Cover image for South from the Limpopo : travels through South Africa
South from the Limpopo : travels through South Africa
Murphy, Dervla, 1931-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 1997.

Physical Description:
xv, 432 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : John Murray, 1997.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DT1738.M87 A3 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
DT1738.M87 A3 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Dervla Murphy's has been recording her travel experiences -- treks through (among other places) India, Ireland, Transylvania, and several countries in Africa -- for well over thirty years. In Sour from the Limpopo, she continues her writings on the African continent, bringing her unique insights to the still-troubled country of South Africa.

This three-part journey of more than 6000 miles (before during, and after the elections of 1994) took Murphy through all nine provinces of the new South Africa. She stayed in remote impoverished ex-"homeland" villages, the luxurious homes of rich whites and the simple homes of poor whites. In the vast black township of Khayelitsha she made good friends, as she did among the rural Boers of the platteland.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In her latest travelogue, Murphy (Muddling Through in Madagascar) documents her 6000-mile trek through South Africa's nine provinces between 1993 and 1995. The post-apartheid South Africa she sees is characterized by violence, racial tension and economic uncertaintyÄcircumstances, indicates Murphy, not unlike those occurring in her own Northern Ireland. Forsaking such comforts as automobiles and hotels, the 60-something Murphy opts instead to travel by bicycle, stopping off at municipal watering holes, campgrounds and, when the invitations arise, private homes. Such intrepid wanderlust gives her the opportunity to speak with a cross-section of South Africans, from unemployed black miners to wealthy white Afrikaners. However, Murphy speaks only English among South Africa's 11 official languages. This fact obviously limits whom she speaks to and, similarly, what people are able to communicate to her. She makes up for this shortcoming by listening closely to what she can understand and by making the most of her visual observations. Early in the book, she shows self-awareness by acknowledging the wisdom of a black man who tells her, " should know as a white you're intruding here.... It's not a zoo for tourists to see how `natives' live." Fortunately, Murphy's curiosity allows her to insightfully, if occasionally intemperately, relate her many experiences, from witnessing the frenzied crowds celebrating Nelson Mandela's 1994 presidential inauguration to observing a summer's day mob attack on a young girl to eating Christmas Day dinner at a prison. Rights: John Murray Publishers. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One In at the Deep End Messina -- Venda -- GaKagapane It was never the bad guys who got into trouble in the townships. It was almost always one of the tiny, tiny minority of whites who were willing to break the unwritten rules that governed everyone else. Rian Malan , My Traitor's Heart (1990) Messina, Transvaal, 9 March 1993 The wide no man's land between Zimbabwe and South Africa still looks rather sinister. During the 1980s Comrade Mugabe authorized Umkhontu we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing, MK for short) to open an infiltration route through Zimbabwe from their training camps in Angola. The South African Defence Force (SADF) then devised an `electrified parapet' -- 20,000-volt wires on a high wall -- reinforced by dense rolls of razor wire (a South African invention) and a `living barricade' of aggressive-looking sisal. Now the wires are rusted and sagging but the sisal flourishes, its serrated swords forming a threatening frieze above the road.     From the rail-cum-road Bridge of Beit -- a starkly utilitarian construction - I gazed down at the sluggish Limpopo, dully brown, not yet catching the rays of the newly risen sun. At this hour there was no traffic and under a curiously colourless sky all was hushed. For miles on either side of the river lay flat uninhabited veld, green-dotted with thornbushes. To the north-east rose Zimbabwe's Mateke Hills, smooth-crested and powder blue. In the Messina direction towered a high tangle of mine machinery; copper has been mined hereabouts from time immemorial. And to the south (it suddenly seemed improbable, after so many years of waiting) -- to the south stretched all of South Africa, a country in transition, Land of Hope and Tension.     The border-post suggests no diminution of white supremacy; it is guarded by well-armed expressionless young Afrikaners in crisp uniforms. Here the AIDS-education posters, so conspicuous on the walls of every border-post between Kenya and Zimbabwe, are replaced by anti-terrorist posters illustrating life-size limpet mines and hand grenades and other such lethal gadgets. A fading legend on a weather-beaten board says WELCOME TO SOUTH AFRICA, a sentiment not echoed in the voices or eyes of the immigration and customs officers. When a visa form was thrust towards me I disingenuously declared: `Purpose of Visit -- TOURISM; Duration of Stay -- TWO MONTHS; Profession -- RETIRED TEACHER.' It seemed advisable, even in 1993, not to admit to being a writer on a six-month visit.     The customs officers ignored Lear's two small dusty pannier-bags, not in a genial way but contemptuously. My first South African smile came from the black policeman who opened the gate releasing me on to the highway.     