The early morning road dips into darkness and there’s total silence in the car. He says he’s deaf. I say he chooses not to hear. I’m late for leaving. He says I do it deliberately. Here are two people, married 36 years, at the start of a road trip around South Africa.
Eventually I break the silence and mutter that the sunrise is beautifully reflected in the many rivers we get to cross, but mainly because I really have to pee and need to ask him to stop somewhere. Which we do again and again on the trip and every time I’m relieved and impressed by the state of filling-station toilets in South Africa. I wonder if this is a good omen of things to come because if you can get it right from the bottom up – well then…
We travel through the Transkei. The sea intermittently comes and goes from behind the rolling green hills smudged with brightly coloured houses. Free-willed goats scavenge for rubbish, of which there is surprisingly little. These rural roadsides are much cleaner and less littered than we remember. It seems that the pay-for-plastic policy at the chain-stores is beginning to work.
(Pont across the Kei River with a Xhosa lady in traditional headgear.)
School children, all so neat in their polished uniforms, wait for transport in huddles, white-puffs of breath framing their faces.
The roads are good – despite the areas still under construction where they narrow down to one lane and the traffic backs-up to stop. Though the wait can be irritating and long, the time passes quickly as we watch people get out of their cars for a spontaneous smoke and chit chat with anybody near them. No racial tension here. Just men and women doing what they can in a situation they can’t control – connecting, laughing, smoking, sharing stories and shaking their heads and hands at whatever.
We travel through Kwa-Zulu Natal with its tropical climate, green hills of sugar cane and bright bougainvillea that shouts it’s cerise and orange blooms across the hi-ways. Northwards to the Kruger Park we go, my happy place for longer than I can remember.
Here deep in the African bush, the big five – lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard roam free. They mingle with the little five – ant lion, buffalo weaver, rhino beetle, and leopard tortoise. Above and all around, more than 450 bird species fly, chirp and cry from the vast and varied vegetation. We marvel at the animal kingdom in its natural habitat. As the sun rises and reflects its glory in the waterhole, we dunk buttermilk rusks into our tin-cupped tea. This ritual as much a part of this national heritage as the animals themselves.
The road home brings us back through the Free State where the rains have lasted. The dams have water, the grass is green and the cows don’t care that the Rand has devalued or the petrol price has escalated once again.
Oh South Africa, a world in one country, so astounding and diverse in your landscape and people. So torn and tormented with your eccentric past and rattled future.
It’s exhilarating to be back in the motherland after twenty years of living abroad. We’re home for good and couldn’t be happier. In a moment of shameless sentimentality, I tell Lincoln how much I love this country – idiosyncrasies, hurting history, bad press and all. Daily murders, extortionate crime, and puffed-up politics seem to shout loudest and longest and are relentlessly reported both locally and abroad. But here’s the thing:
Every country has its own exceptional insanity. It seems that many South Africans think that ours is the only country facing the trauma of transition. I don’t think so.
Talk to Europeans about the Brexit exit. Americans fuss about walls, discrimination and lack of government funding. Syria and Somali force their refugees to lose their lives trying the save them. North Korea deals with its narcissist leader and the Middle East with fundamentalists and panic as the oil reserves drip dry. China has a trillion-dollar transition plan for world domination, Venezuela intransigent leaders and the Zimbabwe government stifles desperate cries from its citizens. Then there’s global warming and its potential to jeopardize the security of water, food and energy systems. Sex and drug trafficking, health epidemics…and on and on it goes. The world’s in a wobble, not just the end of Africa.
While I don’t mean to negate the heartbreak and tragedy of unacceptably high crime rates, daily loss of life (our family has been affected too), and super-scary unemployment statistics on our sunny shores, the grass is not greener on the other side. (Except, maybe if you live in New Zealand but then it’s mostly cold and wet, so no braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet – ok maybe not rugby 🙂
South Africa’s future may be hanging in limbo. Our socio-political problems are raw and angry, but the amount of goodwill that abounds between everyday people is enough to keep hope alive – willing me to invest time and energy into this nation that needs to build bridges, streets and even just a small dusty path between its fragmented peoples. I’m not naive enough to think that this is an easy or flippant task. These things take time. I’ve got time. I can start by speaking sweetly to and being curious about my neighbor – be they black or white, geek or gay, young or old – whoever.
I’m ready to rethink my assumptions, reframe my paradigms, revisit my values and extend a hand to my traditional ‘enemies’. I can’t help the fact that I’m a white apartheid child any more than anyone of us can help being born Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Pedi, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga or Afrikaans. But I can, by the grace of God, overcome my white privilege and my uncertainty of whether I’ll be liked or even accepted by my fellow citizens. Only time will tell how this all unfolds…but for now, there’s no place we’d rather be than right here.
At home for good, in South Africa.