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Return to Pretoria

by mdavza 

Posted: 17 November 2005
Word Count: 1362
Summary: A sort-of travel piece, my impressions from a recent visit to Pretoria, South Africa

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Return to Pretoria

I've had enough of the UK for this year, 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 looking forward to a six-week long break. At the last minute I managed to hook a cheap, late August ticket while surfing the Internet, to visit my dear home town, 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 that travelled from Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century. A common myth prevails that a Jacaranda blossom falling on your head means you'll pass the exam - hence so many students studying for their finals under the trees in Spring. But Pretoria is not all mauve blossoms and roses. It has a troubled past that continues to affect the present. The trouble started, as with most things in South Africa, with the question of 'Who got here first?'

A short history:
The earliest 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 drifters to make the lush valley their home was a bunch of hardy Dutch immigrants, the Voortrekkers, who struggled over the mighty Drakensberg mountains. They named their settlement after Andries Pretorius, a hero of the Blood River battle. The discovery of gold brought riches and immigrants (hence the Jacarandas) to the region and the small village eventually transformed into the administrative capital of the apartheid regime. And in the aftermath of apartheid, Pretoria is fighting to keep its name after the official committee decided to change it back to Tshwane. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretoria). Wikepedia's concise treatment of the place fails, however, to capture its quirky romance and the passion of Pretorianers (inhabitants of Pretoria) towards this place.

When you step off the plane, remember that August is the last month of winter. Because the over-abundance of sunshine, of warm air and brightness, might be a bit confusing. Winter is a misnomer when applied to this city, a 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 Highveld - the common name for the Johannesburg/Pretoria region - is dead dry during the lesser-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 shrubs. The vista is lined with karee trees and thorn trees whose sharp extensions are a reminder that Africa is not for 'sissies'. But even the apparent aridness of the land does nothing to quench my enthusiasm for seeing the familiar sights, fauna and flora (my family included) again.

My nieces, Emma and Anja, are happiest to see me and they bounce all over with delight. They live in the family residence in Centurion, a suburb for those who can't decide whether they want to live in Pretoria or Jozi (Johannesburg). Centurion was previously called 'Verwoerdburgstad' after the notorious apartheid leader and it beats me who decided on the new name. My brother and sister-in-law specialise in all things naturally South African, and I am felled by their boisterous Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs, Baloo and Coco. Ridgebacks are one of the indigenous Southern African dog breeds, together with the Boerbull and various street specials. Bred to be monstrous, ferocious, lion-hunting pack animals, Ridgebacks are actually sweet-tempered, love-you-to-death dogs. They are perfect as fake watchdogs. They bark on cue and look intimidating but are more interested in how to sneak unnoticed onto your lap. Baloo and Coco are as brown and dusty as the grass on which they lounge every day, soaking up sunshine before chasing each other jubilantly round the yard. I've never yet seen dogs in England who seem as alive as those two.

'How is it going in the land of the souties?' Dad asks with the biggest smile since gold was discovered in Pilgrim's Rest - soutie being the name given by Afrikaners to British settlers. According to legend they rest with one foot on African soil, the other in England, with their crown jewels dangling in the salt water in between.

I spend my first few days at home catching up with family gossip, appreciating the sun, and enjoying the local newspapers. Reading a Pretoria journal is much fun. For example, one day the 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 kilometres. 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, stabbed, mugged and killed on a daily basis. Everyone and their neighbour have a gun. Even artists use them to, well, enforce appreciation of their performance, judging by the story of the singer who fired a warning shot in the air after being booed by a drunken mob.

Pretoria has unique, if previously undocumented tourist attractions: the more affluent suburbs are packed with clusters of 'security villages'. An army of uniformed guards watch over the entrances, and the walls and electric fences proclaim a singular message of 'Stay out!'. These acres of crime-free zones have peaceful names like Bougainvillea, Green Acres, and Woodhill, and are the latest method of perverting the course of injustice. According to the papers, they aren't hugely successful. Their wealth makes them prime targets, and criminals are sneaky, opening loopholes as soon as they are secured. I am amazed at so many people willing to live on top of each other in a country where space is in ridiculous abundance. It is a sight well worth seeing.

We decide to pay a visit to the lovely Irene dairy farm. Located in the historic Irene village, this is the place to purchase farm-fresh organic produce and watch the cows being milked. A little bit of England in the wilderness. The kids love greeting the assortment of calves separated in individual stables, ready to rasp a hand with their friendly tongues. Anja got 'a bit scared' when one calve decided to blare desolately for its daily portion of milk, which kids are allowed to help distribute at 3 pm every afternoon. There are a few ponds, enough playground for the kids and the tea garden is situated in the original farm barn, built in 1890. I am shocked to pay £1 for a can of Coke - a ludicrous price in South Africa. Maybe this is another way of beating crime. The current management is spoiling the rustic atmosphere with these prices and they are also introducing function rooms for corporate meetings, wedding receptions and so forth. I vow never to support them again. Next time we’ll buy some drinks from the dairy shop (at 25p) and go say hi to Freddie the Frog, free of charge.