Two Stuttaford Removals pantechnicons were parked nearby -- a sign of the times. In the early 1980s thousands of `Rhodies' who couldn't take black rule migrated south. Now, to the sardonic amusement of their friends who stayed put, many are attempting to re-migrate north. For those who became South African citizens this is not possible; a fair enough ruling, though they don't think so. But any who retained Zimbabwean citizenship are welcome back.     The ten miles to Messina, through dreary lowveld, are memorable only for their litter-strewn verges. Broken beer bottles, plastic milk bottles, fast-food containers, paper handkerchiefs, disposable nappies, cooldrinks tins, sheets of newspaper, cigarette packets and plastic bags by the hundred -- all proof that South Africa is a developed country ... On either side high steel-mesh fences indicate that this is still military territory. At 8 a.m. it was already too hot.     When Messina's black township appeared on a wide hillside invisible from the whites' dorp, I turned left and pedalled slowly upwards on a rough track. Soon I was surrounded by hundreds of little tin-roofed homes in tiny plots -- most gardens neat and flowery, a few slummy, each with an outside latrine. Many dwellings have brightly painted woodwork and curtained windows, some have lean-to shacks at the back. Electricity has recently been laid on for the minority who can afford it. Small supermarkets stock a range of manufactured goods and processed foods unseen (outside of the capitals) between Nairobi and Karoi. I counted seven churches, some hut-sized; South Africa has approximately 3,500 indigenous Churches, independent of the imported variety, their memberships varying from hundreds to millions. On the township's southern edge, upwardly mobile blacks occupy new two-storeyed brick houses with garages attached. By the standard of black Africa, all this looks like affluence.     Only one resident, an elderly woman, returned my greeting. The others, of all ages and both sexes, looked startled, suspicious, occasionally hostile. Mentally I was prepared for this. Why should -- how could -- any South African black see me, inexplicably cycling through their township, as anything other than a morbidly curious outsider? Yet emotionally the communal rejection hurt, provoking an absurd twinge of self-pity. Why should I be made to feel, within an hour of crossing the border, personally victimized by apartheid? This journey is not going to be easy. I can't carry a placard saying I AM NOT A RACIST. As a white, I must accept being identified with the oppressors.     Messina, I had been warned, is a typical Transvaal dorp, its flavour more American than European. My first meal confirmed this: a soggy hamburger and a polystyrene mug of weak tea, ingested under a baobab tree outside a café in the company of a friendly young Venda woman. A few years ago she and I could not have shared a table -- or a room. There are no tables, now, inside the café. There used to be but the Afrikaner owner cannot accept a mixed clientele on his premises. These sour little evasions of the new reality, futile in the long term, must (I assumed) irritate blacks. But when I said as much my companion, astonishingly, reproved me. `Don't blame them,' she said. `They've just got a bad shock. Leaders can't change people quickly. Give them time.'     I had bought two issues of The Citizen , the Afrikaners' English- language newspaper; as a pro-apartheid propaganda weapon, it was originally funded by re-routed tax-payers' money. The 8 March headlines read: THREE HELD FOR SECOND NATAL MASSACRE; RADIOLOGIST KNIFED TO DEATH; THREE ROBBERS SHOT DEAD IN STORE DRAMA. A large colour photograph showed the bullet-riddled naked torso of one robber lying on the pavement. The 9 March headlines read: FOUR DEAD IN NEW NATAL AMBUSH; POLICEMAN ACCUSED OF KILLING COLLEAGUE; DEATH THREAT TO MINISTER OF EDUCATION AND CULTURE. My companion glanced down at the papers, then turned away, her face puckered with distaste. `We are sick of violence!' she said. `Madiba [Nelson Mandela] is right, we must talk instead of killing.'     I spent the hottest hours writing in Messina's cheapest hotel (£11 for a cramped but air-conditioned room) and then went walkabout -- an uninspiring experience. This dorp has a few wide, straight, level streets, several enormous car showrooms, two petrol stations of multinational garishness, three busy banks, a Spar supermarket, a small public library stocking only Afrikaans volumes, a carefully tended public park complete with Voortrekker monument, a few well-kept featureless churches catering for obscure denominations, three sterile ice-cream-parlours-cum-cafés, a police station, another hotel, a small hospital (for whites) and malodorous Wimpy and Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaways. Black hawkers sell oranges, and such European vegetables as cauliflowers and carrots, and buckets of sun-dried dark-grey caterpillars called mopane worms -- a nutritious delicacy which I forbore to sample. There is no restaurant or pub; beer is available only from the endearingly named Drankwinkels (off-licences) or in the hotel bars. Each hotel runs a Drankwinkel and has two bars -- one an annexe entered from the street, designed to exclude black customers from the hotel proper.     Messina's white natives are not chatty (little English is spoken in the northern Transvaal) and only visual observations were possible. I noted the Afrikaner males' aggressive body-language: how they open or shut vehicle doors, grab goods from a supermarket shelf, fling money on to a counter, silently kick a tyre that needs inflating instead of verbally requesting that service, cuff a dog who is to wait in a bakkie (pick-up truck) instead of using a word of command. The females' body-language is, in its way, equally aggressive -- defensive-aggressive, tense, eyes swivelling suspiciously, mouths compressed and down-turned, both hands tightly holding shoulder bags, carriage mincing yet arrogant. Men of all ages wear paramilitary shirts, sharply creased khaki shorts and knee-socks. Most carry handguns openly, thrust into their belts or in under-arm holsters. The older males tend to be pot-bellied; their sons are lean and tanned. Wives are permed, laboriously made-up, fussily dressed; teenaged daughters are lithe and tanned, wearing shorts and sweatshirts. Conformity prevails.     