There’s a saying that goes “black people don’t go on holiday, they go home”. Years of structural racism had ensured that black people never had enough money to go anywhere for the sake of going anywhere. Every road trip (if you can call it that) black people took was functional. There were really three reasons to travel; to attend a wedding, a funeral or to go “home”. I had the misfortune of being born to parents who were both working class black and second generation city dwellers so the concept of “home” was foreign to them. This meant that I stayed put during the December holidays and that I spent pretty much most of my life in Johannesburg.
I grew up feeling like I missed out on something, that my childhood was less authentic because I spent most of it in one place. I wanted to make up for that, I guess, and because I was lucky enough to penetrate through the ceiling that wasn’t properly dismantled in 1994, I decided in late 2010 to travel as much as I can within South Africa. I’ve gone to several places since then, most of them on a shoe-string budget and I’m always in awe at how beautiful our land is but whatever, this post isn’t about that.
I’m humbled by the fact that by some odd chance, I was blessed with the companionship of genuine good people. More than a year ago, the world lost one of them through gun violence. He was a good friend of ours. He spent a good portion of his life in Johannesburg but Nqamakwe, in the Eastern Cape was the place he called “home”. He was a classmate of ours and because most of us went on with their lives after graduation, only three of us managed to avail ourselves for his funeral in the Eastern Cape. During the fourteen hour drive there, we spoke about many things. Most of the things we spoke were just words meant to mask the pain of losing someone just when his life was about to begin but one thing we spoke about that stuck was that we needed to find ways to stay in touch. We shouldn’t only hangout when something tragic happens. So it was decided to indulge in at least one road trip per year.
Exactly this time a year ago we went on our first road trip. Of the original three only two of us went, the other guy couldn’t make it due to personal reasons. The thing about travelling though, it’s cheaper when there are more people so it was decided to include a few acquaintances. I haven’t written that much posts so you can scroll down if you want to see pictures of the last outing. This year, I wanted us to visit the Eastern Cape and Port St Johns seemed like a good idea.
I might have mentioned this before or not but, due to an unfortunate combination of my depression and the shitty post-job economy we woke up to after Sep/Oct 2008, I couldn’t secure a decent job after graduation. Like many of my peers, I clung to whatever source of income I could find. It just so happened that I found one that pretends that this country’s progressive labour laws that COSATU (RIP, in advance) fought so hard for don’t really exist. That means no paid leave for me (sick, study or whatever), I can only rest during pay-weekend recess. I was accommodated by everyone though, the day of our departure and return coincided with my pay weekend recess. We were to leave at eight o’ clock but we all know how melanin and time don’t go well together. We ended up leaving two hours later.
The drive down was gruelling It would’ve have been more gruelling had I decided to drive but I wanted to spoil myself for cutting down my alcohol consumption this year, I wanted to spoil myself with alcohol along the drive. We like to mock the white middle class for their unhealthy preoccupation with potholes but if you drive across provinces a lot, one thing you notice is how the state of neglect on the road mirrors the state of neglect on a governance level. I first noticed this when I had to move to Limpopo for work. The R555 is a nice road but as soon as one crosses the Mpumalanga-Limpopo border, one’s anxiety levels automatically shoot up from having to dodge the ridiculous amount of potholes there. The same thing happened on the R626. Having driven for seven plus hours seamlessly, the bang of the tyres on that first pothole south of the EC-KZN border was how the Eastern Cape welcomed us.
The N2-R626-R36 route between Pietermaritzburg and PSJ is scenic. Along the way there are only rural landscapes. There are four towns prior to PSJ and because I was drinking beer, we had to stop in each of them for toilet breaks. Ixopo, Umzimkulu, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki all had one thing in common that I couldn’t help but notice even in a state of mild intoxication. There’s hardly any industry to absorb people of working age into meaningful employment. The poverty was blaring. The are many psychological tricks we employ to trick our brains into not seeing the violence of poverty and inequality, the most potent one is a misguided notion that because “these people” who struggle daily to get by are living a simpler life and are thus more happy and content compared to “the rest of us” with our middle class / Urban life problems. I noticed my mind doing that on more than one occasion, even though I should know better because I grew up poor, the little middle class comforts that I now enjoy have already made me romanticize poverty. The blinders don’t work fully though, my eyes couldn’t help but notice the people living there. The worn out jackets they wore to protect themselves from the wet and gloomy morning. The mild guilt got to me because here I was on a road trip complaining about potholes while people that look like me struggle to get by on the daily.
