Maritzburg/Trekkersburg: The fact in the fiction

2013-08-02 00:00

SEVERAL writers have used Pietermaritzburg as a backdrop for their novels. In recent years, they have included Tom Sharpe, John Conyngham and Margaret von Klemperer, but none has been so prolific as James (Jim) McClure. Most famously, he wrote about the detective partnership of Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.

McClure’s early Kramer and Zondi novels provide an intriguing glimpse into Pietermaritzburg at the height of apartheid in the late 60s. Trekkersburg, with its NTK number plates, Trekkersburg Gazette and evening Daily Post (a newspaper “not worth putting in the cat’s sand box”), is unmistakable.

The city hall (decorated by a bust of Theophilus Shepstone), Market Square, lanes full of lawyers’ offices and cafés are joined by the fictional but recognisable Albert Club, Ladysmith Street, Old Comrades Club, Buller’s Walk and Turner’s Hill. The Buttery Private Hotel and Greek tearoom in Buchan Street provide a particularly 60s’ feel.

Trichaard Street is the one central street not zoned white, a place of vigorous and various activity. Further out is the suburb of Skaapvlei (Scottsville) next to the race course with jacaranda-lined streets and an eclectic residential architectural style, including “restaurant Tudor”. The upmarket suburb of Greenside is possibly Blackridge.

Even further away, and accessed by a dual carriageway designed to carry heavy military traffic is Peacevale, dominated by its massive African hospital. The gated, fenced municipal township is Kwela Village with 800 identical two-room houses “the size of four table tennis tables” and no street signs. When Kramer visits Miriam Zondi, Mickey’s wife, he notes the shelf lining of newspaper and the condensed milk served in his tea. The pathway is lined by rusted, cast-off tins.

These overlapping geographical realities and imaginings are joined by underlying social commentary and parody. McClure was a perceptive observer. African servants are treated by white employers with disdain and are the first suspects when anything is amiss. They are frequently to be found socialising on the pavements; and outside the scene of a murder are depicted huddled, whispering together.

They are inevitably the major repository of neighbourhood knowledge. As Zondi put it: “Europeans often say private things in front of Bantu” oblivious to servants’ linguistic ability. Nannies are everywhere with children. But male servants are still common, with a town wife and country wife. There is, of course, a curfew at night.

The whites are a mixed bunch ranging from a dissident Roman Catholic priest to ultra-conservative “Home Counties” types. British immigrants of a slightly different class run the ambulance and fire services. Almost all are dependent on African labour, although on the night of a murder drama some “decided to walk the dog themselves”. As for the females, they dry their underwear in the bathroom in case the sight excites the gardener.

Most of McClure’s Afrikaners are policemen. In common with police forces worldwide, those in uniform tend to resent Kramer and Zondi of the Murder Squad, particularly since most of the former have failed their detective examinations, some many times. Interestingly, there is distrust of a Security Branch officer, an Afrikaner with an English surname.

Kramer has an on-off relationship with the Widow Fourie, the mother of a brood of exuberant children with whom he gets on well.

The barman at the Albert, Paul Rampaul, is inevitably Indian and has committed to memory the favourite drink of each customer. The greengrocer near the Biddulph Street bus station is Gogol, who not only sells fruit and veg but dispenses prophylactics to white youth, is assisted by a woman inevitably known as Mary, and harbours a fellow merchant, Moosa, down on his luck and now a police informer.

The coloured community in Pietermaritzburg of the 60s was relatively small. But Theresa le Roux is the central figure in the first Kramer and Zondi novel.

She is from a Durban family reclassified from white to coloured, an event over which her father committed suicide. Her considerable ambitions are being financed by high-class prostitution (R10 an hour and fronted by supposed piano teaching) involving pompous white city councillors. McClure also suggests that the annual migration to Trekkersburg of men of the road staying at the Salvation Army men’s hostel consists of those of ambiguous classification who find their chosen life preferable to the constant aggravation of providing written evidence of their official status.

These are the communities of a city familiar with violence: McClure notes 6 500 township murders per annum nationally. The main significance of the author’s eight Kramer and Zondi novels is the relationship between the White lieutenant and African sergeant.

Clearly, it was far from normal for the Pietermaritzburg of its time. The crucial question is whether it was possible: could Kramer and Zondi have been real?

Kramer is a vulgar character, often openly (and perfectly understandably) disrespectful to his superiors. His overtly stereotyped and racist attitude to Zondi is often suffused in ambiguity: this could indicate that McClure was suggesting cover up of genuine (and unfashionable) respect.

Kramer is sarcastic about Zondi to his superiors, but knows that he could not do without him: there are places where Kramer cannot follow him even armed. Knowing this, Zondi gets away with impertinence of his own.

The two characters are very similar, impatient for results and not averse to muscular persuasion: the piece of hose in the interview room at the central police station had not seen water for a long time.

Both are prone to error. Chasing a suspect, , Zondi turned his jacket inside out to appear rustic but, lulled into complacency by his Walther PPK automatic, gave himself away by forgetting to carry his sticks. Kramer appears to miss cues and clues as a result of preoccupation and conflicts with seniors.

Each operates with varied but complementary success in his respective community. And on occasion they perform a successful double act as electrician and handlanger, parodying the socioeconomic relationships of their time.

Duncan Campbell, writing McClure’s Guardian obituary, said the novels “subtly brought the reality of apartheid-era South Africa to an international audience”.

Use of the word subtle is curious. The language and graphic description of dead bodies (one reviewer pointed out that the corpses were more real than the living in other writers’ stories) suggest that he was describing an apartheid-era city in suitably raw terms with the eye and experience of a crime reporter.


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