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African Writing Archives


Andie Miller


Andie Miller

Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Johannesburg. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Independent, New Contrast and River Teeth. She is the winner of the 2006 Mondi Shanduka Award for creative journalism, and is currently at work on a collection of stories on walking.


  Conscientious Objections

A watched kettle takes longer to boil, say the quantum physicists. With this in mind, my housemates and I decided to stick newspaper articles on the kitchen wall for us to read while we were waiting. It was my week of cut and paste, in July 1988, and this was how I first really became aware of David Bruce.

Of course, I had been vaguely conscious of him until that point; his trial had been going on for months. But the idea that anyone would actually be sent to jail for refusing to do national service had not yet become a reality to me. As South African women we faced other threats of violence, but being conscripted into the army was never one of them, and not one I could fully digest.

Turning to the Weekly Mail that Friday, what first caught my attention was an article which had originally appeared in the Village Voice in New York. It told how Mbongeni Ngema, director of the hit musical Sarafina!, was being taken to court by one of his actresses, an American who had stepped in when one of the South African girls became ill. Her charge was that he hit her with a leather belt. He explained that it was part of his directing process, and his way of keeping order. It was cultural, he said. Outraged, the African-American woman protested that this was unacceptable to her.

Also in the Mail that week was an interview with actor John Kani, in which he suggested that, in his opinion, no whites were committed to change.

And then the photograph, on the front page of the Star, on Tuesday 26 July 1988, of David Bruce, with a yellow daisy in his lapel. It had been decided. He had been sentenced to six years in jail.

These memories flooded back to me a decade and a half later, after watching John Kani’s powerful play, Nothing but the Truth. And I wondered where it was that the truth was located. It seemed to me somewhere in the subtext, between what we articulate and what we are less sure of. As Kani reminded us, our collective history is a complex and contradictory one.

David, who had since become a friend and work colleague of mine, after serving two years in prison (essentially his prescribed two years of military service), had quietly been working at Ceasefire and then at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, as a researcher of militarisation and policing issues; with a view to ending the former, and transforming the latter.

He had also recently acquired a driver’s licence.

I had always assumed that he had simply been afraid of driving, so it came as a surprise when he told me he hadn’t driven because “I just don’t think I’m that kind of person”. What kind of person is that, I wondered? Or rather, what kind of person is it who chooses to walk?

Though he now owns a car, he complains about it eating into his walking time, and still seizes any opportunity to travel on foot. On the day of our interview he has taken a two-hour stroll over to me.

“Well, the most important thing is being an environmentalist,” he says. “Nature, and protecting the earth are very important to me. Cars are just … each individual has got this enormous piece of metal and goes about discharging air pollution simply to get around. It seems like such a selfish thing. But also, there was never a car in my family. I’m the first one in my family to own a car.”

David’s late mother’s family were refugees from Nazi Germany who came to South Africa in 1939; his father, British, arrived in the country in 1958. David and his brother Eric grew up near the inner city, in Berea in Johannesburg. David now lives one suburb over, in Yeoville, as does his father, and Eric is in England. His father did try to learn to drive a number of times, but failed. Perhaps, David suggests, this instilled fear in him about learning to drive, too. (It makes me think about how no women in my family have ever driven.)

“But also if you grow up in the inner city,” he adds, “the sense of traffic is very chaotic. It’s not like growing up in the suburbs, where you can take the family car around the block. And the idea of learning to drive in that environment is much more frightening.”

My brief spell at driving lessons was with an instructor who insisted on throwing me into the deep end of early morning rush hour Joburg city centre traffic. I suspect this was what finally decided me not to put myself through the ordeal.

“Though I always had a sense that I didn’t have the right temperament for it,” he continues. “My consciousness of the present. You have to be very aware of what’s going on around you if you’re driving, and in some ways my consciousness seemed quite broken.

“But there’s also a sense of real enjoyment and freedom in walking. I can walk from my flat in Yeoville to work in Braamfontein without stopping once. Driving is a completely different experience because you’re much more constrained by rules.”

Johannesburg is notorious for its one-way streets. One of them almost cost me my life as a passenger in a near-fatal accident, when a friend drove in the wrong direction. And I’ve heard a number of moans about the constraints and frustrations caused by urban renewal and building operations in Braamfontein.

“As a driver you need to be very conscious of your visual environment. I don’t see things around me all the time. Part of the sensual pleasure of walking is a visual experience; it’s the pleasure of being amongst trees.” With approximately six million trees, Joburg is the most artificially-treed city in the world. Though rapid development is causing deforestation of the urban environment, and many of the established trees are also reaching the end of their life cycles, and beginning to decline.

“And the light,” David continues. “The sense of the natural environment around you. There’s an emotional richness to that. But I don’t notice the features of the houses that I’m passing.”

He suggests that his visual awareness may be underdeveloped. A result, perhaps, of growing up with a blind mother. Learning to “stay in the visual” is something he thinks he learned recently on a trip from Joburg to Cape Town. “After I nearly killed us half a dozen times.

