Monaco fairy tale began in Johannesburg's sprawl

24th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Once a small mining town now absorbed into Johannesburg's sprawl, Benoni is the kind of suburb that urban sophisticates love to deride, the butt of jokes made at posher addresses.

But residents of Benoni -- the childhood home of the future princess of Monaco, swimming star Charlene Wittstock -- are now re-imagining their humble town as a place for fairy-tale beginnings.

Until Wittstock's engagement to Prince Albert II, Benoni was already known in glossy magazines as the birthplace of Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, another blonde beauty who became a global star.

Wittstock moved here from Zimbabwe in 1988, when she was 10 years old. Seven years later, she left for boarding school in the coastal city of Durban and to pursue a swimming career that took her to the Olympics in Sydney.

Still, Benoni claims her formative years. About 35 kilometres (20 miles) east of Johannesburg, it's a city of more than 600,000 that feels far smaller.

Like most South African cities, yet to move beyond the crude divisions imposed by Apartheid-era urban planning, the black majority lives in townships far from view of the main roads.

The modest town centre, born in the 1880s gold rush that also gave rise to Johannesburg, has been largely abandoned by whites for the last 20 years.

Informal stalls of African markets now line the streets that look on mine dumps. An old locomotive rusts in front of a deserted museum.

Residents both black and white mill about a huge shopping centre that boasts a fake Mississippi River paddle steamer.

Wittstock lived in northern neighbourhoods that were reserved for whites when her family here in the final years of apartheid.

Roads are orderly, clean and calm. Middle class homes are surrounded by walls but without the extreme security seen in wealthier Johannesburg.

"I miss my relatives, the friendly people and the Bunny Park," she told the local paper during her last visit here in February.

Indeed, the town's main attraction is a bucolic public park overrun with rabbits, a wonderland for children.

But, for all its apparent tranquility, South Africa's notorious crime problem threatens Benoni too. Police report a surge in carjackings, including one against Wittstock's father.

Mike Wittstock was held up with an AK47 aimed at his face as he was returning home one evening in February.

His nose was broken and the car stolen, with the incident making him consider a move to Monaco because of "the state of crime in this country".

Among the small white community, where everyone seems to know each other, many are planning to watch the wedding on television on July 2.

"We all are dressing up with our wedding dresses and we will party," said Bridget du Toit, a teacher sharing drinks with friends at a bar overlooking the Bunny Park.

At Wittstock's old school, she's remembered as an ordinary girl, well behaved except for skipping class to swim, and with a funny accent when she spoke Afrikaans.

"She was very quiet. She didn't like to be in the spotlight. It's very surprising to see, when you consider the life she's going to have," said Lyndsay Coelho, who taught her geography.

"She was very focused on her swimming. She knew exactly what she needed to do to achieve what she wanted to achieve."

Sensing an opportunity, another local school is asking the Monaco royals for helping building its own swimming pool, which would be named after Charlene Wittstock.

© 2011 AFP

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