Nat Nakasa: Johannesburg, Johannesburg
Next week we will feature a special report on journalism Pioneer Nat Nakasa. With his remains now finally back on home soil, University of the Free State Journalism Lecturer (Communication Science) Willemien Marais will look at what we can learn from his accounts of life in ‘Fringe Country’. This column by Nakasa first appeared in Drum Magazine.
People who have the best time in Johannesburg are the visitors. People who stay in town for a month or two and then fly out to their homes across the seas, with memories as their only link with Johannesburg. I’ve seen them sniff and stare at the city’s narrow lanes where men smoke dagga. I’ve watched them enchanted by the opulence of the northern suburbs where whites live. These men, usually foreign correspondents from newspapers abroad, even find warmth in the squalor of the black slums. They look at Johannesburg from all angles, in much the same way as they would besiege a celebrated statesman at a press conference. They ask crucial questions without getting emotionally involved with the town’s preoccupations.
I have often tried to put myself in this position, to approach Johannesburg with the attitude of a disengaged visitor. Unfortunately for me, I cannot succeed in doing this. I am part of Johannesburg. The most I can do is regard myself as someone who has, unwittingly, volunteered to become a guinea pig in some incredible experiment by a quack scientist.
That’s how I felt during my first few years in Johannesburg. I had travelled from Durban, over four hundred miles by train, to start working as a journalist. After work I often slept on a desk at the office or stayed overnight when friends invited me to dinner in their homes.
This was not because of a Bohemian bent in me. Far from it. According to the law, ‘native’ bachelors are supposed to live in hostels in Johannesburg. I should have shared a dormitory with ten or more strange men. Some could have been office clerks, messengers, night watchmen, road diggers, school teachers or witchdoctors. We would each be at liberty to play our concertinas or strum guitars while others read books or brewed beer in the dormitory.
Instead of this, I chose to be a wanderer. It would have been too difficult to get a hostel bed anyway. I remember trying once, just for the hell of it. I picked up the telephone and spoke in a faked Oxford accent. ‘My name is Brokenshaw,’ I said, ‘is there a vacant bed in your hostel by any chance?’
‘Yes, we have some beds,’ the voice at the other end answered. It must have been the white superintendent. ‘But I must explain to you that we are only taking special boys now,’ he added.
‘What sort of boys are those?’ I asked.
‘Special boys,’ he repeated, ‘boys employed in the essential services: milk delivery boys, sanitation boys, and so on. Boys who have to be in town very early in the morning or till late at night.’
‘Jolly good,’ I said, ‘my boy is actually quite special. He has to remain in town till quite late from time to time. He is a journalist.’
‘Well, Mr Brokenshaw, I can’t promise anything. You can send him along if you like. We’ll have to deal with every case according to its merits.’
I didn’t go to the superintendent. I didn’t really want a hostel bed. Neither did I wish to switch from journalism to the essential services. Thus, for roughly eighteen months, on and off, I wandered about without a fixed home address. I determined to make the best of it. The idea was to regard complications of my relationship with Johannesburg as part of the incredible experiment. That way I could get on with the business of living without getting too depressed.
Fortunately, like most young men from the smaller towns in South Africa, I was thrilled by simply being in Johannesburg. While others made for their homes hurriedly at the end of the day, I took long leisurely walks from one end of the city to another. On some nights I spent long hours reading London papers in the Rand Daily Mail library. Friends who invited me to their flats soon got used to me turning up for a bath in addition to dinner and a drink.
At times I slept in the night watchman’s room on the top of our office block. The night watchman was a tall, very dark man, always in blue overalls, and Zulu-speaking. He seemed to welcome my appearance and spoke a lot of politics with me. How long, he wanted to know once, did I think the white man would remain on top of us? Did I think the time would ever come when we would be on top? Bathin’ abelungu manje? What are the whites saying now?
Answering these questions made me feel I was earning the watchman’s hospitality. He saw me as an interpreter of the white man’s ways because some of my friends were white. In the suburbs, over a drink, people plied me with questions about Africans. These conversations often developed into dull tales about the effects of apartheid on Africans, with me giving a rather false picture of the ‘latest developments’. I knew very little about the African townships. Like many other people, I could have lived illegally in the townships, but I wanted to be in town, not five or fifteen miles outside.
Johannesburg By Night
I was especially fascinated with Johannesburg by night. Because of the curfew regulations, most Africans rushed out of town at the end of the day. Dozens of long brown trains whined out of town carrying thousands of Africans to their homes. By eleven o’clock when the curfew regulations came into operation, almost all the faces in town would be white.
By day, the city became a depressing mess. There were too many Africans sweating away on company bicycles or lingering on pavements in search of work. More depressing would be the newly-recruited ‘mine boys’, scores of black men from all over Africa. They walked through town with blankets on their shoulders and loaves of bread under their armpits, to be housed in the hostels of the gold mines. They looked like prisoners to me. Some had blank, innocent faces and gazed openly, longingly at women passing by. Most of them, if not all, were illiterate and doomed to stay that way for the rest of their lives. I resented them because I felt a responsibility towards them and I was doing nothing about it. They spoiled my image of Johannesburg as the throbbing giant which threw up sophisticated gangsters, brave politicians and intellectuals who challenged white authority.
