Village of Hope

My friend Mark Grolman shared this brutal memory. It resonates with me, among other reasons, because growing up in Jackson we lived with the existence of areas not too different from a shanty town. Except that we referred to them with name far less repeatable than “Village of Hope.”

I spent my childhood in a small town in what was then the Transvaal Province of South Africa.  That was mostly in the 1960s – during the time of Apartheid.  The town, called Carletonville, is a regional centre for gold mining, about 50 miles from Johannesburg.

In those days, Carletonville was a “whites only” town.  Those not legally classified as “White” (including those classified as “Black” or, at times, “African”) could work in the town but, at the end of the day, they had to go to their relevant “township”, some miles away from the “White” town.  That is, unless they had a permit from the local authorities.  Black domestic workers (and they were invariably of colour), “servants” as they were shamefully called, who had separate (and they had to be separate) quarters at their place of work, could receive a permit.  There were few other exceptions.  In fact, there was a 10:00 pm curfew.  “Black” people found in Carletonville after 10:00 pm, without a permit, were routinely beaten first, arrested second and then thrown in jail.

Amongst the racial groups who were not permitted to live in the “White” town were those classified as “Coloured”.  These people were of “mixed” racial background.  Excluded from the “White” town, those in the Carletonville area classified as “Coloured” (there were about 2,000 of them) lived in the “Black” township – often referred to as “the location”, as if to further denigrate and depersonalise it by denying the modest dignity of an individual name!

Well, this was the era of Apartheid, wasn’t it?!  “Separateness”, the literal translation of the Afrikaans word, was the legislated law of the land.  Sadly, in keeping with “separateness”, the “Black” people did not want the “Coloured” people living in their township either.  So they forcibly ejected them.  These desperately impoverished people, disadvantaged in every way imaginable, were then also homeless.

But never fear!  The Government – the white minority government, of course – was there to help!  The Government announced that it would build a beautiful, fully serviced town of brick homes for the displaced “Coloured” people.  Building this nirvana would take time but not very long, the Government assured.  In the meantime, the Government allocated a “location” where the “Coloured” people would live – TEMPORARILY!

This “location” was a barren, brown patch, in the middle of nowhere.  Hardly a tree.  Not even much grass grew there.  The Government installed a tap – you know, like you might have in your garden.  A timber barn-like building was erected.  That was to be the community centre, the school, the hospital, the place of worship and everything else.  This was the only solid structure.  So, around 2,000 poor souls were dumped at this “location”, with ONE water tap, ONE timber building, NO electricity, NO sewerage system, NO roads – NOTHING!  They were told to live there TEMPORARILY until their new town was built.

What grew up around the timber barn was a shanty town, constructed of whatever the residents could scrounge.  Pieces of corrugated iron, hessian sacks, timber posts tied together with wire, sheets of plastic, chicken wire, 44 gallon drums – the cast off detritus of the life of the more fortunate.  And so, this is how these people barely existed – “lived” would be too generous a word.

Yet, despite their abject conditions, the spirit of these “Coloured” people was not broken.  They gave their “location” a name.  They called it “Toekomsville” – “Village of Hope” is the best English translation.

My parents were active in the local chapter of Roundtable, a community service association or club, like Rotary.  Twice a year, once in summer and once in winter, the members of Roundtable in Carletonville would conduct a charity drive to collect items to distribute to the residents of Toekomsville.  All sorts of things were collected.  It didn’t really matter what because the people of Toekomsville needed EVERYTHING.  Winters on the Highveld, at about 6,000 feet above sea level, were cold.  Therefore, blankets and warm clothing were critical items in the winter distribution.

As a young child, what I remember most vividly were the paper bags.  Twice a year the entire floor of our large lounge room would be covered with rows and rows of open, standing paper bags.  They were the bags a loaf of bread would be sold in before plastic overtook the world.  I would help my Mom and Dad fill those bags.  Every bag had to contain identical items.  I would crawl along the rows of bags – one tennis ball, one cellophane bag of candy, one small toy, one packet of cookies, three rubber balloons  – stuff like that.  When all the bags were filled with whatever had been collected, they were loaded into a big truck along with all the other, more bulky, miscellaneous items.  As a British colony, we used a British name for such a truck.  We called it a pantechnicon.  Sometimes I would go with my parents, and the pantechnicon, to Toekomsville.

One particular time is indelibly imprinted on my memory, despite the ensuing half century or more.  It was winter; a cold day with a bitter wind blowing across the veld.  Clear sky but weak sunlight.  As we drove up to the dingy timber building, in the pantechnicon, I saw a long queue of people.  The entire population of Toekomsville had been waiting, patiently, in single file, for hours for us to arrive.  When the back roller door of the pantechnicon was opened, there was no rush, no riot, no jostling for position.  Each person, adults (old and young), children (of all ages, even babes in arms), came forward and received one paper bag of “goodies” and one of whatever else we had.  The blankets and the clothes were in high demand, of course.  The need was so great, so great.

The queue slowly dwindled and so did the contents of the pantechnicon.  Nobody came back in an attempt to get a second helping.  They were grateful to get anything and didn’t want to deprive their fellows.  Although I was too young to think of it then, this behaviour represented extraordinary morality and humanity in the face of such extreme deprivation and poverty that it would not have been surprising if survival – “each person for himself” – was the dominant morality.

As the queue trickled out, there was one woman left, struggling towards the truck.  She had no legs.  Her torso was upright on a wooden board mounted on four small wheels, no more than a few inches above the hard, brown soil.  She pushed herself forward with her hands.  She wore rags.  My father looked at the huge box which was the back of the pantechnicon.  There was nothing left.  Not a blanket.  Not a piece of clothing.  Not even a paper bag of “goodies”.  He turned back to the woman, took off his sweater and gave it to her.

The people of Toekomsville remained there for years.  I left South Africa in 1971.  Their promised town was not built by then.  I don’t know what happened to the people of Toekomsville.  I expect that they dissipated, along with their hope …

MARK GROLMAN

 

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