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.

The Ndebele, whose chief, Mzilikaze, had befriended Robert on his travels north, scorned the Gospel. In nearly thirty years at Inyati, near Bulawayo, the mission founded by John Smith Moffat converted only two Ndebele. In 1889, Rhodes obtained a mining concession in Matabeleland from Mzilikaze’s successor, Lobengula; his company was promptly endowed with a royal charter from London, which would allow him to do as he pleased with the territory and its inhabitants. Missionary hearts were lifted at the news. Within four years, having found no minerals in their push to the north-east, the Rhodes cortège struck west and crushed the Ndebele. Lobengula set fire to his kraal and fled. He dispatched a bag of sovereigns to the nearest enemy commander, with the message: ‘Take this and go back. I am conquered.’ It was not at odds with Rhodes’s enterprise, and those who took up with him, that the gold was ‘stolen by the first two soldiers to get their hands on it and never seen again’.

These stories have been told before, but they are worth hearing again from Jacobson, who sorts through the history of the region in a series of careful passages that punctuate his own journey. The effect of this extensive shuttling from past to present and back again is to show not only how violent that history has been but how bloodshed, ethnic rivalry, exploitation and superstition are still seeping down into the land; and how, as they drain into the immense table of misdemeanour, the surface moisture of bad feeling is easily replenished. Most of the white racialism that Jacobson encounters is a manner of speaking – the vestigial loyalty of rather fortunate people to the notion that they are hard done by. Yet one hesitates to call it harmless, since it neatly substitutes the idea that ‘Africans’ are ruinous (‘That’s what you get when you try to do business in a fucking Third World kaffir state’) for the fact that they were, in most cases, ruined by the arrival of white people.

On this ruin and its continuation, Jacobson writes persuasively. Here, he is driving into an abysmal section of Bophuthatswana:

On the eastern side of the road there appeared the largest, poorest, dirtiest area of peri-urban habitation ... it went on for miles. There were some handkerchief-sized houses with asbestos roofs; a few bare brick schools with iron roofs; one-room shops barred like little forts. The rest was litter. There was the litter people lived in; there was the litter they had thrown away. You could hardly tell the one sort from the other, except that there were hollows in some of the heaps, for the people to come in and out of. A dead dog lay by the side of the road, its mouth open in a jubilant grin. About a mile further on, in a more advanced state of decomposition, a dead horse or mule lay in the middle of the road.

Forced removals, phoney ‘republics’ for blacks, division, internment, exile – all these have entailed a numbing isolation of commumties and groups in South Africa, and especially of the whites in whose name such policies were mostly implemented. The failure to generate a sense of public life, to feel like a country at all, is the key to Jacobson’s South Africa, ‘its deepest secret’. The centre of Mafikeng embodies

all that is most unbeautiful, unadorned, imaginatively penurious about the standard South African dorp, where people buy, sell, and huddle apart from one another. And flat, flat, flat. The boredom of it! The vacuity! ... it is not the physical spaces of the veld that remain unfilled, but the hearts of the people. And their minds. And the place where some common notion of themselves should reside.

Yet the uneasiness of this book has to do with the similarity, not the distinction, between geographical and social space: both are disparate and cratered, full of wilderness where nothing resembling civility has taken hold for very long, or spread beyond one or another local terrain. When identity is in any way certain, it is adversarial – defined in relation to an elemental hostility (‘Africa’), or to the apartheid state, or simply to ‘the blacks’. Everyone, from the fiercest militant for full citizenship to the stoutest Orange Free State burgher, who would have preferred to restrict it, is a kind of fugitive.

