GOWANUS Summer 2000


By Richard Czujko


This Issue

Back issues
A small crowd is gathered around a sunken arena about the size of a boxing ring,  listening to a three-piece band render ragged versions of old reggae and rock favorites. The dreadlocked Rastafarians are using a primitive amplifier and the drummer is a girl barely in her teens, but they play with enthusiasm.

A pickup truck eases to a stop under the oak trees less than a hundred yards away. Revivalist gospel music begins to blare from a loudspeaker. A second crowd gathers around the pickup, but even though the truck’s loudspeaker has more volume than the band's amplifier, the band remains more popular with the onlookers. Significantly, there are no whites amongst the crowds.

This is a Saturday-morning scene in Freedom Square, Pietermaritz-
burg, a five-hectare open area in the centre of the city located about a hundred kilometers inland from the port city of Durban. A decade ago it was a very different place with a different name.

Pietermaritzburg is a colonial city caught between pre- and post-
apartheid cultures. Founded in 1838 by Dutch Voortrekkers seeking to escape British rule, it ironically developed into a British garrison town and became renowned as a Victorian enclave in the Zulu heartland. Its sedate colonial lifestyle gave rise to the nickname “Sleepy Hollow”, and Tom Sharpe in Riotous Assembly, a satirical novel about apartheid South Africa,  rather unkindly dismisses Pietermaritzburg  (which he abbreviated to Piemburg), as a “tiny town that seems to have died and been embalmed.”

But in the last decade the character of this colonial outpost has undergone a dramatic change.

The city centre was carefully laid out to cater for the Eurocentric tastes of  the white settlers. The black majority were confined to townships on the outskirts of the city, and the substantial Indian and  mixed-race community was likewise restricted to designated areas. Blacks and Indians could not legally own property within the city limits. When I arrived in Pietermaritzburg nearly twenty years ago, most blacks did not even venture into the city. The shops reflected exclusively middle-class white tastes: bookshops, dress shops, hobby shops.

Then, in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the expectations of the black majority were raised. There were mass marches and demonstrations that paralleled the collective action that had led to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Two incidents in particular during this period roused Pietermaritz-
burg from its long slumber. In 1992 there was a mass demonstra-
tion by mini-bus taxis that brought the city to a standstill,  an awe-
some parade of several hundred sixteen-seater mini-buses whose work stoppage paralysed business and terrified pedestrians and motorists, while the police were off pursuing renegade taxis elsewhere.

The second incident occurred soon after the murder of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani at the hands of a white expatriate in 1993. Hani had been tipped as a possible successor to Nelson Mandela and had enormous support from the black popula-
tion. A mass rally was organised after the murder, and thousands of blacks gathered in the city centre. Freedom Square became a seething mass of very angry people. A considerable amount of damage was caused and most businesses had to close.

After the elections of 1994 brought the African National Congress to power, the city entered a new phase of cultural change and a  con-
solidation of black African influence. There was now no longer any need for people to demonstrate: democracy had been achieved.

Then  still known as Market Square, the area was an appropriate site for political gatherings,  flanked as it was by buildings symbolic of the apartheid regime. On one side is the multi-storied provincial government building. Facing it directly across the square is the municipal administration building. The third side is occupied by the Voortrekker Museum, dedicated to the Dutch pioneers. The fourth side is dominated by the library and city hall.

At the end of the 1980s, the Square was basically a parking lot and bus terminus. The only notable activities that took place there were occasional people’s markets and the annual Pancake Race on Shrove Tuesday, a quaint Eurocentric tradition sponsored by city businesses. The sunken arena in which the Rastafarian band was playing that  Saturday morning used to be a giant chess board with life-size chess pieces. Those chessmen have long since vanished and the pancake race discontinued. Now the square is typically filled with freelance vendors. Even the former apartheid National Party was obliged to recognise the special political significance of the Square during last year’s general election campaign. The party’s youthful leader made a rousing speech from the back of a pickup truck there, but he failed to attract more than a few curious onlookers.

The bus service was another symbol of the old Pietermaritzburg, but it became uneconomical and was terminated. In its place came the mini-bus taxis whose drivers are so feared for their aggressive road manners and disregard for public safety. The taxis are not just conveyors of passengers, they are extensions of their drivers’ personalities, with sophisticated sound systems and exotically printed slogans on their windshields, from the intimidating "Warrior”, “Bullet” and “ Burning Spear”, to the gentler “Mr Loverman”, “Smooth Operator” and “Wishmaster”, to the honest “Just Plain Ruthless”.

Just as the city’s streets have become more representative of Africa, so too have the businesses. The change began in the 1980s with the establishment of informal traders on the sidewalks, a novelty then to most white residents. Gradually, more sidewalk vendors appeared, selling everything from cheap imitations of famous-brand sneakers and clothing to locally produced wooden artwork. Many of these business people are immigrants, legal and illegal, from West and Central Africa. Meanwhile, the shops on the square also underwent a transformation as many white-owned businesses withdrew from the city and relocated to the suburbs--a common phenomenon all over South Africa as fewer and fewer whites frequent the city centres.

Some of the vacated shops have become African hair salons, with names like “Ghanaian Unisex Hairstylist” and “Papa’s Hair Salon”. The liberalisation of the laws gave rise to escort agencies, sex shops and gambling casinos. Then the casinos were declared illegal and closed down. In their places loan companies  sprang up, offering cash with no strings attached.

Despite frequent complaints (invariably from whites) that the city centre is dying, the truth is that the character of Pietermaritzburg has simply changed to reflect the interests and tastes of the community as a whole rather than  just those of a minority.

The transition from apartheid to democracy has been difficult, but people generally have adapted well and are keen to get on with the job of making a living. This is evident by the current lack of support for mass gatherings and protest marches.  Organisers are lucky to muster a hundred people. The reasons for the demonstrations have changed too: Protests against apartheid have now become demon-
strations against unemployment.

Perhaps the most significant indication of the city's power shift is the relocation of the prestigious Victoria Club from the city centre to an affluent suburb where it has merged with the equally exclusive Country Club. The Victoria Club was the symbol of the colonial regime par excellence. Membership was by invitation only, and women were required to use a side entrance right up into the 1980s. Declining numbers and crime were cited as the main reasons for the club’s difficulties. Now the once-proud Victoria Club building has been cut up into into business rentals. One of the more prominent tenants is yet another loan company, promising cash "sharp sharp".

(Richard Czujko has lived with his family in Pietermaritzburg for almost twenty years. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Zimbabwe in 1975, majoring in English and French. He is employed as a senior administrative executive at the Pietermaritzburg city library, from where he observes first-hand the social and cultural changes taking place.)