As I reflect on my life, I sometimes go back to my childhood days and recollect my thoughts about the life we led in the non-white ghetto in Pretoria. There were three ghettos in a total area of about a mile and a quarter by a mile and a quarter for the three basic non-white groups, namely coloured or Cape coloured (those of mixed race), Indian or Asian and African or Bantu. The ghetto was made up of Marabastaadt, the area for blacks, the Asiatic Bazaar for Indians and the Cape Location for those of mixed race. All of us who lived there just called it Location.
By the mid-forties, the Black African population was growing rapidly and they were slowly being moved out to Atteridgeville. The blacks called it Pelindaba --a basic bare-boned city, some 8 or 9 miles West from the City of Pretoria. Atteridgeville was ethnically divided to keep people from different black tribes who came from different areas of South Africa apart. This was in keeping with the divide and conquer philosophy of the ruling party in South Africa –Apartheid began at the ethnic or root level. Once the Blacks had been moved out, plans for moving the Coloureds was initiated. The Coloureds were moved to Derdepoort, an area some 10 miles East of Pretoria. Similar arrangements were made in Johannesburg and other major and minor cities of South Africa. Indians in Pretoria were to be moved to Laudium, which today is a reality and somehow also ethnically divided. However, before all those events took place, all three races lived in the one Location.
The Location was bounded on the North side by the Magalis (pronounced with a throaty g –almost like a raspy h) range of low mountains. Struben Street acted as the Southern border. The Municipality of Pretoria had a fence along the entire Southern border, behind which they stored road building equipment and other requisites. The West side of the Location was cut off by a highway called Von Wielligh Street. The East side was cut off by the Apis (Monkey) River. Boom Street ran through the middle of the Location, connected by a bridge on the East side to the White areas and the outside world. These three major groups of people shared their destiny of being cut off from so-called superior White civilization. We definitely lived in a world of our own.
Some Indians who had shops in the City of Pretoria, from the early part of the century before the official Apartheid policy came into effect, were allowed to go to their businesses during the day, but had to be back by evening to spend the night in the Location. Some Indian businessmen did have homes behind their businesses in the City, but this was an anomaly from the early part of the century. By the mid-fifties they were already ear-marked for removal –both business and residence. This was part of the Group Areas Act which set aggressive milestones for the separation of the races.
Those were years of increasing oppression and being on the receiving end of an inherently discriminatory and divisive policy. South African White policy in those years was designed to progressively remove all economic and political opportunities from non-whites. However, reminiscing of the days in the Location, all is not lost because life is not measured in terms of money, places or status. It is measured in how we lived with our fellow man and the trials and tribulations we bore together and how we emerged from it all.
The first great thing that came to be was that Mahatma Ghandi came to live in the Location in the early part of the 20th century. This was surely divinely ordered. He lived there for many years before moving to Natal and eventually back to India. Everyone knows the mark he left on India. Few have heard of the legacy he left in South Africa –a legacy of pride in heritage, fighting for freedom and belief in the greatness of ordinary people. I went to school with many children who came from families who took the Mahatma as their leader. Many of them later played important roles in the South African freedom movement.
Now my thoughts go back to the fact that the Location was probably one of the richest sources of cultural exchange on the face of the globe at that time –something never to be repeated in this fast changing, modern world of ours. Toronto is probably the only other place where this cultural heterogeneity is encouraged, to a point. However, Toronto is not a ghetto and it is also so large that the ethnics have their own ghettos. But Pretoria’s Location was unparalleled on the planet because nowhere else were so many different people put together in such a small area from where they could not leave by their own choice.
The richness of life that I’m also talking about is the people who lived in this Location. And my memory takes me to re-meet the neighbours and their cultures and the languages that were spoken here all around us. The Location was over-crowded because the Indian area was no more than about ¾ of a mile by ¾ of a mile. There were close to 10,000 people in that small area, living in poverty and under an oppressive regime. Families and extended families of 20 or 30 people using one toilet was not uncommon. But people got along. We survived. We learned to tolerate each other. Understand each other. We visited each other in our homes. We went to school together in this one-of-a-kind place in the world, the Location. We had three movie theatres, showing Indian, American, British, Egyptian and Tamil movies. This was our escape.
