This post and the previous one are quite different from the customary fare of TRAVELS IN AFRICA. No photos, my apologies for that. The posts concern contacts with two unusual white women who were serving as elected officials in a country where the black majority had finally come to power.
First the back story.
After almost 30 years Donanne and I returned to South Africa, a country I had covered as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. Though no longer a reporter, the journalistic habits revived with opportunities to chat with two unusual people: Dene Smuts, a member of Parliament (see the South Africa archive), and Gillian Noyce, an old friend then serving as a councilor in the Durban municipal government. They were both – extraordinarily – white women elected as post-apartheid officeholders.
The second post starts with the background and observations of Jill Noyce.
Six weeks later Donanne and I arrived in Durban – Paul and Bill had gone back to the States – to stay a week with Gillian and Michael Noyce. We had first known the Noyces in Boston some 30 years before when Michael was getting professional engineering experience in the Boston area. Later we had visited them when I was covering Rhodesia (as it was then called); our sons had been born within months of one another. Year-end letters in the ‘90s had made us aware that Jill was exploring ways for whites and blacks to get to know one another, to obtain experience in talking to one another. Now she was an elected member of the Durban municipality.
At our first dinner together – we were in a restaurant – we talked about Jill’s political work and how the basic task of politicians is to deliver benefits to voters. This is complicated in Jill’s case because she’s a member of the Democratic Alliance. The governing ANC wants voters to see that all delivery of benefits comes through ANC councilors. She feels she won election to her present position representing the Hillcrest area – half white voters, half African – because black voters were disenchanted with the ANC’s failure to deliver benefits. White voters were also disappointed. At the election white voters turned out in large numbers to vote for “Noycie” (as Mike said some black constituents call Jill) while black voters (who do not feel they can vote for a white) stayed away from the polls.
Jill’s an elected official, but finds herself in a situation where chiefs still play a role. Their role has been problematic throughout Africa. Jill recounted an incident where she and some constituents went to a tribal area to see about bringing water to the local people. Another councilor also went with constituents. Jill waited at the appointed place, then got word that the meeting would be held at a place nearer the chieftaincy. The group went there, some 30-40 people gathering in all, including officials from the water department. The chief refused to see them. Not that he was opposed to having water brought to his area; he wanted that. But somehow the way the meeting had been arranged impinged on his authority. Apparently he felt it was more important to resist this affront to his authority than to bring his people water.
As we talked, I expressed the opinion that things were bound to get better for South Africans. The changes that had taken place since we were last here were so striking, the prevailing mood so different – and all this accomplished without the bloodbath that once seemed inevitable and we all dreaded! I felt the potential that had been liberated must express itself in progress, higher living standards, etc. Jill asked exactly how I saw the positive changes taking place. From her perspective – as one whose job it is to deliver benefits – that must be a question she ponders a great deal. She told about visiting schools and talking with parents and urging the benefits of education. But it’s hard to convince them, especially when school fees could be spent elsewhere. Moreover, parents complain that there are no jobs for their kids when they finish school. So why go? (Twelve years later the Presidency of Jacob Zuma has called this optimism into question. The ANC seems to have become more corrupt.)
Mike told of a young Swazi who wanted to be an engineer. Mike agreed to train him. The young man had apparently graduated from a college in Swaziland, but had what amounted to only about a secondary school education, especially in math. The training commenced and the Swazi made progress. Soon, however, he was contacted by a firm that had won a contract to do some kind of business – build a road or a dam – in Swaziland. They needed a Swazi on the project and offered the young Swazi a sweet deal. He refused it, feeling that he was getting good training from Mike and that he needed that training to become a competent engineer. Later the firm made the young Swazi another offer. He refused again. A little later they made a third offer. By then the young Swazi’s father had died and his mother desired his return. Moreover, the money he’d been offered was astounding. The Swazi went to Mike and asked, “What should I do?” Eventually he left Mike’s company. Mike was sorry to see him go. (Justin, Mike’s partner, and Helen who also works for Mike were less sorry because, Mike says, they were the ones who had to correct the Swazi’s mistakes.)
The upshot of this scenario is that the young Swazi never learns to be a competent engineer. He makes good money, but his associates come to scorn him as incompetent. They even assume that all Africans lack the talent to be competent engineers. When the young Swazi stops being useful to his firm, he is not fired; he is shunted off. And other Africans coming along get discouraged when they see the career path of this once-promising young man. So the end result is that the shortterm advantage to the company of having a Swazi on the Swaziland project in the end has many negative consequences.
