After the Fires

This has been one of the most difficult blogs to write since we left. The return to South Africa has had me so conflicted, putting me through a washing machine of emotions on spin, thrown between joy and despair and back again, sometimes within seconds.

Many titles have been discarded along the way.

When we left SA in July 2013 I remember I was adamant we weren’t going to break our journey or return to Cape Town before we had completed our clockwise trek. Being adamant is one more thing on a long list of habits and convictions I find I have learned to let go of on this trip. Coming back for a few months doesn’t feel like failure anymore, as long as we’re still on the journey. In my head, we’re still en route.

Rejected titles for this blog no. 1: It’s a Pleasure

The taxi we caught to Monrovia airport was possibly the most dangerous vehicle I have ever ridden in, driven by Alfonso, the sweetest driver in the world. I remember my first car, Bonnie the Beetle, was so old she had more holes than floor and my Dad used to bemoan my fate every time I left the house. Alfonso’s ancient Nissan made Bonnie look like a Beemer. His shocks sagged so much under the combined weight of our luggage and us, it was like the car was begging to be allowed to lie down on the ground and rest. But we made it, thanks perhaps to Alfonso’s karma.

As soon as we entered the terminal at Roberts International, I noticed how much fatter people were all of a sudden. Only the privileged fly.

Our transit through Ghana fulfilled tiresome stereotypes. There was only 45 mins between landing and boarding, so two airport employees were on hand to escort us 15 South Africans through Accra airport. Sampson family luggage had officially been checked through to Jo’burg, but a more experienced flyer advised us the only way to be sure was to collect and transfer it between terminals ourselves. He was right – our suitcases had been left circling forlorn on conveyor belts.

After an interminable delay at a sleepy immigration desk, there ensued an hilarious slalom through teeming crowds in the airport lounge, chasing our racing guides outside into the night and up an incline so steep my arms were over my head pushing a loaded trolley uphill. Our pleasingly diverse group was united in incredulity. I wondered aloud to my jogging companion, a black woman from Gauteng, where Leon Schuster was hiding. One poor airport employee’s job was solely to hitch and turn trolleys up over a high kerb, helping us negotiate a sharp right into the middle of a steady stream of passengers coming the other way. It seems no one has heard of ramps in Accra.

In comparison, Jo’burg’s OR Tambo International appeared stunningly clean, slick, spacious and modern. Nothing was too much trouble for Kulula employees Cameron and Kagiso who got us sorted onto flights for our last leg home. “It’s a pleasure” said Cameron, and I felt myself smile with recognition. The words may be English, but the expression is purely South African. It’s pronounced not briskly as in the UK “It’s a plejur”, but a more drawn out “It’s a plehhhhhhshuuuuur”; the linguistic equivalent of a bow with a flourish, emphasising the beneficent indulgence of the speaker.

There were shocking amounts of white people everywhere. Walking past a magazine shop bedecked with myriad rows of shiny confectionery, Sampson and I exchanged looks as the shrill sentence of a nasal-toned kugel mother floated over her toddler’s head: “No, you cahn’t have an ahce cream, it’s nahn o’clock in the morning, are you maaaahd?” (Blighty readers, that last syllable rhymes with the baa of a sheep.)

Landing in Cape Town, it felt like nothing had changed: Table Mountain was still stupendously, crazily beautiful; there were still miles and miles of heart-rending shacks stretching from the airport to the horizon; still major roadworks between Muizenberg and Fish Hoek.

My 13-year-old daughter was swinging against a pole on the corner outside the Bistro at the beach where my folks were waiting for us. She started jumping up and down with excitement like a little girl, but looking like a goddess. The hugs were epic. Ruby is now officially looking down on me. She’s verging on Amazonian.

Coming back in April reminded me of the first time I encountered this city, Easter 1994, and how I marvelled at the clear blue skies that redefined my understanding of the term ‘clear blue’. Cape Town still offers several seasons in one day: rain to sun to a sudden descending mist so thick you can’t see 10m in front of you and back to blazing sunshine – and all before lunchtime.

Those first days back, the last fumes of summer were still in the air; it was bikini weather – just – and families were out in force making the most of the last holiday weekend before back-to-school Monday. The almost impossibly soft white sand of Fish Hoek beach felt like caster sugar between my toes. The sea was crystal clear turquoise and ice cold, the view of the mountains on the other side of False Bay was like a mirage, and the occasional sharp hit of chilled air drifting across as intoxicating as champagne.

Cape Town autumn

Cape Town autumn. Not a stock photo, it was this perfect.

