Trying to be an engaged insider

2010-05-27 00:00

THE article by Ron Nicolson, who wonders what it would take for him not to feel like a disinterested outsider in his own country (“Living in a grey area”, The Witness May 25), made me ponder my own place in South Africa. What art, books, culture surround me? So I took a tour of my home and this is what I found.

The titles on my bookcase (among scores of South African bird books and field guides) include numerous South African authors — Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, The Jail Diary of Albie Sacks, Helen Suzman’s memoirs In No Uncertain Terms, Liberals Against Apartheid by Randolph Vigne, I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, How Can Man Die Better — The Life of Robert Sobukwe by Benjamin Pogrund, Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog, Disgrace by J. M.Coetzee, The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda, The Wedding by Imraan Coovadia, Shades by Marguerite Poland and the two Spud books. Of course, this list is incomplete, but it is a start.

I wandered into my lounge and noticed again with pleasure how my Jewish candlestick (menorah) and Delftware that were bequeathed to me by friends and family, juxtapose with an embroidered wall hanging from the Winterveld and Ndebele beadwork. I then sat down with my photograph album. Turning the pages, I revisited my sojourn in Kimberley where the Big Hole competed for my interest with Robert Sobukwe’s house in Galeshewe township, Sol Plaatje’s grave and the Magersfontein Battle ground. Also photographed were visits to World Heritage sites of the Ukhahlamba/Drakensberg, Robben Island, Smangaliso Wetland Park and the Vredefort Dome. I remembered other places too — hikes along the Wild Coast and safaris in the Kruger Park, visits to Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown where Trevor Huddleston preached, the Apartheid Museum, Totius House in Potchefstroom, Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and District Six, as well as attempts (thwarted by a lack of road signs) to visit the Samora Machel Memorial in Mpumalanga and Albert Luthuli’s house in Groutville, KwaZulu-Natal. There are many more places that I intend to see so that I can better know the history of my country, but I have made a start.

In my bedroom, I found my mother’s pearls on my dressing table, tangled together with my favourite necklaces — cowrie shells and rainbow-coloured beads from the old Transkei. Opening my clothes cupboard I saw, among the jeans and T- shirts, my shweshwe skirts hanging next to the punjabi I wore to a wedding, alongside my mblaselo miners’ patchwork pants. And in the corner for safekeeping, was the orange Xhosa outfit that my daughter wore to her matric dance a few years ago. Not Amanda Laird Cherry, but a start.

Looking out of the window onto my garden I saw the aloes and yellowwoods, a Natal Bottle Brush and a flat-crown tree. Under these branches, plectranthus vie for space among the bulbine/ibuchu, red-hot pokers, clivias and Barbeton Daisies. Although it is not Kirstenbosch, it is a start.

Finally, before writing this letter to The Witness, I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea — rooibos for my daughter, Ceylon for me, but we both dunked Ouma Rusks and wondered what CD to play. Not the Beatles or Elvis this time, but maybe Freshlyground, Johnny Clegg, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or Selaelo Selota? Big Nuz is missing, but it is a start.

Much later on, we had lunch made by our housekeeper, who shared her legendary samp and beans with us. I then began preparing supper — an authentic Indian curry, as taught to me by my neighbour recently, during one of our gesellige visits next door.

No doubt to some, my attempts to forge a South African identity will be considered superficial and wanting. Nevertheless, I have made a start and I intend to continue working at it so as to nurture a sense of belonging in this place. My place. Ayoba. It is here.

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