(The following article was published April 27, 2014, on The Mantle. It’s an article spun off the feature-documentary project I’m producing with my partner, The Clubhouse. For more on that film, plus photos, please click here. To join our team, please visit our Indiegogo site.)
VENTERSDORP, South Africa – Saturday morning in The New South Africa.
Samuel Phutiagae slips on a green polo and dark khakis, topped by his cherished accessory: a black baseball cap with the TW logo of Tiger Woods – his favorite golfer. In the front yard, his six-year-old daughter, his golfing partner, and their golf bags tumble into his car. Within minutes, Samuel is steering gently onto the grassy parking lot of the Ventersdorp Golf Club itself. Tee-off is at 9.
The scene appears so normal – except that Samuel is no ordinary golfer. He’s a black man in post-Apartheid South Africa. And as the nation marks 20 years since its first democratic elections, on April 27, 1994, the first black member accepted into the all-white Ventersdorp club is something of a revolutionary.
For nearly half a century, South African golf clubs like this were bastions of white elitism, segregation and overlordship. Samuel himself was an impressionable 12-year-old during the tumult of 1980s Apartheid South Africa when he began to caddy at a local golf club, to earn a bit of cash for his family and for himself.
The term “caddy,” though, sounds too polite. The white golfers treated him “like a dog,” he says, and often dropped the most searing of racial insults, the “k-word” – kaffir. When Samuel and other caddies needed drink or food, they knew to march around the clubhouse, to a side window. For blacks, only.
“I used to tell my friends,” he says, “‘One day we’ll be inside this club – playing. You’ll see.’ But they didn’t believe me.”
That was even before Samuel moved to the notorious farming town of Ventersdorp, which was home to Eugène Terre’Blanche and base of his violent AWB resistance movement. On Aug. 9, 1991, Terre’Blanche and his supporters clashed with police, leaving three AWB men dead. Dubbed “The Battle of Ventersdorp,” it marked a first in Apartheid’s turbulent history: white police had killed white protesters. It also branded Ventersdorp as South Africa’s “most racist town.”
Freedom for Nelson Mandela, then, meant another freedom for Samuel: the freedom to golf. On a proper golf course, within a proper golf club.
“This was the freedom I wanted from the beginning,” he says.
However, it would take Samuel another 15 years even after those first euphoric elections before the Ventersdorp Golf Club would finally admit him as a member. But that detail misses the big picture. Because the most relevant point here is that the Ventersdorp club leadership eventually did change with the times.
In fact, the Club President at the time, Allan Jones, notes that his golf club today now boasts not one, but two black players.
“Some call it window-dressing,” says Jones, who is also longtime member of the Town Council. “Yet this is very important for the public to see. Not only to change the image of Ventersdorp, but to show how South Africa itself has changed.”
In fact, the Club’s integration speaks volumes of just how far Mandela’s Rainbow Nation has come. Twenty years on, it’s easy for both black and white South Africans to feel disillusioned, even angry. Crime. Corruption. Cronyism. Incompetence. And according to some estimates, 3,000-plus white farmers murdered.
It’s just as easy for South Africans to lose sight of the strides they’ve made in race relations. At least three things seem to be going right in The New South Africa: the gradual humanizing of blacks and whites toward each other; the deepening civility of daily interactions; and the growing common ground between majority and minority – as both bitterly bemoan the crime, corruption and poor service delivery. More blacks also join in white distaste for the two-decade domination of the ANC.
Yet if greater harmony has even come to a scarred town like Ventersdorp, it’s a barometer that the healing of South African society has taken root nation-wide.
“The cause of our social animosity and racial problems here only arose from racist legislation that imposed white supremacy, not from attitudes on the ground,” says John Kane-Berman, the long-time CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, and now a consultant to the organization. “Since the 1980s, social desegregation has seen more and more whites and blacks living easily, side by side, despite what those on the right said would happen – it didn’t.”
“If you conduct opinion surveys, which my Institute has done, people list far more serious problems,” he says. “Unemployment, violent crime, rape, massive corruption. For many families, it’s AIDS – as 1,000 South Africans a day contract HIV. They’re also worried about income, inflation, potholes in the road, power outages, and poor quality education. Race relations are way down anyone’s list of problems.”
Indeed, democracy brings with it certain “values” that a majority of the public must embrace, if the new system is to have any chance of success. Particularly, the values of tolerance and civility. They require a recognition that by treating people with greater respect and decency, the others will return it in kind.
