Falling Apart

Posted by Doug Morton on Friday, 04 March 2011

I was at a loose end last Sunday morning, with no idea of where to look for pictures.  I'd already missed the best light of the day, and there seemed to be no point in using up gold-plated fuel for unusable photographs.

Trying to drive through central Pietermaritzburg I fell foul of a road race that uses city streets, doing more than one lap and taking up most of the morning, so I detoured via the top part of the CBD.  As I approached the railway station I decided to take another look at the buildings, but this time drove past the main complex which the Afrikaner police made famous by evicting Mohandas Ghandi, an Indian lawyer, from a first-class coach which was reserved for whites.

I thought I'd have a look at the old goods sheds and stores.  There had to be some photo opportunities there.  There were.  In abundance.  The problem was that nothing that I saw was what I wanted to show my friends and readers about my home city.  I was appalled, disgusted and depressed at what I found.  The level of dereliction and decay, the vandalism and destruction of what had, not too long before, been functional and even attractive industrial structures, were like a physical assault.  I shuffled about the long line of architectural remains, doing just what I shouldn't - comparing what had been with what is now.

There were some examples of poor planning where a lovely Victorian style ablution block had been covered by a corrugated iron shed, but that was not too bad.  What had happened to that building was very bad.  No pane of glass remained intact, whole window and door frames had been wrenched out, toilet pans had been smashed and plumbing stripped from the walls.  And all about was litter, up to a metre deep in places.

By now I'd decided to put together a photo essay on this insult to the people of South Africa, and was taking photos of the relics.  My only complaint was that no single shot could convey the extent of the loss.  Expecting the worst, perhaps even a body or two, I edged into the ablution block, gagging at the stench, taking photos by pointing the camera around corners and hoping for the best.  The best turned out to be the worst.  I've been into many dodgy spots before, but this beat them all.

Rolling stock stood idle with grass and weeds growing up through them, lifting and recovery equipment lay around as if discarded by a bored child.  A beautiful office building that no longer had doors or windows still bore a sign claiming a number of injury-free shifts worked.  Garbage lay piled up on the verandah floor, reaching up to the window cills.

Rail sidings and spurs peered out of the undergrowth.  I discovered that nearly all the railway lines had been removed with some spurs from points disappearing into nothing.  Bits and pieces of railway paraphernalia were strewn everywhere.  Rails, sleepers, clamps lay all about, all enveloped by grass and tangled wire.  Manholes gaped at the sky, their cast-iron covers having long ago been pilfered and sold as scrap metal.  The drains in the manholes would never work again, clogged as they were with all manner of rubbish and rubble.

Roof sheeting and side cladding had been removed in many places, creating a patchwork quilt of covering.  Even wooden roof trusses had been partially cut up, presumably for firewood.  In some places whole roofs had been taken off.  Each building still bore its "No Smoking" sign, instructions about what to do in case of fire, and there was even a cubicle housing two unconnected pipes accompanied by a sign proclaiming that this was the control valve for the fire sprinkler system.  The missing valve had once occupied the gap between the pipes.

Hollywood would have paid handsomely for a set like this.  The destruction was done, and all that didn't fit the scene was the join-the-dots grid of lumps of human waste everywhere.  I realised why the photographs were inadequate.  The stench was missing; I couldn't capture the sadness and rage I felt using just a camera.

Just across Railway Street from this complex, two adjacent buildings caught my eye.  One was a beautifully restored and well maintained cottage now used as office premises for a local cleaning company.  Next to it was a ramshackle shell of walls with sagging lean-to roofs of rusted sheeting, with only a tall red brick chimney protruding to show that this, too, had once been a cottage to be proud of and to be cared for.  The sign on this one said it all in just one word.  Tavern.  A sign of our times.

I wandered through the skeletons, my architectural instincts shouting out the possibilities.  With some imagination and co-operation from Spoornet, this could be a shopper's paradise.  There was endless space for parking, there could be tangible atmosphere, and the location was just perfect for serving all sectors of the community.  Perhaps it was expecting too much.  After all, it's far easier to do nothing.  As the broken glass crunched under my feet I heard a sound that's become quite rare along this main line between Durban, the busiest port in Africa, and Johannesburg, the financial hub of the continent.

Yes, really, it was a train.  More than that, it was Rovos Rail, a world renowned privately owned tourism outfit that runs its luxury trains all over Southern Africa.  I did my best sprint impression through the wasteland, chancing my well-being on avoiding the contents of the undergrowth by luck, and found the driver to be an affable man who told me they'd be there for about an hour.  Now was the time to go to the main complex where Ghandi set his "Passive Resistance" campaign going.

I photographed the train from every angle I could devise.  Here was as stark a contrast between First and Third Worlds as I was likely to find, and I wanted to make the most of it.  The carriages in their distinctive livery looked a little out of place in the Victorian station complex, but then, with my takkies and tee shirt, I probably did, too.  I struck up conversations with several of the passengers, all of them from the UK, and heard about how they loved everything they'd seen in South Africa.  I was tempted to invite them for a short walk to see the reality of our country, but then they hadn't paid those many thousands of pounds sterling to be disillusioned.

I felt overpowered by standing between what was and what could be, knowing that I had no weight to change anything.  As the driver sounded the horn and Rovos Rail moved off to the flowers around Bloemfontein and then to the splendour of the Cape, I just felt empty.  I stood alone on the platform where Ghandi had once watched a train go off without him, and saw a similarly different world leaving me behind.  Ghandi did something about it.  Can I?

There will be no photos with this post.  I'm too ashamed of what's on my own doorstep.  I'm sad for the people of this country who accept this ruin and squalour as normal, and I'm sad for the people on that train who will return home without having seen South Africa.  I love this land, but sometimes it makes me so sad, and very angry.  Which beloved country would Alan Paton be crying for now?


Feeling overpowered - "I felt overpowered by standing between what was and what could be, knowing that I had no weight to change anything." This to me says it all, and creates in me a similar feeling of being overpowered - in my case by my dual reaction to this post. There is sadness at yet another needless falling apart of a once vibrant infrastructure, and then admiration for the way you have used words to paint the picture.

By: deb on February 8, 2013

Deb, I apologise for not spotting your comment before tonight. I was prompted to re-read the blog by something that a local friend said about a visit to that poor place today. That quote you selected - did I really write that? I supposed I did. And I was right. It was a devastating day that changed my outlook of several things. Thank you for that comment. It makes all the effort worth it. I'm very grateful.

By: Doug Morton on July 18, 2013

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