All so orderly from above

2013-09-12 00:00

FLYING over the Eastern Cape recently, after a conference that explored the legacies of the apartheid border war, I stared down at the white, winter-dry Earth beneath me.

In-between the harsh scrub land, every now and then a little town became visible among the hills. Seeing a town from an airplane window has always fascinated me. Looking down on humanity going about their tiny lives from a great height gives one a sense of being a god, at best, or an omniscient narrator of a bad novel at worst.

Either way, being able to see the big picture from above does give one a detached point of view.

What struck me most this time as I flew above the ground was the apparent orderliness of the layout of the towns. Everything seemed neat and preordained. Roads squared off, hugging little houses into safe, geometric forms. Areas for growing vegetables exploded into patchworks of pregnant green. Industries clung together, wheezing smoke into one another’s lungs. The appearance of the town from above was of a perfectly designed organism, planned to be the best it could be, to give the inhabitants a thoroughly sorted-out and predestined experience of life on this planet.

The tiny towns seen from above sparked a memory of the hard drive I’d recovered from my dead Dell laptop just a few days before. In the same way as the circuitry of the hard drive was laid out in neat, colourful rows feeding into a central processor, so the towns followed a pattern of apparent order and design. Just like the hard drive, each bit of colour and circuitry contained lexicons of stories, all marinated in lifetimes of history, each able to fill a library with particular and personal narratives. Every house contained a family. Every family contained its stories. Every story had a back story. Their histories traversed back in time until memory was no more, yet each little dwelling was as profound with meaning as a tiny bit in the hard drive.

Perhaps this realisation struck me so forcibly because of the conference I’d just attended. People from around South Africa had got together to speak about their experiences of the apartheid border wars. I’d been there to show the short film I’d made about my brother’s death on the border when he was barely 21. Others had gone to speak of the trauma they’d suffered after witnessing man at his most inhumane in the heat of senseless battle. Even more were ready to fight for their rights, 30 years after they’d started, as they still felt their voices had not been heard. Stories came from spies who’d worked for the government, from young black academics who found the experience of white conscripts excellent food for research, from hardened freedom fighters who’d built their own bombs and lit tyres around the necks of so-called sellouts, all in an effort to make the country ungovernable. Each small bit of human energy I’d encountered at the conference was full of profound memories.

We seemed to be on a predestined path. Was it mere chance that we’d met up in a conference room at Rhodes University, eager to share different facets of an apparent truth almost 20 years after the war was over? Was this conference already planned when my brother stood on the border of Angola and contemplated having to kill someone he did not hate? Was this same spark of intelligence in the match that lit the tyre which the Amabutho placed around a “traitor’s” neck? Was this awareness present when a girl was blown to pieces by a bomb in a bar? Did the universe plan for her mother to talk about the loss of her daughter to a senseless war 30 years after she’d died? Were we predestined to share every uncomfortable experience and then comfort each other for our losses, whether of loved ones or of innocence, or even of our sense of purpose? Did it all make sense from a distance far above us?

I couldn’t help wondering whether we are simply bits in a hard drive, part of the orderly workings of a very large motherboard that has a well-designed plan for each of us in the end.

Forgive me if I hope that we, like the little town below me as I flew above the Eastern Cape, have a purpose greater than we are aware of in our daily lives.

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