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.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Vereeniging and beyond: Venda Sun 2

Mrisi, Risenga, Giya and Risenga's mother at the end
of the continent, January 1995
Venda Sun Part 2
Vereeniging and beyond

The first time Risenga's mother met her two English grandchildren she was too afraid for us to stay at her home in the township of Orange Farm so most of the time we were with a white family near Vereeniging.

During my four visits I've only felt really afraid on South Africa's roads, particularly in the countryside when cars loom out of the darkness without lights. On my last trip with Giya and Risenga in 2012 a vast coach pulling an overloaded trailer suddenly appeared in my rear view mirror as we were leaving the north - one headlight on, the other off - a solid, terrifying mass that stayed inches from the bumper until it could overtake.

Lodged in my memory too is my uncle Pat's death. I never met him, but he worked in the mines in South Africa. The son of a poor Irish immigrant in Britain, Pat left England as soon as he could. My mother was still very young and missed him terribly. When she tracked him down again, he'd decided to come back to England, had found a house and was in South Africa sorting out the last details. He was killed by a drunk driver. Apparently, he'd written on the walls of the new house something like, "I was here but I wasn't here."

So in 1994, we only stayed a night in Orange Farm and during that first trip, drove from Johannesburg to Cape Town, taking Risenga's mother with us. She'd never seen the sea.

The family house in Soweto has now been sold but after that trip, we built Risenga's mother a brick house and eventually by 2012, she had a flushing inside loo, the sink was plumbed.

South Africa marked many firsts for me. The first time I'd stayed in a house with a maid. The first time I'd witnessed such intense poverty. The first time I'd seen a cobra and eaten mango fresh off the tree.

20 December 1994
This is a massive place. A big triangle of roof pitching steeply, tall beamed ceilings, like a church. We have a room with our own bathroom and loo. The window fills one wall and looks out onto the garden. It’s a house built for summer, loads of space for kids to play and run. But windows have discreet bars on, ornamental ironwork over anything that opens. There’s a small cottage/brieze block house in the garden where the gardener lives and another room where M the ‘maid’ lives.

22 December
I borrowed G’s car and went to town to meet Risenga and Mrisi. They’d been to Soweto to see Risenga’s uncle. Bought some fabrics, he bought some records. Most houses in Soweto are one storey, built of a dirty brown brick but added to this is the cardboard city. Risenga’s uncle is relatively well off and the house has been extended. They have a phone, tv and video but 10 people live there. Giya cried a lot, was hot and freaked out at being passed from person to person. Mrisi spent a lot of time asleep.

23 December
Risenga told me he was attacked with stones by two boys when he was running yesterday morning and he saved an old white woman from being mugged. A local kid let the dogs out.  G and H don’t seem to have any African friends. E, the husband of M the maid was stabbed in the neck by a couple of white guys in a Merc. He crawled to a field to hide and they came looking for him. They pushed him off his new bike and stole it out of spite. Everywhere has dogs and security gates.

We went to Yeoville where Risenga used to live. Rocky Street – trendy lefties, shops like Brighton. Mrisi played in a park with local kids. I hated seeing a white couple wash their dog in a swimming pool for kids. Afterwards we took a taxi into town. Risenga met a friend of his called F, sitting in the shade at a building site waiting for work by the Mega Music warehouse. The whole area is scheduled for development as an arts complex. F called me Madam, which was weird.

24 December
H wouldn’t come out last night because he didn’t want the house left empty. We went with G to see Mahtlatini and Muzwake at the Mega Music warehouse near the Market Theatre. Brilliant venue, air conditioned, cheap (20 r a ticket), smallish and intimate. Outside the box office Risenga saw a friend, Simba, who was playing. He did a spot with the band later.

Today we were getting ready to go to Risenga’s mums. I felt incredibly tired. We started off at a country market, buying veg and gourds from rural Africaaners, an enormous bag of carrots, spinach and two massive cabbages. People were selling strange collections of old possessions – it was a flea market with livestock: pigs, goats, cows and ducks, chickens, guinea fowl. 

