The story of the photo that wasn't taken
© Ad van Denderen
At the Bible society with the appropriate name ‘Jesus Lives’ I make an appointment to attend the annual meeting of the Conservative Party in Pretoria. At 5 a.m. I wake up the black security guard of the Hotel 147 where I am staying. He opens the door for me and I feel the early morning chill. Outside it is still pitch-dark. I walk through the newly laid out park to the town hall of this small mining town in (Orange) Free State, once the birthplace of the Afrikaans Resistance Movement (AWB). About a hundred men and women, mostly well into middle age, are waiting in the car park in front of the building. They are wearing informal clothing for this day out. The atmosphere is cheerful, everyone is looking forward to meeting other party members, a thermos of coffee is passed round and, at 5.30 a.m. the bus arrives; the journey to Pretoria can begin, a trip of more than three hundred kilometres to the northeast of Welkom.
During the ride, many victories of the Boers are celebrated with songs in Afrikaans. At 9.30 a.m. a joyous cry comes from these aged throats as we pass the township of Soweto.
An hour later we are standing on hallowed ground by the Voortrekker Monument which had been erected in memory of the greatest achievements in the history of the White Afrikaners: the Great Trek and the Battle of Blood River. Inside the monument a ray of sun illuminates the marble slab with its text: Ons Vir jou Suid Afrika. Photos are taken of men in shorts and long socks beside these words. A hundred thousand people are gathered on the slopes around the monument; they have come from all over South Africa. Afrikaans is the official language.
The elderly Betsy Schoonbee arrives in an ox-drawn carriage and is greeted with loud cheering. Since 1966 she has been the widow of Prime Minister Verwoerd who founded apartheid here. She is the last living symbol of the race separation that many of those present would like to see reinstated. The meeting begins with prayers: hands folded, heads bowed and eyes closed, they mumble sentences for the chosen people.
The smell of charred meat emanates from hundreds of ‘braai’s’ (barbecues). Banners with texts such as “White nationhood is greater than dead”, “Let’s give this kaffir from the Transkei an armed struggle” and “ Better dead than Red” indicate that the conservatives are not yet used to the new order. The whites are no longer the only bosses, times have changed, Nelson Mandela is free and the ANC is officially recognised as a political party. Here it seems as though no-one has absorbed this truth.
Sooner than expected the days ends just at it began. Prayers ring out over the hills from the loudspeakers. Then it is time to go home and everyone goes to find the right bus. “See you next year” are the heartfelt words from all the participants and everyone climbs on board. Whether or not they will make it till next year, we don’t know.
We drive through a suburb of Pretoria, a warm breeze blows through the window. We approach a crossroads and stop at some traffic lights. On the empty pavement by the lights stands a black man selling red roses. Unsuspectingly the seller approaches the bus and, with a friendly smile, holds up the bunch of rose to the open window. Before he can even name the price, a male passenger stands up, draws his Smith&Wesson from its holster and points the gun through the window, over the red roses right in front of the seller’s face. Scared eyes stare into the barrel of the gun. I don’t hesitate one second, grab my camera, focus and press the button. In vain, the shutter button is blocked. I try again, blocked. I wrench at the film transporter but it doesn’t budge. The display shows 36.
There is a serene silence on the crossroads. The rose-seller is glued to the ground. Astounded. The light changes to green, the bus moves off slowly, sounds return. I poke my head out of the window; the seller is standing stock-still on the tarmac, in the same position, the bunch of roses in his arms. My companion traveller pulls his arm back in, puts his pistol back in the holster in silence, and sits down again. I take my camera in both hands, rewind the film and insert a new one.
Late that evening we arrive in Welcome and stop on the car park in front of the town hall. I walk back to my hotel and dive disgruntled into the bar marked ‘Whites only, Net Blankes” on the door.