Why South Africa?

A Venda pot decorated with graphite
I met a man at a party in Brighton who was writing to his mother on music manuscript paper. We got chatting and he gave me a painting. It was the start of a relationship with him and by association with his family and the country he'd left, South Africa.

I didn't visit till 1994 after the first democratic elections when my daughter was just weeks old and my son two and a half. When we first went as a family it was a total shock. Christmas 1994, I was the only white woman in the informal settlement where his mother lives.

A black man with a white woman were objects of curiosity. Only years before we'd have been arrested.

Inevitably poems have come out of the trips we made to South Africa as our children grew up, trips made so they'd know their family, their heritage, the violence their father grew up with, the beauty too, of the home in the north the family was forced off under apartheid.

I'm no expert on South Africa but I felt a bit more than a tourist on those trips. I'm still working on a prose account that provides a narrative of four visits over 18 years. Not much, but all we could afford, and enough to give the children a sense they belong, the desire now as adults to return when they can.

When I've read the poems inspired by South Africa that appear in five of my six collections, I've often been aware of unease. The assumption might be that I am writing from the perspective of the white minority. Well, yes, I am white but on visits to South Africa I fell between the two worlds of white and black.

Bob Marley's Redemption Song came out in 1980 - I was 25, at the start of my working life, a young adult. It is still capable of making me cry. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery should be on everyone's lips.

Anyway, I hope I've answered the question. Because I know it's there but is not asked and speculation can be way off the mark.

The working title of the prose travel memoir is When the Birds Carry a River. 

Here's an extract from the beginning of the final section, 2012. It's set in Flora Street, Johannesburg the night and day after we arrive.

"Somehow we find enough bedding for everyone to sleep because it's too far for them all to go back. We light a fire with bits and pieces of wood from the palm trees we scavenge in the garden but we could do with some real heat. People who were renting before stole the living room door and there's an impossibly cold draught. I look at the pictures on the mantlepiece, a painting Risenga bought from a guy on the street. I realise this house has nothing to do with me, has nothing of me in it. Each room in the house has a heavy old chandelier of lights, bare wood floors, high ceilings. We've travelled from an English summer to South African winter. I need some sun, but Giya and I joke about how it will probably snow. I have spent weeks before this trip also joking about going on holiday with my ex. But if it matters to the family, no-one shows it -  I still have something of a role as Mrisi and Giya's mother and it's a consolation that there's a place for me.

"I'm still disturbed by every window with bars on. Every door is locked. But where are the keys? I wish I'd brought my metal teapot. On the table is a beer mug with pink and yellow roses in. The antimacassars on the sofa and chairs read RELAX AND FEEL AT HOME around a bunch of red roses. The coloured glass in the windows is the same as in the panels of my front door, but green, not pink. Something is familiar, then.

"The next morning the birds wake me up with their watery chorus, the same sound I remember from the north - liquid, high and sweet, notes running into one another. I slept so well and the sky's a clear blue. I dreamed of bags of coal.

"I wander into the garden and look up at the hill, where someone's built a designer house, listen to the birds and pass the time with Risenga's mother. He and Jo have gone out for a run. I wander back into the room I'm staying in. the only picture on the wall is of a wolf, with straight trunked trees behind and between the trees, snow. The bedding needs a wash, although last night I was too tired to care.

"In almost every residential street nearby are posters and signs for security companies on doorways and gates: Rhino Fencing, Stallion Security, Mapago A Mathamaga Armed Response, along with the more traditional Chubb, and then Scantronic 24 hour Armed Response and Protea Coin Group Armed Response. Men stand in pairs at junctions with the main road in the uniforms of other private firms. They're a constant reminder to be afraid mitigated a little by flyers for Prof. Banda promising to bring back a lost lover in two days, or a phone number for 'women's and lost lover problems' next to a handwritten sign for 'water pluffing' attached to the trunk of a tree."

No comments: