Conversations with a Municipal Manager

In the seventies our home town near Johannesburg faced massive growth and became a hub for commuters staying nearby but working in Johannesburg. Traffic volumes were set to increase in the next decades and even though there were new highways replacing the old main road, aptly called Voortrekker Road for the locals, the cars and trucks still needed to by go through the town.

It was also the age of American style malls, and Eastgate and Sandton City were luring shoppers away from the downtown shopping hub of Johannesburg. Soon even the cinema theatres of Johannesburg and Hillbrow were to lose flavour and style to the mall cinemas. And the town council of Alberton was aware of this. So they engaged a town planner that would design a semi pedestrian open mall through Alberton and build a ring road around the CBD.

My father’s hub of commercial and residential buildings was on the northern end of the ring road. He stood to lose traffic to the commercial buildings on the main road, and to lose peace for the residential apartment buildings that would now have their backs exposed to the ring road and speeding trucks and taxis, instead of backing onto suburbia.

Before the plans were mooted officially some of the council members bought up houses in line with the future ring road. These would later be expropriated at prime cost by the council and make the councillors rich.

Remember in the fifties and sixties we were “blerrie Grieke” and were classed as second class citizens. The council was essentially Afrikaans in this conservative town that still had a curfew siren for blacks to be off the street at 9 pm. I remember hearing this gut wrenching noise, and wondering what emergency was befalling us. Until 1976, when it dawned on me there was inequality that raised fear in our gut. But I digress; suffice it to say there was tension between the Greeks and Afrikaners.

So my father launched a court objection after discussions failed. He engaged an American town planning expert with impressive credentials and unfortunately of Greek origin. It may have helped if he was from the Deep South and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but he was not. He appointed lawyers to fight his case. He spent a lot of money on this, committed as he was when he identified his goal. I remember the figure being around a million rand, which in those days was a lot of money.

During proceedings in court my father lost his cool and much to the concern of his law team, approached the bench to talk to the municipal manager who was under cross examination. He risked being charged with contempt of court.

As he approached he picked his nose. He broke through the manager’s personal space, as he did when threatening someone, and pulled his finger out, inspecting it like a cherished grape from his mother’s vineyard in Greece.

“I’m clean. But I am not so sure about you!”

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