Without that contract, race relations might boil in The Rainbow Nation. The ANC not only enjoys the same grip on national power, two decades on, but a hold on local and regional governments across the land. In Ventersdorp, too, ANC officials control the Town Council and administration. Jones is the only white member.
This democratic value of civility demands that even those citizens who possess a racist reflex – especially in a society as multicultural as South Africa’s – it’s wiser to separate hateful thoughts from the words that actually spill out of the mouth. In the West, some deride this form of thought-control as “political correctness.” But imagine the brutality of the Apartheid regime entrenched for more than 40 years. So why not proffer a respectful greeting – for the sake of harmony?
“Race relations here are now very amicable – and why shouldn’t they be?” says Kane-Berman. “Why would I treat anyone any different with black skin, than I would with white skin? The abnormal situation is to discriminate. If discrimination were natural, they wouldn’t have had to pass all the laws to enforce it.”
On the other hand, he adds, “I’m sure we’ve got people in this country with ugly, racist thoughts, who also hate homosexuals, or hate Jews, or are xenophobes. But if they do, they’re learning to moderate, to bite their tongues. Or, they’re setting up white enclaves there they can, doing all the housework themselves, or digging up the fields themselves. Good luck to them. But I seriously doubt we have a greater proportion of such people than anywhere else in the world.”
Evidence of this tolerance and civility abounds in a place like Ventersdorp. Particularly at a local institution as desperately in need of an image makeover as the Ventersdorp Golf Club.
The local high school was de-segregated in 1995, as it was required to do so. The Golf Club, though, needed an extra 14 years to finally buy into de-segregation. Even the nearest golf club, in Klerksdorp, 80 kilometers away, admitted its first black in 1998 … a whopping eleven years before the Ventersdorpers did.
Yet admitting Samuel did more than crack the glass ceiling. The weight of the post-Apartheid reality came crashing down onto the heads of the club’s white members – and sent ripples of symbolism throughout Ventersdorp’s white community, says Jacques Viviers, the current Golf Club president.
“It was just the right thing to do, and many of us knew it,” he says. “Things had to change, if there’s any hope for a future in which we live together in this one country. Those who disagreed with the new situation have been pushed to the side.”
It’s what Viviers then adds that reveals the tectonic shift in race relations.
“Besides, Sam is a really good guy – and a hell of a good golfer.”
As tolerance and civility have helped cool post-Apartheid tensions, it’s enabled blacks and whites to draw closer – or at least, close enough to “humanize” the other. As in: Hey, we’re not that different after all.
Indeed, Jacques and Samuel are both hard-working, family-oriented men: Jacques, a proudly Boer father of four who farms pigs, cattle and corn; Samuel, a mix of Tswana and “colored” who leaves his wife and two young children for weeks at a time, commuting 500 kilometers or more to a faraway job as a construction foreman that brings him better pay, upward mobility and gradual improvements to his home.
The Golf Club brings them together, and their shared passion for the sport allows them to see beyond skin color. And within the club’s cozy confines, Jacques’s example of tolerance has nurtured a more harmonious environment. No one in this situation is color-blind, of course, but they’re clearly on the path of progress.
To grasp how far Ventersdorp has come, first comprehend the past.
Jacques Viviers’ father, Pierre, is 81, blind, and still lives on the Viviers farm, in a smaller home off to the side, with Jacques’s mother. His forefathers were among the first Boer voortrekkers – the pioneering farmers – who settled in Ventersdorp, arriving in 1887. Pierre took over the vast holding from his father, and ran it for four decades. Jacques took the reins for good 20 years ago. (Of Jacques’ four children, who takes over – if any is inclined to stay in farming – remains an open question.)
During Apartheid, as South Africa and its ruling National Party came under mounting international pressure to dismantle its institutionalized racism, towns like Ventersdorp – deep in the heartland of Afrikaner identity and mythology – became a stronghold for resistance aimed at preserving the status quo. Eugène Terre’Blanche went so far as to establish his AWB movement in 1973 – initially as a secret society.
This being a small town, all the white townsfolk knew each other fairly well, as Pierre describes from a couch in his home. Through the 1980s and ‘90s, even as Terre’Blanche gained notoriety by threatening civil war to prevent any erosion of white domination, Ventersdorpers weren’t uniformly opposed to reforms.
