Confrontation

I would imagine that anyone who saw a woman travelling alone with four children aged between two and seven prayed they wouldn’t be sitting anywhere close to me. In those days it was permissible to let the children sleep on the floor, which we did, so had a very easy flight, with a little help from Phenergan.

Michael met us at the airport and took us to see the brand new house he had bought, which was almost finished. Choosing new furniture and fittings felt like a celebration of a fresh start. Days were busy sorting out schools and shops and systems. I found I soon made friends, partly through the children, and partly through church. But again I longed for those blue airmail envelopes.

Michael played cricket and bought a boat, so weekends were always busy. But although I made some special friends, they couldn’t just replace the old ones. I ached for my family and my good friends in Bath.  I didn’t really communicate my feelings to my husband, and although our geography had changed, we were still the same people. Any issues we had had were ignored in the business of settling into a new life. So we carried on growing in our own individual directions.

The lifestyle we led sheltered us from the reality of apartheid, and I was unprepared when, during a weekend away with the cricket team we found ourselves confronted with a political situation.

We had booked to stay at one of the mine villages, where one of the cricketers had some business connections. We checked in and I stretched out on the bed, luxuriating in idleness. A little later we sauntered down to the pool area and met up with the other members of the team. Conversations flowed along with the beers and the wine. More people arrived, amongst them, the one coloured team member and his family. He greeted everybody, then went to speak quietly to the captain, whereupon they both disappeared.

We were all very puzzled, because before any cricket function was arranged, the first thing they checked was that all facilities were multi-racial.

The captain re-appeared, looking grim. Apparently the mine club was under new management, as of the previous day, and the new managers had refused to honour their predecessor’s verbal agreement that all facilities would be available to everyone in our party, regardless of colour or creed. Our coloured family had received just one more stab in the constantly raw wound of prejudice.

They wanted to drive straight back to Johannesburg, but were somehow persuaded to stay for the night, believing that everything would be cleared up in the morning. The fire crackled and the steaks sizzled. Political opinions grew louder and more emphatic, proportionally to the number of beers consumed.

It was the season of Halley, and people kept disappearing into the darkness armed with binoculars, reappearing either totally disillusioned or mildly excited, depending on their level of alcohol and the strength of their binoculars.

A tennis tournament had been arranged for the following day, and only those with severe hangovers were excused. The coloured family were there, joining in, so everybody assumed that somebody had straightened out the problem with the management. But nobody had. At lunchtime, our people drove home, and some of the others followed suit. The rest of us had soul searching family discussions, and, to my shame, we stayed for another night. We questioned ourselves: would our mass departure have changed the policy of the mine club management, or would they merely have shrugged their shoulders and said ‘voorspoed, hoor’?

For weeks I was tormented by what had happened. How could we make compensation to a family who had grown up being told they were second-class? How could those children be expected to feel anything other than hatred for the white people who turned them away, again and again? By what logic were our dirty sticky children, who had not hit soap and shower all weekend, allowed to contaminate the pool, while those beautifully turned out, immaculately clean coloured children had to stand outside the fence, watching, smiles on their lips, pain in their eyes?

But sympathy is an empty and meaningless emotion if it does not precipitate some practical action.

And I have no excuse. In our white South African suburb we were insulated against the harshness of apartheid. The news told us what we wanted to hear. The papers gave away nothing about the hardships people of colour were facing. We were told of riots between opposing Black tribes, but that had been happening since before the days of Shaka, the most famous or infamous Zulu chief.

So in guilty semi-ignorance we continued life in our little bubble.

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