Sunday, 12 August 2012

Last days

My last few days in South Africa were spent in a fog of flu medication; I caught a rotten cold somewhere in the middle of the vast Karoo desert on the train journey between Cape Town and Johannesburg, leaving me lethargic, snot-filled and probably not the best company for my long-suffering cousin, Michael.

Johannesburg; the big bad of South Africa, a city usually only glimpsed through the securely closed windows of locked cars.  This is where my parents met and married back in 1976, although it's a city that they would now barely recognise in all it's brash, rich-meets-poor, Africa-meets-West concrete glory.  A city where there are signs warning drivers of 'highjacking hotspots' at traffic lights (or 'robots' to use the local parlance).  A city where the moneyed middle classes - black and white - eat and drink in the shadow of a statue of the great man himself in Nelson Mandela Square.  A city where I wandered around in a t-shirt one day, and shivered in the snow the next after the temperature plunged by 20c overnight.

On Monday, we visited the most audacious shrine to the arrogance of white settlers, the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, built by the fervent Afrikaans Nationalists (the same people behind a little experiment called Apartheid) in the 1940s to celebrate the Great Trek of the 1800s.  It left me feeling queasy and greatly in need of the balance provided by a short journey along the aptly-named Reconciliation Road to Freedom Park, a stunningly designed monument to the untold numbers who contributed to - and sometimes died for - South Africa's long walk to freedom.

On my last day, the snow began as we walked into the Apartheid Museum.  The ticket assigned my race - Nie Blankes (Non-White) - and I entered through a seperate entrance to Michael, into a hallway lined with Apartheid-era signs and identity documents.  The rest of the Museum was a thorough guide to the policy that shaped South Africa, past and present.  Walking round one corner, I was surprised and delighted to see a photograph of my grandfather, it's presence emphasising for me the pivotal role Apartheid played in the lives of my family, as first my uncles left the country of their birth, then my mum & dad, and finally my grandparents went into political exile.

Waiting for my flight at the airport (which was to be delayed by the weather; snow being such a rare occurence that the airport possessed no de-icer, so some poor sod had to get onto the wings of the plane and use a broom to clear them) I thought about belonging.  When I came to South Africa in 2001, it was on a search for identity.  Eleven years later and rather older and wiser, I know that this isn't where I belong although, like many children of immigrants, I have never felt wholly British either.  I suppose that when your grandfather is part of the history of a country - when he becomes an exhibit in a museum, no less - then that country becomes part of you.


  1. Amazing - how incredible to spot your grandfather in a museum!

  2. It was a pretty incredible, and emotional, moment!

  3. Thank you Jenny. I was finding it really hard to write and kept putting it off, then banged it out in 10 minutes in the garden today without even checking my spelling or grammar, so glad it worked ok!