A Heritage Month Special
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 piece by Nakasa first appeared in Drum Magazine as part of his Between Two Worlds series of columns.
Aunt Sally’s shebeen was doing excellent business, customers spending lavishly. Two white journalists, perched nervously on a bench, looked like business executives in a brothel.
Suddenly, from outside, Aunt Sally pulled the door with all the might in her round, fat arms. ‘Make quick,’ she screamed. ‘The police! Lock top and bottom!’ Someone jumped for the door and bolted it.
The man let out a shout announcing that he had locked. ‘All right,’ answered Aunt Sally, ‘then shut up, close your mouths.’ The man returned to his drink. The two journalists couldn’t help laughing; although somewhat terrified by the prospect of being marched to a police station.
After a while the doors were flung open, and in stepped Aunt Sally with a thin, naughty-girl’s smile on her face. Apparently, she had spotted a 300 lb. police sergeant propelling himself in the direction of her place. ‘But it’s all fixed up now,’ she assured us all.
For my two journalist friends, this was their first taste of life on ‘the fringe’. Life in a ‘No-man’s Land’ where anybody meets anybody, to hell with the price of their false teeth, or anything else.
My two white mates had not seen such things before. Yet they happen all over the Union. In Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town. In the swanky homes of white suburbia, as well as in the slums of Cato Manor, District Six or Alexandra Township.
Some people call it ‘crossing the colour line’. You may call it jumping the line or wiping it clean off. Whatever you please. Those who live on the fringe have not special labels. They see it simply as LIVING.
Dating a girl. Inviting a friend to lunch. Arranging a party for people who are interested in writing or painting, jazz or boxing. Or even apartheid, for that matter. I once organised such a party for talks with Afrikaner nationalists from Pretoria University. Among them was the son of a very senior Cabinet Minister. We talked apartheid and religion. We were just talking and drinking, not ‘crashing’ anything. We didn’t see it that way anyhow.
‘It’s a question of having friends who are white when you are black,’ Henry Sono summed it up. ‘You’ve got to live with them somehow, somewhere. It’s against human nature to say ‘sorry, can’t be friends’ to a person you like, simply because your nose is longer than his, or because he is darker than you.’
It’s easy to understand what Henry Sono meant. Just the other day there was a wedding in Dunkeld, that sinfully smart suburb of Johannesburg. It turned out that Arthur Henkins and Rosemary Bird had invited nearly all their friends in town for the occasion.
And there they were, on the green lawn for the wedding reception. Close to a hundred guests. Rosemary’s little hand went into a clinch with a Zulu’s hand, then a Jewish friend’s, and then everyone else.
It was a smooth afternoon. No fat messengers of justice rushing about. Not a grouse from the neighbours. We even got blessings from Father Dennis Sahj who had, earlier, conducted the wedding service with two African altar boys helping. Yes, there are men of God as well on the fringe. Father Huddleston was one.
Some outsiders look at the fringe-dwellers and wonder ‘what is the world coming to?’ Others blink and twist their faces in disgust. There are those who take a look and decide, ‘it is not any of my business how other people choose to live.’
Until recently, the Crescent Restaurant in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, ran jazz sessions every Sunday night. Jazz cats from the University of the Witwatersrand and from every quarter of Johannesburg gathered there and listened to some of the best jazzmen at work. Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Lenny Lee and others. Every session at the Crescent was a delicious experience. Like getting a bit of sunshine on a winter day – with the knowledge that soon, very soon, it would all be gone.
Fringe men knew that sooner or later officialdom would stop the sessions on the grounds – and there’s a strange irony here – that ‘there is bound to be trouble when blacks mix with whites.’ But it was good while it lasted. Good – and quite without trouble!
It was reminiscent of the jazz nights at the Goodwill Lounge, in Durban. The Goodwill opened its doors once or twice a week and jazz addicts piled into the back rooms where Dalton Khanyile and other Durban jazzmen belted their instruments.
One Sunday night an Afrikaner policeman came to a session at the Crescent. Still draped in uniform, this cop sat pounding the piano to a background of wild, black and white hand-clapping. On the following Sunday, the man of Justice brought his sister along to sing while he played the piano. ‘Dig those cats,’ yelled a member of the crowd, ‘they’re real gone, man, real gone. There’s a cop who digs us real deep!’
Once, an American film producer visited Sophiatown shortly before it was demolished by officialdom.
It was during one of those evenings when ‘Soft-town’ listened to jazz, and Shakespearean plays. There were a few young citizens of Sophiatown and several young women from the white suburbs. Suddenly, police materialised with their heavy knocks at the door.
‘One minute, Sergeant,’ Bloke said, turning to his gram to put on Julius Caesar. Immediately after, he opened the door with a smile which looked perfectly normal, although it was a put-up job.