When I look back on my school days and school mates, first of all, everyone spoke either one of the country’s major legal languages, English or Afrikaans. The Coloureds mostly spoke either local or Cape Afrikaans (a Dutch-German derivative language, with a smattering of Flemish and English mixed in). The African servants and black customers at the local shops (blacks were allowed to be there until 7 pm, but had to observe the curfew that forced them to go back to their areas by 7 pm), spoke either Zulu, Xosa, Venda, Sesutho, Swazi, Ndebele, Tswana or Mchangan. Most of the Indians and local business people spoke at least 2 of the above languages, including their own local language from India. In addition most also spoke Hindi, English or Afrikaans or both.
Indians were truly multi-lingual out of necessity. They were the trades people of the area –running small shops and service businesses for the blacks and coloureds, who worked in the white areas. There were also a couple dozen Chinese families living in the Location. Some came from Mainland China, others from Hong Kong or Macau. They spoke either Cantonese or Mandarin.
In the Location, there were Indians from South India, especially Tamils, who were a big percentage of the population. They spoke, depending on where they came from in the South of India, Madrasi, Telegu or Malayalam. Also, some from the mid-section of India spoke a few different dialects of Indian languages. There were the Hyderabadis, who spoke their own language. There were Cochnis from Cochin, they spoke their own distinct language. There were a few from Ceylon, who spoke Sinhalese. Moving North towards Pakistan, there were many Urdu speaking peoples. Indians from Mumbai spoke Marhastran. And Parsis, who also came from the same area, especially from Mumbai, spoke Gujerati. Then there were the Gujeratis, with a big ethnic population, who spoke their different brands of Gujerati –the Kanamyas, the Surtis, the Katchis, the Katchi-Mehman and Halai-Mehman from Sindh. There were Sindis who spoke pure Sindi, with their own unique script. There were those who spoke Hindi and as we go further North, we find the Sikhs, with their own language, Punjabi. There were people from Kolkata, speaking Kalkatian language. And from Bangladesh, people spoke Bengali. There were Patthan-speaking Indians from the North West of India and Punjabi-speakers from the Punjab.
This was a microcosm of almost all the people you could think of. Pizzaro and Cortes didn’t allow the Aztecs and the Mayas to be in the Location, otherwise we would have had them also. And the North American Indians and the Northern Aboriginals all fighting for survival –they were not here.
There were Portuguese-speaking Indians who came from Portuguese speaking enclaves in India. The Malays of the Cape were also here, with their Malay-mixed Afrikaans. They had come to South Africa with the Dutch from Malaysia. There were German-speaking coloureds who came from the Cape province, on the border with Southwest Africa, where they spoke German. And there were Arab-speaking Mullahs at the local Madrassa.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some other people with their peculiar language here. But they were there in this Location. All their children, boys and girls, were at the local school. Nowhere on Earth will you find this. The children of the very, very wealthy and those of the very poor, went to the same school because of the Apartheid ghetto –which did not differentiate between rich and poor –only between white and non-white.
In spite of the oppression and lack of opportunities, what could be more momentous than having one of the greatest men on this planet as a neighbour living in this Location? That’s what it felt like to have Mahatma Ghandi as part of our neighbourhood. It gave our lives and experiences meaning and richness in a larger global sense. When I see Ben Kingsley portraying Mahatma Ghandi, I say to myself, ‘We had the real thing.’
In conclusion, I must reiterate the richness of this once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-long-historical-period that only divine intervention could have produced. Where in the world would you get a Location of so many cultural and sub-cultural backgrounds with their rich heritage of music, dress, color, religion and language have come together in such a small place? Yes, there were even Ismailis here. One family in particular, the Keshavjees, had very close contact with Mahatma Ghandi. This was truly a historical event of a magnitude that would have world-wide impact. Mahatma Ghandi was part of this beautiful historical mosaic. Indians and Africans played out their roles, while the British and Dutch looked on from the side-lines with their attitudes of Apartheid, snobbery and British arrogance. Look where they are today.
This was a one-time phenomenon with, not Ben Kingsly whose relatives are also known to me, but the real thing thrown in: the Mahatma. This is my legacy. A tapestry full of riches, a mosaic to cherish, with all the different music, art, religion, dances, stories and languages woven into the fabric of life. The White man in South Africa, with his one superior language truly missed out. To him, Ghandi was yet another `coolie` to be derided and ridiculed. What irony. Wake up Canada, smell the real world that the divine created. Embrace it or you’ll lose out also.
© 2008 Mahomed Keshavjee written in Summer 2007