One of the most stunning views of the city is by way of Johan Rissik Drive. They've recently cut down all the trees to get rid of the illegal settlers living there, 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 Johan Rissik Drive. On one side is 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. Surrounded by a bloom of purple carpets.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 17:28 on 18 November 2005  Report this post

I think your summary holds the key to what I see as the structural weakness of this enjoyable piece. You write that it is a 'sort-of' travel article and so it is but it's also a memoir. Just once, as I recall, you address the would-be traveller (in para 4)and you provide the potted history but mostly it's a diary-like passage about your doings and reactions. This sowed some confusion in this reader's mind and took away some of the delight.

Another confusion for me came from an uncertainty about the 'tourist attractions'. Is it all meant to be ironic or is your intention to 'sell' the place to visitors? If the latter, I would need more description of the positive places before I start Googling for cheap flights.

My view is that there are two potentially first rate articles here; a 'straight' travel piece and a 'reactions to returning' memoir (which perhaps could be amplified with more nostalgia? - and with description of what I take to be mixed feelings about the way things are going in Pretoria).

Just a few typos. I noticed 'cause of injustice' instead of 'course' and 'calve' instead of 'calf'; spell check no use for these! There's also 'Me, Emma and Anja decided..' which needs re-shaping unless the grammatical crunch is intended for effect.

Overall, though, I liked the style and easily forgave you all those digs at dear old England!


scoops at 17:52 on 25 November 2005  Report this post
Mdavza i read this a few days ago but couldn't comment as i had forgotten to renew my subs. That is done now and a second reading has me thinking along the same lines as before and I'm going to echo in some part what Richard has already said, which is that you have two narratives here only one of which is journalistic. It's sod's law that it's this part of the piece that really works - the first paragraphs are absolutely cracking, if rather random. They juxtapose experience and expectation with reportage and if worked on, the voice and the rhythm of your travelogue could develop into something very promising. Unfortunately you abandon it to lumber around family reunions and walks down memory lane and here random turns into chaotic. I really think you should go back and draft a structure for this piece so you feel confident about controlling the information and the narrative voice before starting to write. There are points where what you've written were both instructive and inspiring:-) Shyama.

mdavza at 17:10 on 27 November 2005  Report this post
Thank you both for the comments. I had no idea of how to improve the piece, and you are right - I don't really know what to do with it. I'll revise and post a new version. Thank you for the encouragement - it means a lot! Maretha


PS: How does one 'draft a structure'? I'm a novice of note!

Beadle at 09:07 on 30 November 2005  Report this post
Hi Mdavza

Sorry to take so long to comment.

I echo the thoughts of Richard and Scoops that this falls between two-stools in that it cannot decide whether it is a straight travel piece or a much more personal reflection on a place you obviously love - actually, scratch that. I think you instinctively know what you want to write, and that is the more personal article.

If that's the case, then, as the others said, there is a cracking article in here and you have a very enjoyable writing style.

This was of particular interest to me because of my upcoming move to SA. I know nothing of Pretoria and to be honest had never even considered visiting there, but your article has pricked my interest. I also think you observations on life in SA - gated communities with flowery names - is one that I recognise slightly from Cape Town. I wonder if you see these issues more clearly now you are living overseas and are visiting Pretoria, therefore viewing the place with different eyes.

You ask about structure, but I think you have go back to the start and ask yourself: 'What do I want this article to be about' and 'who do I want to read it'.

I think it works best at the moment as the sober reflections of a (temporary) ex-pat returning home. The description of souties was great and it is something I have seen in many SAers here in the UK - more so I think than Aussies or Kiwis I have met. This feeling of being betwixt and between two places, a struggle between where you want to be and the reasons for being there.

Most South Africans I have ever met in this country love their own country so much, but they are also acutely aware of the problems that exist, more so than their friends back home. As a result they seem to like the social freedoms here, if that's the right phrase. The lack of crime, the fact that divisions between different groups of people are not so obvious. For some SAers I've met, at times they have been dead set against returning, declaring that SA is one step away from anarchy.

But most South African's I know, even those that say they won't go back, miss the place desperately. There is something very special about the country, and this comes out clearly in your writing.

I think you should write it from the returnee’s point of view - re-discovering all that is wonderful about the place, as well as perhaps your new insight to the changes brought about by the perspective of living overseas. Your family is also key to this, but I think you must use them to shed more light on how people in SA view souties and what drives people to leave the country in the first place.

I think potentially this could of interest to both SA and UK publications.

Stick with it, I think it has a lot of potential and would like to read more.


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