Later I write:  'Deliverance' is what our hosts call the market. In among the contents of attics or back rooms, bulk-bought polyester pyjamas and second rate washing up liquid, we stare, they stare. This is worse than the city. In Vereeniging, changing travellers’ cheques, the local AWB try to sign up our host. 

Risenga bought a chicken for 25 rand. It went into a faint in the car but woke up again at home and was put in M’s kitchen.

I felt tense and cried as we left. Risenga took it as fear at going to Orange Farm. Was it? I thought it was exhaustion. Mrisi and Giya were crying all morning in the heat and Mrisi was fighting with N. Anyway, eventually we arrived. G had lent us her car although I sensed H was nervous. H told me a joke the other day – the bad news was that whites were going to have to live in Soweto, the good news was they’d get their VCRs back.

R’s mum has a garden with African marigolds, iris and two small trees, a lawn and standpipe. The front is very neat and the steps are painted green. She has decorative ironwork over the windows and doors. The rest of the yard is earth, deep russet red that turns to dust in the heat and a henna like mud in the rain. I slept after we arrived, exhausted, Giya had been feeding a lot. Inside she has an Aga and two rooms – kitchen and bedroom. The kitchen’s neat and clean, there’s no running water in the house but she has electricity. Everything’s covered in a layer of red dust.

Mrisi 1994
Then came the storm. Mrisi was asleep in the bedroom. It battered on the roof like machine gun fire, the wind whipped down the street raising the dust. The shack over the road lost its roof, the rain soaked down onto one side of the bed, dripping down an electric flex from a hole in the roof.

We had spaghetti on bread for supper in front of the tv watching Dead Poets Society and a Xmas concert with a few local kids, mostly thin and malnourished. It’s just quarter of an hour from the farm but like stepping through a mirror. Acres of zozos with the occasional brick house built with 15,000 rand of savings. There are no tar roads, coal’s delivered by horse and cart. 

Everything’s so low level it’s part of the landscape, disguised, the tin, corrugated iron just another layer of earth and the people too are so covered in dust it seems impossible for anyone to stay clean, but they do, dusting and washing all the time. 

Later I write:

We sleep end to end like the wax family in the museum. We raid Mrisi’s stocking for the children next door. Children come to share presents of Body Shop soap we’ve brought for R’s mother. High street scents mixed with brai meat and yeasty African beer.

Mrisi called to the chicken: ‘little red hen, little red hen’. Driving here, its clucks were all that interrupted our silence. We hoist Mrisi onto the coalman’s cart, African beer ferments in a bowl.

Orange Farm December 1994

25 December
We went to Risenga’s brother’s grave. We woke at about 6, the smoke already rising over Orange Farm, a lemon light, still cool, still fresh from the storm. We are going to the cemetery, walk from the road along a path through a small bog, amazing long-tailed black birds and another yellow one. Butterflies.

We have been through Palm Springs, a new development of bungalows built by private companies on private land, mostly rented. Some are very smart but in Orange Farm people say they still prefer a zozo because they can own their own home and land.

Across the road from the cemetery you can see Sebokeng, where the atrocities took place during the height of the pre-election violence. But it’s quiet now. People talk about freedom and are sick of violence. Now they want equal pay, but not the bosses unions. Petrus earns 2000R a month as a security guard, the white guys doing the same job earn more, have company cars.

Risenga’s mother couldn’t find the grave. The cemetery has four rows of 20 graves already dug ready to be filled after Xmas. There are lots newly filled already.

Many of the graves are surrounded by an iron fence like bedsteads, some with names on. There are personal things, a mug, ornament, plastic flowers. She’s put plates and bowl with plastic flowers on Aubrey’s. Many have jam jars full of water so the dead person can drink. She has brought snuff and African beer to introduce Mrisi and Giya to Aubrey. We kneel while she performs the ceremony. It’s hot now. The ants are going underground, the sun’s beating down on my sunburned neck. There’s a bird that sounds like a telephone.

