Renewal

I saw that she had viewed my LinkedIn profile.  On the other side of the Indian Ocean, I was busy digging up whatever the Internet had to offer on Rentia Landman.

I’d networked my way to Rentia while searching for information; when I mentioned the possibility of a visit to Pretoria in September 2014, she offered to be our host for a day.  All we had to do was get ourselves to the suburb of Centurion – train from Johannesburg would be best – and the rest would be in her hands.

An arm waved through the window of a grey sedan; we needed to come quickly because Rentia was in a restricted parking zone.  We hopped in and I appraised our host: tall, lean and immaculately groomed.  If I hadn’t known better, I’d have put her in her late fifties; she was seventy.  From my investigations, I knew that she had a PhD in Education, was active in the Freedom Front Plus Party – a collection of conservative groups whose core aim is to protect Afrikaner culture, education and values – and had represented this party on the Tswhane Metropolitan Council.[1]  I’d also read that she’d been assaulted in front of her house, tied up and dragged inside while the robbers looked for cash and valuables.  While she’d feared for her life, her main concern was the mess her blood-stained body would make on the carpet and that her husband would find her.[2]

Rentia was candid about her political leanings, saving me having to tiptoe around what can be a delicate issue.  She admitted that her happiest times were when preparing policies for the education minister under the previous government.  1994 changed all that.
‘We were never able to get work again.’
It was said with no bitterness but must have been hard at the time.

Sometime later, after having presented a paper on educational funding allocation at a conference, she was approached by an eager African National Congress delegation.
‘Did they want to offer you work?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, they only wanted my ideas.’  She laughed.

She talked at length of the history of the Afrikaner people and risks to their future in a country subject to majority rule.  I was surprised to hear that her maternal grandfather was a Scot, until she mentioned that a Scottish contingent had fought with the Boer forces during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

As we drove past the Union Buildings[3], I noticed a bronze statue of a rider in its grounds.  I asked who he was.
‘That’s Louis Botha.  We don’t like him.  Too close to the English’.
Prior to the war, Botha – who would become a united South Africa’s first Prime Minister in 1910 – had taken a soft stand on Uitlander voting rights in the ZAR Volksraad.  Despite having led the guerrilla warfare phase of the conflict, he was regardede by many Afrikaners as having sold his countrymen short when negotiating the terms of peace.

Rentia was equally dismissive of Jan Smuts, state attorney under Kruger and a general in the Boer forces.  Smuts[4] is probably best known for his role in drafting the constitution of the League of Nations and served twice as Prime Minister of South Africa.  His decision to bring the country into the Second World War on the side of Britain offended many Afrikaners on both sides of the political divide.

The streets leading into the centre of Pretoria were being torn up to make way for a rapid bus transit lane, slowing the traffic almost to a standstill.  At the mention of the Culemborg Hotel, I pressed my face against the passenger window.  Now trading as the Pretoria Hof Hotel, it was shabby and dated.  Its ground floor shops were boarded up and a large sign mounted on the first-floor exterior advertised flats to rent.  I’d seen enough.

Rentia parked the car near Church Square.  Drawing inspiration from Trafalgar Square and the Place de la Concorde, the civic heart of Pretoria is surrounded by imposing buildings and its central park is dominated by a hero’s statue.  The hero is Paul Kruger and the statue was gifted by his great friend, Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian Jew whose path of travel to South Africa included a spell in Sheffield.  Marks, who made his fortune from the ZAR’s mines, donated the statue in gratitude for being allowed to build Pretoria’s first synagogue.img_8696

Most of the park visitors seemed not to notice the statue, perhaps because they’d walked past it so often or they simply didn’t care; almost all the people upon whom Kruger was fixing his stern gaze were from the group for whom he had the greatest contempt.  The pigeons were more attentive, one pecking at Kruger’s left foot while others looked for a perch on the base of the plinth.  img_8694