South Africa felt almost heart-breakingly beautiful in the context. It was cruel, like waving the unattainable in front of the afflicted: it’s so lovely, but you can’t have it; you can’t enjoy it, because it’s blighted.

Rejected titles for this blog no. 2: Groundhog Day.

The violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal started during our last week in Liberia; a fresh outbreak of xenophobic attacks apparently sparked by comments of King Goodwill Zwelethini that compared foreigners to “head lice” and suggested they should “pack their belongings and go back to where they came from”.

The day after we arrived an Ethiopian called Tescma Marcus died after being petrol bombed inside his container shop in Umlazi.

I purposefully avoided TV and newspapers as I knew I wasn’t yet strong enough to cope with having more searing images branded on my memory; the picture of ‘The Burning Man’, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican murdered in the wave of xenophobic violence of May 2008 was still so raw in my mind.

The following week, the violence and looting spread to Alexandra in Jo’burg. Pictures in the Sunday Times on 19th April of Mozambican Manuel Jossias a.k.a. Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death by youths in broad daylight caused widespread horror. The government insisted his death was ‘criminal’ rather than Afrophobic, and as a result, he was not listed in the official list of 7 xenophobic fatalities, which included the Ethiopian, a Zimbabwean, a Mozambican, a Bangladeshi and 3 South Africans.

Pan-African friends across my Facebook feed were in turmoil; my musician friend in Ethiopia was distraught, my writer friend in Tanzania was bewildered, my lawyer friend in Nigeria was outraged. The threads of their conversations with dozens of friends were crushing. As the Malawian government sought to repatriate its citizens, I reflected on the immense damage to the reputation of South Africa on the continent. Nigeria officially expressed its disgust at the violence and our government’s inadequate response to it by recalling their High Commissioner.

In the last major outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008, 62 people were killed and 150 000 displaced. I spent 6 months as a volunteer in the Soetwater ‘safety camp’ assisting leaders from 15 different African countries to work together to get their voices heard by the government and the press. This experience was one of the main motivations for going Africa Clockwise: I wanted to see for myself where these inspiring people came from, and why.

Now seven years later, I felt like I was living some kind of nightmarish Groundhog Day scenario. Every time I turned on the radio, there was all this hypocritical handwringing going on: “Why oh why oh why…?” If it wasn’t “These people stealing our jobs…” it was “These people and their violence…” REALLY? Is this the limit to our analysis? Copious research has concluded quite clearly there is only one way to combat xenophobia: public education, education, education. But with zero political will to achieve integration, nothing has been done since 2008 and now we’re back to square one. Why are we surprised?

All the lazy talk of lax immigration controls and small businesses and threats to jobs tends to justify violence against foreigners, even if the connection is being negated. And all the talk of What Africa Did For Us during the apartheid years – although poignant, and vital missing knowledge for SA born-frees – sets up a quid pro quo expectation that is irrelevant.

Never mind nationality or skin colour or religion or material gain:
there is no justification for attacking people. Full stop.
Can we please just start by teaching our kids that?

On 23rd April several thousand people marched through Jo’burg in a heartening show of solidarity following the first anti-xenophobia march in Durban on 16th.

On 29th April I heard ANC MP and small business portfolio committee chair Ruth Bengu tell an incredulous news anchor on 567 Cape Talk that journalists were “South African first, and reporters second” and as such, had a responsibility not to report on things that were liable to give the country a bad name, such as King Goodwill Zwelethini’s “alledged” remarks.

She did not condemn the King for saying them.

While I might agree that the press has a role to play in not irresponsibly whipping up anti-foreigner feeling and thereby potentially inciting violence, as happened in 2008 when the attacks spread from Jo’burg to Cape Town, I wholeheartedly reject Ms Bengu’s suggestion for self-censorship around facts. Precisely because I do care so much about this country, I will tell it like it is, like my eyes are seeing it. Suck it up South Africa.

The radio station SAfm is promoting the hashtags #SayNOtoXenophobia and #WeAre One – the latter takes me back 20 years to when ‘Simunye: We Are One’ was the much maligned cheesy tagline of SABC1, the all-languages TV channel of the national broadcaster (where SABC2 was mostly Afrikaans, and SABC3 was mostly English). Back then, through their awkward multi-lingual presenter pairings, SABC1 was trying to demonstrate unity between black, brown and white South Africans who until recently had been on opposite sides in a bitter struggle.

But not a civil war as bloody as Liberia’s. Or that of Nigeria. Or Angola. Or Rwanda.
Or the one still going on in Somalia. Or South Sudan. Or the CAR. Or the DRC.
Not languishing under decades of repression as vicious as in Eritrea. Or Equatorial Guinea.