The hardline northern Transvaalers are descended from those Voortrekkers who trekked until they could trek no further. Brave folk they were, ready to take on any number of kaffirs and lions to gain territory where they could be free of all control, whether from Pretoria, Cape Town or London. But by now that bravery and obstinate independence has curdled into a bitter resolve to resist change, to be faithful to the obsolete vision that drove their ancestors north.     By sunset I was sitting with a Long Tom (a mega-tin of Castle beer) under a striped umbrella on the hotel's concrete forecourt. There Dave joined me, full of friendly curiosity -- a young fertilizer salesman from Jo'burg, of Welsh--Irish descent, with long wavy fair hair and the uncontrolled effervescence of a large puppy. Proudly he informed me that while with the army in Namibia he began to see blacks as human beings, having been brought up to see them otherwise. Now he lives with Mousie, an Indian woman -- `Very beautiful!' -- and so his parents have rejected him. `Maybe you think there's lots of young whites like me but you're wrong. Mostly my age hate blacks even more than the older people, they're so scared to lose jobs. I don't care. I'm not political. I'm just glad there's no more laws to stop me living with my Mousie and playing in my reggae band in Alex. [Alexandra is one of Jo'burg's biggest townships, soon to be merged with the nearby white suburb of Sandton -- a rich rich suburb.] When you come to Jo'burg get in touch and I'll take you into Alex. With my friends there's no hassle, it's all music and dagga. Seeing TV you'd think all township kids are gangsters, but most only want to enjoy themselves.'     Here Dave has been making new black friends and at dusk they appeared, two cheerful young men who work in the supermarket. They thought me quite mad, an old woman planning to cycle around South Africa!     `But you'll be safe,' Abe assured me. `Even APLA [Azanian People's Liberation Army] wouldn't attack a mama on a bike!'     Jo agreed. `Whites think they're safest driving around locked in a vehicle but they're wrong. That can get people jealous and angry. Most blacks can't buy a car.'     Dave was keen to visit the township's beer hall so we all squeezed into the front of his little van -- sacks of fertilizer packed the back -- with Abe (small and slight) sitting on my lap. We drove through the copper-miners' hostel compound because Dave decided I should see the men's wretched living conditions. But as we left the van to visit one of the small shacks a police car passed, very slowly, whereupon Joe muttered something to Abe and there was a change of plan. Strolling across the rutted track, we entered a small comfortably furnished bar, empty but for three girls (their profession rather obvious) sitting around a low table eating a wholesome supper of pap, stewed beef and cabbage. They giggled incredulously when Dave explained me.     Here Joe and Abe seemed uneasy. `Let's go,' said Joe. `It's Tuesday, the miners have no money left for drink, we'll meet no one.'     `They get R840 [£168] a month,' said Abe. `That's more than us, we get R650. But I wouldn't be a miner, I wouldn't want all the dangers. And they send most rands home, they only drink weekends. If they didn't send money home their families would die.'     In the township a few very high, very powerful `security lamps' glared out of the sky -- substitutes for street lighting. The huge beer hall has an earthen floor and bare breeze-block walls; dim naked bulbs hang from the disintegrating chipboard ceiling and cheap cigarettes make the air fetid. Scores of young men, standing around in noisy groups, momentarily fell silent as the two whites walked between them. The only seats, in a corner near the bar, were three broken-down sofas. My delight on seeing home-brewed sorghum-beer was genuine, not an affectation to flatter the locals. Good home-brew -- and this was excellent -- is more palatable than any commercial brew.     While Dave talked to the unresponsive barman Joe fetched my beer (its source lay outside) and the five well-dressed men sitting on the sofas welcomed me courteously. Mr Malchode was elderly, with a neat greying goatee beard. The others were fortyish and all spoke fluent English.     Soon I was regretting Dave's presence. With the fervour of the converted, he set about proving his `identification' with militant blacks by using the clenchedfist punch instead of the triple handshake and demonstrating how well he can toyi-toyi. Plainly Abe and Joe found all this embarrassing -- or maybe more than embarrassing. The motives of unknown white males who behave thus in beer halls are likely to be suspect. However, the seated men listened politely while Dave asserted that only a socialist Azania can solve South Africa's problems. His patronizing tone, his emphatic gestures, his whole demeanour betokened the baas . Namibia may have brought him to recognize blacks as human beings; it certainly didn't bring him to recognize them as equals. Inwardly I gave thanks that the local Young Lions were distanced from our corner.     Abe, by now visibly agitated, suggested a braaivleis . He, Joe and Dave would go out to get it going, leaving me to finish my beer. Enthusiastically Dave jumped from his bar stool -- and a large revolver thudded to the floor. Tactfully, everyone pretended not to notice as he swiftly retrieved it. But anger erupted when he had left.     `If he thinks blacks are his best friends, why come armed? You trust friends. What's he afraid of?.'     `He's a fool,' deduced Mr Malchode. `People who carry guns in beer halls get murdered for them.'     A third man addressed me. `Whites can get gun licences, we can't. They have six spaces on their IDs for gun licences. Guns were always important for them. They could take our land because they had guns against our assegais.'     `And now again they're very important,' said Mr Malchode. `We're taking over, in politics, but still they're the ones with the guns. Maybe that helps them feel they can hold out and stay in control ...'     There was a silence and they all looked at me.     `Do you carry a gun?' asked Mr Malchode.     `No, in my country not even the police carry guns.'     Mr Malchode moved then to sit beside me. Quietly he said, `I don't mean to insult, but for your own sake you should know as a white you're intruding here. This is our place. It's not a zoo for tourists to see how "natives" live. Even now we can't drink in a Messina hotel bar -- the prices are trebled to keep us out. But you take it for granted you can come and drink here -- you're white, so you can drink wherever you choose. Do you know enough about South Africa to understand what I say?'     Impulsively I took Mr Malchode's hand and thanked him; on my first evening in South Africa he had taught me a lesson I needed to learn. And he had done so with a grace and dignity that left my own dignity unimpaired. I regretted Abe's reappearing just then, beckoning me out to the braai; surely there was more to be learned from Mr Malchode.     In darkness Abe and I stumbled along a rough, urine-scented track, then saw a rosy glow where the others stood tending our steaks under a sheet of corrugated iron propped up by bluegum trunks. This public grill was for the use of those who brought their own fuel, meat and flavourings. The bottom third of a tar-barrel, balanced on a wooden trestle, held the charcoal over which our meat sizzled on strands of barbed wire. There was nowhere to sit; we stood around gnawing at long thin strips of gristly steak while Joe and Abe intently discussed something in their own Venda language. They sounded rather worried, I thought. And then they fell silent, as we heard voices and footsteps approaching.     An improbable figure loomed out of the darkness, at least six-foot-six and not sober. Several smaller figures tagged along behind. With nervous effusiveness our escorts greeted the giant by name -- Louis. He ignored them and advanced on Dave.     `Hey man, you come from where?'     Tiny Abe stepped forward and stood on tiptoe to whisper something to Louis, who immediately swung around and stared at me.     `Hey mama, you know this guy?'     I hesitated. What was the score? I could think only of my own skin: would it be safer to know or not to know Dave? Being unable to see anyone's expression -- only their relative sizes -- didn't help. Finally I gambled on claiming Dave as an old friend.     Louis grunted and hiccuped. Then: `OK mama, you shift your old friend outta here and keep him out -- see?' Moving to tower over me he added, `Keep yourself out too, OK whitey?' He turned, swaying slightly, and led his silent followers away.     `Let's go,' said Abe, which seemed a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Clutching our fragments of steak we hastened back to the van. When safely aboard, Dave plaintively demanded, `What went wrong?' Abe and Joe said nothing. Dave repeated, `Tell me, what went wrong?     I said, `You did.'     Dave's hurt bewilderment was genuine. `How d'you mean? I love these people! I wasn't looking for trouble, I've never had hassle in Alex!'     Wearily I lapsed into triteness. `So now you know the northern Transvaal isn't Alex.'     Today I have felt apartheid, an experience quite unlike reading about it. For more than a decade its official enforcement has been gradually easing and by now most of the laws have been repealed. Yet to me, as a newly arrived white, those reforms seem irrelevant. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Near Dzata, Venda, 10 March The `independent' homeland of Venda, population slightly over half a million, lies east of Messina close to the Zimbabwean border and the Kruger National Park. It is notorious for the widespread practice of witchcraft, sometimes involving muti -murders, and for smouldering animosity (occasionally flaring into violence and serious looting) between the Venda people and Indian traders. Since the late 1970s it has been run by a corrupt puppet government, Pretoria-funded as were all the `Bantustans'. Soon these ten homelands, `independent' and otherwise, will be reabsorbed into the new South Africa. Naturally this has exacerbated the `maladministration of funds' as officials compete for the biggest slice of the last annual cake to be sent, gift-wrapped, from Pretoria.     Beyond Messina a narrow road crosses a series of scrubby ridges, the earth drought-cracked. Here baobabs abound, each numbered and preserved. The early traffic consisted of two bakkies. In one a Dobermann sat beside his master while a `boy' rode in the back, sitting on the bare metal floor. This distribution of passengers is also common in Zimbabwe.     On the final ridge-top one is suddenly facing a misshapen isolated mountain, all lop-sided and deeply fissured, with bulbous boulders growing from its flanks and slim spears of granite pointing skywards from its crest. At the base of this eccentricity winds the little Njelele river, its course marked by irrigated miles of green maize fields.     Our long descent ended at a T-junction; the left turn leads to the `border', from where a rough dirt track wriggles through a knot of mountains to Venda's `capital', Thohoyandou. All these tiresome inverted commas are a matter of principle; the homelands never had internationally recognized borders, capitals or governments.     