“Every second or third home was moderate, like me,” says Pierre, as his 19-year-old granddaughter, Nanna – Jacques’ eldest child – listens in. “Eugène was a nice enough guy, but too extreme in his politics. He and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to move the country forward.”
For years, Pierre was a spitting image of Terre’Blanche, with the same bushy beard and traditional, minimalist Boer attire: khaki shorts and shirt, wide-brimmed khaki hat, and ankle-high work-boots – baring rugged legs up to the thigh.
The resemblance was so striking, Pierre recalls that once, while traveling in western South Africa, a group of young black boys saw him and uttered, “There goes Terre’Blanche!” Strangers would also approach him, to give him an earful.
“They’d think just because you’re from Ventersdorp, you’re a racist,” he says. “I’d tell them it was just a percentage of the town, so don’t blame all of us.”
Back on the Viviers farm, the way of life was typical of many other Apartheid-era family operations. Not just in terms of production – maize and cattle – but by the entire little world that existed inside the farm … for the black farm-hands.
The blacks lived on the land, too, in ramshackle homes, though without the luxuries enjoyed by the baas – like indoor plumbing. Blacks in Ventersdorp either worked and lived on a farm, or worked for whites in town and retreated to their neighboring, all-black township of Tshing. Indeed, blacks knew well enough to clear out of town by the time the 6 p.m. curfew struck – or face the wrath of white police.
On the Viviers farm, the black population peaked at around 100, Jacques explains, with enough children in the community to maintain a small schoolhouse. Its attendance was bolstered by black children who trekked in from other farms.
“Some of my best friends growing up were the black kids I farmed with,” he says. “That’s how I learned to speak Tswana, from working and playing with them.”
The Viviers were relatively benevolent, says black laborer Moses Makakwe, compared with harsher tales he heard of how other white bosses in town treated farmhands. Moses, 61, has worked for the Viviers family for 40 years. He lived on the farm during Apartheid, but afterward, as the population shrank, Jacques shuttered the schoolhouse. Moses moved two hours away to affordably school his children. Only half a dozen families live here today. Yet with jobs scarce, Moses commutes once a week back to the Viviers farm – as Jacques’s trusted fix-it man.
When asked what 20 years of democracy has brought him, Moses brushes aside talk of liberties. He’s preoccupied with how his life has worsened – financially.
“In those days, if we needed any extra money from the bank, a loan, our boss would sign a letter for us; but today, on my own, I can’t get anything from the bank,” he says, shaking his head. “Back then, we also had enough food to eat, from the farm. Now we have to pay for it ourselves – and the prices keep going higher and higher.”
For the Viviers family, too, the transition brought economic challenges – as all South African agriculture now faced greater exposure to free-market forces.
Jacques and his wife, Vicky, responded by diversifying their operation. On the farm, they began large-scale pig-breeding. At the same time, they converted a large tract of their property – of rolling countryside, trees and scrub – into a hunting camp: filling it with hundreds of springbok, antelope, zebra and even a family of three giraffe. Vicky, who’s responsible for running the hunting camp, says that on select weekends, she welcomes in hunters from as far as Italy and the U.S.
“We love the farming life,” says Vicky, who also grew up on a farm, not far from Ventersdorp. “But it gets harder and harder every year to make a living off it.”
Her family, though, isn’t exactly eking out an existence – not from the looks of their impressive ranch-style home, swimming pool and impeccably landscaped grounds. They also send their four children to a private school, one hour away.
Meanwhile, what hovers over this idyll is a constant threat – of attack.
From his upstairs bedroom, Jacques motions to the west, a few kilometers away, where the Terre’Blanche farm was once located – and where in April 2010 he was hacked to death by two of his black laborers, allegedly over pay. (His elderly widow still lives in town – and declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Jacques then points farther to the north, where a local white farmer was most recently murdered – just last March. The 67-year-old man was hit in the head and killed outside his farmhouse; his 64-year-old wife was bound and reportedly raped. Two black men, ages 21 and 22, were arrested soon after.
Terre’Blanche’s AWB, a shadow of its former self, organized a meeting to vent its frustration, but most attendees purportedly came from outside Ventersdorp.
Still, the killing was enough to rattle the Viviers family – once again.
