Thursday, 19 May 2016

Surviving a riot at The Nekkies, Knysna

The Nekkies, Knysna
The plume of smoke rose hundreds of metres in the air, like a dirty tornado, as if  the weather gods were suddenly, unreasonably, angry with us. Then the traffic stopped. All we could see ahead was a long line of cars - and the smoke. We assumed there have been a car accident - a bad one. We were wrong! Judging by the sirens and all the emergency vehicles racing toward us it had not happened very long ago. Strangely, there were no ambulances - just police cars.

I wanted to wait it out but David doesn't do waiting very well.  It

was early afternoon and we still had a three hour drive to Port Elizabeth. Our guide book had warned that Port Elizabeth is not safe at night and we didn't want to be searching for our hotel in a strange, potentially threatening city, after dark. The other side of the highway was empty. No cars were getting through in either direction and we had no idea how long the blockage was likely to last. More than one vehicle ahead of us abandoned the wait and u-turned across the double lines. David did the same.

With a very basic tourist map and the aid of our GPS, we plotted a route which we hoped would bring us out on the highway again beyond the 'accident'. What we didn't realise was that our detour would take us right through the heart of the Nekkies, one of South Africa's infamous townships.

In the Nekkies we came face to face with a very different South Africa. We were fair-skinned in a dark-skinned world. We drove a brand new car in a world of few private vehicles. We were well-off in a land of poverty.

David dodged pigs, cows and goats as he followed the twists and turns of the road. I kept one eye on the GPS, frightened we would lose the through route and find ourselves on the spaghetti-like tangle of dirt tracks and  pathways plunging into the bowels of the township.

The Nekkies, Knysna
The Nekkies, Knysna
The Nekkies, Knysna
There was only one road through.

The Nekkies, South Africa
The Nekkies, South Africa


The Nekkies, South Africa
The Nekkies.


The cinder-block houses lay jumbled together on the hillsides as if each was competing for its own tiny patch of open space. Their sometimes brightly coloured walls belying the hardship within. Out of politeness and just a little bit of apprehension we kept our camera out of sight as much as we could. The townships first appeared when the dispossessed of the apartheid regime needed somewhere to live. It is hard to understand how after twenty years of democracy South Africa can remain so economically polarised.



Hairdresser at the Nekkies
A Nekkies hair salon operating out of a shipping container. All the hairdressers were the same.
Township shack in South Africa
Poverty in South Africa

After three-quarters of an hour or so we emerged from the Nekkies onto the R339 which led us south to a T-junction with the highway. Just before it joined the highway the R339 was on fire. A metre wide strip of flames danced up from the bitumen extending across the whole width of the road. There was no way through. A policeman turned the car ahead of us around. He laughed when we asked how we could get through to Port Elizabeth.

'No Port Elizabeth today,' he said, dismissing us with a wave of his hand.

We were still confused, but one thing was clear - this was no car accident. We were beginning to realise we had stumbled onto a riot.  Later we heard that cars ahead of us had been attacked with rocks. What we thought was burning bitumen were old tyres strung out across the road and set alight. It turned out that this was one of a series of rolling disturbances by Nekkies residents, protesting against inadequate housing.

Goats on the road in the Nekkies
Goats on the road.

Cows on the road in the Nekkies
Fresh milk!

Stressed and not a little bit frightened, by now we had no desire to go back through the township. We consulted our very inadequate map again and found a road leading north through the Knysna Forest. It connected with another leading south-west which would bring us out onto the highway 40 kilometres west of Knysna. We had no idea whether we could get through, or if we could, whether our way might be blocked again by more protests further along the highway, but we had very little to lose by trying.

The forest road quickly deteriorated to little more than a dirt track. The dark shade from the vegetation made avoiding the killer potholes difficult. Baboons eyed us curiously from the forest edges. In other circumstances it may have been a fun deviation.  Two hours later when we finally emerged yet again on the highway the road was clear and three hours after that we finally arrived at Port Elizabeth, tired, stressed and wondering whether we had made a mistake in coming to South Africa at all.

Riot at Kynsna


Note: I have only this one, very poor quality, photograph of the protest. It was taken on a side road, not where the main riot was.  However the following link is to a news site with photos showing the tyres burning on the highway.

http://southafricatoday.net/south-africa-news/protesters-close-n2-near-knysna-photos/

The topic of next week's post will be our stay at Shamwari, the largest private game reserve in the Cape. Keep an eye out for it next Friday/Saturday.

For last week's post click here

For links to the full list of my South African road trip posts click  here

34 comments:

  1. So South Africa may look like this too.... Aha! Not sure I like this side of it, Lyn. If I go I'll stick with Johannesburg.

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    1. Actually you will find Johannesburg a lot less safe. The area you would want to go to is Cape Town and the Western Cape. That's the pretty area where all my previous blog posts came from. Just email me direct if you want any advice. I am happy to help.

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    2. Hi Lyn well written accurate piece about my home country of Jo'burg.

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    3. It is a shame when safety is such an issue. Interesting to hear you confirm our concerns about Jo'burg.

