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Return to Pretoria - Nr. 2

by mdavza 

Posted: 03 January 2006
Word Count: 1492
Summary: A revised version of my previous attempt. Word count: 1485
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Return to Pretoria

I’ve had enough of the UK, having just endured my second summer – if that is what one could call the few struggling hours of sunshine and its lazy 11pm setting – on the isle of the English. Having completed my first term as full-time teacher, I was exhausted and looking forward to the six-week long break. At the last minute I managed to hook a cheap, late August ticket while surfing the Internet, to pay a return visit to my dear hometown, Pretoria.

Google 'Pretoria' and one finds a few sites dedicated to the city. I prefer the second, www.pta.co.za, due to its more sentimental and romantic title: ‘The Jacaranda city’. In spring the streets and parks break out in jubilant purple blossoms, a pretty gift travelling from Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century. A common myth prevails that a Jacaranda blossom falling on your head will bring good luck. But, alas, Pretoria is not all mauve blooms and roses. It has a troubled past that continues to affect the present. The trouble started, as most things in South Africa, with the question of ‘Who was here first?’ The first refugees to occupy the area were the Nguni-speaking Ndebeles who promptly named the river after one of their chiefs, Tshwane or ‘little ape’. The next group of drifters to settle in the lush valley – and live in relative peace with their Nguni neighbours - was a bunch of hardy Dutch immigrants, the Voortrekkers, who named their settlement after Andries Pretorius, a hero of the Blood River battle. The discovery of gold in the late 19th century brought riches and immigrants (hence the Jacarandas) to the region and the small village eventually transformed into the administrative capital of the apartheid regime. In the aftermath of apartheid Pretoria is still fighting, this time to keep its Afrikaans name after a politically motivated decision to change back to Tshwane. History and bickering come and go, but for Pretorianers (inhabitants of Pretoria), this is the space where we live our own (hi)stories.

I step off the plane with mixed feelings that are dashed by the weather. August is, in theory at least, the last month of winter, except for the over-abundance of sunshine, of warm air and brightness. Winter is a misnomer when applied to this climate, a gross misrepresentation of the gravity of the word. Winter in Pretoria should be called “summer of lesser heat” or “semi-summer” or “low summer”. But not winter. Winter lives in England and seldom pays Pretoria a visit. The lovely climate is its one unambiguous saving grace and I welcome the sunshine with relish.

The Highveld – the common name for the Johannesburg/Pretoria region – is dead dry during the early summer spell and the pollen makes for spectacular snivelling and sneezing. The savannah that forms the basis of this earth turns a parched shade of light brown against an abundance of evergreen trees. The vista is lined with karee trees and thorn trees whose sharp extensions are a reminder that Africa is indeed not for sissies. (For more information on the trees, please visit www.africantrees.com) The Highveld is never particularly attractive but the apparent aridness of the land does nothing to quench my enthusiasm for seeing the familiar sights, fauna and flora (my family included), again.

The family residence is located in Centurion, a suburb for those who can’t decide whether they want to live in Pretoria or Johannesburg (also called Jozi). I sometimes wish I were one of those who could boast of going back to the home of their childhood, lovingly pointing out the trees that they climbed and the neighbours they used to play with. But my parents could never decide where to settle down – true to their roots – and have been living in Centurion the past couple of years. Seeing the familiar faces again, relishing their hugs, I know this is the only reason for returning to Pretoria. Centurion is dull. It used to be called 'Verwoerdburgstad' after the founder of apartheid and used to attract those with similar tendencies to the suburb. It has changed much in recent years, not least because of the name change, but because of its proximity to Jozi. Pretorianers have long held Johannesburg at suspicious lengths (too English) but the money is good. A lot of flourishing IT companies has further transformed Centurion into a yuppie haven. One of the few attractions in this halfway suburb is the Irene dairy farm. Located in the historic Irene village, this is the place to purchase farm-fresh organic products and watch the cows being milked. A little bit of England in the wilderness. My nieces, Emma (5) and Anja (3), love the farm and we have been constant visitors since they were born. We visit the calves, blaring desolately for their daily portion of milk, that kids are allowed to help distribute at 3 pm every afternoon. A few ponds are scattered around children’s playground and a tea garden is situated in the original farm barn that was built in 1890. I am shocked to pay £1 for a can of Coke, which is a ludicrous price in South Africa. Maybe this is another way of beating crime. I vow never to support them again. Next time we’ll buy some drinks from the dairy shop (at 25p) and go greet Freddie the Frog, free of charge.

