Out of South Africa: High anxiety as blacks go to market

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IT IS ALWAYS immensely comforting to return to my leafy Johannesburg suburb after a day spent in the killing grounds of Katlehong. Sometimes on the way home I'll stop in at my neighbourhood shopping mall in Rosebank, perhaps popping into an air-conditioned delicatessen to buy some Mozzarella cheese.

For the elegant ladies with whom I rub shoulders at the till, Katlehong is no more or less real than Sarajevo. The sheer madness of finding myself moving in this high-heels, high-fashion world, when just 20 minutes earlier burning barricades have been receding in my rear- view mirror, leaves me with confused feelings of guilt, wonder and delight. Also, and perhaps this is the real reason why I take these perverse detours, I feel completely and utterly safe.

Which is why I reacted with some surprise to the front-page story last week in the Rosebank Killarney Gazette, a newspaper distributed free to homes in my area. Under the headline 'Area in decline', I was informed that Rosebank was 'caught in a deteriorating spiral which threatens to bring the prestige suburb to its knees'.

The accompanying editorial, also on the front page, went further: 'Rosebank,' I learnt with alarm, 'is a ticking time-bomb.'

The problem, it seemed, was that, in keeping with the political times, Africa was eating into our jealously preserved little cocoon of Western civilisation. Tenants and shoppers, the Gazette said, had labelled the street outside the the mall, Cradock Avenue, 'a Third World hotspot'. Black hawkers and street vendors had been encroaching of late on 'the elite pavement cafes', accosting shoppers, throwing litter and generally 'causing a stink'.

Unless immediate action was taken, Rosebank would go the way of central Johannesburg, which the Gazette pronounced to be 'dying'. This also came as a surprise. Johannesburg has been transformed in the five years that I have been here from a grey, drab city into a gigantic African market-place.

It is dying only in the sense that the few whites who still work in the city centre, following a recent exodus of companies to the suburbs, evacuate the streets at 5pm sharp every day with the barely contained panic of a people who believe that the coming of night brings the bubonic plague. ('Black death' might, on reflection, have made a better - or at least a more honest - headline for the Gazette story.)

Intrepidly, I drove down to the Rosebank Mall yesterday morning - it's less than half a mile away but we whites never walk in the suburbs - to see for myself. On the way I passed the House of Sports Cars, where they sell Rolls Royces, Ferraris and Lamborghinis; the Big Apple cocktail bar; the five- star Rosebank Hotel.

Avoiding the offending street, I parked around the back in the mall's own multi-storey facility, and stepped through an arch straight into Santa Barabara, California. On my left the New York Deli, where they serve pastrami on rye, on my right Antonio's Shoes (average price pounds 100), straight ahead the Beauty and Slimming Clinic.

The floors are shiny- white, pseudo-marble; the ceilings embossed in gold enamel; the music Burt Bacharach. On I strolled past the Brazilian Coffee Shop, Benetton's, Ohsho the Japanese restaurant, before emerging apruptly into the glare and bustle of Cradock Avenue. Almost immediately a white beggar with a grimy white beard placed his hand, palm up, under my chin. 'Fifty cents, sir. Fifty cents, please sir. I haven't eaten all day.'

White beggars have been a feature of mall life for two or three years in Rosebank, as have the odd white couple who sit at a pavement table making dog-tags. What's new, what has prompted the Gazette campaign, is the overnight explosion of black people, not begging, but selling everything - there, on our once-prestigious streets - from bananas and oranges, to cheap watches, to wooden African artefacts.

It is virtually impossible suddenly to walk from Benetton's to the money- machine across the road at First National Bank without catching sight of, possibly even rubbing shoulders with, a smiling old black lady selling KwaNdebele dolls.

'Turning a blind eye,' the Gazette editorial correctly informed its readers, 'is not the answer . . . Landowners, developers and concerned residents must act together . . . A forum must be established immediately.'

Beware Nelson Mandela] Beware] Right-wing Afrikaners might be the problem today but we, the people of English-speaking white South Africa, we have not yet spoken.