This image of Johannesburg survived best at night. I shared a theory with a friend who also spent much of his time about town because of the housing problem. We believed that the best way to live with the colour bar in Johannesburg was to ignore it.
The theory worked remarkably well at times. I remember one night when we went to drink coffee at the Texan, a coffee bar reserved for whites in Commissioner Street. The place was run by an American from Texas. He had the American flag in the bar as well as a portrait of President Eisenhower, wearing his famous grin.
My friend and I perched on two stools at the counter and placed our order for two coffees. The Texan’s son went to fetch the coffee, obviously expecting us to drink it on the pavement, anywhere outside the bar. Meanwhile, my friend and I began to talk loudly about President Eisenhower’s portrait. ‘Look at the bum,’ my friend started, looking at the President’s portrait, ‘there is something seriously wrong with America’s choice of its heroes. Imagine the millions of American children whose ambition is to grow into the grinning emptiness which Ike symbolises! To think that there are eggheads who could be built up instead of fellows like this.’
By the time the Texan’s son brought our coffee, his father was embroiled in violent argument with us, all about Ike. The Texan confessed that he didn’t know much about politics but he knew a man of God when he saw one. The argument was still raging when we finished drinking the coffee and left. Nobody seemed to remember the colour bar.
Apart from Cape Town, Johannesburg has what must be the largest number of whites who don’t want the colour bar. Some people say this is because of the degree of industrial and commercial development which the city has achieved. Whatever the explanation may be, there can be no doubt that the University of the Witwatersrand is leaving its own marks on the city’s racial attitudes.
Wits has never been as ‘open’ as its Public Relations Office may suggest. It is predominantly white, taking a limited number of black students. Nevertheless, its non-racial character has facilitated a profound social intercourse between black and white men, people who might otherwise not have met except as master and servant or deadly enemies.
As a journalist, I was granted permission to borrow books from the university’s library. To me, the opportunity to browse in that library, among students of all races, to go through any number of the books which line all the walls, transformed theories about the universality of education into a living reality.
Because of their common background of racial segregation the students were intrigued with their discovery of an area of life relatively free from the colour bar. There was a general eagerness, often pretentious, to rush into each other’s arms. But those who transcended the superficiality of this back-slapping brotherhood managed to establish warm, unaffected friendships.
It was students like these who descended on Uncle Joe’s restaurant in Fordsburg, the predominantly Indian quarter at the west end of town. They came to eat Indian curry and listen to jazz in what was the only restaurant that allowed jam sessions before mixed audiences.
Although there was a police station nearby, nothing was done to stop the sessions at Uncle Joe’s restaurant. We concluded that the police refrained from interfering because Uncle Joe gave them take-away food on credit.
Paralysis of Conversation
People who speak of the decline of conversation in Europe and America ought to come to Johannesburg for their research on the subject. For what one finds here is worse than a decline – it is paralysis of conversation. The colour bar, which dominates the lives of all South Africans, haunts and plagues the dinner tables monotonously all over town. I’ve often thought how irritating this must be to people who are sufficiently resourceful to make good conversation without dragging the business of segregation into it. I can survive because I am not one of them.
My conversations in Johannesburg have always centred around colour. Fortunately, some of this talk can be both meaningful and warm. I remember having dinner with a friend in one of the less prosperous white suburbs. One of the guests that night was a talented Afrikaner painter. He had a hungry, lean face which reminded me of a picture of Arthur Miller. He even wore glasses to complete the image. My host had hinted earlier that the painter was a Nationalist, a supporter of Dr Verwoerd’s apartheid policy. The same man had spent much of his afternoon trying to keep alive a newborn African baby which had been abandoned on a pavement. He had taken the child in his arms, found warm clothes for it and phoned hospitals and the police.
Having talked about his paintings and jazz, we gravitated inevitably to the colour question. I wanted to know if he really was a Nationalist, and he said yes. We had, by now, warmed to each other, lighting cigarettes for one and all, sharing the same concern about the food which seemed to take a long time getting ready.
‘But what kind of Nationalist are you?’ I asked.
‘How can you vote for apartheid and then come and drink brandy with me?’
‘But there’s nothing wrong in drinking with you. I would like to drink with you anywhere. At my place or yours, for that matter.’
‘What if I told you that I have no place?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just that, I have no place and that’s because of laws you vote for.’
‘What? Where are you going to sleep tonight, for instance?’
‘I don’t know. I may sleep here; wherever I can find a bed tonight.’
The painter was moved. I liked seeing his puzzled face.
‘Well, if … if you mean what you’ve said, you can come and live with me. We have a whole empty room in that house.’
Now I stopped being amused. Something was wrong somewhere.
‘But the party you vote for has passed laws which says that’s illegal, too,’ I said.
Now the painter was blushing. He looked the other way and picked up his glass. I was becoming more and more irritated.
‘Why are you a Nationalist if you are willing to stay with me? Don’t you want the races to be separated?’
Suddenly, the painter took off his glasses and looked at me appealingly: ‘You see,’ he said, ‘I am an Afrikaner. The National Party is my people’s party. That’s why I vote for it.’