City Streets, but not by Carole King

Posted by Doug Morton on Friday, 08 February 2013

This is likely to be a sort of mini blog.  I hope it’s more than mini interesting.

I’ve lived in this village for forty-two years now, and still don’t really consider myself fully a citizen.  Over the years I’ve been subjected to the down-the-nose looks of the OMF’s – for the uninitiated, that’s Old Maritzburg Families – and have constantly found myself the victim of not being a College Old Boy.  Never mind Hilton College and Michaelhouse, ek se.   I’ve got to know some of the dyed-in-the-wool Maritzburgers quite well, and have managed, without undue difficulty or compromising my principles, to accept them.  Ooo.  They’re going to love that.  Seriously, they’re wonderful people and take great pride in what their home town used to be.

For the past year or so I’ve been photographing parts of the city.  I’d decided that I was no longer going to allow the criminal element to cow me out of capturing images of the people, buildings, activities and conditions in this village. My friend, the late John Beams, always said with total conviction: “It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.”   It’s been scary on a few occasions, but always rewarding, and I must record my thanks to the rank-and-file people who’ve been so friendly and warm, always smiling and happy to share a story.  I’ll not forget Edith trundling her supermarket trolley laden with snacks and fruit on her way home from a testing day on the sidewalk in Boom Street.  What a lovely lady.

The city is crammed to overflowing with refugees from many parts of this continent, displaced by poverty, deprivation and war.  Somehow they’ve managed to get to a dysfunctional and crippled civilisation that is far better than the turmoil they’d fled, and have become a composite community.  They include many from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola, and, farther afield, the DRC, Mali and Ethiopia.  I’ve had occasion to work among them, entering with trepidation, but finding nothing but friendliness and even a lot of good cheer.  How cheerful would I be in that slumland that is the upper part of this town?

While I recognise this (and all other) municipalities’ brief to impose the conditions of Town Planning Schemes upon this human melange, it must be said that the composers of those Schemes took no notice of the tragedy that is Africa, and the effect it would have right here on the doorstep.  The Schemes were written for a first-world society and the very nature of the inner city defies them.   It’s just such a different world, peopled by desperation, poverty, squalor, greed, overcrowding, deprivation, violent crime, caring, friendship, laughter and Ubuntu.

Some time back Peter Wickham and I visited an informal settlement right on the edge of the city centre.  It was fascinating to watch the range of activities going on in the late afternoon, driving schools, home-building, lazy drinking, sangomas on patrol, and the smoke from wood fires everywhere.  There was laundry on the line, and the kids were playing with anything that could even be imagined a toy.

It was the end of the work day, and those waiting for their transport still had a ready grin for the stranger’s camera.

There’s a wonderful entrepreneurial spirit there, born of the need for survival.  Every nook and cranny is occupied by someone offering a service that’s useful to the community at large, most of them being of the catering type, like pavement vendors, taverns, telephone tables, even roadside mechanics, and I suppose this extends to illicit things like electricity connections.  Of course the minibus taxis are a constant activity, irritating, threatening, noisy, but necessary.  The litter, too, is a permanent blight, but no amount of wishing or anger is going to make it go away.

There’s all-pervading image of many people, most of them looking well-fed and well-dressed, lounging about, doing little.  So how do they come to be well-fed and well-dressed while doing nothing all day.  A visit to a tavern or a beer hall reveals small crowds of patrons, nursing their Heinekens, waiting for their turn at the ubiquitous pool tables.  It’s mostly a male domain, while the street and pavement gang is mostly female.  How do they come by the funds to pursue this carefree lifestyle in a city with a shortage of jobs, accommodation and services?  I’ve never worked it out.

It took me ages to enter one of those taverns, and I regret that.  I was never made to feel unwelcome or threatened, and anyone I spoke to was happy to chat.  Because it’s such a mixed and diverse society, English has become the lingua franca when a white face intrudes, and I’ve never been made to feel inadequate.  For me it’s been a breaking of the mould that formed the white kids of the mid-twentieth century, and I feel in a way that I’ve grasped the freedom of the city.

I do understand that bravado isn’t a good basis for security, and it may well happen one day, even soon, that I’ll be mugged or worse, and have to walk or crawl home sans car, camera and lenses.  After what I’ve experienced in the past year, it’s a chance worth taking, always remembering to be circumspect.  I have to mention that no-one I’ve invited to keep me company has seen his or her way clear to coming along.  That’s sad.

There’s so much more still to be done.  I’d love to record church congregations in their settings, children at school, patients at a clinic, and even, can you believe this, catch a minibus taxi to Edendale and back.  If I survive that, I’m bullet-proof.  I’d love to do it, but I need to work on it.  I’m enjoying putting together my chronicle of this aspect of Pietermaritzburg.  But then it’s not only this town, but every town and city across the country.  Like it or not, it’s what we have.  After all, this is Africa.

So that’s it for this time.  It’s been a bit different from my normal codswallop, but a good friend recently told me she enjoys reading my codswallop.  Mustn’t let her down now, I think.


Opening of eyes and Mind - Well done for taking the step. Truthfully this is the only way to undersdtand our fellow citizens, go into their surroundings - but it is a huge step to take as our minds are so clouded with negativity.

By: pamdon on February 8, 2013

Creative Codswallop - I agree with Don's comment, and add my thanks for this maxi interesting mini blog. Even though no longer living there, I remain deeply interested in the state of affairs in SA. That part of me would definitely want to experience a foray into some of what you have described so vividly; yet I know the fearful part would probably raise some fierce opposition. I see as one of the many tragedies of SA, the wonderful natures of the majority of the citizens being shortchanged by the greed, ineptitude, and downright criminality of the majority of the politicians. Or have I got that wrong? Maybe there are more useful politicians than I know of.

By: deb on February 8, 2013

Home - Maritzburg will always be home.  But how different it looks in these photographs.  It's not the place I grew up, it's so very different but still full of life and, as you say, the people are welcoming and warm - for the most part.  It's one of those things I suppose.  I have always been quick to judge people - and I am told I am quite good at it -- but in some circumstances one needs to be brave and venture a little deeper.  Being brave unfortunately isn't one of my best qualities.  Having said that, if you were to invite me on one of your excursions into the heart of my home town, I would accompany you without hesitation.  Even if just to try to protect you.  Thanks for shots. It is sad what cities have become, but your pictures show a city still with a story to tell, and maybe even a positive one at that.

By: Blondie on February 8, 2013

Not for the faint-hearted... - Like Deb, I no longer live in ZA, but retain an interest from the safety of my new home, tame as it is. It takes daring and courage to venture out to capture the images you chase. I envy you the chutzpah and hubris that takes you to places that could constitute real danger. I identify with your observations about Maritzburg having seen similar scenarios in East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. It is a shock every time I encounter the appalling changes to the cities. I admire your drive to record the remnants of the old no matter how altered through time and politics they have become.That you are able to create an instant rapport with your subjects is a gift. However, we don't want to be looking at your images in memory of you as as happened to several photographers in 'war' zones. Go carefully out there. Deborah 10 February 2013    

By: on February 9, 2013

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