Or the lonely never-ending struggle of our neighbour Zimbabwe.

Get a grip South Africa, educate yourselves. Yes, you’ve been through some shit, but hey, there are millions of people on this continent who’ve arguably suffered a lot worse – and continue to suffer. Stop feeling so bloody hard done by. If you’re claiming the victim role, you’re in no place to claim the leadership role.

I have sat and ruminated on humbling memories: of how we were welcomed in the depths of rural Congo by M.Rinel and his extended family; how Nigerians fell over themselves to host us and showcase the best of their cities with their effusive ‘You are Welcome’s; how Cameroonians shared our pain the morning after Madiba died. Is this is how we return their fellow feeling?

“From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked, and in fact the government… commands them to go…”

South Africa April 2015? May 2008? No, Frantz Fanon, born in Mauritius, made in Algeria’s independence struggle, writing in 1961 about the unravelling of the post-colonial dream everywhere from Côte d’Ivoire to Ghana to Senegal in ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’, Chapter 3 of Les Damnés de la Terre. A wonderful series of lectures given by Dr. Richard Pithouse last week at AFAI’s African Arts Campus on ‘The Prospects for Emancipatory Politics in the Post-Colony’ lifted me from my depression by reminding me of the bigger forces at play. After more than 300 years of colonialism, apartheid and the continued ‘politics of separation’, what else did we expect? You reap what you sow South Africa.

“African unity takes off the mask, and crumbles into regionalism inside the hollow shell of nationality itself. The national bourgeoisie, since it is strung up to defend its immediate interests and sees no further than the end of its nose, reveals itself as incapable of simply bringing national unity into being, or of building up the nation on a stable and productive basis. The national front which has forced colonialism to withdraw cracks up and wastes the victory it has gained.”

“African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people, that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie… the single party…”

“The state…makes a display, it jostles people and bullies them, thus intimating to the citizen that he in continual danger. The single party is the modern form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, unmasked, unpainted, unscrupulous and cynical.”

Officially the government has decried xenophobic attacks; in practice, this week’s Operational Fiela, a national crackdown on drug dealers and petty criminals, is performing state-sanctioned xenophobia, targeting foreigners in apartheid-style police raids and Rwandan-style language. This “sweeping of the dirt” included a 3am swoop on the Central Methodist Church in Jo’burg well-known for sheltering those fleeing Afrophobic violence.

If you need evidence of how far the majority of South Africans have internalised the mindset of their former oppressors, look no further than President Zuma who is suspicious of ‘clever blacks’ and infamously cautioned his people not to “think like Africans in Africa”. How ‘divide and rule’ is that? Rhodes would be proud.

“…the bourgeoisie can find nothing better to do than to erect grandiose buildings… and to lay out money on what are called prestige expenses.”

“The people stagnate deplorably in unbearable poverty; slowly they awaken to the unutterable treason of their leaders… The scandalous enrichment, speedy and pitiless… promises stormy days to come.”

“The leader pacifies the people… asks the people to fall back into the past and to become drunk on the remembrance of the epoch that led up to independence.”

“The peasant who goes on scratching out a living from the soil, and the unemployed man who never finds employment do not manage, in spite of public holidays and flags, new and brightly-coloured though they may be, to convince themselves that anything has really changed in their lives.”

Rejected titles for this blog no. 3: Freedom Days

My adopted country is so beautiful it makes me want to cry, especially in these magical liminal days between seasons. Having recently experienced a UK autumn, it’s almost miraculous to feel how far the last golden rays of a SA summer stretch into the first chill of winter. 21 years after our first democratic election, I spent the Freedom Day public holiday on 27th April lying on the lush grass at Imhoff Farm in the sunshine, looking over the wetlands to the beach and Chapman’s Peak, hugging my kids and feeling so grateful. Children of all shades and sizes frolicked about us, swinging off the jungle gym built into the giant tree. Mine have been blessed with an idyllic childhood here.

Feeling Freedom Day

Feeling Freedom Day

Representatives from the SA Dept of Health called us almost daily from when we landed until 21 days later when we were officially declared Ebola-free on 28th April, bless ‘em. The monitoring was impressively diligent, all through the long weekend and public holidays.

Freedom Day in SA is also Independence Day in Sierra Leone. As Ebola persists, there were no mass celebrations, but the outlook is increasingly optimistic that their strategies for beating it are beginning to bear fruit. On May 9th Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the WHO after 42 days without a new case. Congratulations!

