Friday, January 22, 2010

"I don't believe in loans, I believe in bursaries"

Gathered outside Pachu General Dealer in Kanye, Eastern Cape, are a group of the village’s latest school leavers, the 2009 matriculants, already propping up the shebeen wall at 11am on a Friday morning.

The night before I’d met Ellen Hlakula, Walter Sisulu’s daughter-in-law. She lives in the biggest house in the village (with her own tap in the garden, no sharing). She said she was happy because democracy had brought change, but she lamented what alcohol was doing to the youngsters.

“Our problem is the bottle stores. There are so many bottle stores. They are disturbing our lives. Our children are drinking and taking drugs. We are so worried about that. Life is not all right because of the alcohol. They are drinking because they are not working. They are bored. This has made them corrupt," she said.

It’s not easy for “the youth of today” to have a good reputation at the best of times, but as I wandered around chatting to villagers, I realised the youth here have a reputation as either being layabouts who view democracy as their "right" to do nothing, or as thieves who steal from pensioners to fund their drinking. I wondered how they saw themselves.

Singalakha Mnquma (third from the right), 18, finished matric in 2009 at Loveday High School in Bhisho. He’s visiting Kanye, his family’s home village, for the weekend to attend a funeral.

"Democracy brings a lot of things, but I don’t know where they’ve ended up. It just brought grants for small kids, that’s the only thing I know about democracy. That’s a fact. There are no opportunities. There are more than 30 guys here who don’t know what to do.
Now I think there is no point in going to school. After you finish studying there are no jobs, we are just sitting here. In South Africa, I don’t know what’s going on. You just end up back here with your diploma.”

His friend, Sipheshle Hlakula (fourth from the right), 21, spent one year studying to be an electrician in East London after matriculating, but failed and now his parents can’t (or won’t, it wasn’t clear) pay for him to study further. “Life was way easier for my father and grandfather. In those days there were job opportunities. The important thing is to have a job. All I want is to have a job. Democracy has made me unemployed.”

The village pensioners I chatted with definitely agreed that it was much easier to get work in the dark days of apartheid, when trucks would arrive from Jo'burg and Durban to cart young men off to work on the gold mines and sugar cane plantations. I was always under the impression that people resented this migrant-labour lifestyle, but all the old fellas spoke fondly of these times. (It's also fair to say that the old fellas in Yorkshire talk fondly of WW2, and no one's wishing the world at war again anytime soon.)

What puzzled me though, and this is a topic on which I want to do more research, is where are the student loans for poor kids from poor, rural families? Surely they must exist, and if they do, why don’t these guys know about them?

I explained to Singalakha that most of my friends paid for their university/college education from a student loan, and are still paying them back. For kids from ordinary working class families, the only way to get ahead was to invest in your own future. His response: “I don’t believe in loans, I believe in bursaries”. It spun my head. We'd all love a rich fairy godmother to lubricate our way in life, but if that's who we're waiting for, we might have to wait by that pumpkin for a long time.

Looking back over the two weeks I spent interviewing people in this part of the old Transkei, one thing I heard over and over was: "The government hasn't... the government must... we're waiting for the government..." It was as if the government is a fairy godmother, with all the power and knowledge and magic dust to solve all the country's problems. And why do people think this? Is it because this is the message that the ANC government has sold to the people - as if they can buck the trend of every government the world has ever seen?

Where's the message that democracy does not equal communism? That to get ahead, you have to invest in yourself? There's no doubt the ANC has failed in its delivery of key services to rural people, but they also seemed to have failed to fill them in on what democracy really is good for - the freedom to make your own future.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"We are free, we are under democracy, but there is nothing"

Mr Khawulezile Hlakula, 66, is the son of the brother of Walter Sisulu (nephew is not an African word), one of South Africa's great struggle leaders. Sisulu's real surname was Hlakula, but he changed it to protect his family during the dark days of the struggle. I met Mr Hlakula, 66, in the village of Kanye, near Ngcobo, where Walter Sisulu grew up. I spent two nights here as a guest of Faith Hlakula, wife of a Khayelitsha pastor, who invited me to her husband's village so I could experience first-hand life in rural South Africa.