“But there’s also an immediacy to walking. Even walking through Hillbrow, I have a sense of being enriched by it. A sense of being on the racial frontier. Not a single other white person in sight. Unless I pass by Look and Listen records at 9 o’clock. Then I see Carlos opening the shop.”

I know what he means by this. When I read Phaswane Mpe’s novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, it struck me how the streets that Mpe names are the same ones I walked when I first arrived in Joburg from Cape Town in 1984. And yet they are different streets now. The corner of “the most notorious Quartz Street” and the “obscure” Kapteijn, where I lived, is an area I avoid now, skirting around the edges of the suburb, past the Police Station and over Constitution Hill as I walk. There’s a peculiar ambivalence to this experience; of wanting to participate in something new, but not knowing one’s place in it.

This inevitably leads us to questions of safety. Does David, as a man, feel safer than I do? Has he had any experiences of violence?

In the light of the number of incidents he discloses (and particularly now that he has a car), I am surprised that he is still walking. It seems like an act of passive resistance. “But I’m not a pacifist,” he emphasises. “I fight back!”

His first experience of being attacked was in 1991. I become aware throughout the conversation how well he recalls dates. It seems to me that this is David the researcher at work. As though many of his choices, which flow against the mainstream, are a process of research: to explore less popular choices in the realm of possibility. A ‘what would happen if?’, in order to observe alternatives at work, and show that they are possible.

He had recently moved to Gainsborough Mansions, the Herbert Baker building at the top of Nugget Hill, on the border of Hillbrow. “My friend Karen had just got a new camera, Hillbrow was beginning to develop a certain ambience, and I thought it would make for some quite amazing photographs.” At the bridge above the Windybrow Theatre they were attacked. “And we’d bought these mielies, so we threw them at the guys. I’ve got this image in my mind … it’s like from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where that bone goes flying up into the air …” From this point of view, with us laughing in hindsight, a flying-mielie-as-weapon seems to be a more interesting urban African image than anything they could have captured on film. That time their attackers ran, and nobody was hurt.

Later that year he was walking across the park next to Abel Road. “And I had two worn out veldskoens in my bag, and half a cabbage.” (I had been thinking about footwear. As long as I’ve known him, veldskoene have been David’s shoes of choice.) “And I saw five guys walking in a kind of wall towards me. It was like that image from the John Carpenter movie, Assault on Precinct 13. The classic street terror image. In those days I had this strategy to scream as loud as I could, and then to fight them off.” Which he did, and only after kicking one, and them running off, did he discover that he had been stabbed. But he still had his bag.

“Then I moved to Germiston, just next to the railway station, and I’d catch the last train. The 10.10 train. And walking from the station a guy attacked me, and I shouted at him.”

The last time he was attacked was the second Friday night of January 1999, as he was walking, in the twilight, to his parents for supper. In Berea a man accosted him. The plastic bag with jars of jam that he was carrying, fell to the ground and broke. David punched him, and he was stabbed again. This time in the back of his arm, closer to his heart.

At the Joburg Gen (deserted, the post New Year early January lull, he speculates), the treatment cost him the money that he had with him. He realised then that if he’d just handed it over, there would have been no violence. “Overwhelmingly in these acts of criminality, the violence comes in where the victims have resisted.”

Now he does little night walking. Since 1999 he’s been a practising Buddhist, and occasionally he walks to the Buddhist Centre in Kensington. He remains quite vigilant going through Bertrams. “But I won’t do Hillbrow.”

In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, Mpe describes his protagonist Refentše’s reaction to his first night in Hillbrow, after arriving from a rural village in the Northern Province. “Then you shuddered into wakefulness…. A second gun shot rang in Twist Street, and you remembered Tiragalong with greater nostalgia than you ever imagined to be possible. A woman screamed for help. Police sirens went off loudly. You realised a few minutes later, from the fading sounds, that they were going to rescue someone else, elsewhere, and not the nearby screaming soul whose voice continued to ring relentlessly.”

David continues: “But when I walk at night it’s a different kind of walking. It’s high-speed walking. And it almost uses an element of stealth. Then you have this experience that you can walk through places, and almost have the sense that no one’s actually seen you. People are accustomed to a certain kind of rhythm of the environment, and so when people do see you, you enter their space. So you’re more likely to startle them.”

The issue of speed is the one that I’m most interested in with regard to people who choose to walk. David doesn’t seem to feel pressurised by time. Is this accurate?

“No, that’s not true,” he says. He is very aware how caught up with stress he is when he leaves the front door to walk to work in the mornings. “A self-imposed anxiety about my employers, and getting to the office on time, and the impression I’m creating when I arrive late. There’s a stress to do with the working day and being productive, so walking to work is always high-speed walking.”

Does he feel that learning to drive has changed his relationship to walking?

