Every morning as I woke up I reached for my radio. A cheerful Home Counties voice announced: ‘Sunny skies in Buenos Aires, Toronto, Calgary and Tokyo: overcast in Dublin, Rome and Ankara: rain in London, Athens, Nairobi and Frankfurt.’ As South Africa gets the weather, so it gets its news: in gobbets of fact, fragmented beyond all hope of comprehension.
There are items that the news loves. They are, top, world disapproval of South Africa, then corruption in black countries, sporting events of all kinds in all countries, speeches on terrorism by foreign politicians; internally, the collapse of a strike whose beginning was never reported, the opening of a trial of which nothing more will be heard. When news turns to comment, anonymously delivered, cheerfulness gives way to the rasping tones of common sense. ‘South Africa, whose feet have now been set irrevocably on the path of reform, will not be deflected by extremists either of the right or of the left.’ The word ‘certain’ carries most opprobrium: ‘certain groups’, ‘certain interests’, ‘certain persons for reasons best known to themselves’, ‘certain ideologues of a Marxist or Westminster persuasion’. A correspondent from London regrets the decay of the relative clause in the speech and writing of the young. Songs punctuate the news to unpremeditated effect: Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Victoria de los Angeles, and, one morning, Yves Montand singing the favourite song of the Italian Communist partisans. It is difficult to exclude the external world if you cannot recognise it.
I was in a position to think these thoughts because back in the late Seventies two South African lecturers had come to visit me. They had been friends of the legendary Rick Turner, a brilliant young philosopher who, having gone to Paris to study Sartre and Marx, had returned to teach, had eventually been banned by the authorities, and, answering the front-door bell one morning, had been shot dead. That had been a year or so earlier. They talked to me of the isolation of the Left and the reinforcement of the Right by touring lecturers from Baptist colleges in the Southern States of America. If I ever had the chance, would I please go? When I went last month I was not prepared for what I found: for the splendours or for the miseries.
Superficially the University of Cape Town is like a Californian campus. It has a magnificent site, which it has done quite a bit to spoil. The faculty have been to foreign universities. The students are intelligent and eager and believe in showing it. The ideas that circulate come from France and America. Posters advertise protest marches and shared rides home and lectures and water-skiing equipment; they denounce the Police and nuclear energy and conscription. There is more theology than there would be in England. Out of ten thousand students, two to three thousand (I was told) are radical, five hundred, of whom next to nothing is heard, support the Government, and the rest are in the centre and occupied with life’s ordinary ambitions. Fifteen per cent are non-white. But if all this approximates to California, there are two big differences. For the first difference you would have to imagine the airport functioning, say, one day a month. People do come and go, but with a meagreness which is out of keeping with the modern world. Students carry around not books but xeroxes of chapters of books that by now no one can afford to buy. And the second difference is that the more amusing-looking students, the elegant kids, who don’t give the impression of having just come off the sports field, who wear a touch of ethnic clothing or T-shirts demanding the release of Mandela and gold and silver chains and bracelets, whose hair is slightly longer if they are girls or slightly shorter if they are boys – these students lay, perhaps not their lives, but certainly their safety on the line.