The image of the captive Nelson Mandela breaking stones on Robben Island is still very powerful. But its meaning has changed. It is no longer simply about punishment and heroism, or even, by that stretch of the political imagination which kept the opposition alive through a dreary forty years and more, about chipping away at the monolithic racist state. Over the years it has come to stand for a painstaking demolition of obstacles – all political, but with the sullen aspect of geological truths – to a unitary democratic South Africa. The job, Mandela tells us in his autobiography, which is nothing if not authorised, was to smash this adamantine stuff, ‘the size of volleyballs’, into gravel. Later he worked a ‘blinding white’ lime quarry dug into a hillside on the island. The lime was a ‘soft, calcified residue of seashells and coral’, buried in layers of rock. At the end of a day in the quarry, Mandela and his comrades ‘looked like pale ghosts’, covered in chalky dust, just as he had been at his circumcision, although the one conferred ceremonial purity while the other expressed the ritual humiliation of prison life.

Long Walk to Freedom begins at the beginning, with Mandela born to Thembu nobility in Umtata on 18 July 1918, transferred to the compound of a royal guardian after his father’s death, and raised on Chambers English Reader, doing well in school ‘not so much through cleverness as through doggedness’, an attribute that came in useful later. There is also a flicker of pastoral. ‘When I was not in school, I was a ploughboy, a waggon guide, a shepherd. I rode horses and shot birds with slingshots and found boys to joust with, and some nights I danced the evening away to the beautiful singing and clapping of Thembu maidens’.

This was an upbringing of privilege, despite his father’s fall from grace and early death, from which Mandela went on, in 1941, to be articled to the Johannesburg legal firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman. The rest may be pretty familiar and if not, can be found in the curriculum vitae at the back of Fatima Meer’s worthy biography. 1944: membership of the ANC and marriage to Walter Sisulu’s cousin, Evelyn; 1947: secretaryship of the ANC Youth League; 1952: presidency of the Transvaal ANC; 1956: separation from Evelyn; 1958: marriage to the mother of the nation; 1961: formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe; 1962 (a busy year): on the road in Africa, to meet the FLN, Haile Selassie and others; in Britain, to meet Gaitskell and Grimond, both in opposition; arrest, detention and banning, five-year jail sentence; 1963-4: Rivonia trial and life imprisonment; and, fast forwarding somewhat, 1990: live at Wembley.

The temptation to scoff at this tome is strong but problematic. Mandela is now an homme d’état, accountable largely to the business and political class. Like all grandees, he publishes with an eye to present duties (no less than to posterity). The result is too much retrospective homily and oiling, not to say greasing, of troubled waters; the reader soon feels like a gull in a tanker spillage. The resumé of the bitter antagonism, during the Seventies, between Black Consciousness and the Congress is anodyne; Buthelezi is only ‘a thorn in the side of the democratic movement’; Mrs Thatcher, one of P.W. Botha’s most carefree allies, is a ‘considerate lady’ – a more fatuous description is hard to imagine.

Politicians sit for their ghosted memoirs and authorised biographies, as they would for a portrait or a sculptor’s sketches. But because Mandela’s life has been almost wholly one of public service and because the account of the man and that of the statesman are not easily distinguished, there is an odd sense here that the statue might as well have sat for its subject – or that Mandela was already cast in the monumental likeness of his principles (the impeccable bearing, the refusal to budge) and that this new commission, skilfully ghosted by Robert Stengel, is tautological. But the very fact that Mandela’s life has been so transparent, even behind bars, relieves him of his saintly status and turns him into an interesting strategist. As a Transkei dignitary, a militant, a convict and a President, his exemplary behaviour is a matter of political realism; coaxing the best from others and then praising precisely those virtues he elicits has remained a lifelong policy – part of the business of leading, persuading, refusing and moderating.

It worked well on the turnkeys who dealt with him in prison, and on most of the National Party with whom he dealt on his release. For many reasons, Mandela could not mitigate the violence of the transition but on the whole, in his presence, matters tend to get no worse. In his absence, they tend to fester. In detention, he was the keeper of the ANC’s ideals; without him, in the world beyond the prison gates, the movement itself was captive to the chaos and cruelty of insurrection. In family matters, loyalty requires that Mandela protest Winnie’s innocence in the crimes which began at 8115 Orlando West, Soweto, and continued after her move to Diepkloof, though he is rumoured to have taken a much more nuanced view in private. Here, too, his absence is an important factor. ‘She married a man who soon left her ... when your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.’