In this village there is electricity, a decent-enough gravel road connecting the village with the R61 main thoroughfare into Ngcobo, running water in the form of 1 tap for every 15 homes, but no government-issue toilets. In the middle of the night you use a bucket, and in the morning, you take a walk to the corrugated shack surrounding a rudimentary long drop at the bottom of the maize field.

Mr Hlakula sought me out, because he had a lot to say...

"Ask people here and they'll say you are the first lady who comes here and asks us what we feel, what we need. Government didn’t do that. There was not one single person here from government to ask, hey, what do you feel? What do you need, you people here? No. We wrote a letter straight to government saying we need this and this and this. We get no reply. We get no reply.

You must say the white government before was good because that government was keeping the pressure on, you grew up under pressure. This government says this is democracy, but there is no democracy to us. That government was putting the pressure, keeping us doing what that government needs. Now you can say, I’m free, but you get nothing.

About 1 million people are not working, but the government don’t send any delegate to come and see why these guys don’t work, why they are suffering because they cannot get education. They don't try to get education straight to the people – no, not like that. That old government was very good, really, because we were not suffering from work at that time.

You see, the difference, we are free, we are under democracy, but there is nothing. There is no work, no money, no nothing. You can’t have education without money. There’s a lot of guys here who have Std 10, they are suffering, they do nothing. They are drinking. It’s our democracy that creates that. At that time we were under pressure. At that time, you’d never see a young person here. You’d never go to the bottle store and buy a bottle of brandy. That was a good government. Now it’s free for everyone to go get a brandy or beer to drink. Those things are going to spoil our children."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"I feel closer to a country like Somalia"

“I will never vote again. If a political party gives me work first, then I will vote for them. The political leaders want votes from us, then after they get the votes they forget about us and go and help other nations and other areas. If something is happening in Mozambique, they make sure they help out there, but they forget about the lives of the people in their area. I think they know the local people will always vote for them, that’s why they don’t care about us. They think we are forced to vote for the ANC because there is no one else. But if the other parties can try and up their game, maybe political parties like the ANC can wake up.

I don’t feel part of South Africa. Here in the Transkei, I feel closer to a country like Somalia or Zimbabwe, countries suffering from starvation. We are getting poorer and poorer. There’s no hope. You see people complaining on the TV about service delivery and instead of changing, things are getting worse. We’ve given up. Especially in the villages. We have given up because things are not getting any better."

These are the words of Ntombi Sobuza, 34, from Ntlaza village in Pondoland, responding to my question of how life had changed for them since 1994. She spoke to me through a translator. I met Ntombi in the spaza shop at the Isinuka sulphur springs about 10km outside Port St Johns. There were about 15 people gathered out of the rain in this dilapidated shack shop, all wellness seekers who had travelled from villages around the Transkei to bathe in the sulphuric waters, sniff the sulphuric gases (which they call 'avicksini') and paint their skin with the white clay that lines the pools that's known to cure skin ailments. It's the Transkei version of Iceland's Blue Lagoon, except here it's free to take the waters. Which is a good thing, because Ntombi, like all of the other people who were here to take the waters, is unemployed.

Does she have hope? "We are pinning our hope on 2010, that life will be much more better. Maybe they are going to be asked to be strikers of Bafana Bafana, and then they will get a lot of money," she jokes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The sick heart

Well, I wanted to find out about the beating heart of this country, and today I found it was on a life-support machine. Well, it would be if such high-tech equipment existed at the Isilimela Clinic at the end of a 17km dirt road, potholed and scarred by years of heavy rains and forgotten promises.

“It is cleaner than when I brought my father here,” commented Jimmy Selani, my translator, as we sat outside the wards, waiting to corner a doctor or a nurse. “We took my father home to die. You don’t come here to get better. If God permits you, you live, if not, you die. It’s not their problem. People are just here for the jobs, to get their salary at the end of the month. They don’t smile. If you are in hospital, you need encouragement, you need hope, you need to be encouraged to get better, but these people don’t care. They just want their money at the end of the month.”

We managed to corner a friendly Nigerian doctor who had been working at the clinic for a year. He helped me to speak to Nurse Cynthia Qikani who had been at the hospital since 1987. I asked how things had changed over the 15 years of democracy – had services at this hospital improved?

