Can-do Rhodie

Polly Hope

  • Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood by Carolyn Slaughter
    Doubleday, 254 pp, £12.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 385 60344 4
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
    Picador, 310 pp, £15.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 330 49023 0
  • The Healing Land: A Kalahari Journey by Rupert Isaacson
    Fourth Estate, 272 pp, £7.99, February 2002, ISBN 1 85702 897 X

In 1983, when I was 11 and living in South Africa, I went to veldskool along with about twenty other girls from one of Johannesburg’s ‘liberal’ private schools. Veldskool – a compulsory annual week in the bush – was part of the national curriculum, for private schools as well as state ones. Despite privations we’d never faced before (cold group showers, breakfast at dawn, powdered eggs) and a vicious rethink of the pecking order (suddenly, the poorer children who’d spent time on farms had the upper hand), we learned some interesting things. How to use a compass, how to pin down and kill a poisonous snake without it killing you, how to set up a leopard-proof camp. We tramped over breathtaking country and wondered at the ancient ‘Bushman’ paintings on the rocky outcrops studding the landscape.

One night, a burly, sincere-looking instructor, a white man in his twenties, asked if anyone knew how to fire a gun. We were such a pampered city lot that only one or two of my classmates put up their hands – their parents were even more paranoid about crime than the norm. The instructor seemed genuinely worried for the rest: ‘Well, in your shoes I would definitely learn how to handle a firearm. Because, you know, even right now, there are guys less than seventy ks over there’ – he pointed east, to the Mozambican border – ‘who are planning to kill you. Sooner or later you guys might have to stand up to the total onslaught.’

The ‘total onslaught’ idea – an all-out war for majority rule along the lines of what had already happened in Congo or Zimbabwe, possibly even involving nuclear weapons, or with the world powers stepping in – was a commonplace in those days. But we were getting only the edited version. Our prep school in the northern suburbs was a little uneasy about the all-out promotion of White Christian Capitalist rule, but for our counterparts at state schools the veldskool ritual got longer and more fervent every year.

For a white child in Africa, the privileges were outrageous: vast quantities of sunshine, space, nature, food, adventure and altogether too much power over some adults (as long as they were black). Swimming pools and tennis courts and no housework. But there was always that feeling that Something Wasn’t Quite Right; a sense of menace which didn’t have to be stated outright to rattle you. Even in the stagnant, manicured suburbs of South African cities, electric fences and guns and horror stories were daily currency. What was even more alarming was to know that violence didn’t come only in the shape of machete-wielding burglars or guerrillas with AK-47s: it erupted among your parents and their friends. Almost every week the Sunday papers would report another classic white African murder: drunken father kills wife, children, self.

Carolyn Slaughter and Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs of ‘an African childhood’ try, indirectly, to explain how generations of white people who ‘knew what was best for their Africans’ got it so wrong. Before the Knife and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight share more than a subtitle: they tell vivid tales of growing up with awful parents, sing the praises of the bush and the creatures in it, and attempt to account for a way of thinking that has been more reviled than properly examined in the rest of the world. They also have in common a catalogue of violence (actual and implied).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in