Nadine Gordimer’s novel is set in the period after Mandela’s release. It is about homecoming and transition. The heroine, Vera Stark, who works for a progressive legal foundation, is not an exile as such, but she has lived at a distance from herself, which is slowly closed by her encounter with a black land rights spokesman, courageous, ambitious but unpretentious – virtues that are not confined to Mandela, but which try a novelist’s skills, and occasionally a reader’s patience. Didymus and Sibongile, old friends of Vera, have returned from Europe and Africa. Didymus, an ANC worthy, fails to land a senior post at home – his wife gets one – and it transpires that he has been involved in the persecution of ANC members (during the Eighties, both the ANC and Swapo detained and tortured their dissidents) up in some front-line state ‘where the methods of extracting information by inflicting pain and humiliation learnt from white Security Police were adopted by those who had been its victims’.

This thread is spun pretty much in passing. It is taken up again at a party in Johannesburg, but here Gordimer forecloses any discussion by making the speaker a ludicrous cameo character – a young English journalist ‘in a catfish-patterned dashiki’, whose motives for bringing up the subject of ANC detention camps are suspect. Gordimer’s books often unstitch their own politics in this way and, as derision of one thing becomes extenuation of another – or vice-versa – it does no harm, even at the risk of appearing a fool, to slip into a dashiki by about page nine and start mumbling one’s objections; tricky, however, for readers who are close to Gordimer’s world – everyday ‘Movement’ folk, of whom, and in many ways for whom, None to Accompany Me is an ordinary tale.

The rhythm of the novel is good. It glides easily from the inside of Vera’s head, with its round-the-clock screenings – first husband, second husband, erstwhile European lover, thoughts on middle age, the struggle, children – to the outside, where events are moving almost as hectically. But the interior is always vivid while the world is sketchy, forever in draft. Being with Vera, whose sensibilities are the main thing, is like being on a ship at night in rough weather, where there is little by way of a view beyond the rise and fall of cabin furnishings. But this has its purpose. The rewards of personal freedom after years of general misery would not be grasped in a novel that divided its attention more evenly. ‘Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self,’ Vera reflects, in the calm at the end of the book, when she has left white suburbia. She has thrown over the old life, just as the old politics has been overthrown, and in her connection with the land rights activist, who embodies her own hopes as well as those of the people who queue outside her office at the legal foundation, she seems at last to become her own woman – ‘herself a final form of company discovered’.

Edward Said calls exile (the palpable kind) an ‘unhealable rift between a human being and a native place’, and Hilda Bernstein has chosen the title of her book with this in mind. It contains roughly a hundred testimonies by South African exiles. From the end of the Fifties to 1990, large numbers of people (‘30,000? 60,000? – nobody knew exactly’) were outside the country – in the front-line states and other parts of Africa; Western Europe, Canada and the United States; and, because of the ANC’s Cold War alignment, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, particularly East Germany. Their backgrounds differed greatly. Some were township youths who fled in the Seventies to become soldiers in Umkhonto we Sizwe, others were teachers, lawyers, business people, housewives; others still were children, caught up in events and decisions which impinged on them indirectly.

Bernstein collected these testimonies as apartheid was ending. She believes that there was not much ‘sense of triumph or fulfilment’ among the exiles as they prepared to go home. She seems to have felt little herself. She and her husband Rusty, both members of the Communist Party, fled the country in 1963 (she later wrote The World That Was Ours, a marvellous account of their own lives at that time). Rusty Bernstein – a defendant, with Mandela, in the Rivonia Trial – had been loath to leave; in family debates, he argued for the long view: ‘That some whites stood for Africans ... and refused to run away – that must be important to my children in the end.’ Like hundreds of others, the Bernsteins had in the end to jump the country or live with one earner in jail and the other ‘banned’ – Hilda was not even allowed to publish advertising copy after her husband’s house arrest in 1962. The changes when they came took the very people who had pressed for them by surprise.‘Nobody had envisaged that freedom would come this way,’ Bernstein remarks. A second adjustment was necessary after the wrench of exile. But it is the initial shock and the lives it displaced that preoccupy her in this book.

