Hard work, rolling thunder
Ruth Zanker takes up her story about visiting South Africa
I was here to work and William worked me hard. I gave 12 media interviews and a lecture at Witwatersrand University talking about the NZ local broadcasting experience. I enjoyed the interviews after the first night of sleeplessness.This was not helped by an almighty African thunderstorm at 1.00am... cracks of thunder and brilliant lightning that rolled on and on. Johannesburg is at quite a high altitude and such thunderstorms are common in summer. I rose at 5.00am and the morning was glorious and clear... all humidity stripped away, the world washed clean. I watched a weaver bird build his nest. I was told later by the owner that it was the third nest this poor fellow had built. The gals are very fussy and destroy anything not up to scratch. The tree from which the pendulous nest was hanging was looking worse for wear too... all its leaves and twigs stripped for the labour of love.
Interviews at the SA Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned broadcaster, held architectural interest. The multi-storey building was built by the architects of Apartheid. It reflects their paranoia. It has a single security entrance and there are mazes of corridors and studios underground that are built to be defended with guns.
The SABC is currently in serious financial strife. At the same time there are accusations of programming interference, or at the very least journalistic self-censorship. The ANC coalition is very keen on ‘nation building’, whatever that takes. It is this battle over governance and programming that my host, part of the public broadcasting coalition, is fighting. The billboards of the commercial channel E-tv brags that it is the only channel to deliver news and current affairs with ‘no fear or favour’.
Around work I visited museums. I was taken to Constitution Hill. Standing at the front is the ‘old’ Johannesburg fort where Breaker Morant and the South Australian mounted rifles broke the Boers in 1902. The South Australian mounted rifles included my rash great, great uncle Tom, who ran away from the family farm to join the mounted rifles as a bugler by lying about his age. Or so I was told. It was an interesting moment for me.
Behind the fort is the notorious prison which held, at different times, Gandhi and Mandela. Next to it is the ghastly women's prison. The male prison behind has been demolished, barring one wing which stands as a very sobering museum. The prison museums tell stories of how far humans will go to humiliate fellow humans and are exemplars of 'letting the powerless speak'.
Every aspect of the new ‘Constitution Hill’ is designed to have political and cultural resonance. The stairwells of the notorious men’s Number 4 prison (closed in 1983) remain. They are now monuments on the large forecourt of the Constitution Court, capped with sea green glass. The un-mortared bricks from the demolished prison buildings line the insides of the Constitution Court buildings, which stand at one end of the now large open space. Everything in this new court building is symbolic. Doors, three storeys high, are carved by the range of language groups in SA (including Braille). The interior is structured like a grove of trees (places of judgment in villages)... windowed slits in the roof create dappled leaf patterns, the pillars are at odd angles like tree-trunks and tiled with bark and leaf effects of different African trees... Wonderful, powerful post-apartheid artworks look down on the formal walkway.
The actual Court chamber is carpeted in a dappled pattern to keep the tree-theme. The judges’ chairs are covered with black and white cattle skins - different markings - to represent the ever-shifting mix of races in SA. The chamber is sunk so that the judges are eye level with the glassed walkway. The judges can see only shoes and trouser/skirt legs. Justice is blind to race. The gallery is higher than the judges. They are the demos the judges serve. Hair stood up on the back of my neck in that place. So much has happened so fast since Apartheid fell. It is an expression of incredible hope.
I also visited the Apartheid museum. This sits incongruously next to a theme park where the top attraction is a bungy jump that plummets past ground level into a mine shaft below. The Museum is rather overwhelming but is designed so that you can escape at various points into meadow gardens which look out onto the city, the huge mine dumps and countryside. I shared one grassy meadow with a black middle class father (wearing an Armani sports shirt!) and his three children. He was explaining, in a mix of an African tongue and English, what it had been like for his grandparents and what he hopes the future of his kids will be. Let's hope.