Elsewhere, you’ll see street hawkers with their arrays of unrecognisable green veg, grown in small allotments nearby or bussed in from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). There’s the vendors selling coconuts from Mozambique and wielding machetes, who lob the top off their fruits so you can drink, before chopping the flesh into chunks when you’re done.


And then there’s market in the heart of it all, with its stalls full of street food, crammed in among the bling, cheap cosmetics and knock-off designer gear typical of such places.


Little India


It’s easy to see how Fordsburg earned its nickname, ‘Little India’ – even if the population does happen to be mainly Muslim, which means, incidentally, that everyone shuts up shop on Fridays between noon and 2pm for prayer.


And that the area, being halaal, is dry, which can cause problems for corporate tour groups, according to our guide Jo, the owner of Past Experiences, who so impressed us with her trip around Newtown looking at graffiti last week that we decided to give another of her city walking tours a go.


In fact, literally the only restaurant in the area that does serve booze is the Golden Peacock in the nearby Oriental Plaza shopping mall. Which is good apparently, but not nearly as good as the rather more basic places on the streets nearby, Al-Makkah, Al Mehran and the vegetarian, Swaruchi, for instance.


Anyway, it turns out that, like so much in South Africa, the Oriental Plaza, has a bit of a past. The mall, which stretches over five blocks, was built as an experiment in the 1970s by the apartheid government, which forced fabric and garment traders in nearby Pageview – formerly known as Fietas – to relocate from their traditional site in 14th Street, nicknamed Joburg’s Petticoat Lane.


Those who could afford it were allowed to purchase space at the Plaza, making it the only shopping centre in South Africa to be 100%-owned by its shopkeepers. And to this day, it is still considered the place for people of all ethnicities to buy – or barter for – the fabric for their wedding dress.


But the Plaza isn’t the only thing that Fordsburg is famous for. It is also the site of the 1922 ‘Red Revolt’, which, following a drop in the gold price, saw Afrikaner miners strike against being replaced by cheaper black labour.


The industrial action, which spread across the country, was intended to overthrow the government, but president Jan Smuts declared martial law and bombed the miners into submission at the current site of the Fordsburg market. There is even a blue plaque on the toilets nearby to mark the historic event.


Big diaspora


As to why there is such a large Asian community in the country in the first place though, that dates back to the 1860s. At this time, Indian people started arriving as indentured labourers, initially to work in the sugarcane plantations of Natal Colony, but later as miners and railway workers too.


As many as 150,000 came to the country over a period of about five decades, but were soon followed by so-called ‘passenger Indians’. They were mainly traders who expanded into key commercial centres such as Durban, Johannesburg and the roads in between in order to serve the growing population.


Originally settling in Jozi’s Newtown area, the community in the city was shocked by its high levels of crime and prostitution, however. As a result, on writing to president Paul Kruger to ask for a place of their own, he created the unpolitically-correctly-named ‘Coolie Location’ for them in 1887.


And, despite forced relocations at different times and under different regimes, not least during apartheid, the community has managed to stay roughly in the same neighbourhood ever since.


Throughout South Africa today though, there are currently more than 1.3 million people of Indian descent – about 2.7% of the country’s total population – although few of the younger generation speak anything other than English as their mother tongue these days.


The city of Durban, the capital of KSN, is, in fact, home to the largest Indian community outside of India itself – and is also the place that gave the world that current London favourite, bunny chow.


According to legend, this dis-emboweled hunk of bread filled with a usually mild curry was first created during the apartheid era. As racial segregation laws meant that Indians were prohibited from serving Zulu customers inside any of their eateries, some ingenious soul came up with the perfect solution.


And so it was that the completely edible takeaway was born. Now that’s korma…errr karma, I should say.

Jozi Beer Festival: Getting Crafty

Craft beer – or real ale if you’re a Brit – is massive over here in Johannesburg at the moment.


Every trendy bar or restaurant worth its salt will have at least one or two of them on offer, and you can bet your life that you’ll see it advertised on fliers for concerts and festivals as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.


A relatively new eatery-cum-drinking establishment on Fourth Avenue in our hip neighbourhood of Parkhurst has even named itself after the phenomenon – ‘Craft’ – and judging by the multitudes thronging there every weekend, it’s a ploy that’s worked.


