Friday, November 7, 2008


Let's assume that you are a true philanthropist. You care sincerely - in which case I salute you. Thank you for wanting to improve the lot of my former compatriots - but don't expect me to go with you! It would simply hurt too much!
There was a time when my husband and I went back three times a year, bought a flat from where we could carry on the work of creating awareness of Hemochromatosis - the world's most common genetic disorder - connecting with relatives and and revisiting our favourite haunts; but now I can only present what it would be like to see well-loved friends, aged and drastically changed, as an analogy for my most recent visit to South Africa. It was not sad - as might have been the case after so many years had passed. It was a shock! Sheer agony! - That's the only way I can even begin to describe how it was for me when I returned two years ago in order to do research for my book, The Yardstick, which is set in the Kalahari.

The time spent in the Province of North Cape, in Upington and the Kalahari*, was magical, as was a visit to the South Western Cape (where my novel, 'Storm Water' is set) - but the closer I got to what is now known as Gauteng - where I used to live - the more depressed I became ... I have been sick at heart ever since! More that that - I have been physically ill!

As our our children grow older, we age along with them and the change is gradual; so imperceptible that we are hardly aware of the passage of time. So it has been for some of my dear ones left behind in South Africa. But only some! Those are the ones who have learned (or steeled themselves) to adapt, and now, although they are also occasionally heard to complain, they seem to have become inured to the violence and destruction of so much that once was beautiful. That is the projected, almost defensive attitude - and I could not bear to witness it.

I have learnt to love Canada and I now live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, with the ocean on three sides of me. I’m happy and grateful for the peace, security, and the opportunities my new country has offered my family and me — but for many years it only took a picture of Table Mountain to make the tears flow. And while working on a family album recently, seeing the images of so many loved ones, and reflecting on their contribution to South Africa, was at times nothing short of excruciating! Yet, in spite of this, the vehemence with which a XHOSA woman from the Transkei expressed her feelings, came as a surprise.

She shared my table at breakfast one morning, at the B&B at which I was staying, exhibiting great interest in a 'Canadian's' impressions, which I was careful to tone down, and I mentally censored my remarks each time before I answered any of her questions. I said nothing provocative and was thus completely unprepared when, suddenly, out of nowhere, she burst out passionately with, "I wish it could all just be the way it was long ago! I wish we could just go back to a time before 1994!"

I turned my face away to stare through the window, at a loss for words, and wondering if any of my Canadian friends would ever believe me if I were to tell them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Flag of the 'New South Africa - the 'Rainbow Nation.'

Without employing numerous melodramatic adverbs it would be difficult to put into words the sorrow I felt upon seeing the destruction of so much that had once been a source of pride to the people, or how devastated I was when I was driven past what used to be the magnificent Joubert Park*, once the jewel of Johannesburg. There, in days gone by, executives from nearby places of business were wont to bring a book through which to browse in the shade of lofty trees, while lesser employees enjoyed many a lunch break among the well-kept flowerbeds, ablaze with a riot of flowers. Students from the Art School had found the park to be an oasis in the city, where they could gather to eat their sandwiches on manicured lawns, and hear the cooing of turtledoves above the constant hum of traffic from the surrounding areas.

Now, finding the trees and the flowers gone, the doves silent, and nothing but litter everywhere, I was overwhelmed ... Gone, too,I was told, are the days when a nurse, walking through a dangerous area was safe, as long as her uniform distinguished her; or a doctor would be protected by a white coat and the stethoscope around his neck. On the very steps of Johannesburg General Hospital, a young female physician on sabbatical from Britain had been stabbed — on three, different occasions!

There seemed to be no end to the horror. My thoughts keep returning to how heartbroken I was when, after a service, I emerged from the beautiful church of Saint Boniface, in Germiston, to be confronted with what was left of the once highly-rated hotel across the street, and of what used to be regarded as a prestigious apartment building, opposite it. I was shocked to learn that the formerly excellent Carnegie Library was now only another fine building reduced to ‘slum’ status.

I might have taken this sort of thing in my stride in several other parts of the world, but evidence of such unjustifiable destruction, here — in this city that held so many memories - stunned me! I can still remember a time when the first metal detectors were installed at the entrances to public buildings and shopping malls on the Witwatersrand, which is now a part of ‘Gauteng' ... A time when ladies had their purses checked, the banks first installed the plate-glass ‘cages’ which still exist, and through which only one client at a time can leave or enter; when small businesses began to keep their doors locked, and customers had to identify themselves before the doors would be opened to them. But, not since I returned to South Africa in 1988, and, driving down a Kempton Park street, saw gaping holes instead of store fronts, and bombed-out buildings without glass, had I been as shattered as I was on this last visit, when I saw, in another town, what had become, not only of the building in which on one of my favourite tearooms had been housed, but of the entire street!

This was not due to bomb damage, however. After the owners (who had been robbed twice at knife point) had moved out, the building had simply, systematically and wantonly, been vandalized. Broken bricks were strewn across the sidewalk, garbage littered the curb, and all around me I noticed similar signs of neglect and dereliction.

[*Joubert Park
Named for General Piet Joubert, my mother's uncle, about whom Joseph Rudyard Kipling (the English author and poet, best known for The Jungle Book, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Gunga Din and The Man Who Would Be King etc.] - wrote:
With those that bred, with those that loosed the strife,
He had no part whose hands were clear of gain;
But subtle, strong, and stubborn, gave his life
To a lost cause, and knew the gift was vain.

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