“Oh definitely. When I first got a car, I suddenly had this feeling that my life had become much more busy, and I didn’t have any time for walking. The rich variety of things to do that the modern world offers you is much more available to you if you have a car, so you can go to Cinema Nouveau five nights of the week if you like. And you can go to the opening of this little exhibition at that little gallery, and you can make little dinner arrangements. Whatever takes your fancy. Suddenly you have all these choices. So driving also requires learning the skill of choosing. When you have fewer choices, choices are made for you. Before I had a car I had to follow set routes.

“And then there’s also this issue of buying things. With a car you can go out and get things that you can bring back to your home. You can purchase big things. And this is the model being exported to the developing world. But it’s unsustainable, this lifestyle that we take for granted.”

Does he consider himself a Marxist?

“No. Of course as a student almost everyone was once a Marxist, but by 1987 I was no longer a Marxist. It seemed to me a materialist philosophy that didn’t really understand human beings.”

Now that he’s driving, he also misses his interaction with taxi drivers. “Everyone always seems to exclaim in shock and horror when I tell them what a taxi costs, but now I spend more than I’ve ever spent in a month on taxis, on car insurance. Especially since I’ve lost my no claim bonus.”

In February this year David had his first car accident. “They don’t really teach you when you’re learning to drive about speed and dirt roads,” he says wryly. “All the tests are on tarred roads. But gravel roads are a different story. I was on my way to Mountain Sanctuary Park, and I had some idea that one could get out there fairly easily in about two hours. When I hit the dirt roads there was a sign that said: Road in bad condition – drive at own risk, but towards the end I was racing, because I was worried that I wouldn’t get there before the gates closed at half past six. And my car spun out of control.” He was unhurt, but the car was beyond repair.

The most painful part of the process for him was the “schlep” of the paperwork; of “having to deal with the administrative side”. He was without a car from February to July, and “it was actually quite nice”, he says.

But now he’s back in the driver’s seat. “Driving is about taking yours and other people’s lives in your hands.”

The complexities and contradictions implicit in decision-making are not new to David. Speaking of his choice to go to jail instead of to the army, he talks about the “bizarre and peculiar heroic act” that people witnessed. “But there was also a type of madness associated with it.” In 1999 he was diagnosed with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. And he was, he recognises now, “in a bipolar episode” at the time.

A manic phase involves “heightened mental activity and lucidity”, which allowed him to develop a very clear understanding of the situation. Questions of morality and principle were at stake, particularly with regard to his family’s history.

“In many ways it was an act of warfare,” he says. “All of the armed propaganda that was going on at the time … there was political potential. I saw all its dimensions, and being manic enabled me, as a usually introverted person, to make the decision.

“I was deeply affected by fear, and I wouldn’t have been able to deal with physical assault. I didn’t have the kind of temperament, the mental coolness, required for going underground. There were people going on trial all the time for various things, and being sent down for extended periods of time, and the government was able to portray them as terrorists. Armed struggle increased a kind of polarisation. But there were different potentialities here. It was one way of fighting the war, while being loyal to the soldiers on both sides. Of doing no harm.”

He adds soberly: “I think that violence is what men are emotionally and physically programmed for. And when you’re fighting a war, protection is achieved through vanquishing the enemy. If I had been forced to, I would have been a committed soldier.”

More recently, however, the war that either unites or divides us is the war on crime. And walking in the streets of Johannesburg is a way now for David of doing no harm. A way of trusting, despite fear, that humanity will prevail rather than savagery. And a way of crossing battle lines, when excessive consumerism itself appears to have become an almost violent act; particularly in relation to men and their cars.

As a driver, he has now become aware of the sense that pedestrians “have to scurry out of the way of cars. I’ve had people driving virtually over my toes. But pedestrians can’t afford to get into confrontations with cars. And when you’re driving, you suddenly have that sense of power when people have to scurry around in front of you. Particularly the elderly. It’s a type of tyranny.”

The gender dimension of not being able to drive had become an issue for him too. “In a couple of relationships that I was involved in there was an enormous discomfort on my part. I was continuously being driven around by women. There’s a sort of judgement of you by society, or sense that you’re stupid if you don’t buy into accepted lifestyles, that was challenging my masculinity. As if you can’t be a real man if you don’t drive.” And perhaps, it occurs to me, a similar perception by some if you won’t carry a gun.

“The one thing I’ve always found incredibly difficult about walking is, I’ve always felt so visible. Not to fellow pedestrians, but to the gaze of the people in the cars. And I felt a sense of increasing marginalisation. So getting a licence was a moment of liberation, but I really would have preferred not to buy into the whole materialism thing.”

For the past few years, as a Buddhist, he has been engaged in daily yoga and meditation. And while his “sense of identification with it grows and diminishes in intensity (I’ve never completely abandoned my Jewish identity)”, it is, he believes, what has enabled him to keep balanced. He has never taken medication for his bipolar disorder.

“And walking?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m sure the walking helps,” he smiles.

It’s been three hours since he arrived on foot, armed only with pawpaws as a gift for me. But now the light has begun to fade, and I suggest that we call a taxi for him. “That’s probably a good idea,” he agrees.

As he waves goodbye, we can smell the approach of a welcome Johannesburg thunderstorm.

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