Her answer stopped my heart.
“Before 1994 everything was going good. We had doctors, nurses, equipment and services. In 1994 we thought the change was all for the good. We can’t blame the government, but we are blaming them. We are in a dilemma. As time goes on there is a constant decline.
We used to order medical equipment from a central medical store. Now we have to use tenders and the process is very slow. It is not easy to get equipment. It takes from six months to a year to get new equipment. It used to take one month. We are failing because the tenders are failing us. It is difficult for us to get basic equipment like blood pressure testing machines, urine sticks, blood sugar testing equipment. We have it now but the tenders are not able to meet our demand."

I asked her why the ANC is forgetting its people.
“I think they do try and improve services, but I think the government needs to evaluate now they way it is going because we are going nowhere.
We have five wards and two nurses, but the government says there is no money for nurses. We need more staff, more doctors, and we need we need people who are actually well-trained and competent in charge of the tenders.
If you were to draw a graph, it would go down, down, down, and just recently start to curve up. I don’t have hope yet. We have been more than ten years without nurses and we’ve been promised and promised a tarred road, but it is just talk.
In November 2009 we got a visit from the Department of Health and they said they are going to fix the road. We believe them, but to say is not to do.”

I leave with my heart on my knees. The Transkei is the birthplace of the ANC. Mandela’s home in Qunu is just over 120km from here. This is the homeland for the people who struggled to bring freedom, democracy, equality and prosperity to the majority of South Africans. So why have these people been forgotten? It is a disgrace on this nation that in 2010 there is no tarred road to this hospital and that the furrows in the dirt are so big outside the main gates that I even struggled to mount it in a high wheelbase bakkie.

“Thank you for coming, because that shows you care,” said Cynthia. “Maybe you can tell people what it is like and maybe one day things will change.”

This is one of the most beautiful regions in South Africa. The land is fertile. The climate fantastic. You know your neighbour. It seems obvious that the government would want to provide health services on par with the cities so that people don’t feel they have to flee to depressing squatter camps on the edges of Jo’burg and Cape Town chasing a better life.

The better life could be here. If the comrades wasn’t so busy buying fancy cars.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Driving Miss Pondo

Around me the night whirrs and croaks. I’m back in Pondoland. Today I drove 3 ½ hours from Port Shepstone to Thea’s place just outside Port St Johns. I’d romantically imagined spending the journey marvelling at giant African sky blues, but instead my amazement was saved for the potholes. Oh, for a chauffeur.

Of course, most people round here do have chauffeurs. That is, people are crammed into the back of minbus taxis, enduring the curves and the bounces without any say as to how fast or slow they go.

Steve Biko railed against white liberals who wanted to be part of the struggle, but then went home to their cushy white lives and the end of a day of protests and underground meetings. He argued that if they really wanted to be part of the struggle, they should step out of their privileged lives, their privileged education systems, and get one of the menial jobs that were only on offer to black people at the time. That they could never be truly part of it because they didn’t know what it was like to live it. I felt a bit like that today. There’s me wanting to know what beats in the heart of South Africa, but I don't want to travel by minbus taxi. Why? Because I don't have the need, the need for speed.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a minibus taxi service for wimps? “We promise to take longer than anyone else to get there," would read the bumper sticker on eSlowCoach Taxis. They would obey the speed limit, take hairpin bends at the recommended 40km and 60km and never, ever overtake on a blind corner. They might even play soothing whale music. Of course, it’d cost a little bit more, but I could live with that. And so would everyone else.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

William Ernest Henley

I have often wondered how Nelson Mandela kept going through his 27 years in prison. How he came out with his head high and his compassion intact. This week I learned that this poem Invictus was part of his armour. Now I’ve added it to mine.

Invictus is also the title of the film (directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the book Playing the Enemy by journalist John Carlin) that tells the true story of how Madiba (Morgan Freeman) inspired Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), then captain of the Springboks, to lead his men to victory in the 2005 Rugby World Cup.

Many of us remember the big picture that played out on the world stage culminating with Madiba, in the Number 6 jumper, handing the World Cup trophy to Pienaar after the Bokke beat the All Blacks against all odds. This film teleports you behind the scenes of Madiba’s first year in office, revealing the details of his tactical and compassionate brilliance, and his ordinary humanity.

