Today we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. As I reflect on this I reflect on my own journey, and three books I have read over the last three or so years. The most recent is by someone who recently moved to our viillage and who, like me, is the daughter of British immigrants and herself an immigrant having arrived in South Africa as a young child. As did I. There is a third parallel: she is an alumn of my alma mater. She, however, was there more than a decade after I. It was there that she voted in South Africa’s first democratic election.
That is where the parallel ends. She grew up in suburban Gauteng (then known as the Transvaal); in a mining town. I grew up, once my parents settled, in that small university town in the Eastern Cape: Grahamstown. The era, and I use that word advisedly, in which she grew up, i.e. her teenage years, is known in struggle circles as the “height of the total onslaught” of the ANC by the National Party government: the 1980’s.
Before I get to that, a little about my childhood: as I have mentioned, my father was a horticulturist. My mother started her adult working life as a nurse. She trained in Oxford, England, in the hospital where I was born, before moving to a famous children’s hospital in London.
Why do I mention this?
Because she had to give up nursing: her bunions were so bad she could not be on her feet for long hours. In her mid-20’s she had to find a new career. In the 1940’s, that was not to be sneezed at when women were expected to marry and not work. More to the point, though, she had chosen nursing was the next best thing her first career choice: medical doctor.
How the parents met and married doesn’t matter for the moment, but what is significant is that our family came to South Africa under what I now consider to be rather ironic circumstances. They were compelled to leave Uganda in 1962 not just because my mother was pregnant, and their colonial contracts had come to an end, but because of the “Africanisation” process. There was no resentment or bitterness. Contracts ended; it was time to move on. The sadness was leaving Africa.
Returning to Africa was a direct consequence of a Verwoerd-sponsored campaign to recruit white, male blue collar workers. My father got a job in the parks department with the Port Elizabeth municipality. We arrived in the city, by train, on the 4th of September, a public holiday known as Settlers Day. Two days later, Verwoerd was assassinated. The latter event did not make much impact on the Cameron household. Settlers Day did. When my father enquired as to why the 4th had been a public holiday, he was asked, “Don’t you know what happened in 1820?”
My father being a Scot and with an answer for most things, though on his feet, “Of course, it was the year Johnny Walker was born!”
That was not the answer the taxi-driver expected, and who vehemently disabused him of the importance of Johnny Walker in contrast with the seminal event of the landing of the 1820 Settlers in Delagoa Bay.
I grew up in a household where children were to be seen and not heard, and everyone was to be respected equally. We were to obey the family domestic worker and if we didn’t, she was detailed to mete out the appropriate punishment. Once we moved to Grahamstown, we had the privilege of the biggest garden imaginable – the botanical gardens. Each one of the workers was a surrogate father. We could not have been safer. Our parents knew that we would be cared for if we strayed too far from the house. We did, often, and yes, we were often despatched back home. I did not know that it was not permitted to squat down in the dirt next to a black man and ask him to show me how to clip grass, let alone, to tell me stories. Nor was I ever told not to do it.
Some of those men remained in touch with our family for years after they and my father retired. One returned every year, until he was too frail and ill, with his horse and cart, to wish the family for Christmas and to present us with a chicken.
I now realise that my childhood was very different from some South Africans. I did have a little taste of the “other” South Africa when I was at boarding school, but it didn’t really penetrate. I lived much in my own world and remember not understanding why we were taught, in urban geography, about the buffer zones. Between the townships of people of different race groups.
The truth crept up on me as I studied and learned at university. A liberal university where, in my naivete, I thought real democracy was not being forced to be part of any organisation, but to remain independent of other politicised student organisations. I was drawn into student politics because I appeared to be quiet, conservative and happy to tow the line. With hindsight, I had a very, very lucky escape even though part of that escape was facilitated by a very nasty car accident that paralysed me for a while. It kept me in hospital for three weeks and off campus for the rest of the term and certainly out of any real action for six months.
Nobody bothered to ask what I really felt or believed and suddenly I was sucked into things that I did not want to be a part of, let alone be associated with. I was approached to start a conservative student organisation on campus by the then president of the SRC from another liberal university. He ended up being someone who ended up being a leading light in South African intelligence, and from an organisation funded by the South African government. We suspected all this at the time, but there was no proof. That car accident meant an abrupt but merciful end to his (and others’) badgering.