May 9th was also the first day of the congress to elect a new leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. I cheered myself that, however in denial about the complex and mired race relations in this country the ‘Rainbow-Nation-trumpeting-we-are-all-colourblind’ DA officially is, and whatever cynicism may abound about the shoo-ing in of the young anointed Mmusi Maimane over his elder Wilmot James, the bare fact remains that none of the party’s old whingey white geezers bothered to stand against a super-articulate black man and a super-educated coloured man in an election to succeed a Thatcheresque old white woman. That’s gotta be progress.

Don’t mention the British election. At least it’s easier to see where my path lies in resisting a burgeoning police state in SA than combatting the comfortable fug of creeping conservatism in UK.

Flashes of joy that have compensated for the pain I have felt coming back and looking my country squarely in the face:

1) Dropping in on Mapiko (the carnival’s recycled art crew) preparing for Afrika Burn  at their workshop and seeing precious members of my eMzantsi family, old and new, young and more mature, black people and white people and brown people and learning disabled people, all mad, beavering away together, laughing and dancing about and teasing each other and making each other tea. Da t’ing continues, the dream lives on…

eMzantsi's Mapiko crew...

eMzantsi’s Mapiko crew…

hard at work...

hard at work…

and play!

and play!

2) Attending Imhoff Waldorf High School’s Class 12 plays. The style and confidence with which these 17 year olds pulled off the challenging physical theatre pieces ‘Horn of Sorrow’ and ‘An Outline of History’ were impressive, especially considering every class member has to take part whether they have a flair for drama or not. But more affecting for me was the ease and grace with which this culturally diverse group interacted with each other. Hats off to Charisse Louw and Thola Antamu for the nurturing.

Imhoff Class 12 and their appreciative audience

Imhoff Class 12 and their appreciative audience – photo courtesy Jason Coetzee

3) Enjoying the vibe of The Rudimentals’ gig at the Cape Farmhouse. It was fun to bump into so many lovely people we know amidst the hippy deep south crowd, especially when they didn’t recognise us. (On our SAA flight, I was chuffed to discover that I have unwittingly been channelling the character of Julianne Moore’s silver-grey sage in Hunger Games: Mockingjay: I’m totally rocking the ‘gimlet-eyed rebel president’ look. Sampson describes his current style as “oscillating between lumberjack and 70’s porn star”. Hmmm.)

Sampson and his mate Pierrot giving their best 'blue steel'

Sampson and his mate Pierrot giving their best ‘blue steel’

Me. If I ever used a hair-straightener.

Me. If I ever used a hair-straightener.

Afterwards Sampson pointed out how, despite their very laid-back appearance – this is so not your CBD set – almost everyone, including the rastas, were talking too fast, “like they’re on speed, jittery even” compared to the West African pace of conversation. Wow, I realised, how true. Has everyone got more hyper or did we just slow down?

Blog title no 4: After the Fires

In the first week in March, devastating bush fires swept across Cape Town’s south peninsula. Fanned by gale force winds, they progressed from Muizenberg above Boyes Drive, over Ou Kaapse Weg and Chapman’s Peak to Hout Bay, destroying Tokai forest. It took 28 aircraft 198 hours of flying time and 2 million litres of water to extinguish them and one exhausted pilot died when his plane crashed into the mountainside in the smoke. Friends and colleagues of mine were evacuated, and the 5 star Tintswalo Atlantic lodge, where Sampson was once given a freebie to celebrate our most memorable wedding anniversary, was completely destroyed.

Our second week back, I plucked up the courage to go over to Noordhoek, our home for ten years before we left to go Africa Clockwise. It was like driving into autumn, motoring through the midst of the gold and russet-leaved trees framing Main Rd. I walked on Noordhoek Beach, my heart’s favourite place in the world, looking down towards Kommetjie and round at the low lying green of fynbos above the dunes, all crowned by a ring of black. The circle of mountains around the valley where Sampson and I have lived since 1995 had been burnt to a crisp.

Fire on the mountains

Fire on the mountains – photo courtesy Volunteer Wildlife Services Facebook page

That first Saturday (before I knew it was the day after Tescma Marcus was burned alive in his container shop) we were sitting eating ice cream on the beach when Ruby asked me: “Do you feel like you’ve come home?”

Good question.

On the one hand, it feels so comfortable being here. On the other hand, I don’t think I dare let myself get comfortable ever again. I don’t want to stop seeing the beauty and the disgracefulness of what I saw landing at the airport. I want it to stay stark. I don’t want to numbly fall back into feeling unable to change the macro and concentrate on the micro, comforting myself by doing what I can in my own backyard. If I want to hold on to the big picture, I suspect I need to stay on the outside and keep moving.