This is not, as I had half-expected, a feel-good Hollywood flick that makes white rugby-loving South Africans feel better about how sport saved the day. It’s a film about the hard choices of leadership and about finding inspiration when it seems thin on the ground. It’s also funny, Freeman is utterly convincing as Madiba, and Matt Damon's South African accent is unfaltering. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One step forward

And so from the scorched valleys of the western Cape, I ended up after Christmas in the lush sub-tropical Transkei Wild Coast, to walk 61-km along the coast of Pondoland, home of the AmaPondo people.

I won’t lie to you, I was nervous. None of the stories I’d heard so far were positive. Two friends who had done the hike had been struck down with coma-inducing tick-bite fever. My brother – who is a confirmed racist – advised I carry a knife in my hiking socks to fend off hungry Xhosas. “They’re not what they used to be,” he said. And a colleague from TIME who spent the last elections reporting from the trading centre of the region, Mthatha, professed it to be one of the worst places in the country, a shame on the nation, and could not fathom why so many people thought this was a nice place to go on holiday. I packed an extra bottle of insect repellent and went anyway.

The journalist turned out to be closest to the truth. Mthatha has become one of the world’s great shit holes. The best business to be in – there are at least two on every street – is funeral parlours, a testament to the HIV/AIDS crisis crippling this country. The second best business is abortions. Peeling off lamposts, shop windows and dustbins are home-printed signs advertising safe same-day services by Dr Mark for just R250. A rival charges R300 for “Womb cleaning & blood detoxification, 100% safe and pain-free”.

But, Mthatha is not Pondoland, nor is it rural South Africa. It might be 1,300km from Cape Town and even further from any decent standard of living, but it is a city. The aim of my research is to get beyond urban voices, so I breathed a sigh of relief when the taxi drove past the last abortion poster and sped off down the R61 towards Port St Johns.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Taking the plunge

Anyway, enough of the white guilt. Rather let me explain a bit more about how this Open Society media fellowship came about. During the 2009 SA elections, one headline in the international press caught my eye: “Will Zuma bring tribalism to South Africa?” (BBC online, 23 April 2009).

To my mind, at its worst it questioned whether Jacob Zuma, a former goatherd and proud African traditionalist who had emerged from a welter of corruption and rape charges to run for president, would lead South Africa into the Heart of Darkness. At best, it worried that Zuma's polygamy and fondness for dancing around in animals skins were an indication that the rest of his values were out of step with the ideals of democracy – political tolerance, the rule of law, gender equality, independence of institutions.

It got me wondering what life was like now in the old Transkei, Ciskei and Kwazulu, those parts of the country where tribal leadership had been the order of the day during the apartheid years? How had democracy changed the life and values of people who live so close to the land, in villages where there are still headmen and chiefs? Do they feel part of the progress or left behind? What parts of the new-found democracy do they value, and what parts do they wish had never landed on their doorstep? What has been lost and gained in the last 15 years?

We tend to take for granted that democracy is the holy grail of political rule. But are democratically elected councillors as effective as headmen and chiefs in metering justice and keeping the peace, and how are these two systems of government working together?

Around the same time I started sussing out the Mail & Guardian jobs page every week. I wanted to come home, but I didn’t just want to lie on the beach for a holiday, I wanted to make myself useful. When I spotted the Open Society fellowship offering funding for researchers to look into meanings of democracy in modern-day SA, I saw an opportunity to take part in a chapter of this country’s story. I’ve learnt to swim. Now it’s time to jump in at the deep end.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Larnies in the Lallies

The first person I met in Pondoland was the last person I expected to find there. Thea Lombard is a single, white, blonde 59-year-old Afrikaans woman. On paper she sounds like she should be running a nice bed and breakfast in Hermanus (and until five years ago, she did), but this is a woman who long since leapt off the page.

"I've nearly had about four head-on collisions here today," laughs Thea, as she steers us up the 1-km dirt track to her house. "I keep thinking this is my drive-way, but it's not, it's actually a road. My poor neighbours," she cackles again, hooting and waving at a neighbour who swerves and waves back.

