The market-day boycott

2009-04-14 00:00

Port St Johns is a town of all cultures, races, and variations thereof, but despite there being divisions, the town has always had a fairly happy, mixed society. The descendants of early pioneers, shipwreck survivors, remittance men and other colourful characters produced a rainbow of people — so-called coloureds with blonde hair and blue eyes, Pondos high cheek bones and slanted eyes, and whites that could have been recent imports from India.

And so it was natural that the anti-apartheid movement started in Port St Johns long before such a phrase had been coined. Port St Johns wasn’t always in the Transkei. Before the Transkei independence days, it was part of the Cape, and had the same race laws as the rest of South Africa — and apartheid was the order of the day.

Saturday mornings were market day. The farmers would take their produce to town at dawn and display their wares at the marketplace. Access to Port St Johns was always difficult. All the roads were dirt and mostly mud in the rainy season, so much so that oxen had to be used to pull vehicles out of really awful places. Some farmers living up the Umzimvubu River would take their produce to town by boat, so although the climate and soil made farming relatively easy, selling the produce was an entirely different matter.

The town would wake up, and the folk would start wandering around the stalls. The subtropical climate of Port St. Johns makes it possible to grow fruit and vegetables of all varieties. Pineapples, mangoes, all forms of citrus, huge avocados, papaya and pawpaw, and litchis weighed down the tables. Vegetables in the form of enormous spinach, delicately flavoured artichokes, peppers in all colours and even exotic delicacies like shushu, more commonly found on the Indian Ocean islands, were all available. Chickens in small hokkies were also for sale.

But it was an unwritten rule that the whites, especially white madams, got first choice of the produce. So the vegetables and fruit would lie on their tables from early morning until the madams eventually made it to town and honoured the farmers with their presence and bought whatever took their fancy.

The non-whites could not buy anything until the madams had had first choice, and they hung around the edge of the market, swopping stories, laughing, teasing each other or getting irritated, as they had homes and gardens to attend to, and chores that didn’t get done because they had to stand around and wait. The children and dogs played improvised games of catch, getting under the adults’ feet and getting into trouble for “not behaving”. The market place would have been abuzz with sounds of laughter and shouts, squeals and yelps, and smells of sun-ripened fruit and tobacco smoke.

Of course, the white madams were never in a hurry. Getting ready in the morning always took time. After all, who would want to be seen at the market not properly coiffured? Eventually, hours after the produce was first laid out, the mesdames would saunter through the stalls, each with a servant in tow (madams didn’t tote “Checkers bags” in those days), to carry the purchases. They purchased what they wanted and left the dregs to the rest of the population, who bought the bruised fruit, the unwanted potatoes and the cabbages that were brown around the edges.

That is, until one Saturday, when enough just became enough. By all accounts it

wasn’t organised, just a spontaneous decision taken by people who were tired of leftover, below-standard fruit and vegetables. So when the madams had finished their purchases, nobody made a move to buy even as much as one overripe mango. And the same happened on the following Saturday and the next, leaving mounds of produce for the florid-faced farmers to take home to their staff or feed to the pigs. It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. After all, nothing hurts more than an injury to the wallet and the farmers realised that a new way of selling had to be allowed. From then on, it became a typical market, with the early shoppers, of whatever race, taking the cream of the crop and the dawdlers ending up with the dregs. And everybody ate happily ever after.

• Rina de Tiago is a traveller who has lived in the Transkei and other parts of Africa.

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