Living on the margins

2008-05-21 00:00

STEALING water is what people have to do when they live on the margins of South African urban society. It means sneaking out after dark to find unguarded taps, facing off watch dogs, and, if you’re lucky, collecting enough water to see the family through another day. It happens, but the water stealers are not usually middle-class whites.

Tim Ecott’s family were. His father was a former British army officer turned “security consultant”; his mother a Northern Irish Protestant whose greatest ambition had been to get out of Ireland — and make sure her son was not “trapped” by an Irish wife. And so, in 1977, they came to Johannesburg. The dream went sour; the business Ecott’s father had come to run folded; they were evicted and eventually mother and children found themselves in Hillbrow while father set off to see what work he could get back in Ireland.

Ecott, his brother, sister and mother lived an extraordinary life. Their friends were prostitutes, petty (and some not so petty) criminals and others on the outside. Ecott’s mother ran a bric-a-brac shop that doubled as a place to fence stolen goods. He describes a memorable occasion when, unable to fence a stash of Krugerrands — too easy to trace — his mother took them home and put them in a wooden box under his schoolboy brother’s bed. When the cops came, Ecott’s brother, in his school uniform, invited them to look in his “toy box” on their search. Fortunately, they refused. The children helped in the business and they too lived on the edge. It was a life that bred a need for excitement, a fascination with the different, that has stood Ecott in good stead as a BBC journalist, but it also came with all kinds of resentments.

The format of the book alternates chapters on life in South Africa with other parts of the family’s past. Ecott returned to his father in Ireland so that he could attend university,

travelling back to South Africa in his holidays to work as a waiter and support his mother. Often the story is moving, often it is funny. It is a picture of a life far removed from the one most white South Africans would recognise — a struggle to survive that will probably be more familiar to blacks who at the time Ecott is writing about were coping with their own struggles against the apartheid regime.

It is also a portrait of a very unusual family, one that, despite being apart for much of the time and apparently completely dysfunctional, remained in its own way a cohesive whole. Above all, it is a hugely enjoyable read.

Margaret von Klemperer

• Stealing Water is on the Exclusive Books’ Homebru list for 2008.

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