I spend my first few days at home enjoying the local newspapers, having much fun in the process. One front-page covers the story of a teenage long-distance running champ who chased a robber (caught munching a sandwich and drinking Coke in the family home) for almost 10 kilometers. After a while the thief became too tired and gave up. By page three, however, one realises that gun crime is a problem in this society. Ian Rankin says that he writes about crime because one can learn a lot about a culture by studying their crime. It says a lot about Pretoria. People are hijacked, carjacked, mugged, maimed and killed on a daily basis. Although now against the law, everyone and their neighbour have a gun. An old saying: If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. My parents tell the story of the people next door that discovered their home was broken into, with nothing taken except for the safe with the pistol inside. The thief ignored the open laptop in the same room and only took the safe. Maybe he just didn’t like Windows. But I fear for my family’s safety and struggle to get used to the knot in my stomach when driving alone.

One way of perverting the course of injustice is by way of ‘security villages.’ My jaw drops as we drive through the affluent suburbs packed with places of confinement. An army of uniformed guards secures the entrances and the high walls and electric fences proclaim a particular message of “Stay out!” These acres of security ‘villages’ have restful names such as ‘Silver Willows’ and ‘Woodhill’. Why do these places bother me so much? I can’t stand the hypocrisy. One of the reasons affluent white people stay in the country is because of ‘its space’. But they are willing to live on top of each other in a country where space is in ridiculous abundance. As a way to escape crime they aren’t very successful either, according to reports, as the collective wealth proves irresistible to any criminal worth his salt. This is where I have respect for London, at least, where the rich live on one side of the street and the poor on the other. But then again, I am living here in the lap of luxury, so who am I to criticise? Fair enough.

“How is it going in the land of the souties?” My dad asks with the biggest smile since gold was discovered in Pilgrim’s Rest - soutie being the name given by Afrikaners to British settlers. A soutie rests with one foot on South African soil and the other in England; with their crown jewels dangling in the salt (e.g. sout) water in between. I wonder if I’m becoming one.

One of the most stunning views of the city is by way of Johan Rissik Drive. They've recently got rid of the foreign trees (and a few illegal settlers in the process) on the hill, and it offers a 360° summary of the most important tourist attractions. Don't buy a map, hire a bicycle and decide what you want to see from the top of the drive. On one side are the Voortrekker Monument and the University of South Africa, straight ahead the majestic Union Buildings and a bit to the right the University of Pretoria and Brooklyn Mall.

Each place steeped in personal memories and small miseries, surrounded by a bloom of purple carpets. Pretoria is a state of heart. I will always return.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 07:41 on 04 January 2006  Report this post
This was an interesting piece which raised many questions and parallels with current UK society. I don't know anything about Pretoria so I enjoyed the description and the contrast of weather, although to complain about the English Summer is a bit of a cliche. You make it sound like the main reason to go back to Pretoria, which isn't the case, I'm sure.

One or two small errors I spotted:

'everyone and their neighbour have a gun' would be better as 'everyone nad his neighbour has a gun'

'the people next door that discovered' should be 'who discovered'.

I think you need a stronger ending, since, everyone, arguably, intends to return to their home town.

In your case, will it be teach? I wondered about your mention of why you came to teach in England but apart from mentioning that you were exhausted you didn't expand on this. There is an interesting story there, for me at least.

I enjoyed reading this informative piece.


Brian Aird at 22:37 on 04 January 2006  Report this post
I'd be interested in knowing how a personal piece like this could be published i.e. which papers or magazines might take it. But it seems to me that there are many potential stories struggling to find a voice.

It mixes inconsequential comments about English weather with serious comments about crime with only a few pointers for the would-be traveler. So it's hard to see it in a travel mag for example, unless the crime could be put into perspective.

How safe/dangerous is Pretoria? You refer a lot to the UK, but what if this piece was being read by someone from the US or Australia? Have you any statistics about crime you could quote? Is it actually more dangerous than (say) New York, Sidney or London?

If you were to write in more detail about crime and gun ownership, a Pretorian newspaper may be interested. And on wider social problems what about black racialism (tribal conflict); is that a bigger problem than apartheid? What about other problems such as drugs or AIDS? Is the government doing enough?

And as has been noted, there is also a possible angle purely about teaching.

I enjoyed reading it, but I think you might benefit from deciding which story to tell.


mdavza at 11:59 on 07 January 2006  Report this post
Aarrrrgghh!! I'am struggling with this piece. Thank you for the valuable commentary. I don't think I really want to make a point with this piece, and I realiesd, as I researched journals etc. in which to publish, that it won't 'fit.' I'll have a rethink. Maretha

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