Jacques reaches under his bed – and pulls out a gleaming Glock pistol. In the old days, there was no need for security. From what? Today, an exterior perimeter of barbed wire encircles his entire property; a second ring surrounds his homestead. Two Dobermans are raring to bark at any encroachment. A watchdog-force of local farmers warns each other by mobile phone, whenever a security breach occurs.
Still, at night, Jacques is home alone with his wife, three daughters and son.
“If someone really wants to get in, they can get in; on one farm, they tossed in poisoned meat to kill the dogs,” says the broad-shouldered farmer. Fingering his locked pistol, he adds: “I hope to never use this, but I would – to protect my family.”
It’s not only white families, though, who feel vulnerable to crime.
In Tshing, the black shantytown on the edge of Ventersdorp, many residents have also installed bars in the windows of their homes. Joblessness, addiction and desperation fuel a surge in black-on-black crime, too – from the petty, to the violent.
Here, Anna Moabi explains why she fears for her 24-year-old son, Martin, each time he ventures out at night. There’s always potential trouble, she says, with so many frustrated men swigging beer. Just a few weeks earlier, at watering hole around the corner, one man stabbed and killed another man – over a woman.
Anna herself is unemployed, unable to find a housecleaning job, yet with four other children besides Martin to feed inside their modest, cinderblock home.
Yet Anna is not one to lament her life, or to criticize local ANC authorities for not doing more to combat crime and unemployment. Because twenty years of democracy has brought her a degree of dignity she couldn’t imagine as a black girl.
Growing up in Tshing, during Apartheid, she says she experienced panic at the start of each day. Her grandfather worked a local farm, while her parents were both domestic help inside the home of an affluent white family. Left alone to walk to school in the morning, to a schoolhouse on a nearby farm, Anna often encountered older white men who hurled insults at her – sometimes even rocks. Or worse.
They treated me like a “baboon,” she says. When did her fears subside?
“The day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison,” she says, smiling. “Because then I knew whites would no longer be the kings. They’d have to treat us better.”
At the time, she still Anna wondered how blacks and whites could possibly ever get along harmoniously. Yet today, in the streets and shops of Ventersdorp, she says white men and women now greet her courteously, respectfully, with eye contact. No longer does she scurry home ahead of the curfew. At the post office, she notes, in the old days the blacks on line had to make way for a white customer.
“But today, we all have to stand on the same line, black and white,” she says, again smiling broadly. “And we all complain about it, just the same.”
Indeed, Anna illuminates one irony of the post-Apartheid reality.
“Before, we had jobs, but lived in fear,” she says. “Today, we have no jobs, but live in freedom. That’s why I’m happy: I’m no longer afraid someone may beat me.”
Such civility, though, is still a work in progress – and requires occasional re-inforcement. Particularly, a gesture of decency to help bridge the racial divide.
Back at the Ventersdorp Golf Course, Samuel recalls one unpleasant incident from last year: in the clubhouse, a group of white golfers, poking fun at blacks. Samuel was there, within earshot. One man then dropped the dreaded word: kaffir.
Samuel reported the incident to Jacques, who wasn’t present. However, he leapt into action, threatening the offending club-member with an ultimatum: write an apology to Samuel, then apologize in person – or face expulsion from the club.
The man caved, and apologized.
“It’s important that we draw a line of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior today,” says Jacques. “Because, Sam is a respected member of this club.”
How times have changed, then. The Ventersdorp Golf Club, once a citadel of racial exclusion, now seems to be at the fore of fostering inter-communal peace.
It’s actions like these, says Samuel, “that gives me confidence about the future of South Africa – and what kind of country my children will grow up in.”
Yet there’s one ironic twist here. Jacques may have become a local force for healing wounds of the past. However, unlike his father, Pierre, who defended Ventersdorp during his travels across the country, Jacques says he’s no longer willing to engage South Africans who’ve heard only the worst about his hometown. He’s still ashamed of the reputation Ventersdorp bears. So, he fibs instead: he claims to hail from the provincial capital, Potchefstroom, where his kids attend school.
The defense of Ventersdorp, then, now falls to a black man. Samuel says he specifically wears his Ventersdorp Golf Club cap and shirt on the road, nearly everywhere he goes – hoping someone will ask him about his infamous hometown.
“I want everyone to know how much Ventersdorp has changed,” says Samuel, after teeing off on the fairways from which he was once barred. “And if change could come here, it can happen anywhere.”