Five years ago Thea sold up her life in the western Cape and bought a derelict old farm 10km outside Port St Johns. With the help of waifs and strays – who are drawn to her like moths to a flame, myself included – she has created a chill-out lodge/culinary haven called the Wild Coast Kitchen which blows your mind.

There are 11 rooms, and on arrival your pillows are scattered with "Transkei rose petals", ie. fresh marijuana leaves. The bar, lounge and dining room are in a huge thatched central house with glass walls overlooking a misty tropical valley with a river winding through it. Guests are invited to dine together each night and sample Thea's inventive dishes. On our first night she spent three hours nurturing wood coals, and then seared fillet steaks directly on the coals, shaking off hot embers before serving with a yoghurt-based sour lemon and garlic sauce. Truly divine.

We had a free day before the hike began, and Thea piled us into the back of her 4x4, with another wild waif she had just picked up in Port St Johns, stopped to buy four Transkei Dumpies (750ml bottles of Black Label) at the local shebeen, and bounced us down “the worst road in the Transkei” to the village of Umgazana, where she has her own holiday hideaway.

The idea that a white Afrikaans woman had her holiday cottage in the middle of the lallies (adapted from the Xhosa, a rural village) threw me. Most white folk in this country build electric fences to keep the swart gevaar (black danger) out. But it turned out she wasn’t the only one. Umgazana is full of little holiday cottages, right next door to thatched Pondo huts, where white families decamp for the December holidays. Supposedly the whiteys “bought” the land from the local chief years and years ago for a bottle of brandy and a bit of cash. Apartheid, it seemed, was a good idea for most of the year, but not at Christmas. How very Christian.

With democracy, however, these cottages are now on the endangered list. The government has declared it illegal to build within 1000m of the high-water mark, and has already burnt down similar cottages in other Wild Coast villages, only to feel the wrath of the local people. The whites, as it turns out, bring much-needed revenue to these small villages. They pay the ladies to clean and look after their children (nothing has changed there) and they buy their freshly picked mussels, crayfish, oysters etc.

Though it wasn’t always that way. I chatted with Sophelina Mbuzeni, 62, an Umgazana grandmother who cares for a brood of 15. I asked her how things had changed since the end of apartheid. “Things are better now. It used to be difficult to get close to white people. You used to go to their houses to sell them fish from the sea and they didn’t want you to come near them. They believed you were dirty and had lice. That attitude has changed," she said.

This attitude shift certainly made a difference for Thea. She bought her cottage from the whites themselves, a white wife to be exact, after her husband was found enjoying a bit of rumpy-pumpy with his black lady neighbour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Learning to swim

“When I was a child growing up in the village, I didn’t even know we were oppressed. You saw that the white man came by in a fancy car and that the black man always drove an old broken car, but you thought that’s just the way it was meant to be. You called the white man Nkosi (boss) and his son Nkososana (little boss), and you lifted your hat when they went past. That was just the way it was. We enjoyed our lives. We didn’t see the oppression," says Jimmy Selani, South Africa's Best Emerging Guide of the Year 2004, and our guide for the first day of the hike. Usually Jimmy treads the whole 61km, but in December he puts his feet up and gives young guides a chance to make some money to pay towards their education.

His words take me back to the first time someone in Europe asked me what it was like to growing up under apartheid. No one had ever asked me before, and I didn’t know how to answer. What was it like? It was like ordinary everyday life. Like Jimmy, I didn’t see the oppression.

Black people rode on different buses because they lived in different places to us and those buses didn’t go to where I lived, so I didn’t ride on them. Black people had a different entrance to the shops because they ate different food to us and they sold that other food in the other part of the shop. It sounds impossibly naïve now, and it makes me cringe to admit it, and even makes me doubt my adult critical reasoning faculties, but that was just the way it was.

You were a child growing up in a country where the press was censored; where sanctions, for all their good, also made us isolated from international debate. In fairness, I have South Africa friends who also say to me “I can’t believe you didn’t know”. But they were privileged to be the children of professors and politically astute, educated people. My parents were economic refugees from the imploding hard industry of Yorkshire, crushed under the mighty fist of Mrs Thatcher. They’d got married at 19, had three children, and in 1982 when I was 5, after two years of being on the dole (a great shame in those days), my dad found a job making beer bottles in Olifantsfontein. We never had a black maid because my mother believed you must clean your own house. That’s how it’s done in Yorkshire and that’s how it was done in our Yorkshire bubble in Benoni.