Near the hamlet of Tshipise, on the `border', a yellow South African Police (SAP) van overtook me and stopped in the middle of the road. Two thin-lipped Afrikaners emerged and stood there stiffly, watching my approach and not liking what they saw. Neither did I like what I saw: a pair of truculent toughies with burgeoning beer-bellies and a superfluity of weapons.     They signalled me to halt and one asked, without preamble, `Where are you going?'     `Into Venda.'     `No, not this way! You go back on the main road to the sign for Thohoyandou.'     I hesitated, longing to challenge them -- `Isn't Venda an independent country? What right have you to stop my entering it where I choose?' But prudence prevailed. Repressing my annoyance I obeyed orders.     The next thirty-five miles were pleasantly varied: level cultivated fields, eroded orange-red mountains, ridges scattered with giant cycads, their leaves up to six feet long -- and then a surprising remnant of dense subtropical forest. I paused to examine several farm burial plots, sometimes no more than 200 yards from an isolated Boer homestead, their dates giving glimpses of family history. Many farms are now half-abandoned, the houses closed up, the land managed by a black supervisor. During the 1970s more than 10,000 northern Transvaal farmers moved to the cities, leaving 45 per cent of homes in the Messina region unoccupied. The government then invested R32 million in a bid to repopulate the area; farmers were given low-interest loans, subsidized security systems and guarantees of increased military protection. But the MK frustrated this scheme. By 1985 they were landmining the rural roads, their infiltration helped by sympathetic Vendas, 70,000 of whom live across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe.     The new main road from the `border' to Thohoyandou is wide and velvet-surfaced. Along it raced the shining motor cars of plump affluent blacks -- the apartheid collaborators. On either side rose humpy, greyish, dusty mountains covered with dwellings -- a few solid bungalows, some small but sturdy shacks, very many frail tin-and-scrap-wood hovels. People swarmed; at any given moment there were hundreds of children in view, mostly ill-nourished, ill-dressed and either dispirited or, in reaction to me, vocally derisive.     Within moments of entering Venda one sees proclaimed on the gable-end of a small bus-shelter: ONE SETTLER ONE BULLET! YOU DON'T NEGOTIATE FOR FREEDOM, YOU FIGHT FOR IT! PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress). An impressive display of literacy: myself, I have to think twice before spelling `negotiate'. The PAC's message is not unfamiliar; similar inscriptions greet one on crossing the border into Northern Ireland near Crossmaglen (INFORMERS WILL BE SHOT! -- and they are shot). Of course no one could mistake me for a settler -- surely they couldn't? Or is `settler', in PAC usage, a blanket term covering all whites? Every few miles these slogans appear on blank walls. Just now I have been told that the PAC - not generally popular -- is quite strongly supported in Venda by angry youths who despise the ANC for having put their MK soldiers on the leash.     I sought advice about lodgings in a large general-store-cum-Drankwinkel standing back from the road beyond a strip of rocky litter-strewn wasteland. This was a startling establishment, more like a high-security jail than a rural shop. Iron grilles from floor to ceiling separated the customers' and sellers' areas with only a few small openings, perhaps eighteen-inches square, to allow the money-for-goods exchange. In Venda the monthly per capita income is R60 (£12) and this evening I was told, `We've such extreme poverty, and so much corruption in the police, our merchants are all the time under siege. It's amazing we don't have even more crime, maybe some of our kids haven't enough energy to steal!'     The only available accommodation was to be found in a nearby `tourist complex'. `It is full of comforts for rich foreigners,' said the squat sardonic woman who sold me a Castle beer. Gloomily I drank it on the wide stoep; I hadn't come to Venda for `comforts'. Below the stoep, women vendors were selling small hard green oranges, packets of crisps, stale white bread rolls in cellophane and bottles of dreadfully dyed fizzy drinks. When I tried to talk to them they turned away, sniggering. Then four ragged, unfed-looking youths gathered around me, whispering about diamonds. ( Diamonds , in Venda ?) Hastily I finished my beer and pedalled on.     Here the landscape became less arid and at dusk the tourist-complex lights could be seen twinkling far off the road on the upper slopes of a wooded ridge. Unsurprisingly I am the only tourist around and no meals are being served in the spacious restaurant, open on three sides to the cool evening breeze, with simple wooden trestle-tables. Had I booked ahead, the manager remarked reprovingly, a delicious four-course dinner would have been prepared. This I can believe. In my thatched whitewashed rondavel hut the bed linen is immaculate, the plumbing efficient, the armchairs luxurious, the carpet soft. It lacks only the most important of all comforts, a bedside lamp.     My one fellow-guest, Gerald Moremi, was thrilled to meet an Irishwoman. `It was an Irish priest sponsored me and kept me out of politics after Soweto. I was 12, wanting to be political, but he sent me to school. He was right. "Liberation before Education" -- that's crazy! What do you do with liberation if you're illiterate?'     