‘Do come in Sarge,’ Bloke said. ‘Can I help you at all?’
The Sergeant’s face turned pink instantly. The floor was covered with liquor. He stammered at last, ‘We’re searching for drink, you’re not keeping any liquor illegally here, are you?’
Realising the helplessness of the man, Bloke picked up a glass and poured out a stiff one for the Sergeant. ‘This is just a gathering of my friends, Sarge, and I’m sure you have noticed that yourself. You really ought to go further down.’
Bloke and his friends got away with it then. They had much less difficulty than the English young man who visited a friend in Sophiatown, and found only the sister at home. While the girl was explaining to the visitor that her brother was out, the police arrived.
Not knowing what to do, the girl ordered the English visitor to conceal himself behind a curtain. ‘The cops can charge you with anything here,’ she told him, ‘you never know.’ The Englishman took the girl’s advice and stood behind the thick curtain like a queen’s guard.
To his untold disgust, it turned out that the police were not raiding, but were after liquor to drink. They ordered some from the girl, and settled down to drink for the best part of the evening. And, for five hours, the Englishman was standing behind a curtain.
An Afrikaner women complained: ‘Believe me, my own sister and her husband will never enter my shop because too many of my customers are black and I’m too friendly with them.
‘They would sooner go next door and ask for a lavatory there instead of using mine because, they say, I fill the place with kaffirs.’
How long will this woman hold out against the community that says she’s abnormal and insane? How long will the black men on the fringe hold out against insults and police hounding which often costs a house, a job or the freedom to live without tension?
These are the questions that drag even the jazz-hunters into political talk, however apolitical they may wish to be. Legislation for the separation of people according to racial or colour groups makes life nearly impossible to live on the fringe.
They pick up newspapers and read with a deep sense of pity and scorn, about ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church landing in jail for acts of ‘indecency’ with black women.
Yes, people on the fringe have long conversations about this. Practically none of them is ever in court for any immorality. They generally credit this to the openness and naturalness with which they lead their lives.
There isn’t the ‘forbidden fruit’ urge. When a black fringe-man meets a white woman, there is no question of the couple jumping into a clinch or into the nearest garage.
A young African writer put it into a few lines in a recent short story. The story is of two young men, a black one and a white one. A policeman stops the two men in a Johannesburg suburb and asks the black one why he is walking around in the white man’s area instead of going to enjoy himself in the Bantu areas with his own people. ‘Who are my people?’ the black man asks, challenging the classification.
This man said all there is to be said of the fringe. The fact of being born into a tribe, be it Afrikaner or African, does not matter on the fringe. These people who are neither proud nor ashamed of it, are the emergent group in South Africa.
That new South Africa is being preceded by bold discussion and action. During a press conference, an executive of the South African Broadcasting Corporation was extolling the virtues of his pride in being an Afrikaner. ‘Aren’t you proud of your own tribe?’ he asked an African journalist. ‘No, I’m not,’ said the journalist. ‘I see nothing to be proud or ashamed of there.’
This is perhaps one of the hardest concepts to get through to Afrikaners and Africans. The idea of ‘my own people’ is deeply entrenched in the two groups. Much more so in the case of the Afrikaner people, whatever the historical reasons may be.
I found this feeling in an Afrikaner Nationalist’s home. I was having dinner with Jannie Kruis and his pretty wife. Jannie gave me a drink, offered me a room in his house and asked me to see him more often. When I asked how he could make all these offers and still vote for segregation, he answered simply. ‘I have to vote for my people’s party. How can I desert my people?’ He wouldn’t be shaken from his stand.
An advocate spoke of his early days in the Orange Free State. ‘I grew up with African boys and girls,’ he says. ‘But when I went to boarding school, there were only white children around me. So that when I came back home I couldn’t even shake the hands of my childhood playmates. I had been taught it was wrong. I had been ordered to live by the values of separation.’
Drum’s Cape Town man, Frank Barton, describes the recent restaurant campaigners as ‘a courageous band of men and women – black, brown, and white who are getting their shoulders to the door of apartheid’.
‘They are just ordinary decent people who believe that it is all very well to condemn the stupid colour barriers of South Africa, but that if things are to change, then somebody has got to start doing something about it.’
But others have been working in the same direction. Like a fringe hipster, JB, who once became fast friends with a luscious blonde in Cape Town. ‘The public gave us the usual stares,’ JB recalls, ‘but we got used to them, and discovered various ways of getting round all other difficulties.’
JB could not travel with his blonde friend by train, except on the third class coaches. In the second class the guard would tell her to get out because she was white, and in the first class JB was not let in because the guard said he was black. ‘But we managed to travel third class, because the guard does not come there,’ JB says.
Yes, the restaurant campaigners are not treading virgin ground. Someone has been at it before.