A child’s life isn’t like anything other than the life it is. We’ve got so much to take in, in those early years, we have to take a lot at face value, otherwise we’d never get off the ground. I wish I could say I was a child of the struggle. I wish I’d been old enough to protest in the 1980s and wear defiant T-shirts. But I was busy learning to swim.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A long walk to freedom

We shared our hiking party with four Afrikaners who initially eyed us with suspicion. They later confessed over some Transkei dumpies they’d been worried we’d label them racists because they’d hired two black local porters to help with their backpacks. All was forgiven when they realised we too were doing our bit to “boost the local economy”. With John, our porter, Tsepho, Mandla (Power) and our path finder Coach, we were 10 in all, following the beaches, goat trails and cliff-top paths that carve the way from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay.

That first day saw us cross the Umngazi River, alongside which Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel spent their honeymoon, and meander down long sandy beaches with only cows for company. It was New Year’s Eve, and as the day drew in, we arrived at our first VBA (village based accommodation), a roomy thatched hut with an inside toilet and shower, and an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean. In the world of VBAs, this was 5-star.

As we took off our boots and took in the view, our hostess and cook Linah, 29, offered us milky coffee and doorstops of white bread. We asked her how life had changed since 1994. “Now we have electricity and water, but other than that, nothing has changed. Life is good here. Look around, the people here are fat. If you have mielie meal you can get oysters or mussels or crayfish from the sea,” she said. Later that night we ate Linah’s African chicken surprise washed down with Black Labels from the local shebeen, and then joined some larnies from the lallies to sing Auld Lang Syne and bring in the bells.

The days thereafter melded together in a lazy blur of mangrove swamps and rickety row boats; cream soda green thatched huts and cartwheeling children; bungled attempts to learn Xhosa and haltering conversations in English; the cool of a sea breeze at the crest of a long hill.

I remember Mandla standing bare-chested on the edge of a green cliff-top, the wind whipping through his red T-shirt as he held it high above his head, framed against a brilliant blue sky.

I remember the young men in Burberry-style suits strutting down a crowded beach on January 2nd, showing off their status as recent entrants to manhood after surviving the Xhosa initiation ritual.

I remember our porters buying crayfish from local divers and cooking them fresh on an open fire. I felt like one of those jammy people you read about in foodie magazines who can conjure up exotic dishes in out-of-the-way places with the same way ease that I can fry an egg.

But most of all I remember the mama who stopped and welcomed me into the village of Hluleka. “Be free here. You are welcome. We have no crime here. Please, be free,” she said, enveloping my hands in hers as I reached the top of the last hill of the third day.

Ironic that the fight for freedom was won in the cities, but only out here, miles away from the safety of electric fences and 24-hour security guards, can you feel really free.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We'll always have Parys

Spent Christmas with my family on an olive farm in the Tulbagh valley in the Western Cape, about an hour and half’s drive from Cape Town. It’s a valley for vines, olives, fruit trees, and according to the sign that greets you on the other side of the windy Nuwe Kloof Pass: This Valley is For Jesus. Well, it was Christmas after all. It’s also one of those towns in South Africa that have blossomed under the back-to-the-countryside trend that has emerged here, and in Europe, over the past five or so years, hand in hand with the organic movement and the awakening of our environmental consciences.

In South Africa, though, I think this return to our roots has even more poignancy. There was a time not too long ago when we would have done – and did - anything to flee from these sleepy hinterland faming dorps (villages). People used to poke fun at places with names like Parys and Paternoster, perhaps because their Afrikaans names reminded us too much of the “Afrikaner” politics that we were only starting to become collectively ashamed of, and to collectively bare the blame.

And perhaps also because after years of sanctions and pariahdom, we were now finally allowed to rejoin the world community. Hell, why would you stay in Parys when you could go to Paris? And then we remembered why. Because of the undiluted stillness of the Karoo and the Free State and the Western Cape. Because at night, the giant clear skies shimmer and sparkle as brightly as when you jet over a world city. Because there's hundreds of beautiful solid old farmhouses with giant stoeps (balconies) begging for a lick of paint and an art gallery to be installed on their creaking wooden floors.

