Thursday, January 30, 2014

800 miles to Cape Town: Venda Sun 3

Amampondo in Cape Town December 1994

Venda Sun,  Part 3

Our journey to Cape Town at the end of 1994 started on the Golden Highway, a resonant name for a road that now has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous in the country and in the last couple of years, has been blocked by protesters from Orange Farm, angry at the lack of basic services and broken promises by local politicians.

There's a difference between what I wrote in my diary and the other memories I have, particularly of Cape Town. Possibly it was because I did all the driving on the 868 mile journey south.

However unreliable my diary though, it's marked by a sense of extremes, of discomfort as well as the moments when the beauty of the country almost makes up for everything it throws at us.

At the end of the first day's driving I managed the briefest note:

December 27

Karroo starts about three hours into the journey. Flat dry fields, turns to scrub then hills and mountains appear, a massive range to our left.  We make good time, about half way to Richmond. Accommodation troubles. Ostriches, heat, aloes, net curtains, police, accident, etc. Red earth. Beaufort West on 28th. Breakfast, problems, AWB graffiti, Table Mountain.


What actually happened is we were refused a place to stay that night. I went to ask about rooms in a B&B. Yes, there were rooms, until I went back with Risenga. Curtains twitched, police were called and suddenly there was a couple on the doorstep with armed police and we were despatched to a place down the road that 'catered for people like us.'

We could barely afford this first trip. I covered some of our costs with commissioned features on the challenges facing South African local government. I conducted at least one of those interviews with Giya clamped to me, feeding. I thought her constant crying, her need to feed, was the heat. When I arrived home, pus burst from a lump on her leg - she'd had a reaction to her first vaccinations and my GP told me she would have been in great pain.

The cost of four airfares, though, car hire, petrol, everything else, was non-negotiable. We saw how financially stretched the South African family was and spending so much on our visit felt extravagant. But I couldn't imagine otherwise - trips to South Africa, however infrequent, had to be factored in.

And as we sweated between Johannesburg and Cape Town, passing all the lone walkers in the early mornings, I could never have anticipated that those men, tramping the road for as long as it took, and the questions they provoked could still be having an impact on all our lives.

It is because I asked Risenga's mother where they were going and her answer 'Lesotho' that Mrisi 20 years later will be playing at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

And that's just one of the consequences of this random conversation in a hot car, in translation, with a baby crying for milk, windows down, wondering where the next water might be, the next small town with an English or Welsh name, and service station.

On our next visit we went to Lesotho and met a group of young musicians playing home-made instruments for guests and tourists.

They became Sotho Sounds who went on to play Womad and the 2013 Edinburgh Festival. In 2014 they'll be back in Scotland for the Commonwealth Games and Mrisi is appearing with that group because those men walking hooked themselves into our futures and shaped the next 20 years.

So this first trip was a baptism. Possibly its impact is impossible to quantify. Its absence, though, is terrible to imagine and this morning, over coffee, I was listening to another news report about parents taking children out of school during term-time.

On later trips we took Mrisi and Giya out of school and I'd have fought, if necessary, for their right to know where they came from, meet family, note the passing of time, be able to make a connection as children and now adults. There was no Facebook and Skype in 1994. Phone calls felt prohibitive - our bills were ridiculous so every conversation felt like an emergency, conducted in half-shouted half phrases.


Undated, written in February 1995

The man walking alone on the road is miles from anywhere. Wrapped in a blanket, a cloak, he believes a lift will come so he just carries on. Here it’s easily 200 miles between petrol stations. He’s at a mid way point. To his east the ridge of mountains he’s come from – his country (Lesotho) buried among them. We can’t give him a lift but this man is me. This man walking into the road as if it was a painting, the mist he passes through, the long haul up through the mountains, the flat fertile wine region with its green vineyards, water tanks and pasture protected by hills, feeling his muscles relax as he levels out again onto the flat but knowing now there will be nothing but the occasional layby with trees and rubbish bins, windmills and aloes. He carries water, drinks sparingly, carries food. He’s used to this trek, knows someone will stop. There’s no need to put out a thumb on a road like this...... It won’t be the holidaymakers, who flap past, windows dark as popstars, it won’t be the lorries, they won’t break their speed, pummeling into the searing tarmac, spinning dust into the roadside. It may be a mini bus of Sowetans leaving for Johannesburg at dawn after trading in the rich suburbs of the coast, factory bought china for unwanted clothes. The man walking alone is tiny at first. We see him for miles bobbing in and out of the mirage like the seal we saw swimming in the bay near Cape Town which you said was a baby, and lost. Then suddenly he’s in the mirror, his face gone..... He probably wouldn’t understand why in this big car with a boot full of food and clothes, a wallet stretched with cash, we aren't happy. I don’t either. The opportunity, like the O on the mileometre, keeps coming. We keep missing it. We count windmills.


I don't remember unhappiness on that visit although I do remember tension and being ill. Every trip to South Africa carries its own tension. Perhaps some of it is a result of the frustration it always generates in me and some of it seems endemic.

A break in the driving

December 28

Table mountain appears as we drive over a hill, just like that. Cape Town is shrouded in a haze, looks polluted. Once we’re through the Karroo, the landscape becomes fertile, green, then vines in rows and we’re in the Brede River Valley, mountains are spectacular, lush and fertile. We see our first squatter camp for ages just outside Worcester. All these place names are bizarre, taken from Europe, England, Wales. There’s even a beach called Llandudno.

The African names have gone, although in Soweto they now they call J'burg Gauteng, its original name. We arrived relatively early in Cape Town, around 5pm and head for the market square where we meet Simpiwe from Amampondo. The insults of the last 2 days forgotten, almost. Risenga’s immediately more relaxed in Cape Town.

Later I wrote:

On Table Mountain we ate mangoes until our arms were sticky with juice. On the Lion’s Head we ate ice cream and squinted through the haze at Robben Island. It was so close. Mrisi chased guinea fowl through the trees.

December 30

To beach early along the coast. We drive through the wealthy coastal suburb, Sea Point, it’s like St Tropez, other parts remind me of Chelsea. There are loads of international restaurants, the most I’ve seen in one place. The coastline is beautiful, Atlantic, rocky, mountainous. White sand. Good facilities – these beaches were once exclusively white. We end up at a beach in Fish Hook, not at all busy, a few families with kids and couples, mostly white. Risenga goes to the defence of a black woman standing by a car who’s accused of trying to damage it by a Boar. Also tells two Africaaners with alsations to pick up their dog shit. Got too much sun, the wind on the beach is deceptive. Collect shells with Mrisi. He’s very clingy at the moment, Giya’s very hungry. But they’re having a good time as is R’s mum.


We celebrated New Year in Cape Town with Amampondo, the group that brought Risenga to the UK, to the Brighton Festival and later a degree at Brighton University. In one of the photos of our trip, Dizu holds Giya and I hold Mrisi in the corridor of the university hall of residence where we rented a room.  Last summer, 2013, I saw Dizu again with his new band Ibuyambo on the main stage at Womad. Resilient, inspiring, he now lectures in the department of ethnomusicology at the University of Cape Town, protecting his country's traditional music.