Gerald, a copper-miner's son, had been to an `open' private day-school in Jo'burg, while living with an uncle in Soweto. These Catholic schools -- an innovation started in January 1976, a few months before the Soweto Uprising -- were a `liberal' gesture on the part of a Church until then more submissive than most to Pretoria. In 1989 Gerald graduated from Wits University and his ten years of integrated education convinced him that in the new South Africa schools should be kept separate for at least a generation.     `At first mixed schools won't help poor blacks -- that's most of us. We want equal education, same budget, same facilities, same teacher training. But separate so our kids aren't put off studying by white intimidation. A lot of our kids show up much brighter than white kids, especially the Afrikaners. They're all cousins -- look at their few family names -- and that makes them stupid. Then when blacks do well in exams they can't take being beaten by kaffirs and turn aggressive. It's happening already in some mixed schools.'     Gerald is an educational publisher's agent, a job much coveted in the homelands where millions are spent on school books that somehow never reach the schools. But soon, he is confident, things will change. `In our new South Africa, when the ANC gives fair shares to everyone, we can all live honestly. Now we can't. Last year Pretoria gave Venda R743 million -- for half a million people -- but still we have "big financial difficulties"!' Suddenly he fell silent and looked beyond me. Turning, I saw two men and a woman approaching -- beaming a welcome to me, eager to hear about my journey. As we shook hands, Gerald slipped away.     Mr and Mrs Makhade and Mr Malatsi -- all Vendas -- spoke fluent English. Mrs Makhade's diamonds flashed from every possible anatomical angle: ears, throat, bosom, wrists, fingers. Her husband shouted for a round of drinks, then set about interrogating me -- smoothly, with expertise. Perhaps my answers failed to satisfy him; all three refused to be drawn on Venda's future within the new South Africa. The majority of the population were dismissed as `Poor because lazy -- look after your possessions, many are criminals and will kill for five rands!'     The Makhades have just returned from New York: `Now sanctions are being lifted, we must go looking for new business opportunities.' Mr Malatsi, wearing a gold wristwatch the size of a travel clock, believes in Venda's `great touristical future' (a regional advantage not immediately apparent) and is planning to build a Tribal Theme Park below the Thothe Vondo pass.     `But first,' I said, `you must do something about all those PAC slogans.'     `They mean nothing!' snapped Mr Makhade. `Only foolish kids showing off!'     `Are you sure?' I persisted. `The PAC do occasionally kill people. What about investing in basic necessities before the theme park? Then the PAC might lose support.'     Our party soon broke up. Sibasa, 11 March I must see the Dzata ruins, Gerald said over breakfast. They were only a few miles away, Venda's answer to Great Zimbabwe.     Mr Bobodi, Dzata's would-be museum curator, accompanied me -- would-be because the museum idea has been abruptly abandoned, for reasons undisclosed, by the infamous Venda Development Corporation Ltd. Skilled local craftsmen have completed an attractive building, inspired by the traditional Venda dwelling, but all the shelves are bare.     An ancient track, lined with giant euphorbia, winds up to the ruins along a grassy mountainside. `I wish my father spoke English,' said Mr Bobodi. `He is very old but he remembers well and could make you cry. He remembers when Venda was peaceful -- always poor soil, many droughts, no motor roads or towns but the people content. Once our three tribes were all mixed up, in some villages the headman belonged to another tribe but nobody bothered. Vendas and Tsongas and Bapedis lived in peace with intermarriage -- one of our chiefs had his Venda wife, his Bapedi wife and his Tsonga wife! But the missionaries came to stop that sort of thing.'     Although Dzata obviously belongs to the same culture as Great Zimbabwe these ruins are diminutive. A layperson might mistake the recently reconstructed waist-high stone walls for a deserted kraal rather than the Significant Remains of something Great. Nevertheless, Mr Bobodi dearly loves his ruins. Standing by a wall, under one of the grotesquely writhing euphorbia, he caressed the long, thin, pinkish stones. `We must make our young people proud of their past,' he said fervently. `They are too ignorant because in Africa we had no writing, no history books. They don't understand how the Europeans coming upset our lives. And now they believe the lies in the school history books. It's not true we were always fighting before the whites came to "civilize" us. In Venda our real trouble started in the 1950s, after the Bantu Authorities Act. We never before had fixed borders or quarrels about land. Not until the government made "nations" for blacks and drew borders and forced people from their villages into new "nations" -- sometimes only moving a few miles but leaving the ancestors' graves and the land they'd always used. Next came families thrown off white areas -- thousands of surplus people, trucked in by the army. What sort of minds and hearts did they have, who put such a label on human beings -- surplus ! Most were elders or disabled, or women and children. Healthy men weren't surplus , they needed them to work.'     As we returned to the road I asked, `Is it true the Venda people are closer to the Shona of Zimbabwe than to any South African tribe?'     Mr Bobodi laughed and clapped his hands. `You are right! You know a lot! We should be part of Zimbabwe! But we are not so cattle-centred as the Shona, this is bad grazing country. Since way back we were iron and copper smelters, trading with Arabs. Have you noticed some of us look a bit different, with light skins and straight noses?'     