Now my parents have left, the Sampsons are finally back all together staying in their cosy flat. It feels unbelievably luxurious to do yoga on a clean mat on a soft carpet in new velvety jogging bottoms bought for me by my Mom. We’re enjoying the novelty of life back in a Cape autumn: cool mornings, warm lunchtimes… wearing jackets and nailpolish… a spacious living room with a plump sofa. But I miss the truck.

I am rolling. Since I was a small child I have rolled my head from side to side unwittingly while fast asleep when I am upset or in a new bed. I’ve been rolling a lot recently. I wake with pain in the neck, headache and a feeling of disconnect. It takes me a while to settle.

I miss my son. If I want to know how his day was, I have to ask him, rather than knowing because I was with him all the way. But that’s selfish – he’s loving being back at school, hanging out with his friends, being in the rugby team. He’s scored two tries already.

My gorgeous son in his new rugby kit

My gorgeous son in his new rugby kit

My daughter has grown a leap in the three months we were apart. She is articulate and funny and opinionated and quick to outrage. I don’t know who she reminds me of. She made me very proud when 5 out of the 7 teachers I spoke to at G8 parents’ evening described her as ‘delightful’. I am loving spending time with her, weekends doing her projects, even when the magnificent hoop skirt and corset we made from wire and recycled plastic bags was thrown away because a school cleaner thought it was ‘rubbish’…

My gorgeous daughter

My gorgeous daughter in her spectacular recycled gown

It’s not easy readjusting back to the patterns of school and ever-shifting extra-mural timetables and homework. Mastering routine is not one of Sampson’s strengths, and I hate the pressure it puts us under. One day, smarting from a petty row that had escalated rapidly to upset, I pulled our car over at the top of Ou Kaapse Weg at the entrance to the Silvermine Nature Reserve, currently closed for post-fire rehabilitation, and got out to breathe.

It was like landing on the moon.

Devastation at the top of Ou Kaapse Weg

The grey moonscape is due to a mixture of sand and ash left by fires so intense they decimated the fynbos and even incinerated the crash barrier props

The destruction was so total, the sobering view sure put things in perspective.

South Africa's national flower, the King Protea, burned to a crisp...

South Africa’s national flower, the protea, petrified by flame…

falls out of it's cup...

crumbles and falls out of its mooring cup…

leaves the bare arms of the plant stretching up empty and forlorn

leaving the bare arms of the plant stretching up beseechingly

like so many cold stars in the dark

the hollow shells like so many cold stars in the dark

It’s like everything beautiful I know about South Africa has been burned away in the intensity of the raging fire and it stands bare for me to brutally assess. And it’s ugly. And damaged. And the marks of violence are there. But also the unexpected signs of forgiving green that catch your breath and make you suddenly sob.

Damaged but still growing

Damaged but still growing…


out of the ashes

My only consolation is that, after the fires, it’s much easier for the privileged suburbs to tell which way the wind is blowing off the Cape Flats; and how fiercely.

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2 Responses to After the Fires

  1. John says:

    Hi It shows how selective news is as what with the election, boat people drowning and earthquakes your blog comes as a surprise if not a shock to the uninformed—–ME! However, Sam beware of Churchill’s ‘black dog’ descending on you. You cannot carry the weight of the world on those slender shoulders and as frustrated as you are answers are harder to find than questions and satisfactory answers are not always,available. When I was born Europe was in the grip of the second world war, I have been lucky to escape the horrors of war and real violence but it has always been happening somewhere and latterly has intensified. I can’t pretend to know or even think how things are going to improve there are so many problems. From the misery in the middle east and clashing ‘religious’ fervour the problems are of Everest proportions. On an individual basis only the very callous could turn back the boat people either crossing the Med or drowning in it. However, it is self evident that if search and rescue was 100% successful much of North Africa would be likely abandoned and move to Europe. As sure as night follows day human nature and needs would be likely to make Europe as inhospitable as the Countries the poor devils are fleeing from. India supposedly had a population of 350m in the early 50’s on the news last night it was reported as being 1.25bn! I have no idea as I type if those figures are correct but if they are only half right I cannot say I feel comfortable with them, The world’s problems are too numerous to mention let alone solve and I believe you need to retreat a step or two and stop beating yourself up .Have some contentment in what you have achieved the sunlight you shed on others and accept no one has a magic wand and beware that ‘black dog’
    All the very best UNCJohnxx.

  2. Carole Mama Pearce says:

    How absolutely brilliant to have bucketfuls of this honed sound wisdom thrown onto the raging fevered brow of an oversensitised beloved daughter. Thanks John, I found your words immensely comforting….. X x x x

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