But even though the whole “artisanal beer” thing, as it’s often called here, is generally a predominantly male preserve, a few women are also getting in on the act. In fact, four of them, including chef Thea Blom, got together in September last year to set up the Oakes Brew House.


Set in the grounds of Blom’s 33 High Street Restaurant and Bar in the former mining town of Modderfontein in the West Rand area of Jozi, it is billed as the only ‘all-girl brew-pub’ in Johannesburg – and possibly even South Africa.


And as such, the women look after everything from the brewing process itself to sales, producing a range of tongue-in-cheek-ly-named beverages such as Easy Blonde Ale, Butt Stout and Wise Beer.


As to how the craft beer phenomenon has taken off with such a vengeance in South Africa over the last couple of years, no one really seems to know.


Some claim that the trend initially made its way to the Western Cape from the US before spreading to Joburg, while others suggest that some people just started getting sick of drinking mass-produced lagers – the drink of choice for most locals – and wanted to try something new.


South Africa’s first micro-, or small, independently-owned, brewery, Mitchell’s, led the way in 1983, however, when it started to make an English-style ale. While it was another couple of decades before others followed suit, today there are believed to be more than 70 such organisations, again mostly in the Western Cape – and the number continues to rise.


Craft beer craze


But’s that not to say that the country’s huge commercial breweries are necessarily being hit hard by the craft beer craze. South African Breweries Ltd, a subsidiary of the world’s second largest beer producer SABMiller, and brandhouse, a joint venture between Diageo, Heineken and Namibian Breweries, reportedly still own a vast 99% of the total market.


But they aren’t sitting on their laurels either. In a bid to take advantage, SAB in particular is now wont to come out with its own, limited run, versions of real ales for local beer festivals. Another ploy is developing new hop varieties to sell to those microbrewers interested in using home-grown South African plant matter in their offerings.


Anyway, the reason that I started on about all of this is that my Beloved and I decided to amble our way over to the second, need I say sell-out, “Jozi Craft Beer Fest” last weekend.


Held in Mark’s Park in Emmarentia, not far from the affluent northern suburb’s large lake – or dam as they’re known here – it was a sprawling affair. Beer stalls, food stands and a truck blaring live and piped pop music lined up in a semi-circle around a football pitch-sized field, while an awning-covered grass and straw-bale bedecked seating-cum-picnic area was carved out in the middle.


Our first dabble of the day though, chosen from a selection of 26 microbrewers offering 100 or so beverages for our drinking pleasure, came courtesy of Brewhogs, a local business from Midrand, which caught my eye because of its hedgehog logo.


And, interestingly, just to blow the usual white, middle-class male stereotype out of the water, it turned out that its master, or head, brewer, was a black female – a fact that surprised and suitably impressed me in such a male-dominated industry, it must be said.


Next on the libation list, meanwhile, was the Copperlake Breweries’ Light Lager for me, and English Ale, of course, for my Beloved. But while I happily tucked into mine with impunity, my Beloved hit a perennial problem with his.


Alcohol-related foibles


Because the climate in South Africa is so much warmer than the UK, everyone insists on serving their ales ice cold in order to conform to local sensibilities. But as a result, until you stand them in the sun to warm up a bit in traditional fashion, they’re utterly tasteless.


Which is a shame really – and does make you wonder what it is that people actually see in them here, beyond being the latest fad, that is. Camra (Campaign for Real Ale, based in our former stomping ground of St Albans) would have words, I’m sure.


But serving relentlessly cold beer isn’t the only little alcohol-related foible to be found in South Africa. Another relates to the country’s supremely confusing retail sales laws.


For example, presumably as a concession to the economically-important wine industry, it is possible to buy bottles of the stuff in any supermarket. But if you want a generally less potent beer, spirits or whatever else, you’ve got to go to a specialist bottle store, as they’re known locally.


Pub opening and retail sales hours are a further conundrum. But, because the rules are dictated by each individual municipality and can vary widely, it means that you never quite know where you are.


So, while in Stellenbosch or Cape Town, you won’t be able to buy liquor at the shops on a Sunday or religious holiday, in Johannesburg, there are no such prohibitions.


That could all be about to change though. A local Gauteng draft law, introduced last year, is proposing a total ban on Sabbath booze sales, even in bars and restaurants. Riot-fodder, if ever I heard it.


So good luck on getting that one through in a city where Sunday truly is the holy day of socialising – and it doesn’t seem particularly traditional to do it sober.