I had noticed.     By then we were in Mr Bobodi's three-roomed breeze-block bungalow, being served herbal tea by a shy, beautiful teenaged daughter. `Now you must go to the Mission,' said my host, `to meet our Irish priest. Things would be even worse in Venda without the missionaries, in these times they make up for past damage. Our little medical care, they give us. In other places they quarrel between themselves, I know. But not here. Here our situation is so bad they all work together, helping us.'     A brutally rough track climbs a stony red hillside to the small Mission compound, its few little brick buildings -- chapel, clinic, bungalow -- seeming almost luxurious in this setting. My compatriot greeted me with some astonishment. Elderly and understandably weary-looking, he has spent ten years in Venda shepherding a sparse and scattered flock. His most essential task is the supervising of a monthly distribution of dried milk, powdered soup and high-protein biscuits -- all provided by Operation Hunger, a private-sector relief organization founded in Jo'burg in 1982 during a major drought.     In the ill-equipped clinic, run single-handedly by a septuagenarian Australian nun, two small AIDS-education posters hang in the darkest corner: one warns against sharing razor blades, the other against using unsterilized needles. Venda has no AIDS problem, according to Sister K--. She opposes AIDS education for schoolchildren because that would `dirty their minds'. I have met her like before, too often, elsewhere in Africa.     As Fr. McDaid escorted me to the gate -- after coffee and biscuits in a bright, simply furnished parlour -- he warned me that the temperature was 30°C (86°F). And it felt like it, over the twenty-five hilly miles to Sibasa. At first the road rose gradually through comparative fertility -- feeble patches of maize separating the countless shacks. Then it soared, to cross the Thothe Vondo pass. Resting on the top, I gazed over a deep green valley to low mountains blanketed with commercial timber. Below, ten small children were struggling up a near-precipice bearing firewood on their heads. As they passed me I noticed that three were suffering from kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency which leaves its victims permanently brain-damaged. The descent took us around steep hills monotonously forested for the benefit of the Venda Development Corporation Ltd.     Before the controversial construction of Thohoyandou, a few miles further on, Sibasa was Venda's only commercial centre. Here some of Pretoria's largesse has trickled far enough down to create consumers, and the town has recently expanded into a sprawl of jerry-built supermarkets, grotty boutiques, secondhand car showrooms, electronic-equipment stores and military barracks. I am staying in a truckers' hotel, twenty round thatched huts crowded together behind a collapsing wire fence. My tiny broken window admits swarms of mosquitoes, greedy for the rare treat of European blood. The communal bathroom-cum-WC is waterless but in the Drankwinkel across the road, where lives the uncommunicative proprietor, water can be bought for a rand a bucket. In this area WCS are a planning error.     Having locked Lear to the bed -- the keys of all these huts are interchangeable -- I went shopping and attracted many unsmiling stares. Soon a surly policeman (black, of course, in Venda) advised me to return to my lodgings. `White ladies not good here,' he said ambiguously. I assumed he meant `not safe' and took his advice. Then three crudely made-up young women attached themselves to me and we drank beer in my hut until a truck arrived -- whereupon they all rushed out to compete for the driver. GaKgapane, 12 March Thohoyandou vividly illustrates how the `Bantustan' policy worked. The grandiose `parliament' and administrative buildings are set in elaborately landscaped grounds. The pretentious public fountains are overflowing with litter, not water. American-style shopping malls sell the shoddiest of goods. Soon I sped away.     Seventy level miles took me to Duiwelskloof. For hours the road bordered the non-independent homeland of Gazankulu -- population almost a million, the land stony and thombushy, in contrast to the irrigated farms on my right with their orange-groves and flourishing fields of maize, groundnuts, sunflowers. In South Africa, a naturally arid country, access to water is a privilege in most regions. Since the first settlers arrived major droughts (always described as `the worst') have been mentioned at irregular but frequent intervals. For the past century, by far the greater share of the water supply has been allocated by law to whites -- who in the 1930s received subsidies to encourage private irrigation. Considerable capital is required to install and run the sort of pumps watering those fields I passed this morning.     By 9.30 I was looking forward to a meal at Mooketsi. But Mooketsi is not a dorp, as all the large road signs pointing towards it had led me to expect. It comprises a petrol station and one shop selling the junkiest of junk foods. Luckily the young black saleswoman spoke just enough English to direct me to the farmers' co-op, a mile or so up a steep hill. Halfway up I passed a Boer standing by the roadside instructing his `boy' about a herd of cattle -- all crowding around a gateway, mooing impatiently. The tall hard-faced white was harshly overbearing; the black, also tall, was sullen, taut with resentment -- yet submissive. The chemistry between them put something poisonous into the air. It got to me like a bad smell. After that, it was no surprise to find the huge co-op store heavily guarded, with a barrier-pole at the entrance. Today is Saturday and it was thronged with farmers and their wives. Everyone shunned me but I found a bargain, a kilo of groundnuts for R8 (less than £2).     