Monday 20 February 2017

The idyllic innocence of a white South African childhood

In the week turmoil returned to her homeland, Wendy Pestana remembers her teenage days before reality hit home

Published 10/04/2010 | 05:00

Eugene Terre'Blanche has been murdered, came the voice over the phone. The far-right leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) was beaten to death with a panga (machete) and a knobkerrie (knob-headed stick) while he slept, reportedly because of a dispute over pay.

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I wasn't shocked, nor surprised -- but hearing that one of the suspects is only 15 years old triggered inescapable comparisons to when I was that age, growing up in South Africa.

Taping the Top 20 off the radio without annoying younger sister intruding into our shared bedroom would have been the holy grail of my weekend.

I wonder what that young boy -- a minor, so he cannot be named, but whom I shall call 'Jabulani' -- on Terre'Blanche's farm looked forward to.

The contrasts between our two lives are undoubtedly immense yet we will both also have, at some time, skipped through moments that are singularly African.

The first decade of my life was set against all manner of semi-rural and quasi-urban backdrops, between Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zambia and an occasional trip down south to Cape Town.

It was a blissful, innocent time of bare feet, sun-licked torsos, thirsty summers and roving gaggles of motley pre-pubescents, all in search of the next big adventure.

We were the children of diplomats, goat-herders, construction workers, teachers and domestic servants; we hunted snakes, slung catapults into whispers of cotton shorts and scraps of dresses, bounded up hills and hacked our way with knives spirited from our kitchens through the juvenile exaggerations of otherworldly jungles and disquieting deserts.

Atop the heat-baked, crumbling clay of terracotta anthill mounds, we conquered the world. Our heartbeats raced in unison with the drums of Africa, but we were oblivious to any geographical boundaries; it was simply, unquestionably, the way our lives were.

Somewhere within the fertile, maize-rich valley in which the church-strewn town of Ventersdorp sits, Jabulani too must have giggled and danced and escaped the censuring eyes of the adult world. Neither he nor I, in those tender days, knew any different.

In my 11th year, I indiscriminately packed into the still unformed but developing suitcase of my mind a distillation of my life thus far and opened it again in Durban, South Africa, a few days later.

And although I couldn't at that stage articulate let alone envisage what a frame of reference was, I felt my world had changed -- but I didn't know how.

I mean, Durban had an ice rink, for goodness' sake (no other African country then had such an amenity). That belonged to a world we had only until then known through mainly British magazines and BBC radio; a world which, admittedly, seemed infinitely more alluring.

Nonetheless, within a few weeks, during which the menace of the new school, new kid routine dissolved, I was again in thrall to fresh encounters. This time, though, they were to unfold in a racially laminated existence.

I fell headfirst into life in Salt Rock, a coastal village about 45km north of Durban. My Irish-born parents -- who were both imbued with wanderlust -- loved the leisurely tempo that clung to the air, the conversations, the nightly dinner-table rendezvous.

My passage into a newfound coterie of friends was effortless and, affirming the malleability of youth, devoid of any hang-ups about the implications of apartheid. Each morning, as I walked to the school bus stop, flame trees and bougainvillea reached out from the stranglehold of banana palms, injecting bursts of crimson here, purple there. Crickets sang, mynah birds squawked and the delicate, sweet scent of the ubiquitous frangipani flowers seeped everywhere.

Jabulani may have kicked along a route bearing similarities. . .

School was an all-white, co-educational dual-medium (English and Afrikaans).

There were rousing sports days in unrelenting humidity, German lessons and Shakespeare. The absence of South African literature went unnoticed -- and unchallenged.

Still, they were halcyon days: hitting the beach every afternoon and every weekend, running for cover into the embrace of the shabby chic hotel set back above the golden sands when the swarms of flying ants descended, thunder clapped almightily and the heavens opened.

At 15, I still had a playground; at 15, Jabulani was labouring on a farm.

Growing up started slowly. News of anti-apartheid movements was filtering through despite the all-seeing eyes and ears of the country's draconian censorship organ, more and more boyfriends and older brothers who could, or who chose to, slip out of the country silently, fleeing the anathema that was conscription -- military service.

Pressures being brought to bear on South Africa influenced a generation of young people to reflect, to scratch beneath the surface of what lay in their own backyards and what gems we found.

Into our mental vaults went, among many others, writers Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Mongane Wally Serote, JM Coetzee and Miriam Tlali, the first black woman in South Africa to publish a novel, while music unearthed legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Busi Mhlongo, rock soul group the Flames and politically aware indie band the Kalahari Surfers.

It was during my last year at school that one of the teachers who took us for English gave me the key that fully opened the creaking door into my consciousness.

It was a copy of Athol Fugard's play The Island, which was set in a prison and had obvious parallels to Nelson Mandela and his incarceration on Robben Island.

It was a balmy summer evening, just before my final exams and, as the dank sea air lapped around us as I sat with my parents on the verandah, talk turned to reminiscing about the past and of our barely-known far-flung relatives thousands of miles away in England and Ireland.

Some of them had visited us but I was especially curious about one, older and married, cousin who I'd never met. Why, I asked my father, had David never come to South Africa?

He looked at me, searching my awaiting eyes for something. He flickered, and then held my gaze: "David's wife is Asian and, under the law here, they're not allowed to live together, or be married to each other. And we're not allowed to have a mixed couple under our roof."

The veil fell from my eyes, and an excruciating yearning to make things right took hold.

Africa, my Africa.

Irish Independent

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