In the morning Jill drove us around the district she represents, Durban Ward #9. It includes Hillcrest and Waterford, white areas that comprise only a small part of the ward. Jill feels that her white constituents have little idea of who she is; they sense little need for her representation. She portrays many of them as having difficulty undergoing the country’s transformation and sees these people as hunkering down, hoping they can survive the increases in “rates” (taxes) and go along to the ward’s dam for a bit of recreation on Sunday. The larger part of the ward includes Molweni and a second African area which contains the Inanda Dam and the area above it. The black constituents of these areas need Jill as someone who can bring them goodies, deliver services and help them negotiate problems with government. One of her main jobs is to help provide infrastructure for her black constituents: roads, sidewalks, water hook-ups, schools, clinics, community centers, these latter (if possible) with running water, electricity and fences topped with razor wire.
We met Mr. Dlamini, presumably the chief (or one of them) for Molweni. He was very jovial, greeted Jill warmly and pointed to something across the road which I took to be significant, but turned out to be a cow. (Let’s examine what just happened in this moment. The cow did not seem to be significant to me and it struck me as curious that Mr. Dlamini pointed it out as his. But Jill understood that the cow was not insignificant to Mr. Dlamini. She indicated to us – sotto voce – that in Mr. Dlamini’s eyes the possession of a cow credentials him to her as a man of property; he was someone, unlike most of her constituents, who owned a cow.) Mr. Dlamini wanted Jill’s assistance in having a park put in across from the recently built community hall to accommodate weddings and other events. He solicited from us donations for a party to kick off the opening of the hall.
We continued on up to Inanda Dam where we met Mr. Oliphants of Umgeni Water, someone with whom Jill works regularly. The lake behind the dam is apparently a place where constituents come for picnics, exercise and outings.
As we walked together Friday evening – the Noyces had taken us into the Drakensburg Mountains for the weekend – Jill told us about her background and how it prepared her for political work. Her paternal grandmother was left with four young children – and they were Young children since the surname was Young – when her husband died suddenly of typhoid fever, this apparently in the early years of the last century. She was unskilled, unqualified for any work, but managed to get the necessary education to teach school. She raised four kids on her own.
Jill’s father entered government service immediately after matriculating from secondary school because there was no money to send him to “varsity” (university). He became a magistrate in the Native Affairs Department. When Jill was a child, the family lived in the Transkei, the Xhosa tribal territory which later became the first Bantustan. She went to a one-room school until she was sent off to boarding school, presumably in what we would call grammar or primary grades. She estimates that the community of whites comprised 25 families and included a hotel. Its pub served as the social center and drinking club. The pub justified the hotel’s presence more than the accommodations offered to travelers; all distinguished travelers stayed at the Youngs’ house.
In South Africa prejudice was not simply a matter of pigmentation. It also existed between the two white language groups. In 1948 the National Party – and the Afrikaners (the Afrikaans-speakers) – took over the government and administration. Jill’s father began to have trouble gaining promotion because he was an English-speaker with an English surname. New regulations required him to pass a test in Afrikaans and Jill intimated that Afrikaans testers flunked her father out of sheer bloody-mindedness and a desire to retard the progress of English-speakers. Eventually he passed the test and promotion began to come quickly. He was transferred, first to Pretoria, I believe, then to Johannesburg, as the top native affairs officer in Joburg, an extremely important position under apartheid. (Since by then apartheid had become the government ideology, the Afrikaners may have found it useful to have an English-surname magistrate passing down judgments – no capital judgments, a judge did that – which enforced apartheid in some of its worst phases.)
Negotiating apartheid must have been difficult. When Jill went off to “varsity” at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, she recalled her father telling her, “My girl, you will not march” (meaning she was not to protest apartheid). Jill expressed amazement and admiration for people who resisted apartheid. Mike told of a young fellow who knew how to set blasting caps and put this knowledge to work in protests. An informer within the university reported him to the authorities; he was only 18, just starting at varsity. The government forced him to accept a one-way exit visa to leave the country and never return.
Some snag complicated Magistrate Young’s progress in Joburg. Jill does not know precisely what happened. Perhaps he argued with a superior, she suggested – possibly over the implementation of petty apartheid. In any case, he voluntarily took a demotion to the Native Affairs job in East London. There he finished out his career. He retired at the required age, but was asked to return to the job and worked half days until he was 75. He rode the bus to work.
Apparently there were lively political discussions around the Young family dinner table. Jill remembered asking frustratedly: But how can they (the Afrikaners) do that? And still the word was: My girl, you will not march.
Now she’s a white, female, elected, post-apartheid official.
She and Dene Smuts render quite an unusual service to South Africa.
Next post: Game-viewing in Namibia. The Etosha Pan.