Oranges and peace trees fail to unite Fraserburg

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I HAVE spent much of the year in Fraserburg, a tiny, remote town in the far reaches of the northern Cape. The mind runs to unsuitable thoughts in this huge, lonely country. It is South Africa's empty quarter where the only things that count are the sheep. And where the ghosts are often livelier than the living. To cheer myself up I sometimes think of what a useless lot the earlier colonists were.

Until recently it was common to hear people talking about white South African 'traditions'. Seen from Fraserburg, where the crisp light seems to clarify things, these traditions reveal themselves for what they are: fear, beer and slaves.

The Dutch brought so many slaves to the Cape that they soon outnumbered the colonists. An idea took hold that is still around: that living was something you left to your slaves. When the British took over in 1814, they brought with them something almost as damaging: ideals. They proscribed slavery. But it made little difference to tradition: slaves became serfs, indentured labourers, or 'apprentices' - in the process adding to the rich fund of euphemism which is the British legacy to South Africa.

The new British rulers also stopped the recruitment of missionaries in Holland since they feared this would encourage thoughts of rebellion in the Dutch settlers. Instead Scots missionaries were imported, presumably because they were more 'British'. It turned out to be a truly dreadful idea and the consequences are still being felt. These Murrays and Frasers soon joined forces with their rural Dutch congregations, a marriage that produced a narrow, joyless, hypocritical Calvinism that choked the life out of the Dutch settlers, some of whom had been rather jolly, and sometimes sang, danced and slept with their slaves.

The rise of the Afrikaner dominee (clergyman) put an end to all this. But while Christian morality could be relied upon to stop you sleeping with your servants, it was silent on how often to beat them, or what to pay them, or whether to pay them at all. These things were best left to tradition. I like to think that the beatings might have been worse had they not been hard work; and work was something else you left to your servants.

Traditions die hard and in Fraserburg things change slowly. My cottage stands on the edge of town. The previous owner was an elderly spinster named Baby. For decades she had been in possession of a servant whom she had 'bought' as a child in the neighbouring mixed-race township. As with all small South African towns, Fraserburg has its mirror image for non-whites. These indentured or 'booked-in' children, as they are known, were a familiar sight in the houses of the white burghers until quite recently. Whites had been known to acquire child servants in exchange for a block of soap.

Baby's girl was not allowed to leave the home, worked without payment and slept in the woodshed. When she was about 30, she ran away. Her mistress demanded that the police get her back. The police had to explain that this was no longer their job and hadn't been since slaves were emancipated.

The rest of the country rather loses patience with the slow pace of change in places like Fraserburg. The cities are in the grip of a euphoria that says everything is possible. Freedom is there for the taking - just as long as everyone does as they're told. South Africans who once played the apartheid game with gusto have found a new game. Players score points off each other by claiming to have slain more of apartheid's dragons than anyone else. Winners are rewarded with seats on government committees. And there has not been such a rush of patriots eager to please a new government - well, not since the rush of patriots eager to please the old government. Though it does not do to say so for you might be declared 'counter-revolutionary' and told to go back to Fraserburg, in much the same tones as dissenters in the old South Africa were called 'Communists' and advised to go back to Ghana.

There are always those who keep trying to lead the backward of Fraserburg, white and coloured, towards the light. On National Peace Day, police surprised township dwellers when they turned up with a couple of saplings in the back of their van and persuaded doubtful locals to dig a hole and plant a tree for peace in the thin, poor soil. Afterwards the officers handed out free oranges, posed for pictures and sped away in their van. Everyone hopes their descendants will one day relax in the shade of the peace tree. But no one is betting on it.

The new political bigwigs arrive sometimes on flying visits from faraway places. They talk about 'mobilising the structures' and 'empowering the masses', then climb back into their cars and head out with some relief, back to the bright lights. In the township, people remain stubbornly bemused. No one can be sure which set of visitors represents a better bet. But the smart money, at the moment, is on the police and their bag of oranges.

In white Fraserburg, they are also perplexed. The word in the bar of the single hotel, as the beer goes down, is that the conservative farmers who boycotted the election are keeping their powder dry. I suspect that this is just the beer talking. Most white people know that the party's over; they would come right out and say it, if only they could. But they can't.

Once again, it is left to their servants to say it for them. Mrs Steenkamp sums up their feelings. A grandmother, a child of a mixed marriage (two of her grandparents were European settlers), she asks quietly: 'Why don't the whites give us our houses back?'

In the mixed-race township, a stone's throw from the police station, that thin blue line between the separate communities, something is beginning which may be far more subversive than the peace overtures of the police or the fat phrases of visiting bigwigs - people are beginning to remember.

They remember a time when they lived in what has, for three decades, been white Fraserburg; when they owned livestock and land; they remember a time before forced removals tore the town apart and banished the coloureds to the location up the road. A time before many of their houses were demolished; before their church was turned into the municipal garage; a time when the town was not given over to the villas and temples and sports arenas of the conquerors who displayed their superiority much as some provincial Roman garrison lorded it over the local tribes.

Increasingly, these memories expand; to include the graveyard, long abandoned, with its shoebox babies' graves and monuments to soldiers who died in a white man's war thousands of miles away; as well as which houses were theirs. Somehow it is as if things are beginning to thaw out; that people are getting over their fit of collective amnesia. They are getting their memories back. And, perhaps, they will begin soon to take back their town.

Alan Watkins returns next week.