I was five years old when we boarded a South African Airways jumbo in London. The plane was almost full but I remember nothing about the passengers. It was the 1980s and apartheid was still enforced in South Africa. For those of you who do not know what apartheid was let me briefly explain. In Afrikaans it means ”apartness”. It was a doctrine that different races must be kept separate in so far as possible. Whites, blacks, Indians worked together but could not live together, socialise together or go to school together. Were people of different races cheek by jowel on the plane? I do not remember.
No African country would permit South African planes or planes flying to or from South Africa to use their airspace. We had to touch down in the Azores to refuel.
I remember being brought up to the cockpit to meet the pilot. In those days this was allowed. Due to the threat of hijacking this would never be permitted now.
I have only patchy memories of my six weeks in South Africa.
We spent some time in Cape Town. For me it was a city of manicured lawns, palm trees and the glory of the Indian Ocean. I have an image in my mind of a broad a flat park by a major road. The flowerbeds were tended by a black man in overalls. The city was calm and agreeable. Oddly, I have no recollection of Table Mountain.
We stayed in a hotel which was many storeys high. My father had some leather ankle boots to which I took a fancy. There is a photo of my standing nude and proud, arms folded behind my back, shod in these brown boots and crowned by a child’s size London policeman’s helmet. These days it would be seen as a depravity. My parents regarded it as an innocent and humorous snap.
On television I saw a bearded black man reading the news. I could not comprehend a word. For the first time I realised that a language existed other than English.
I was drawing pictures with felt tips. I had the notion to draw them in eighteenth century soldiers’ uniforms and to sketch a horse drawn carriage. There was a pale pink pen which I called skin colour. Then it occurred to me that not everyone’s skin was that colour. I drew one of the men in a dark brown pen.
In the dining room all the diners would be white and all the waitresses were black. This did not strike me as unusual. I had seen very few black people in my life up to that point.
We went to the circus several nights in a row. One of the circuses was walking distance from the hotel. I remembered going via an underpass late at night when the streets were empty. The Big Top was full of people – all of them white of course. The performers were also white. I remember an elderly couple doing the trick where the woman is placed in a trunk and sawn up. I sat mystified. I wondered if she somehow got out of the trunk and into the ground. There must have been animal acts but I do not recollect them.
We walked down near the harbour area. There was mention of Robben Island and my father remarked that a famous prisoner was held there. I did not catch the name at the time. Years later I realised he had been alluding to Nelson Mandela – later he became the President of South Africa.
We went into a dive shop. My father bought a blue and yellow dive bag and a lot of equipment. The moustachioed shopkeeper was a man of few words. The bag was rock proog, water proof and everything else proof – so the shopkeeper assured my dad. My father turned to me and quipped ”but is it George proof?” The shopkeeper revealed that he could smile.
We drove through the Kruger National Park. This was up near the border with Mozambique. I dimly remember endless tall yellow grass and some wild animals. Nothing so memorable as an elephant was sighted.
In a toy shop I acquired a yellow rubber giraffe whom I named Jimmy. That was the grounds of alliteration. He has a wire inside him so I could twist him into peculiar forms. In the car I said that I needed to go to the loo. My mother looked at my kindly and asked if I really needed to. I informed her that that had been Jimmy speaking.
We went to Durban. There was a white stone building that was a museum and we wandered around that. There was mention of witch doctor exhibition. The world witch petrified me and coupled with doctor – a word I usually found reassuring – the sensation of terror grew even worse. I dared not gaze upon the dummy of the witch doctor. Somehow I perceived he would be a black man. This was not part of the reason I was scared of the sorcerer.
We went to the beach quite a lot. I remember seeing the shark nets far out. My father said that the loneliest man in the world was the further one out when the shark bell rang. There really was a bell by the lifeguard’s tower and if the dorsal find was sighted then the lifeguard would clang the bell to signal to the swimmers to get out of the water while they still had all their limbs.
My mother, my sisters and I all toddled down some not so well worn path to a beach. I do not remember where my father was that time. There were low but thick brownish bushes all along the steep hillside. We saw some strange, small creature toddle out of the undergrowth a few metres away. To this day I do not know what it was. My mother took fright but did not run off. We discussed it 20 years later. It was dun in colour and a quadruped. I do not think it was a carnivore. Was it a waterhog or giant anteater? We did not see the face.
On one occasion down by a small harbour I was walking beside my father. That sunny day a black boy walked by us carrying an octopus. My father asked him some amicable question such as if the child was going to cook the octopus. The boy was about 10 and only smiled timidly and made no reply. Quite possibly he did not speak English.
We stayed in a sort of camp once. There were many wooden chalets. Some boys several years older than me had Robin Hood costumes of which I was very jealous.
I remember another such chalet hotel on a plain by the sea but flanked by steep hills. A black security guard always took ramrod straight at the gate. He wore a white solar topee. He was fairly old and had few teeth. Because of this in later years I wondered whether some black people approved of apartheid. This man had been guarding us in an all-white hotel. Racially exclusive or racially mixed – many hotels have security guards so that had little to do with it. Most black South Africans were poor and this man may not have been able to secure other employment. It was of course wrong to surmise that he approved of apartheid just because he took this job.
Once we drove along the craggy coast and took a trip to a sandy beach. Large grey boulders sat beside the strand and hills rose abruptly to our rear. A gaggle of children in a uniforms of shorts, T-shirts and caps sat in knots. I was told by my parents that these children were orphans. A few adults were supervising these upbeat kids. Every last one of them was white. In those days beaches were assigned to one race or another. It is astonishing to think that this all happened in my lifetime and I am not that ancient.
We visisted my mother’s relatives in Pietermaritzburg. There was a large hospital by a hairpin bend in a verdant part of the country. We spent the day in their large bungalow. My mother’s aunt Eileen lived there with her husband Gabriel. Gabriel was known – as many men from Ireland with that name – as Gay. Gay had not had quite the same meaning when he was a child in the 1920s. Gabriel had studied in a seminary. As the cream of the crop he went to Rome for his last year of study before ordination. His parents travelled from Ireland in the 1930s to Rome to witness their son achieving the ultimate honour for a Catholic boy at the time – to become a priest. The night before he broke the news to his parents that he could not go through with it. He later qualified as a doctor.
My mother’s cousin Tony was there. Big Toe they sometimes called him in allusion to his innate corpulence. Fat Tony I called him. This bizarre bohemian happily read me stories.
Milk was to be collected. I wanted to see it. I went with a cousin to see. Around the corner on a muddy street.