Home is where the heart is

2009-01-07 00:00

To many South Africans, First World countries are the promised lands of civilisation and South Africa the desert of crime, poverty and a multitude of other miseries. Like so many of our cautious compatriots, my family emigrated to Australia in 1999. Two years later, we returned.

Prior to our departure we had been, if not typical South Africans, certainly active participants in the national tradition of enjoying life. At least once a year we threw a massive party and on our smallholding in Lions River we adapted that cliché, the braai, to a sheep on the spit over a wood fire down in the wattle forest by the river. Most of those hilarious and much-prolonged occasions are a mere haze of laughter and wood smoke in my memory, but the last and most uproarious of these occasions, which happened when I was eight years old, remains quite clear.

The festivities were in honour of our impending departure for the sunny shores of Victoria, a combination of adventurousness and prudence having motivated this decampment. The sheep was slaughtered, the various side dishes prepared and the firewood stacked in readiness.

The guests, when they arrived, were conducted by breathless Salisbury children down through the steep, recently burnt fields, past the sterile-smelling eucalyptus forest and, finally, along the river and to the improvised car park on the river bank.

Our guests were diverse — cousins, business friends, school friends and their families, friends of friends and a few with whose names we were entirely unacquainted, but who were accepted into the gathering without question.

Things got under way at about 6 pm and the evening passed convivially in a welter of paper plates, salad and wine bottles. Several times we children were sent scurrying up the hill to fetch forgotten cork-screws, cakes and tablecloths from the house and even from there we could hear the sounds of merriment from the distant darkness.

A party isn’t a party without a catastrophe or two, and people fell in the river, stepped on live coals and crashed into trees in the dark, but none of these incidents were serious and they were productive of mirth rather than otherwise. Some went home when our party started to wind down, at around 3 am, but many elected to stay. A Czech friend slept under his Land Rover and woke everyone up at dawn when he sat up incautiously. Another staying guest awoke with the firm conviction that we were being attacked and proceeded to take strong measures against the imagined assailants.

This was one of our last experiences of South Africa. Shortly afterwards we left.

Without making hackneyed references to fences and the comparative chlorophyll content of grass, I must say with absolute assurance that the shores of Victoria turned out to be rather less sunny than we anticipated. (On the one occasion we attempted to have a seaside holiday, it rained incessantly and we went home after two days.) The climate was extreme — either freezing and wet, or so hot that one courted skin cancer merely by spending the day outside. Among the locals there was an atmosphere of cool suspicion of others’ motives and a calculating approach to any good deed, which we, coming from a place where generosity of spirit is the norm, found somewhat disconcerting.

About the most interesting thing that happened while we were there was when Farmer A, who had control of Farmer B’s water supply, cut it off in the middle of an arid Australian summer. A feud ensued which grew, over the next months, to a rift of massive proportions.

The two parties had gone to the dire lengths of giving each other the cut directly at the weekly meeting of the Country Fire Association (CFA) when we finally gave up and came back to the vivacity and flamboyance of South Africa.

And it wasn’t only because we lived in a rural area. On the occasions that we went to have the Rodeo serviced in Melbourne we were always vaguely depressed by the hurrying people in their smart grey and black clothes and the feeling of sombre drabness.

The virtues of prudence and caution were taken to such an extent that even the crimes that made the papers had a faint odour of lawfulness about them.

In South Africa, and especially in KwaZulu-Natal, the variety of disasters that can befall one are limitless, but we have a warmth and vibrancy with which the Victoria we knew, for all its First World services and civilisation, cannot compete.

Amid the trials and tribulations we undergo here, one thing we will never die of is boredom.

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