Dear South Africa,
Are you my home? You are my birthplace. I was formed in your red, dry earth and wide open skies, the blue and the dry brown and the green and primary colours of cultivated gardens. But although this was my womb, it was tainted soil, poisoned by apartheid and blood.
So, yes you are my birthplace, my beginnings, but I cannot hold you as my parent. I had to decide to leave you. I could not align myself with what even my own ancestors had claimed was their God-given right.
And so I grieve. I grieve for the pain of generations of people who live with such grace and resonance in your veld and townships and far-flung villages. I grieve for the others who live only on the surface, manipulating and manicuring their landscape to fit a view of simplistic dominance and– probably as a result of this – a view of simplistic understanding of this human endeavor we all have a brief chance to explore. I grieve for the cold people huddled in blankets around open fires, the children with flies hovering around their eyes, the grown men treated like naughty school boys, the patronising arm’s length disdainful kindness. I grieve for the dry-skinned white women, growing parched and brittle as they hold sway in their homestead domains. And I grieve for their men whose identity has had to be formed in opposition to their brothers of shining chestnut skin. My heart aches for the missed connections between people of all colours, under the arching broad skies of blue and white and piercing stars in the night sky.
I know you have been re-born of late: after the years of seemingly endless gestation, of your children being trodden into the dry earth, of tireless heroes silenced by incarceration in small cells or exile or death, your birth – your rebirth – when it came, belied all expectation of a bloodbath. A rainbow celebration lifted hearts around the world; but under the flags and the vuvuzelas there still throbs the scar tissue of apartheid.
So I eschewed the womb where you formed me and found an adoptive African mother across the border. But all the while, the actual womb of my beginnings, the reality of my own mother, was still there in your midst. When I last visited you earlier this year, I found her caught in a web of that simplistic kindness and patronizing control. The Afrikaans old age home meant well but screamed with the legacies of the past, clinging to bygone mores, a small fenced off island in the midst of down-at-heal Pretoria where – when I stepped out of the gate on to the pavement against all advice of those within – I was suddenly in a vibrant city, more akin to Lagos and Havana than to the colonial stronghold to which it had aspired. People sauntered and swayed hips with music engulfing the littered pavements where street vendors sold whatever they could to earn a few rand. I breathed with relief after the cloying smell of apartheid within the walls of Harmoniehof. This life of the streets is your reality, South Africa. But who am I to claim that as my identity?
So even now, you cannot be my home. And I knew, deep down, that you could no longer be home for my mother either, whether the vibrant life of your streets or the residual anachronisms of your past masters. She is now in the arms of my adoptive mother, in the compound of my brother and his Motswana wife across the border where her link with the red earth can be straightforward, free of barbed wire and paranoia.
South Africa, we have left you. We have run away to find a mother we can trust. I feel betrayal in my relief and sadness that the land of my first breaths could never be the land of my last.
Sala ka kgotso . Stay in peace.
AVB September 2014