Editor's Letter

South Africa


I arrived straight from the airport for my first appointment in Johannesburg and could not remember whether I’d adjusted my watch correctly for the time difference with London. An amiable-looking man wearing an immaculate white shirt, crisp black trousers and sparkling moccasins was coming towards me, so I asked him for the time.

David Ransom He stopped and looked quizzically at my cheap Taiwanese wristwatch. ‘It’s not working, then?’ he asked. ‘I’m not surprised. I’m a watch-mender, you know.’

I explained my difficulty and he told me the time from his own, somewhat superior, timepiece. I was an hour early and he wasn’t rushing anywhere, so we introduced ourselves and walked together for a while through the city streets. This was not the introduction I had expected to a city that has the reputation of being one of the most violent in the world.

Des, apart from mending watches, drives trucks and lives in Soweto. Yes, he said, there had been big changes in South Africa – and not before time. But he reckoned it would be another 10 years, perhaps 20, before things started to improve. He was prepared to wait, though he’d rather not – he and his family had already been waiting 15 years for a house.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘we could not even talk to whites before. We were told it was not our place. Now we can talk to them. I can talk to you. But whites always seem to trust documents more than people. And you never know what they’re going to write on their pieces of paper.’

Well, here I am, writing it down. As a general rule I like to send copies of the final version to the people I’ve written about, since I find it a good discipline to imagine that they might be reading what I write. But I’m afraid I’ve lost the scrap of paper on which I scribbled down Des’s address.

This is annoying. I’d like to know what he thinks. He put me in mind of what an old South African friend once said to me when we were working together in London. ‘You know,’ he said one day when we were feeling particularly dispirited, ‘here you get the feeling of a people whose time has already gone. In South Africa you get the feeling of a people whose time has yet to come.’

The NI is now obtainable directly from Johannesburg – you’ll find the address inside the front cover – and South Africans join the dedicated international band of subscribers from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States in what we call ‘reader countries’. Welcome!

We’ll do our best to add ‘robots’ (traffic lights) to the long list of colloquialisms we can use to baffle each other. In return, if any reader in South Africa comes across a watch-mender in Soweto called Des, I’d be very grateful indeed if you could give him a copy of this magazine, with my apologies, and I’ll send you a replacement.

David Ransom's signature

David Ransom
for the New Internationalist Co-operative

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