We walk back, we’re the centre of attention everywhere. Some guys shout to Risenga  - where did you get the white woman? I don’t see any other white people. It’s weird, feels stressful, I feel uptight, anxious, excited.

We get back and start cooking. Risenga’s brother Petrus is there with his girlfriend. There are two electric rings and a stove. People have started gathering. A group of men are smoking and drinking beer. Petrus has a stash of brandy he’s tucking into. They cook the meat and the men eat it. I’m angry. No-one has waited for me, us, the others or the kids. Risenga tells his mum why I’m cross and I’m pissed off he’s done that because suddenly I’m the spoilt white woman again.

Things are smoothed over. The chicken was killed last night when I was asleep. Earlier, Mrisi had been feeding it bread under the table.  The chicken seemed quite a character. Robust. Risenga said it had to be killed for the ancestors.

There are 14 kids to feed and adults. We eat in at least two sittings. Everyone’s come because of the food. Jo has arrived. We see two circumcision processions – one for men, the other for women. People are daubed in white, wearing just bras and skirts. The men preceded by a group of people dancing and singing. Others bring up the rear. They wear red.

It’s hot. As the day wears on there’s a wedding dance for us – I have to take part. They circle around me as I sit on Mani’s lawn. Then draw me in. It’s great. Risenga has told them they can’t play records, he’s got everyone singing and dancing. I’m exhausted by 5.

R’s mum takes the fence down again. Everyone’s drifted off anyway. Back to H and G. I feel a terrible culture shock. The affluence of the whites, us included....

26 December

Lunch with friends of H and G. The little girl shits in the pool house and I pick it up before anyone notices. H's so called joke yesterday about us having to steal a car to replace the one we borrowed doesn’t wear well. It pissed me off. To Soweto again to meet Chief.

*Vereeniging is south of Johannesburg, an industrial centre in Gauteng province, near Sharpeville. Orange Farm is described as 'one of the largest informal settlements' in South Africa. It's about 42 kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Venda Sun 1: South African diaries

Giya (left) in Johannesburg 2012 with Nkateko, her cousin (far right)

Venda Sun Part 1

A group of South African exiles and friends met at Brighton train station in April 1994 for the journey to London to vote in their country’s first elections. My partner and father of my son was among them. I can’t remember why I didn’t go too, although I was 3 months pregnant and my son was not yet two. That might have had something to do with it. In the end Risenga didn’t vote – his passport had expired – but in December that year, with a new baby, we set off for the first time as a family to visit the country he’d left.

Throughout my children’s childhood and adolescence, South Africa has been their other country, home to cousins, uncles and an extended family that far outnumbers their English relatives.

My daughter’s life has mirrored South Africa’s own growth as a democratic nation – born in September 1994, her 18 years to adulthood have witnessed three presidents as the country rebuilds itself. Coincidentally, my son’s expected birth date was 16 June 1992, the day commemorating the 1976 Soweto school uprising – although he actually arrived three days early.

That first visit in 1994, then, was symbolic for both of them because neither has memories of it other than of the photo albums we made on our return. They don’t remember sleeping in Risenga’s mother’s zozo in a squatter camp, the long journey south from Johannesburg to Cape Town and being refused a place to stay in the Karroo. They don’t remember the curiosity our little group attracted, or the dangers – cobras and lethal drivers.

Frankly, with a new baby and a toddler to care for, my memories of it too are hazy now, although powerful images have beached themselves somehow – the poster of Mandela beside a ditch in Orange Farm, Risenga’s mother’s home, her first view of the sea in Cape Town, rain storms, red earth and bars on the windows.

But as they grew up – mixed race children in Brighton, not the most multicultural of cities – that first trip was significant to their sense of identity. They had been to their other country, even though they didn’t remember and something of it would have lodged with them as they grew – the sounds of the country’s music, perhaps some memory of its heat, its vastness, its languages and races.