In Tulbagh there’s a sweet coffee shop/deli/boutique/gallery called Things I love. Unfortunately the knick-knacks for sale are way overpriced, but sitting on their balcony, overlooking the tree-lined Church Street, feels a bit like being at granny's – if your granny was very stylish and subscribed to Vogue, that is.

The other great thing about Tulbagh is that you can get there by train.
There aren’t too many weekend destinations accessible by rail, but you can jump on the MetroRail in central Cape Town, and be in Tulbagh 2 ½ hours later.

And what more can I tell you? It was your typical family Christmas where you spend half your time squabbling with your mother and the other half feeling guilty about it. Me and the rest of civilization. Enough said.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Becoming African

It was 1995 when I first saw the Transkei. I say saw, because all I did was spy it through a car window. At speed. Doors locked. Windows wound. Don’t stop until you get to Umtata Shell Ultra City. It was the year after South Africa’s first democratic elections. Before then most Rhodes University students who lived in Durban used to make the long journey home via Bloemfontein, adding another 500km to their journey. Now our country was united, the border posts that separated the Republic of South Africa from the homeland of the Transkei were unmanned, and the unrest and bloodshed that had rocked the Transkei – of which I understood nothing – was over. We were free to travel through this unknown land. As long as we didn’t get out of the car.

As I drove with my then boyfriend back to his parent's Natal home, I felt like a child in an old-fashioned sweet shop, where the tasty treasures and pretty colours are stacked on top of each other, behind glass, way out of reach. The Transkei is not a flat land. Hills grow out of more hills. Smartie coloured thatched huts speckle downy green slopes. The road winds and curves and then when it forgets to bend, chances are you’re on a mountain plateau and any moment the world either side will drop away to reveal a deep valley. It was a world away from the brown brick block-like architecture favoured by the apartheid government, and to my 19-year-old eyes, it was as if someone had stolen my blindfold.

I’d love to tell you that this was when I was inspired to discover the heartlands of the country that raised me, but that would be a lie. Rather, my naïve, anxious 19-year-old self was relieved when we were spat out the other side, back to the safety of straight roads and neat rows of Natal. It took another 15 years and 40 countries before I got that itch.

It happened one wet evening in Glasgow. It was raining. Again. A grumbling, misery-packed cloud had blacked out the sun and we’d lit a fire in a rusty oil drum to keep warm. It wouldn’t have be so bad, but it was mid-summer’s eve and we’d invited everyone we knew over for a braai. Fortunately the Scots are never ones to let a downpour dampen their spirits, but for me it was the beginning of the end.

For ten years, like so many other restless souls, I’d been using the Queen’s sodden island and its Great British Pounds as a springboard from which to gorge myself on the world. I’d notched up adventures that one day might impress my grandchildren, but as the rain made a mockery of our summer party, I became restless in another way. Restless for roots. Warm roots. There was just one problem: the country that raised me wasn’t there any more.

It’s neat, dull, whites-only streets had been replaced with vibrant, colourful potholed roads and going back would mean facing up to a horrible truth: that as much as I like to believe I am the captain of my soul, I’m actually damaged goods. Like the rest of my generation, I was a child of a racist political system that raised me to have no knowledge or understanding of how the majority of my fellow South Africans lived, thought, felt, were. Racial segregation didn’t just mean black people couldn’t participate in white society. It meant white people couldn’t participate in black culture. It meant we were ignorant of the place we called home.

How could I crave to put down roots in South Africa, if I didn’t even know it? At best, that craving would be disingenuous. At worst, it would be a craving for the past. And so, with the help of a journalism fellowship from the Open Society Foundation, I set out to go back to the old Transkei, the land that raised Mandela and Sisulu and Tambo, and this time, get out of the car. Some might think I’d be better off going to the urban townships of Soweto or Khayelitsha, to find the pulse of modern South Africa. But I know enough to know that every black South African keeps one foot in the village, one foot in their heartland, and if you truly want to understand something, you need to go to the source.