The foothills of the Drakensberg -- high, steep, forested -- directly overlook Duiwelskloof, a small dorp described in the tourist literature as `picturesque'. Its only hotel, long and low, had an ominously expensive aura. On the front stoep, lined with potted shrubs, half a dozen young white women were creating tasteful flower arrangements for a wedding, then loading them into bakkies. They pretended not to notice me; it seems the northern Vaalies consider a grubby foreign cyclist the next worst thing to a kaffir. Around a corner, on the side stoep, several blacks were drinking Cokes or Castles. When I joined them, to their very evident astonishment, one young man beamed delightedly and pulled out a chair.     Two beers later I released my pent-up emotions to this young man -- 26-year old Albanus, a primary-school teacher. He understood. `Yes, we've many foreign tourists here and I've met others like you -- very upset! But I tell them our whites are only privileged in surface ways, in their souls they are poor. In our new South Africa I'd like to have white friends. Real friends who love me as a person, not liberals who think it's their duty to have black friends -- or cunning folk who think it will soon be profitable to have black friends! I would like to be able to talk to our whites like I can talk to foreigners. But this won't ever be possible, not even when I'm an old man. Our whites will never be like foreigners. Even the best of them, brave people like the Black Sash women -- they're infected too ...'     Duiwelskloof was not where I wanted to spend the night and Albanus recommended the hotel in GaKgapane, a black town five miles off the main road. It lies in a shallow valley, semi-encircled to the south by wooded hills, their bluegums drought-killed, brown corpses still bearing leaves. GaKgapane is much bigger than Duiwelskloof. It has three factories (glass, chipboard, furniture), a large hospital in shrub-filled grounds, two schools, several small churches, a few family-run stores and a supermarket, a middle-class suburb of fine bungalows with car-filled garages, an upmarket housing estate under construction, quite a large hotel -- even a library. Yet it isn't marked on the map. No black town is, though their populations far exceed those of the nearby dorps. One more dehumanizing device.     Beside the hotel a jolly group of nine men and women sat drinking in the shade of an ancient fig tree. On noticing the white stranger they fell silent, watching me push Lear up a slope riven by erosion channels. Diffidently I asked permission to join them -- and immediately everyone relaxed, greeted me warmly, shook hands, asked questions, invited me to help myself from their communal tray of roasted groundnuts. I had fallen among GaKgapane's élite, unwinding on a Saturday afternoon: the supermarket owner and his wife, three teachers, a factory manager, a nurse, a police officer and the librarian who became over-excited when I introduced myself. At once he rushed away to fetch a dog-eared copy of Muddling Through in Madagascar for autographing. That boosted my self-esteem: you have to be famous if one of your books is in GaKgapane's public library.     Until sunset we talked, discussing religion, education, different systems (and perceptions) of justice -- and of course racism.     `In South Africa it's more than racism,' asserted Kenneth, the youngest teacher. `It's about keeping the power that makes you rich.'     Moses, the elderly teacher, disagreed. `No, no! It wasn't money first with the Boers. They started out wanting all the land, to rule and control it all -- not sharing. They didn't even use money for generations, they were only interested in land -- land and cattle, like us. Europe didn't want them, they were homeless except for here. They became Africans, a white tribe, like they're always saying nowadays -- it's true! Then they got obsessed with this Afrikanerdom idea -- who else ever made themselves a new language? Think of the Boer War! Only madmen would fight the British Empire! And they hated the British as much as they hated us -- maybe more. They've had this mental disease about being "special people", like some nutters think they're elephants or ants! Shame nobody ever gave them medical treatment, not even when they invented their own crazy kind of Christianity! Man, they're sick!'     `But better than the English,' said the policeman. `Now I'd keep the Afrikaners and throw out the rest. I'd throw out the English, Greeks, Portuguese and all those Jew-boys in Jo'burg -- the guys that really run everything.'     The factory manager agreed. `Afrikaners are straight, no double-talk. Sjambok you in the morning, give you a big food present in the evening if you work hard. Generous, except the real brutes. Most English are polite and smiling but mean and too much pretending.' He looked at me. `You've heard our joke? The English hate two things: firstly apartheid and secondly blacks!'     Before we dispersed, Gloria, a school principal and ANC Women's League leader, arranged to call for me at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Her husband is in hospital, recovering from a traffic accident, and she wants us to meet: `He can tell you many details about the Struggle in Soweto and detention and torture. He's been through it all.'     In my room I discovered that something has bitten me on both legs, behind the knees, and those bites are becoming extremely painful. Moreover, I'm feeling very groggy -- malaria? The symptoms -- lethargy and slight nausea -- resemble the prelude to my first attack nine months ago in Zimbabwe. This afternoon I dosed myself with Halfan, hoping an early treatment would work. But now a headache is starting -- just a little one, so far. Copyright © 1997 Dervla Murphy. All rights reserved.