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Apartheid in Reverse
High crime rates driving whites out of South African city
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-11-13 17:57 (KST)   
A sign to somewhere, in the middle of nowhere
©2006 Nick van der Leek
Find a map of South Africa and look for this city: Bloemfontein. Australia has Alice Springs, an urban center in the middle of nowhere. Bloemfontein (we just call it "Bloem," a Dutch word for flower) is also roughly in the center of the country, about 400 km. southeast of Johannesburg, and just over 1000 km. northeast of Cape Town.

Bloem is the judicial capital of the country, meaning the supreme court is here. Honestly, there's not much else. It's an adequate city, with about a quarter of a million people. We have at least one of everything, sometimes more. It's a flat city, with one or two skyscrapers; the rest is a leafy suburbia engulfing a series of low hills, including Naval Hill. On the hill are giraffe, zebra, and antelope. It's the only game reserve in the world situated inside a city.

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When you look down on the city from Naval Hill, it resembles a forest more than anything else, and if you'd driven here from Cape Town, you'd find that hard to imagine. By the time you enter the Free State Province, you've had your fill of nothingness and desert scrub for hundreds of kilometers. Bloemfontein was founded, some say, beside a spring, a fountain that fed a field of flowers. An ugly cement chasm now conveys the water from this spring (Bloemspruit) out of the city.

On the road to Bloemfontein, the view is of endless flat expanses of first desert, then grassland.
©2006 Nick van der Leek
To give an impression of the city's size, there are three large shopping malls, and hundreds of smaller shopping centers. One, Northridge Mall, has a bowling alley, but is struggling to survive, and rumor has it, it is being bankrolled by a pair of brothers who run a large, thousand-strong church in the city. Mimosa Mall is doing a roaring trade, and the Waterfront, a pleasant half-moon of shops, a gymnasium, restaurants, and bars, is built around Loch Logan. The Waterfront is right beside two big stadiums: Vodacom Park (where some of the 2010 football games will take place) and Good Year Park, a few hundred meters west, where cricket matches are held. Both stadia attract thousands of local supporters. And just who are we, the locals?

Waterfront crowd: Construction is currently underway to triple the sizer of the Waterfront Mall, in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup. But is the Mall on the wrong side of town?
©2006 Nick van der Leek

During Apartheid I was a schoolboy at Grey College, a school that produced presidents of old, and more contemporary famous names like Hansie Cronje (the cricketer) and Gary Player (golf). In those days I often went into the middle of the city with my mother and brother to buy clothes, or groceries, to visit the public library, or to watch a movie. I remember Christmas shopping in the city center. I remember an incredible toy store called Spielplatz. Our family would go into the city to eat at a posh restaurant once or twice a month.

The Old City Hall. Bloem has some of the country's finest and oldest architecture.
©2006 Nick van der Leek

Today, everything has changed tremendously. After Apartheid was abolished, an entire eastern block of Bloemfontein was evacuated as Africans, who'd been living in shacks around the eastern periphery of the city, moved in. Many department stores, restaurants, and cinemas struggled to survive, then closed down. Chain stores gave up their leases, and spaza (an informal trading post/convenient store found in townships and remote areas) shops moved in. The pavements erupted with people, the roads roared with buses and the mayhem of hooting taxis.

Sign of the times: just one of many facilities falling into disuse.
©2006 Nick van der Leek

Meanwhile, the ex-tenants moved west, and opened brand new shops and stores virtually in suburban neighborhoods, alongside schools and universities. Hotels did the same. And soon the transformation was complete: black people had annexed the busiest piece of the city, with all its old buildings and intact infrastructure, and whites retreated to suburbia, where they converted their homes into guest houses, or otherwise developed land close by.

New businesses sprouting in suburbia
©2006 Nick van der Leek

Except the transformation of the city hadn't ended; it now continues at an almost invisible pace. A black doctor moved in next door. The family proved to be model citizens, and good neighbors. But not all whites living in suburbia were living the good life. In slightly less well-to-do areas, where property prices were lower, white homeowners had rented their quarters to black immigrants. It soon became clear that the penetrating tide of blacks was endless, as schools, the university, and suburbia filled up. For example, a generation ago Brebner High School was a whites-only school. My mother was Head Girl at Brebner in her final year (in the 60's). Today Brebner is more than 99 percent black. Remarkably, this year's principal and Head Boy are white.

Meanwhile whites have continued to move even further east, to more expensive schools and suburbs. They've settled in to the easternmost farms of the city, and begun the project for what has become South Africa's largest suburb, Langenhovenpark.

Now we don't visit the city center unless it's absolutely necessary. My lecturer at university did, and had her handbag torn out of her hands. She said people around her just watched.

Old City: Notice the heavily armed guard.
©2006 Nick van der Leek

I don't often visit the city center. It's not safe. It's a foreign place to me. It's dirty and strewn with litter, and the people who walk the streets eye me as I pass through, as a spider might eye a passing wasp. The city center is derelict and dark, an infestation of crime. There is vitality in the suburbs, but where east meets west, there is a gradual corrosion taking place. I live in a fringe suburb, on the east/west boundary. It was the first suburb to begin to transform itself: with houses being converted into business premises. This suburb now has the highest crime levels in the city. My apartment was broken into before I moved in, and so was the house behind me.

The waterfront happens to lie on the same boundary line, and while their construction efforts are ambitious, one wonders if the same fate awaits them as happened to the rest of the city. Recently it was announced that the land adjacent to Langenhovenpark is to be allocated to cheap housing. This means the whites who wish to maintain the standards and prices of their properties will once again have to move elsewhere, either north or south. The third option is to attempt to integrate with the approaching community, and develop it, educate the residents on good local practices and good management.

A low-cost mobile phone service. Notice the communist bloc type cheap apartments in the background
©2006 Nick van der Leek

The problem is not a racial problem; it's an economic problem along racial lines. When you have the majority of a population that is destitute, there's going to be a continuous corrosive effect on the solvent section of the population. The inevitable consequence is crime and flux, until the inefficiencies and inequalities in the social system have been harmonized.

Unfortunately, it isn't moving forwards. The number of whites in South Africa is decreasing, not merely because of low birth rates, but because, when faced with apparently nowhere to go, they leave the country completely. The South African expat population in London is huge -- close to one million -- with large numbers flowing into cities all over Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Despite a rapidly expanding black middle class, South Africa's mostly middle-class whites are vastly outnumbered by poor blacks.
©2006 Nick van der Leek

I wonder, 10 years from now, what Bloemfontein will be? I see potholes emerging in the main streets all over the city. They're being patched up, but the potholes are winning. Years ago they'd spend a little extra to add a new surface to roads. It was more work, but it was doing the job properly, and over the long run it proved cheaper. It's these insights that our new community lacks, and once the resources are gone, it's hard to create new resources to replace them.

And what about me? Will I stay? That depends on whether crime, which happens to be the highest in this suburb, finds its way into my house. What do you think my odds are, over the long term?
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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