Return to the Stevens Family Homepage
Return to the Stevens travel home page
Return to the South Africa travels page
Previous episode | Next episode

Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999


I read up on Jo'burg on the plane while I wasn't sleeping, and found out enough about the town to make me feel I didn't want to go there. The prospect of crime in Africa can be offputting. Sometimes it's best to visit such places after learning more about how to blend in. Last time I was in Nairobi, early 90's, I stayed in a real hotel on arrival and tested the city's streets with my toes. On return to Nairobi several weeks later, I was ready to stay at the Iqbal, the clean but noisy flophouse where I'd crashed as a hippy in 1974. Knowing how to act, and developing a feel for the place made me comfortable after a while. It's one thing when you have little to lose. This trip I'm carrying a computer. I don't think I had one in Nairobi. Maybe I'll taste Jo'burg on my way out of the country, as I did Nairobi. (I never had the chance; I flew from Capetown to Johannesburg Airport and never had to go into the city.)

I didn't have a clear plan on arrival in Jo'burg. Short notice had left me reliant on what I could read on the plane, and on one of my dive students', Cobus's, advice on where I should go on arrival (Natal was his suggestion, and he had loaned me an appealing coffee-table book full of pictures of Capetown as part of his encouraging me to go there). I read in Lonely Planet that I would need my own car in South Africa, so I rented one on arrival, a good decision I think. It's all plastic money anyway.

I wanted to spend time in a game park, and Kruger was more or less on the way to Natal, so I decided to go there. I had read that cottages in Kruger Park would have to be booked in advance, and that this booking would have to be done through the Parks office in Pretoria. I got the phone number from one of the amiable but overwhelmed black officials personing the tourist office at the airport, but they were much beset upon and couldn't help me with more specific inquiries.

Pretoria was just up the road from Jo'burg. The Tourists Rendezvous there was according to the LP a good place to get information, and Kruger Park cottage bookings could be made from an agent at that office, so since I had a car, I decided rather than go into Jo'burg, to just head for Pretoria.

Jo'burg airport had the look and feel of Heathrow, and terrain-wise and temperature-wise, I could have been in England on a summer's day, heading up the M1. Arrival in Pretoria was my first encounter with the new South Africa. I was there in half an hour. Like I imagined Jo'burg to be, where LP had warned never to walk about carrying anything that couldn't be replaced, the streets were croweded with blacks who didn't look all that prosperous. They weren't threatening, but they were everywhere, and they had a way of avoiding eye contact with whites. However, I was to find, in Pretoria as elsewhere, that if I made eye contact with the black people of South Africa, and sometimes I had to hold my gaze until that person averted at first and then returned to meet my gaze, then they would return my hello, and they were invariably helpful, even interested in who I was and what I was doing there after that. Sometimes they would even run up to me afterwards with more information regarding what I had asked that they hadn't thought to provide at first pass.

It's complex to try and address the issue of blacks in SA after years of apartheid, and I'm no authority on the subject, only an observer from outside. But I have been to Zimbabwe where the process of black enfranchisement was perhaps a little further advanced than in SA, considering that white domination, at least of the government, ended there before it did in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, I felt that the whites who remained there had accepted black domination as the blacks had accepted the contributions of the whites living there, and the races were on the point of pulling together. SA appeared still at a stage of white ownership of most means of production yet with blacks ostensibly in control of the country and theoretically of their destiny, while in fact, the whites were firmly entrenched and economically firmly in control. This was at least my impression, in Pretoria, and elsewhere, where I observed blacks often had the menial jobs, while a white person could often be found standing at the till.

In Pretoria, many blacks had therefore resorted to pseudo-ownership. Wherever I found a curbside parking space it seemed there was a black person there waving me in to it, apparently offering a car wash in addition to some degree of protection of the vehicle while the owner was away. Worried that this implied some degree of vandalism if I didn't support the system, and not knowing how the system worked in the first place, I found myself avoiding such spaces and parking far from my destination to get an unguarded slot. My personal parking situation was compounded by the fact that I had to park several times. Tourists Rendezvous was no longer at its LP designated location. It had just moved from a building clearly marked Tourist Information, with counters and displays only recently abandoned visible within the padlocked doors. A sign on a padlocked door gave instructions interpretable only to people who knew Pretoria (go to Bits Center, Old Netherlands Bank bldg, no map provided - now what was that supposed to mean to anyone likely to need tourist assistance?). This meant I had to go off in search of another parking spot, and face the same problem with the ubiquitous parking mafia. Eventually I found the new location but was shocked to find that early Friday afternoon, the office was closed and would not reopen till Monday. I had only gone there to get the bookings I thought were required for a stay in Kruger Park, but a South African family I met, also confused by the odd closing times of the park offices, told me if that was all I needed, to just go, that it wouldn't be necessary. By then I was pretty fed up with Pretoria. I got in my car and headed east, prepared to take on Kruger Park without the prerequisite reservations.

I was so eager to be on my way that I hardly even considered the second task on my agenda, a visit to the Mozambique embassy. It was at the time my intention to try and visit Mozambique, but it was doubtful if, on Friday afternoon, they could do anything about getting me a visa before Monday, and I didn't want to hang around for it, let alone even bother to locate them and ask.

On my car radio I was able to tune in SA radio stations. I favor the talk shows in foreign countries (interesting how they would move from English to Africaans mid sentence), and it was on the radio that I learned that the car parkers in Pretoria were in the process of being licensed by the government. To be one, you had to apply and if accepted (no criminal record) you had to attend a 5-day course on how to deal with people politely. You learned how to offer to watch the car without intimidating, and to accept the fact that not everyone would make a donation, but to thank them anyway. Considering the pathetically low wages of South African blacks, I would gladly donate to the livelihood of someone who had achieved this modest level of training, and who would watch my car and report any incidence of suspicious behavior to police (part of the training) if I knew about the situation in advance. But as a tourist arriving in Pretoria to a city where parking spots are guarded by destitute-looking black people running public parking spaces as their own marketable property, my instinct was to distance myself from the place.

So I headed up the road in a direction I'd hoped to ascertain from the Tourist authority, which is to say that on leaving Pretoria, I had no real idea of how to get to Kruger Park. Navigation around Pretoria would have been a lot easier if it hadn't been my first time. As for bumping into Kruger, it was a big place, spanning the entire Mozambique border all the way to Zimbabwe on its north. It seemed I could reach it from almost anywhere. I considered going north to Pietermarietzburg and attacking it from its center, but I worked out from the Avis map (sectioned, so it was hard to tell) that the most direct way was due east from Pretoria, which would take me to the southern boundary of the park. I headed that way.

Next episode:
In which I overnight in Nelspruit ...

Return to the South Africa travels page

Use your browser's BACK button to return to a previous page

For comments, suggestions, or further information on this page, contact Vance Stevens, page author and webmaster.

Last updated: December 21, 1999