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  2. Wow, Lyn, what a story! I certainly can see the reason for the people of the Nekkies to be protesting, but to be caught up in it, or close to it, is a little scary. Glad it all turned out alright.

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    1. I might protest too if I lived in the kind of condition which some of them have to endure. Mind you, I think I would draw the line at throwing rocks at cars and burning tyres.

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  3. We have a friend from S. Africa who left because of these issues, and it is very sad to hear about the poverty, violence, and racial segregation.

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    1. It is hard to understand why there is such poverty in a wealthy country. I read somewhere that South Africa has the greatest disparity between rich and poor of any country in the world.

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  4. A sobering read and glimpse of some people's reality. The great inequality between the haves and have-nots in countries such as this really pains me. The price of capitalism, perhaps.

    -Michelle
    http://michwanderlust.wordpress.com

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    1. I don't think it is the price of capitalism, more likely it is a function of corruption which sadly is rampant in South Africa.

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  5. From my travel it really seems like the poverty in Africa is unlike the poverty anywhere else; it really seems much deeper and more ingrained. I don't know enough about Africa to really understand why, but you can understand why the local people are frustrated. You travel to see the good and the bad of how other people live, but a situation like this, where you don't know your way around is stressful.

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    1. David and I have learned a lot about South Africa. We have both read recently published histories of the country and I also read Mandela's autobiography. I had no idea that there was such extreme poverty there before we went. I also didn't realise how endemic corruption had, sadly, become.

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  6. Admittedly a lot of things about Africa scare me, and I'm not sure this post has changed my mind:-) - I have friends from SA and would love to go. I've seen poverty and it pains me so.

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    1. It is a beautiful country and probably a lot safer than much of the rest of Africa.

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  7. We visited South Africa a year and a half ago. It was unnerving and sad to see that this beautiful country is teetering on a precipice. We didn't have the nerve to drive by ourselves, partly because we didn't know where the "no go" zones were. We also took the Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any riots.

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    1. I don't think we would have driven through the Nekkies had it not been for the closure of the main highway. It was stressful and a bit frightening but fascinating too.

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  8. It's frightening to be in a place where something out of the ordinary is happening and, because you're not from there, you don't know how to deal with it. It sounds, though, like you responded really well, without panicking. Well done!

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    1. Had we been in the first few cars who were pelted with rocks we might have panicked a bit more - lol.

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  9. Sad you had to experience this Lyn but it is the very real side of SA and why we left.

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    1. Sadly, a lot of people now living in Australia seem to have left South Africa because they can't see a future there. It is South Africa's loss and Australia's gain

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  10. Good to know that you made it safely through the riots, Lyn. I have only visited Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. While I enjoyed my time in Cape Town, I did not feel safe in either Jo'burg or Pretoria. Thanks for sharing this on Travel Tuesday.

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    1. I am not surprised you felt safer in Cape Town than you did in Jo'burg. We know quite a few South Africans who have moved to Australia and they all told us more or less the same thing. Go to the Cape - you will love it, but avoid Jo'burg.

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  11. I used to picture south Africa like this, but then saw pictures of the prettier side! It must've been one heck of an experience!

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    1. It was quite an experience. The area around Cape Town is the really beautiful part and that felt perfectly safe though.

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  12. Wow, what a confronting experience. I'm impressed you kept your cool, although perhaps if you'd known all the details you do now it might not have been so easy to do so! I found the glimpse into the township really illuminating, and obviously very sad. I don't pretend to understand the complex history of South Africa but I hope things improve there. It's in everyone's best interests.

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    1. The saddest thing about the township we drove through was that it was not the worst accommodation we saw by far. Too many South Africans live in what can only be described as humpies.

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  13. What bad luck but such an interesting experience!!! If I were you I would've broken down crying!!! I find it really sad how this is their ordinary everyday lives, while for people like me it's almost unheard of :((( Life isn't fair at all.

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    1. I don't think breaking down crying would have helped much but you're right it was tempting. Our plan B was to stay in Knysna for the night but who knows if we would have got a room or not.

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  14. What an adventure, I would have been scared and worried as well. Glad you guys only came away with a story to tell.

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    1. Haha - sometimes the worst incidents make the best stories.

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  15. Lyn, the GPS can bring you in huge trouble as it gets you often in middle of townships in South Africa. You were lucky to get out there without troubles. I traveled South Africa first on my own and later with my partner, George. I luckily didn't have any bad experienced, although I did sometimes stupid things like driving through a township as well. If you stay away from townships and don't drive at night it's pretty safe.

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    1. The sad thing is that the Nekkies was not the worst township we passed by far. To be fair to our GPS, it would never have directed us there had the highway not been blocked by rioting.

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  16. Lyn I thought I had left a comment but it must have been on Facebook. My hands sweat reading this post actually. Even a second time. I know you and David love to drive everywhere. Glad you made it through this day without major incident. What a story. Gulp!

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    1. Sometimes the most stressful days make the best stories. D and I will be dining out on this one for years.

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