I was lucky that several friends in Brighton had children with men from outside England. One of my closest friends, Jane, married a Turkish man, another, Hilary I became closer to as the children grew later had a child with her Gambian partner. I became close to a college friend of Risenga’s whose partner was from South Africa and she had a son after Mrisi. I met another woman whose son was the same age as Mrisi – his father’s family was from Jamaica.

Some of the links between us were forged through Mosaic, an organisation in Brighton for mixed race families. We talked, Jane and I particularly, about what our children needed from their other country and culture.

What does this other country mean to a child growing up in England? Risenga, my children's' father was studying music when I met him and later ran workshops in South African drumming, dance and percussion. He performed with his own groups and whenever his original band, Amampondo, was visiting, he joined them.

But he never spoke to the children in his mother tongue. This is not unusual, I’ve since learned, and he had his own reasons – where else would they hear Shangaan in Brighton? he asked.

This other country meant I knew the children needed books with black characters, with a south African or general African focus. I bought these books whenever I saw them, searched for black Playmobil and Lego, Barbie and Action Man figures.

Birthday and Father’s Day cards were the most difficult. Shopping trips to find these in Brighton left me exhausted with frustration. Once in a card shop I asked if there was anything for a six year old with a black figure on – I was shown a picture of Bob Marley smoking a spliff. I hand made cards, I compromised with pictures of animals, with numbers. They made their own Father’s Day cards almost every year.

I feel I can write this book now, as my daughter Giya prepares to go off to university in September, Mrisi in his third year, preparing for independence as a working adult. I couldn't have done it even two or three years ago. Perhaps Mandela's death opened the door for it, a sense of the end of an era. 

A gold candle from one of his 80th birthday cakes sits in a glass cabinet on our landing. There is a blurred photo of Risenga shaking his hands, taken, possibly, by Thabo Mbeki. The election poster still occupies its space in the kitchen. 

1994…… new baby, the first elections, the first visit

19 December 1994

Feeding Giya I hold the back of her head. A hard lump, moving – it’s a golden Xmas beetle, so called because it comes into the house at this time of year to die. There’s a scorpion in a jam jar, outside weaver birds have built their nests in the trees like shells. It was 32 today, we’re in South Africa, arrived yesterday after a ridiculous journey. It was hot as hell on the plane, no vegetarian food. Mrisi throughout was brilliant – thank god for Aladdin. Giya sucked a lot but she was so hot. I was purple most of the time.

It’s raining hard, it was incredibly hot when we arrived. Risenga’s mum and brother were at the airport with Glynis and Herve.

As I look through my diary of the trip, I realise the writing’s in two layers – there’s the immediate record and later, undated but evidently after I’d returned, my emotional reflections. Most of these don’t feature in the day to day memories of what we did but these are where the long narrative poems that appeared in Party (Leviathan, 2000) came from.

I wrote: 

When we arrived I’d lost my voice through hours of shouting before the trip, dry air on the plane. I strained to whisper, croak out the words as if I’d lost all language, all command, control. As if the baby needed my softer voice and the boy and everyone. As if going into this new country where I don’t speak the language I’d decided not to speak at all, as if part of me, the part that says ‘I am’ and has opinions, was gone. It took days to come back, as if in all the screaming and the babies crying, I’d taken my time out, or as if I couldn’t compete now, I was willing to go with the chaos.

20 December

We go into Johannesburg for the first time, to the Museum of Africa in Market Square near the Market theatre. It’s hot at 6.30. We have to be out of the house by 9.30 am because the horse is being put down. We piled into H's car. The landscape’s like Greece, eucalyptus, red earth, rocky. Going into the city we pass the mines, leaving the airport too, gold mines. We pass the spot where Risenga’s grandmother used to sell corn.

* The Venda Sun is a working title. It was the name of the only hotel in Thohoyandou until 2001 when it was renamed the Tusk Venda Hotel and Casino. It now has a Venda name: The Khoroni Hotel. Khoroni apparently means 'royal homestead'.