Pale Ghosts

Jeremy Harding

  • The Electronic Elephant: A Southern African Journey by Dan Jacobson
    Hamish Hamilton, 373 pp, £17.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 241 13355 6
  • Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
    Little, Brown, 630 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 316 90965 3
  • None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer
    Bloomsbury, 324 pp, £15.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1821 1
  • The Rift: The Exile Experience of South Africans by Hilda Bernstein
    Cape, 516 pp, £25.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 224 03546 0

Dan Jacobson grew up in the diamond town of Kimberley, South Africa. England was one of the places he looked to for inspiration. As it turned out, his interest in English literature and his habit of falling on copies of the New Statesman were ways of sending ahead. From his description of Kimberley on a Saturday afternoon in Time and Time Again (1985), it is obvious why he hankered for another life, the further away the better:

Helpless with boredom, stupefied by their own nullity, town and sky yawned at one another. Old buildings two storeys high, with elaborate fronts, alternated with garish new buildings four or five storeys high. Nobody looked at the dresses or cars or electrical equipment displayed in their groundfloor windows. There were no other pedestrians to be seen and no cars on the roadway.

Jacobson bid farewell to this Nick Ray set in the mid-Fifties. Unlike so many of the tens of thousands of South Africans who would soon be exiled, and whose lives abroad would always seem to them provisional, he was able to settle pretty thoroughly in London. From here, in due course, he could look back to his country of origin without much rancour, although his dislike of apartheid is as strong as his aversion to the parched provincialism of Kimberley, which he evokes so well, not in the voice of the Jewish boy who was raised there, but in the rich, rainfed English manner acquired through years of expatriate living, reading and reflection. His stories are exquisite in the telling; the subjects sometimes harsh or poignant, but the sounds of grinding and laying on thick are absent. The axe and the trowel are not the tools of Jacobson’s trade.

The Electronic Elephant is the record of a journey through Southern Africa, made at some point after Mandela’s release. The title is taken from an encounter with a life-size model elephant made of wire, wood and painted plaster, mounted on a bogie, with a driver’s seat inside and a steering wheel from a cannibalised tractor. It has been delivered to a little dorp in Botswana for repair by a mystified Zimbabwean trucker, who thinks that ‘maybe it go to safari park. Maybe they make films.’ Jacobson peers up its backside at a ‘rusty collection of metal pipes, wires and wood’. He notes ‘a reproachful gleam from one of its great brown eyes’. The creature is both monstrous and puzzling: how foolish can a notion get? Months later, in England, the question arises again, when a publisher wants to know if his book will lay bare ‘the Soul of Africa’. ‘It was as if the electronic elephant’s eye was looking directly at me. “Yes,” I answered.’ Jacobson’s journey begins in Kimberley: he goes north through the Transvaal, across Bophuthatswana – which died in a blaze of ignominy last year – up to Botswana and from there into Zimbabwe, with a brief excursion into Zambia. For much of the time, he remains unsettled; engaged, amused, alarmed, seldom at ease and never presumptuous. London is often present: a remembered preamble to departure, a source of archive material on missionary history and a useful reference point when Jacobson is talking with Africans and perhaps with himself (‘More greenness. More rain. More money. More goods. More newspapers’). Above all, it is somewhere he is not.

Nor is he entirely in Africa. In Kimberley he drifts like a wraith through a remembered world, already blurred by change. He is troubled by the monstrosity (and ubiquity) of De Beers, which in his youth he had taken for granted. Before long, having explored some of the smaller towns to the west of Kimberley, he is ready to move on, ‘not because of the other ghosts I encountered wherever I turned; it was my own ghostliness I had begun to find so burdensome.’ He is dismayed, too, by the absence of spoken English. ‘The people I knew had vanished; so had their language. That contributed to my ghostlike state. In my earliest years the whites of Kimberley spoke English only ... Now I was addressed in Afrikaans wherever I went.’

He takes off for the margins of Bophuthatswana, following what was one of the most important routes of white penetration into Africa: ‘the missionary road’ – also known as ‘the hunter’s trail’, ‘the road to the north’, ‘the neck of the bottle’. There is no great resemblance between his own, open-ended journey and the intrusions of earlier strangers: of Robert Moffat, Livingstone and various envoys of the London Missionary Society, who thrived on scruples; of Cecil Rhodes, and an assortment of English and Boer traders, who did without them; of the Voortrekkers, who left the Cape in sombre spirits and travelled north to cultivate a useful sense of grievance. Yet in following this beaten track Jacobson implies a connection with his predecessors.

He prefers some to others. He is amused by Livingstone’s antipathy to almost all forms of human life that he encounters, but relishes his writing. He is intrigued, too, by Livingstone’s father-in-law, Robert Moffat, a Scots market gardener turned Congregationalist minister, who established a mission north-west of Kimberley in 1822. Moffat was an able, congenial sort, although he and his wife, Mary, fared badly in the saving of souls (‘Alas! We still hang our harps on the willows, and mourn over the destiny of thousands hastening with heedless but impetuous strides to the regions of woe’). But in their very persistence they brought their wayward congregation ‘new forms of agriculture, medical care and technology (guns not least – to the fury of the Boers)’. Through their diaries, they left ‘a historiography which tries to look at the past from a specifically African point of view’. Jacobson sets the Moffats against more brazen scouts of empire, including their own son, John, whose work among the Ndebele, further north and somewhat later, typified the ‘open alliance between the interests of the local missionaries and the colonisers’ into which Robert and Mary, worried about land expropriation and enslavement, had felt unable to enter.

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