Many of Church Square’s buildings date back to the early days of the city.  The Palace of Justice, one of a pair of Italian Renaissance-style buildings that eye off each other from opposite ends of the square[5], is where in 1964 Nelson Mandela proclaimed from the dock that he was prepared to die for his ideal of democracy.  More recently, Pretoria’s High Court hosted the trial of paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, for the alleged murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The churches after which the square was named have long since disappeared.  The last of them, the Toringkerk, was referred to by Mackenzie – perhaps a little harshly – as ‘a dreadfully ugly Dutch church, which deserves nothing better than to be pulled down and destroyed utterly,’.[6]   When it was demolished in 1904, some of its doors and windows were harvested for the Café Riche which opened on the western side of the square the following year.   img_8701

Rentia had suggested this café, Pretoria’s oldest, as our lunch spot.  ‘Your grandfather may have taken meals here.  Lots of lawyers did,’ she’d said.

Inside the double doors was a chic twenty-first century eatery with high tables, bar stools, beer on tap and a cake-filled bar fridge.  While we were working our way through our salads, a black man in a pinstripe suit walked into the café and threw his arms around Rentia.  She introduced her former Council colleague, a lawyer, and they continued a conversation in Afrikaans.  I gathered that they were commiserating over how long it took for the Council to make decisions.img_8715

After lunch, we walked the couple of blocks to Sammy Marks’ synagogue on Paul Kruger Street, last used for public worship in 1952 and as a venue for the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, in 1977.[7]  It was secured by one of South Africa’s favourite fortifications, a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire.  Several years’ growth of gravity-defying weeds clung to the fence; behind it, the forlorn Byzantine façade of the synagogue peered out at the street, bare brick layers exposed by flaking paint.  It would have broken Marks’ heart to see it like this, a heritage order the only barrier between his beloved synagogue and oblivion.

Rentia walked so fast I was almost at a trot trying to keep up.  After a few wrong turns, we located the magistrate’s court on Pretorius Street, a one-way thoroughfare jammed with cars and buses.  The war-era building was unremarkable but for the fact that its third floor had been gutted by fire.  That happened in 2010.  According to the billboard in the grounds, repairs had been commissioned.

Opposite the court, where Harry’s office would have been, was a police depot behind a high brick wall.  An iron-railing gate slid open soundlessly to let us in, revealing a car park and a few sheds in need of maintenance.  Rentia asked the guard on duty if he knew anything about the building that occupied the site in the early twentieth century.  He didn’t.

In a week or two the jacarandas lining the route to the Hillcrest Pool would be awash in forests of purple, refreshing Pretoria’s tag as the Jacaranda City.  A female voice delivered instructions in Afrikaans from the GPS on the car’s windscreen.
Hilda Straat draai effens na links en word Duxbury Straat’.  Hilda Street turns slightly left and becomes Duxbury Street.  I wondered how far I’d get trying to sustain a conversation with Rentia in her first language.

The pool’s red-brick-and-turquoise-trim entry vestibule, with its tunnel opening into the main pool area, was little changed.  In addition to English and Afrikaans, standard caveats about the rights of admission and use of the facilities were provided in what could have been any of Setswana, Sepedi, Sesotho, Xitsonga or isiZulu.

The spectator stand and grassy patch were still there, even if my memory had inverted their positions and given the lawn a pitch to match that of the grandstand.  On it I saw the ghosts of Maureen Ross with her turned-down mouth and my mother wearing the self-satisfied smirk she reserved for those she’d skewered.

Despite 20 years of equal opportunity, there was little evidence to challenge the perception that swimming remains predominantly a white sport in South Africa.  I counted four black swimmers in the public lanes and none in the school squad being put through its paces in the off-limits area.  But my purpose was more than one simply of observation.  Over the twenty or so minutes it took me to churn through 20 laps, Pretoria’s altitude dragging on my progress, I mulled over the events of the day.  I knew that insight would come later and not all at once.

 

[1]              Which includes Pretoria and a host of surrounding suburbs.

[2]              http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/I-thought-my-time-had-come-20060825

[3]              Seat of the government.

[4]              Smuts served as Prime Minister from 1919 – 1924, and again from 1939 – 1948.

[5]              The other is the old Raadzaal, now Tshwane City Hall.

[6]              South Africa: its history, heroes and wars.  Horace Marshall & Son, 1900.  P395.

[7]              It was also the venue for the treason trials of Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 others between 1958 and 1963.

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