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Hitting the colour bar in South Africa

Small towns like Potch would take time to come to terms with the change that has swept through the rest of South Africa, writes Kadambari Murali.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2006 23:49 IST

Hectic journeys through the big cities — where the undercurrents of smouldering racial differences are hidden under the banner of rousing change, some cosmetic and others real — do not reveal to you what apartheid was all about. Or why South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world for so many long years.

And then you come to Potchefstroom, a sleepy one-horse town (it really is, it has only two taxis, generally unavailable, so you get to travel to the stadium in the maintenance man's pick-up truck), and run into one of the bastions of white South Africa.

Like anywhere else in the world, you have certain conservative sections of society but in Potch, mostly travelling with the cricketing caravan, you wouldn't find them. At the team hotel, everyone is friendly and polite, at the North West Cricket Union ground they are as efficient and hospitable.

But then I went out of familiar territory in search of an ENT specialist, along with an extremely nice Afrikaans cricket journalist who has been a great help to all the Indian mediapersons around.

The specialist wasn't there and as the GP would take an hour to come around, we decided to wait at a nearby seafood restaurant. It has an outdoor and indoor seating area and is a local favourite.

We walked in together, a white Afrikaans man and an obviously Indian (read, non-white) woman and the sudden silence was as startling as it was disconcerting. Worse were the stares, especially from the older people. No one said a word to us and it is something that has to be experienced to be believed, but it was horrible.

My colleague was horribly embarrassed and as we were seated by a young, chirrupy, very friendly white waitress, he explained to me that parts of Potch and a few other small towns would obviously take some time to come to terms with the change that had swept through the rest of South Africa.

"These people are horrible," he said. "Watch out especially for the bearded ones in khaki. They are the worst." This last, at least, sounded familiar to someone coming from India!

I must hasten to add here that in my three weeks in South Africa, this was the first such experience I have had and while it wasn't pleasant, it was an aberration. For the most, this is a beautiful country and people, white and black (and coloured), have been friendly and welcoming.

Unfortunately, the initial impression one gets is that it isn't quite the same within the various communities themselves. The lines of colour are deeply entrenched and the scars run very deep.