The Rift deals entirely with individuals and families opposed to the regime. It includes anti-apartheid notables such as Oliver Tambo, the Slovo children, Trevor Huddleston, the poet Mazisi Kunene and the musician Hugh Masekela, but consists mainly of a long column of unknowns or little knowns and is in this sense a very admirable book – enviable, even: a vast, commemorative labour that explains what was difficult, sometimes horrifying, about exile, in the words of those concerned, many of them unambitious people we will never hear of again.

The most pressing problem for some was simply staying alive or learning to live with the violent death of a family member. Marius Schoon, an activist – presumably a Communist – who spent most of the Sixties and Seventies in prison in Pretoria, lost his wife, a trade-union organiser, and their young daughter, in a South African bomb blast in Angola in the early Eighties. He had been away and was flown to the scene, where he met his two-year-old son, the sole survivor. ‘Our street was cordoned off, there was no traffic ... We went up to the flat and it was terrible ... I mean it was too ghastly.’ Schoon took his son to England, then Ireland. The boy saw colonies of monkeys, of which he now had a dread, all over the roads in Devon and Cork. Within two years he appeared more settled. ‘But there must be things going on inside him,’ Schoon reflects. ‘He’s not all that well, he’s got epilepsy ... and he goes away, he just goes away. It lasts quite a long time and it’s very worrying.’

There was not much solace in survival. In 1982, during the famous South African raid on Lesotho, a hit squad attacked an ANC safe house where Nelly Marwanqana and her family had fled after her husband’s third stint in detention. Nelly was spared in the attack. A man with a balaclava burst into their bedroom and ordered her out with the youngest of her children (‘I think he’s shy to kill my husband in front of me’). She retreated to the bathroom and heard the shot. When the gunmen left and the chaos subsided, she found that her oldest daughter and her 18-year-old son had also been killed. At the funeral, Nelly wished herself dead. ‘Why these Boers left me alone? It’s better to kill me and all this family of Marwanqana must be finish.’ Bunie Sexwale, another activist whose house was burned out in the same raid, and who lost several friends, obscenely dispatched by their killers, came to think that there was something shameful about survival; she spent years ‘having to justify why I did not die’.

Most of the accounts treat directly of fear and some are, in themselves, scary. The pace and promiscuity of political redefinition is too much. Here is Dirk Coetzee, who ran death squads for Pretoria during the Seventies and Eighties and recanted shortly before Mandela’s release, on his de-briefing with a senior ANC man – maybe 1989 or 1990:

Hell, I mean I was so nervous telling Jacob Zuma about Griffith Mxenge – I was responsible for it; he was stabbed 44 times and his throat was cut and his dogs were poisoned – and he was a friend of Zuma, close friend. And Zuma didn’t wink an eye. I was very well-received, very well-looked after, very well-cared for. Up till now, this day. Hell, it’s just beautiful ... So warm, so genuine, so human! ‘We know, Dirk, we understand, you’re a victim of the system, like thousands and millions of other South Africans, black and white.’

‘Everything unlikely has become likely,’ Sibongile tells Vera in Gordimer’s novel, ‘that’s our politics these days.’

There will be no proper de-nazification of South Africa, and plenty of people, known but unpursued, neutralised by the changes, and who connived in deeds like Coetzee’s, will raise their glasses to the New South Africa when protocol requires. Others, like Didymus the torturer, may or may not lose sleep about the past. Inside or outside the country, on one side or the other, the various histories have not been easy, but the resemblance between them stops there. Within the opposition, Bernstein argues, those who remained and those who left have ‘different fears ... neither can fully understand the pain of the other.’ The ‘common notion of themselves’ whose absence so dismayed Dan Jacobson about South Africans is difficult under these circumstances and, even in the generous light of democracy, South Africa remains a place of obscure, inchoate identities – of solitude, as much as anything. It’s Gordimer’s skill to celebrate that quality and Bernstein’s right to regret it.