In early 2008, I had come to visit my mother in Rustenburg and every white person I met had nothing positive to say about their country or the future. Rustenburg is in the North West of the country and supposedly the most conservative area , which is saying something. Eugene Terreblanche lived in a town nearby and it’s not a part of the world I’d normally visit but now by chance, my mother runs a restaurant there and lives on a farm. And like most places you think you don’t like, Rustenburg became very interesting for me.
Ever since I left South Africa in 1983, I had wanted to make a film there. In 1986 I made a Super 8 short that was supposed to lampoon reportage (the country was in a State of Emergency at the time) and address a reporter’s encounters with ladles of irony. It was a crazy time and very hard to settle on what your point of view was if you were an open minded white person. It was easy if you were racist as the (now shaky) status quo still provided you with all the answers you needed. But what could I say about black people? They didn’t need me to say they were being oppressed – Biko had made that clear. And what could I say about white people? At least the white people I knew – we thought we were all heading for oblivion and I don’t think anyone imagined that the iron fist that held power would collapse and compromise only four years later.
But now in 2008, crime was out of control, the liberation government was corrupt, people were getting attacked in their houses. And the more everyone talked about it the worse it became. I listened to talk radio at night on my mother’s farm and a listener phoned in with a sighting of a giant iceberg off the coast of Cape Town. The presenter doubted the possibility of this as the water is too warm there for icebergs but the listener insisted that she had seen it and that it was a hazard to ships. Then another person called in and said that they had seen it and suddenly it seemed likely we were in danger and someone ought to do something about this. The more they talked about it the more they worried and the more they worried, the more we should worry. As if maintaining anxiety was some kind of duty.
Since 1994, a whole industry of moaning has come about in South Africa in the form of talk radio and all the chattering that goes on around it via other media. Where I was in Rustenburg, people I met generally came down to the same conclusion, ie: They are going to ruin everything. While I was on the receiving end of all this negativity, electricity blackouts started which served as the perfect metaphor for some sort of regression to darkest Africa. I thought that there has to be someone out there with something positive to say. I went to my mother’s restaurant and started phoning numbers from business cards left there by patrons. I had a camera with me and before long I was running around and filming them telling me about their views.
I met the De Beers family who had been held hostage in their house; Jan and Lettie who worked 19 hour shifts with their security firm; Burt, the estate agent (who later almost killed us with a shotgun) who hadn’t heard about Mandela until he was released and Dave, a Canadian miner who had moved to the area a few years ago with his family, set up a mine safety business, adopted a local Tswana girl and had recently been attacked and nearly murdered in front of his family by two burglars with guns. I met Franz – a church caretaker who wanted local black people to dig up the roads and rebuild them as they had recently changed all the names. ‘They’re not their roads to rename – they can build their own bloody roads.’ All these people told me stories about their lives as if they were under siege.
I often suffer with insomnia and all this running around and hearing all these stories kept me awake for three nights in a row. Especially Dave’s story. Here was a very intense man without the baggage of an Apartheid past who was being tested to the limits of his imagination. He had a remote control device that opened his electric gate from a kilometer away so that he could drive with speed into his garage. If he slowed down or stopped to open the gate there was danger he would be attacked. He had cut down the branches of all the trees surrounding his farm house so that he could get a clear view of the veld beyond with no shadows for anyone to lurk under. He employed a security guard to patrol his house and he slept with his family of four in a bedroom behind an iron gate with two killer dogs. He was not going to be beaten. He had come to SA to spend more time with his family and live in the wide open spaces. But he said you needed big cojonas to live here and it was a case of survival of the fittest. And as if this wasn’t difficult enough, the mining establishment wasn’t too keen on his safety improvements – and all this coming from an uitlander – a Canadian. I filmed Dave as he told me these stories and he ended up saying that I couldn’t use anything without his permission first and he wouldn’t sign a release form. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the material – it wasn’t a film – just research or sketches that I found over 10 days. I ended up with 20 hours of it and decided that there were too many good stories here and that I needed to do this properly with a crew.
But before I came home to London, I discovered a crocodile farm near my mother’s restaurant. It was like a cattle farm, only instead of slaughtering cows for beef they slaughtered young crocs for skins. The farm manager, a Zimbabwean called Trevor, had worked with these animals for years and was happy to show me round. At feeding time, I watched as the skinned carcasses of the young crocs were barrowed over to the pond where the ‘breeders’ were kept. The monstrous jaws cracked the skulls of their offspring in their mouths. The parents were literally eating their children. ‘Crocs are the best opportunists – you either love them or hate them. It’s difficult to tell if they’re looking through you or at you,’ said Trevor.
Crocodiles seemed to have only evolved to a point and then managed to survive. Seeing them eating their offspring made me think of people living in fear who have stopped evolving and then forcing this condition on their children. Fear was keeping these white people in this rural area in a trapped state – unable to even sit by a window at night while being surrounded by miles of empty farm land. All the road signs in Rustenburg have pictures of crocodiles on them. There’s a Crocodile River and then I discovered that the local African Nation was called the Bafokeng who are the people of the crocodile. So my metaphor was becoming very mixed up but I liked the (co-incidental?) connections and visited a school where a lot of Bafokeng kids atteneded.
I met with a group of history students and they talked about Apartheid as if it were in the distant past. I told them that a lot of white people lived in fear and they said that they fear crime as much as anyone. They also asked what happens when people refuse to accept that they’ve lost a war and said that some people in SA cannot accept the rapid changes occuring all the time. These kids seemed a lot more relaxed than the white people I’d met. The Bakwena people – people of the crocodile seemed to know their place and weren’t living in a state of siege. Perhaps I could contrast them with the other people I’d met? And perhaps the crocodile could be the metaphor that links everything together? Or would these connections all be too tenuous? I also discovered that the Bafokeng were a very rich people due to the fact that they bought land of the Afrikaners in the 19th Century that was (unknown at the time) rich with platinum and somehow they still owned the land.
I was reading an interview with the writer Richard Kapucsinski published at the end of his book, The Soccer Wars. He discusses how he tries to describe life in communist Poland to Africans living in a rainforest. Snow, food queues, short gray days – all of these things seemed outrageous and impossible to the Africans. Surely Europeans all live in big houses and have people waiting on them. Kapucsinski concedes that trying to describe the world he’s from is like walking through a forest of things and the things can’t be named because they don’t make any sense – they are just things . This divide reminded me of the people I was meeting in SA – all these people connected by a crocodile – a forest of crocodiles full of divided people.