I discovered after I left university, that the person who asked me to run for election, was a member of the special branch of the police. How did I discover it? I was living in Johannesburg and was on my way home, through Hillbrow late one evening, and saw him herding people into a police van. I will never forget either the incident or his behaviour. My stomach still turns as I remember this.
How nearly was I drawn into the pervasive apartheid machine.
Now let me return to the books. The other two were written by contemporaries from university who, at the time, were seemingly on the other side of “my” fence. One was on the same SRC as I; the other was the editor of the student newspaper. One, it emerged, four years later, in the mid-80’s had betrayed everyone: She had been sent to Rhodes as a spy. I recall the newspaper coverage of her escape from the ANC’s prison camp at Quattro. My colleague at the time, Flo Duncan, a frequent visitor to Nelson Mandela when he was on the run, and one of the many women who had served time in the Barberton prison in the 60’s, convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act, had understood my horror. In 1987, twenty-three years later Flo was still barred from international travel. Olivia’s 2015 “act of contrition”, and which I read with great interest, reflects many of the realities of the time, but the defence of her complicity is indefensible. I listened to this interview, before I read the book. Her voice on the radio as clear as the memory of her face sitting opposite me endless debates and meetings, as vivid as they had been thirty-two years previously, and my visceral reaction to the individual whom I had not trusted then, just as the same. Neither that interview, nor my reading of the book, did anything to change that.
The third and final book, on the other hand, Bridget Hilton-Barber’s Student, Comrade, Prisoner, Spy, published a year after Agent 407, is another story. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and mainly because I was a mouse, I was never more than a nodding acquaintance with Bridget. I do remember her as a funny, vivacious and somewhat intimidating human being. Probably because she had all the confidence and joi de vivre I did not. I did know that she’d been in detention; I did know that she worked hard for the cause as did her brothers. All this happened after I had been able to leave active student politics.
Both books brought memories flooding back of people, places and things. Good, bad and plain evil. What separates the two, profoundly, is that Bridget’s is honest, often gut-wrenching and believable. Forsythe’s is not.
In the years after university, and all my adult life, except for a short spell in the mining industry, I worked for, or volunteered with, organisations that diametrically opposed to everything the National Party government stood for. The places I frequented were cosmopolitan; we had the best parties in Yeoville, Soweto and in the heart of Johannesburg. We were fun-loving, life-loving young people who wanted a better future for everyone.
So returning to C L Bell’s Lost Where We Belong, which I read with interest after going to its launch, and where she read some excerpts. She articulates – very well – her black paranoia and discomfort in South Africa following the euphoria of that first democratic election. She recounts the terror that surrounded her as she grew up. The same years that I wandered the streets of Hillbrow and Yeoville – alone – and when I spent time in Soweto, often the only white woman. A young person in my early 20’s and when our phones (landlines only) were bugged and our friends were hounded off the buses – because they were black – and shouldn’t have been riding with their white compatriots, let alone stopping on the way home to enjoy a beer! She left South Africa after university in the 90’s and returned as a journalist on an assignment for an international funder of human rights issues and research. Some of her experience on this project is recounted in the book, including how her terror re-emerges when she encounters a naked black man taking a healing bath in a stream. I was confused. I am confused. This, from someone who, as a young adult, like me, had fraternised with people of all races. And with much greater freedom – literally – than I could have dreamed of in the seminal years of my early 20s. I was not alone in that confusion. Also at that launch were two other women who had also been at Rhodes, albeit in the years between C L Bell and I.
So, as I reflect on the years leading up to Madiba’s release in 1990 and the contribution that Nelson Mandela made to this country, I realise how privileged I was. My parents taught me respect for all humanity even though the other, more conservative elements of my childhood (and my personality) meant that my naivete, lack of confidence and stupidity prevented me participating in activities at university that might have made a real difference.
So, although we have a long way to go after Zuma’s corruption and state capture projects, I am as optimistic about this country as I was in 1994. The irony of my short time in the mining industry is that it introduced me to Cyril Ramaphosa. We were both young and idealistic then. He was Madiba’s chosen successor. Nelson Mandela is watching over him and our country and I can only but believe that on the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth, he too, believes that this is a time of renewal and rebirth (with all the attendant trauma) for our country.