In January of 2009, it snowed in Oxford. Deep drifts covered the meadow outside my study window. I watched as a fox, stark red against the pillow-white, tensed-and-leapt tensed-and-leapt through the fluffy deeps. It landed easily on a tree trunk, recently fallen across the river at the bottom of my tiny garden, and then ran along the informal bridge to my side before disappearing into a hedge.
I have seen snow before, but never lived in a place where snow thrusts itself into your daily life. The familiar landscape of fields, farmlands and wilderness was utterly transformed. I could see just how much wildlife lived around me. Bunnies hopped. Deer loped. Birds scratched.
I took a morning off, just to go see what the massive Port Meadow would look like. I got only a few yards on my bicycle before becoming glued in the snow. So I walked. It was magnificent.
I arrived in Oxford at the end of April 2008, leaving South Africa for good on 27 April: Freedom Day. Ironic. The day that South Africans celebrate as the day of the start of majority rule has now become my own private memorial to personal liberty.
A pain that only has one resolution
I have a friend who owns a micro-coffee roastery back in Cape Town. He has burned millions of rands over the past few years as he tries to get South Africans to enjoy high-quality coffee. It is killing him, that slow awful and agonising murder that the self-employed experience. Every day you are reborn and die again.
Business people aren’t the only ones to experience this pain. Maybe you had a relationship like that? A love which is on fire and filled with light and colour and texture, and agony. For you never quite connect in the most critical places; that of mutual respect, adoration and compromise. One of you is making all the running while the other lives exactly as they please, ignorant and immune to the consequences.
It’s a destructive relationship. You put everything you can in, but you’re burning yourself out.
Maybe that relationship turns around. But there comes a point where, no matter how that relationship ends up, it no longer has meaning for you.
I’ve been through a few of those. Personal, business and ideological relationships that I put my soul and spirit and determination into. Even where they worked I found that the success was ashes in my mouth.
South Africa had become like that to me and the only solution was to leave. Frank McCourt who, more than any recent writer, has done so much to lift the “glamour” of poverty had this to say:
“Very little is written about poverty…You see part of it. You see Dafur. You see Chad. That’s African poverty…you see this all the time. You almost become accustomed to it…you can send in rice…but that doesn’t heal them…beware of giving energy to desperate people. They are going to use it.”
Beware of giving energy to desperate people. Good advice. But, when I left, I also left behind a life, friends, favourite places, favourite things, and my fiancée.
Putting it in perspective
I had a long chat with a Swedish chap who was complaining, “Don’t you find England dangerous? I hate the public transport and I never feel safe. By the way, what’s South Africa like?”
I looked at him, dumbfounded. “If this is how you feel about the UK, you’ll probably not want to get off the plane when you arrive in SA.”
So, my perspective is coloured by a comparison to a country with one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world, the highest rape rate, a government so corrupt that the cabinet now is dominated by convicted (and accused) fraudsters who have dismantled the judiciary and appointed apparatchiks to head up the newly emasculated state departments.
There’s a joke about Jacob Zuma, the morally suspect new president, which goes like this.
President Zuma suffers a heart attack while having sex with his seventh wife, a 14-year-old school-girl from the rural North. He gets taken, by accident, to a public hospital, but the doctors are out on strike and the nurses are all asleep in an unused theatre and he dies without ever receiving attention.
He ascends to Heaven and stands at the Pearly Gates where St. Peter greets him.
“Welcome to Heaven,” says Saint Peter, “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a Communist around these parts, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”
“No problem, just let me in; I’m a good Christian; I’m a believer,” says Comrade Jacob.
“I’d like to just let you in, but I have orders from God Himself. He says that since the implementation of his new Affirmative Action Policy, you have to spend one day in Hell and one day in Heaven. Then you must choose where you’ll live for eternity.”
“But I’ve already made up my mind. I want to be in Heaven,” replies Zuma.
“I’m sorry … But we have our rules,” Peter interjects. And, with that, St. Peter escorts him to an elevator and he goes down, down, down … all the way to Hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a lush golf course. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky. The temperature is a perfect 22C degrees. In the distance is a beautiful club-house. Standing in front of it is Thabo Mbeki and thousands of other Communist luminaries who had helped him out over the years; Tokyo Sexwale, Peter Mokaba, Tony Yengeni, Schabir Shaik and thousands more. All the ANC leaders are there, everyone laughing, happy, and casually but expensively dressed.
They run to greet him, to hug him and to reminisce about the good times they had getting rich at the expense of ‘suckers and peasants.’
They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster and caviar. The Devil himself comes up to Zuma with a frosty drink, “Have a tequila and relax, Jake!”
They are having such a great time that, before he realises it, it’s time to go. Everyone gives him a big hug and waves as Zuma steps on the elevator and heads upward.
When the elevator door reopens, he is in Heaven again and St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now it’s time to visit Heaven,” the old man says, opening the gate.
So for 24 hours Zuma is made to hang out with a bunch of honest, good-natured people who enjoy each other’s company, talk about things other than money and treat each other decently. Not a kanga, or scantily-clad woman amongst them. No fancy country clubs here and, while the food tastes great, it’s not caviar or lobster. And these people are all poor. He doesn’t see anybody he knows and he isn’t even treated like someone special!
“Whoa,” he says uncomfortably to himself. “Robert Mugabe never prepared me for this!”
The day done, St. Peter returns and says, “Well, you’ve spent a day in Hell and a day in Heaven. Now choose where you want to live for Eternity.”
With the ‘Deal or No Deal’ theme playing softly in the background, Zuma reflects for a minute … Then answers: “Well, I would never have thought I’d say this. I mean, Heaven has been cool and all but I really think I belong in Hell with my friends.”
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down, all the way to Hell.
The doors of the elevator open and he is in the middle of a barren scorched earth covered with garbage and toxic industrial wasteland, looking a bit like the eroded, befouled informal squatter camps around South African cities, but worse and more desolate.
He is horrified to see all of his friends, dressed in rags and chained together, picking up the roadside rubbish and putting it into black plastic bags. They are groaning and moaning in pain, faces and hands black with grime.
The Devil comes over to Zuma and puts an arm around his shoulder.” I don’t understand,” stammers a shocked Zuma, “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a club-house and we ate lobster and caviar and drank tequila. We lazed around and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and everybody looks miserable!”
The Devil looks at him, smiles slyly and purrs, “Yesterday we were campaigning; today you voted for us.”
Continue to Part 2: One year an immigrant: so you see…