/ 24 September 2009

Still just another dorpie

A dejected mongrel slumps on the sunlit, polished stoep of a three-roomed RDP house in Tshing township, Ventersdorp.

Inside, flies buzz around stained energy-saving bulbs. Four old chairs and a table stand on the cracked, dirt floor. Three smiling Jacob Zuma posters adorning the yellow living-room walls strike a more cheerful note, revealing this household’s unquestionable political affiliation. And a giggling voice yells from an adjacent room: ‘Magtig, ke a mo rata monna yo [I love this man], Msholozi … man of changes.” Maria Motshabi, the owner of the voice, enters the room and plants a big wet kiss on one of the posters.

But Maria and her brother Paul are the saddest reminders of the racial tension that once swept across Ventersdorp. On a March evening in 1996 Paul, who was the most trusted and envied of Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader Eugene Terre’Blanche’s farm workers, got the hiding of his life. The story made international headlines.

‘He asked me to kill black people … my brothers, my sisters … how can I?” says Paul, teary-eyed and coughing loudly. Hit with a steel pipe on the head, neck and shoulders, Paul suffered brain damage, then a stroke. Six months ago the local clinic diagnosed him with extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis. ‘I’ve never had so much pills in my entire life.”

In 2000 Terre’Blanche, once white Ventersdorp’s favourite homeboy, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for the assault. In 2004 he was released on parole for being ‘a model prisoner”.

Thirteen years after the assault, Paul has yet to receive payment for the gruesome damage done to his body. His meagre monthly disability grant goes a long way to providing for him and his sister, but not that long.

‘It’s hard living … but we’re used to it,” he says.

Years after the fanatical flying of the Vierkleur and the old Boer republic flags, Ventersdorp remains just another dorpie.

A drive through the decaying farming town, which rests amid green maize fields in the south-western platteland, about 150km west of Johannesburg, speaks volumes about the segregation that once engulfed the region.

At the surgery on the corner of Van Tonder Street an irritated receptionist goes to call Herman Schmitz, the doctor who made headlines earlier this year for having two entry points to his practice — ‘one for whites and another for blacks”. Inside his peach-walled office, Schmitz hastens to explain his two-door policy: ‘The front entrance is for people with appointments and the back entrance is for those without appointments. Unfortunately, most of my black patients never make prior arrangements to see the doctor. Now they end up waiting in long queues on the other side of the building.”

Schmitz says after the negative publicity two of his colleagues resigned. ‘One of them emigrated to Canada … Tell me who the racist is now? Here I am — I still work here and I have a very strong bond with my black patients.”

He thinks Venterdorp should ‘get a new name like all the other places because everywhere you go people still think of it as a very racist town”.

Amid the dust and squalor, it is unsurprising to find that most black residents believe a lot still needs to be done ‘as a matter of urgency”.

Unemployed Tshing resident Mbulelo Maneli acknowledges that since the mid-1990s racial incidences have declined, ‘although there are some people who still go around calling whites ‘my baas’ and are being treated horribly by white and Indian shop owners”.

Still, says Maneli, whites and blacks in Ventersdorp no longer live in fear of each other. ‘The picture remains black and white, but at least we tolerate each other.”

In his view an even sadder development is black-on-black oppression in Ventersdorp ‘along class lines … It tears me up when black people inflict pain and create hardship for other black people.”

Jobs for friends, tender irregularities, zero development and lack of employment opportunities are, according to Maneli, ‘the new apartheid”.

Along the potholed avenues of neighbouring Tshing, calling Ventersdorp mayor Celia Phoyane ‘black and clueless” is common.

She does not know what she is doing, says community leader Bomber Matinyane. ‘Tribalism and social classification are turning blacks against one another in Ventersdorp. And if black people can’t tolerate one another, it means the race issue in Ventersdorp is going to take another lifetime to solve. How do you expect white people to treat us?” he asks.

Matinyane blames government institutions and officials for perpetuating racism, saying: ‘Public institutions need to start promoting nonracial governance. The problem is that institutions that are meant to be healing agents are the ones perpetuating this thing … racism.”

Back at the Motshabi household, Paul’s bony frame trembles beneath his winter jacket. ‘I haven’t had a cigarette in months,” he barks. His eyes bulge at the mention of Terre’Blanche. ‘He is a ruthless man. But my heart does not want to be troubled by him anymore … God knows. What he did to me, I guess, is what white people came to this world to do to black people, because they always get away with it.”

  • Monako Dibetle is an education reporter for the Mail & Guardian