I wondered if things will change for the better but over the years I have grown cynical of our government’s ability to eradicate poverty. I’m not an expert of economics but it is clear that, having failed to lift the people back home in the city out of poverty, the neo-liberal status quo will not improve the lives of these people in the rural EC. The system will always see them as a pool of cheap labour for the mines in the platinum belt and a pool of guaranteed votes for the ruling party.
When asked about Port St Johns, my friend’s boss said it was “…a beautiful place but the town was dodgy”. Like most small rural towns, Port St Johns has all elements of a town whose infrastructure is collapsing under its own weight; a tar road that has ceased to fight back from slow degradation, buildings that were last maintained a decade ago, tourist centers and museums that are no longer functional, etc.
The drive en route to Second Beach passes what the town info on the internet calls a township. It didn’t look like that to none of us. It looked like a rural informal settlement that sprung up after apartheid ended and it was no longer legal to keep poor black folks far away from areas it deemed unworthy of them. Having been driven from their land (or alternatively, having sold their land to the British*) the people slowly ‘reclaimed’ their land. The view is unsettling because you don’t expect to be met with a reminder of poverty en route to the beach in a tourist town but it’s there, inconveniently reminding tourists of the reality of this country’s high level of inequality. The general consensus from the conversations we were having was that Port St Johns would be a much better place if it were improved and I found it ironic that a car full of black people would wish for a place to be gentrified.
When we got to Second Beach we were taken aback by the view. Everything that has been said about the Eastern Cape’s the wild coast is no exaggeration. The scenic beauty of its unspoiled beaches can only be likened to a spiritual experience. It made the twelve hour drive worth it. There was a debate among us about whether to bathe in the Indian ocean or not. The weather was gloomy and for reasons science** can’t explain, shark attacks are very common there. In the end we all took a dip and no shark found us desirable.
There’s a notorious place a kilometre hike from Second Beach called ‘The blow hole’. People die there and in most cases their bodies are never recovered. The hike to get there is breathtaking. From an elevated point, the view of Second Beach is even more majestic. I was awestruck and thus, hiked slower than everybody else, stopping frequently to absorb all that beauty. Along the way, there are three or four shrine-like memorials in remembrance of some of the people whose view of the sea was the last beautiful thing their eyes saw before their quietus. Those memorials must’ve gotten everybody shook ‘cause when I finally caught up with everybody, they wanted to go back without seeing the blow-hole.
Getting to the blow-hole is a scary ordeal, not only are you reminded that people died around there, you also have to pass a place called ‘The gap’. That means going down a steep descent with an aid of a steel rope and going up a steep ascend with an aid of a ladder that was probably last fixed when Nelson Mandela was still in prison. I understood why nobody in our group wanted to go there. It’s just that, in my near-intoxicated state, I refused to go back without seeing that place. Against everyone’s advice, I proceeded.
On paper Port St Johns’ Blow-hole doesn’t sound that impressive. It’s not even a real blow-hole, just a lousy gap on a cliff near the ocean that forces water from waves to shoot up during high tides. In real life though, it’s spectacular. I stared at the thing and its surroundings, stared at it ‘til I transcended into a Zen-like state where the screams of the people on the other side of ‘The Gap’, telling me to come back, got drowned out by the waves. I found myself going back to that erroneous thought. A thought that maybe the people here have more meaningful lives, I know I would if I had the privilege of seeing this view everyday but on our drive back to our lodge we passed Mtumbane Township and that thought quickly evaporated.
* That’s the official account of what happened. It’s probably Bullshit
** The local legend is that the shark isn’t a shark at all but a guy who died a long time ago but never ‘crossed’ over because his body was never found.