2010-12-15 00:00

NOT being in need of a Nigerian hairdresser, or a fake Gucci handbag, or a micro loan, or any of the other amenities currently on offer in the centre of Maritzburg, it is a very long time since I have been to the centre of town. Once upon a time, in my long-ago youth, Church Street was our street. I went to ballroom dancing classes in Church Street near what used to be Shuter and Shooter. Then for a Crerar’s lemonade (milkshakes had not yet been invented) at Christie’s Tearoom, and then perhaps some errands at Ireland’s or Sowden’s.

No longer. Christie’s, Ireland’s, Sowden’s, even Shuter’s, are no more. Now, although people throng the streets on a Saturday morning, we old whiteys fear the centre of town as a hostile and foreign place. It doesn’t feel like a street where I belong. It’s not mine any more.

But the Department of Home Affairs has decreed that marriage officers may no longer send completed marriage certificates by mail. We must deliver them to their Church Street premises by hand. So with some trepidation, following a wedding the other day, I walked down Church Street again. People were remarkably affable. Admittedly I was wearing my clerical dog collar, in the hope that I might skip the long queues in the Home Affairs office. (It worked, but please don’t all try this or it won’t work any more.)

People greeted me. “Hello, Father,” said the stall holders where a Louis Vuitton attaché case can be bought for a pittance. “Baleka, ukhona umfundisi,” said an amply proportioned lady in a nurse’s uniform to her friends who were blocking the pavement, and they cheerfully made a path for me. It was noisy, crowded, but amicable. I felt welcome and safe.

But I had to walk across Cathedral Square. I remembered the vision of the young architects who designed the new Anglican Cathedral. The cathedral was to be a sanctuary in the heart of the city, welcoming all, believers and unbelievers alike, into its own warm heart. Not everyone likes the architecture of the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, but the idea is a great one. The brick walls of the cathedral boundary open up like arms into Church Street to embrace the city.

Alas, these days, those arms of welcome are no longer open. Access has been fenced off and locked. There is no access to the cathedral at all from Church Street and the access from Langalibalele Street is carefully controlled. There is, as we know, good reason. Some years ago, the cathedral receptionist was shot by someone who thought the Anglican Church was too favourable to one political party. A few weeks ago, an elderly archivist was mugged and stabbed in the cathedral grounds by someone who thought she was carrying money. The vision of the architects cannot be fulfilled. It is too dangerous to open your arms to the world. Instead of a warm sanctuary for the outsider, the cathedral has become a fortress for those working and worshipping inside. The potential enemy must be locked out.

It reminded me of another cathedral from a different era. As you travel by train from London to Edinburgh, nearing the borders of Scotland you pass through a ravine of the River Wear. There, to the left of the train far above you, stands the massive bulk of Durham Cathedral. It is a noble building with its great Norman pillars and its exquisite Galilee chapel. But it was also built as a fortress, to provide a place of safety for the English against the marauding Scots. The enemy could be locked out.

The English feared the Scottish hordes. To the English, the Scots were not quaint people who make nice whisky and wear colourful kilts, but savage strangers endangering their peace. In many ways, this is what we have come to in South Africa. We must protect ourselves. Our churches are fortresses. Our city hall is a fortress, its gracious portico now marred with an unsightly electronic metal detector. Our homes are fortresses, guarded with locked gates and electric fences. And so, I guess, our hearts have become fortresses too. It is too painful and too dangerous to open our hearts to the unknown hordes around us.

But my little journey down Church Street reminded me that not every stranger is my enemy. Of course there is crime in South Africa. Of course I need to keep my wallet and valuables out of sight, my car doors locked. Of course when I see a body lying in the road I must be conscious that it might just be a staged scene to get me to stop so that I can be hijacked. Of course I must protect my home. There are dangerous men out there.

But most people in Church Street, or anywhere else in South Africa, are not dangerous. They are not my enemy. They mean me no harm. To the contrary, they are friendly and even glad to see me. They are like me, nervous of the pervading crime. Just at the moment they are filled with that Christmas spirit of goodwill, even the tipsy man urinating into the gutter who with his free hand raised his cap to me as I passed.

The cathedral may have had to become a fortress. But my heart doesn’t need to be a fortress too. Especially not now at Christmas. I think I may try a walk down Church Street again and test the waters. I will not need the Nigerian hairdresser, nor the magic umuthi that can solve all my romantic or financial problems, but perhaps someone would like a Chinese Louis Vuitton handbag for Christmas? Perhaps Church Street can be my street again.

• Ron Nicolson is a retired Anglican minister.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.