An Irishman's Diary


IN THESE DARK DAYS for South Africa, with the shootings at the Marikana mines reminding us, yet again, of how little the poor have gained from the end of apartheid, I try to give myself some solace by remembering the extraordinary spirit that reigned there in the mid-1990s.

Nelson Mandela had announced the advent of a “New South Africa”, a Rainbow Nation where all would share in the bounty of this marvellously diverse land. It was my first visit to my sister’s adopted country, and it seemed like every door, and every heart, was open to a better future.

I recall an Afrikaans couple, who spontaneously invited me, and my South African brother-in-law, into their home one day in 1996. He could not resist telling the couple that I had been a “militant anti-apartheid activist”, just as we were sitting down to a beer. Initially, I feared that our hosts would usher us out even more quickly than they had invited us in. But I was very wrong.

“You were probably disgusted by the Sharpeville massacre,” the man said. “You might be surprised to know that I was in the army at the time, and that we thought Sharpeville was a crazy act of police indiscipline. It was wrong.” So far, so good, but this man was no bleeding-heart liberal. When I saw that his wife was reading Mandela’s autobiography, I asked her what she thought of the book.

He didn’t give her time to answer. “That book is full of lies,” he said. “Mandela refuses to recognise that apartheid was a great social experiment.” But his wife would not let him away with this. “You can’t judge this book, because you have refused to read it,” she retorted tartly. “And if you think apartheid was a great social experiment, it is time you accepted that it was an experiment that has failed.”

She began to tell me proudly that their daughter was now learning Xhosa from black friends in her newly integrated university. Her husband, perhaps a little embarrassed by his earlier outburst, said that he really hoped these changes were for the best.

I found a similar mix of warmth and frankness in encounters with strangers of all races. One evening, we approached a nature reserve in the Knysna rainforest just as dark was falling. I was following the haunting calls of Hadeda ibises, flying in to roost, and tried to open the reserve gates.

Two black rangers emerged from the shadows, and apologetically explained that they had to close up for the night. But they were eager to talk.

“Where are you from? What work do you do?” one asked me. When I said that I was Irish, and especially that I was a journalist, he lit up with delight. Believe me, this is not a common experience for hacks anywhere.

“Foreign journalists gave great support to our freedom struggle,” he enthused. I demurred, trying to explain that not all journalists, or newspapers, had been champions of black liberation.

He did not want his enthusiasm about the international press dampened, yet he cast a colder eye on his own new government. He complained that a visiting minister had ignored black workers like him, and had spoken only to his white bosses. The latter, he said, still would not share the cabins of the reserve Land Rovers with rangers. They made them ride on the mud-guards, even in the rain. But he was irrepressibly confident that things would get better soon.

A few days later, a young black man, washing our car at a petrol station, engaged me in a long conversation about the only subject of the day – the New South Africa.

I expressed some irritation at the complaints I had heard from some whites about minor administrative failures, like later postal deliveries, under the Mandela government.

“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “that kind of thing is a bit annoying. But if the whites can still say that things aren’t working in 10 years’ time, then we will have messed up badly.” His workplace overlooked his home in the desperately poor Cape Flats townships, where even running water was a rare luxury. (This at least would change under the enlightened ministry of Kadar Asmal, in one of the great achievements of the Mandela administrations). If someone living in these conditions could be so clear-sighted about the need to make the new administration efficient, I reflected, this place really has a good future.

In particular, I remember the wit and generosity of an Afrikaans butcher on the same trip. After a long early morning drive I was gasping for caffeine. Pulling up in a small village, I mistranslated a sign over his shop as “cafe” and, though a little puzzled by the appearance of the place, had ordered coffee for two.

In a moment, the butcher had organised a table, two chairs, a steaming coffee pot and hot biscuits, right in front of his meat counter. We sat there awkwardly, while customers of all races looked at us as if we were Martians. The butcher, an amiable giant, was cracking up as he served them.

“This isn’t a cafe, is it?” I asked idiotically.

“No,” he said, “But we are a hospitable people, and you asked for coffee, so we gave it to you.” “And now,” he said to the whole shop, his eyes still twinkling, “please tell us what you think about the New South Africa.” Every eye was suddenly focused on us again.

“I just hope,” I ventured after a little nervous hesitation, “that it is better than the old one.” Despite the evidence of recent events, I still hope, and believe, that it is.

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