Memoir of displaced people

2010-08-18 00:00

INTERWEAVING a personal history of anxiety neurosis with highlights of work as a tracing officer for the Red Cross Society is a tall order, but one that Estelle Neethling tackles with considerable skill, courage and lucidity. She recounts a miserable childhood, with interesting asides about growing up in Wepener in the fifties, and episodes from a life plagued by low self-esteem.

The cause is a toxic relationship with her self-centred, manipulative mother and with an older sister. It is an interesting case study of family dysfunctionality, to which many readers will relate. Others will find the endless saga tiresome, relieved perhaps by the revelation that some understanding was achieved after nearly 60 years. A saving grace is Neethling’s honesty, especially about the effects on her long-suffering husband.

Part of the redemption occurs through her work and relationships with child refugees, many from the Great Lakes region. Some of their tales of survival, and the circumstances under which they are reunited with families, are astounding. Neethling’s job is emotionally exhausting, but often rewarding, and she ties these extremes to her own state of mind.

South Africa’s response to this African crisis has hardly been heroic. Neething’s book is short on detail about how the Red Cross works. Her opinion of the government refugee policy is suggestive, but undeveloped. There are fleeting references to Home Affairs and she recounts an episode which reveals the callousness of the police and her attempt to stand up to them.

By the end of her memoir, Neethling is at relative peace with her life. With the end of the World Cup, many refugees are possibly facing the very opposite. This book could not have been longer, but it leaves the reader with multiple questions about South Africa’s attitude to the displaced people of Africa.

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