“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that’s the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire.”—Alan Paton
Alan Paton wrote these words in 1948, around the same time that the National Party of South Africa set in motion laws that would establish apartheid. For the next forty-three years the country burned as Xhosa, Ndebele, Afrikaners and Zulu turned on each other’s throats.
Three years before the great unifier, Nelson Mandela, passed away, I travelled through the heart of the once-divided country. I took a road that wound through the Drakensburg Mountains to Zululand. It was an ancient place where colonial distinctions were preserved: whites owned the land and blacks worked the land. My task was humble, to study the green monkeys that lived among the acacias and fever trees. Along with a handful of other researchers we occupied a lonely farmhouse surrounded by bushveld.
The farm owner, Cornelius, a giant Afrikaner with sharp blue eyes and a crushing handshake, was dismissive of our work. “You like monkeys?” he asked, “you should speak to the new government, they are the real monkeys.”
We woke early every day to spot the primates emerging from their resting places. We had maps and binoculars, but they knew the terrain better than us foreigners. The monkeys could hide out of site for days, so we passed the time by tramping around a dry riverbed or picking lemons.
Exhausted by evening, we sat on the roof of the farmhouse and sipped beers. Every night there were fires on the horizon, trails of smoke streaming into the sky. “What are those fires?” I asked a ranger who lived with us. “Arson attacks,” he replied calmly.
Violence lay just under the surface of everyday life. I was out in the bush one afternoon when gunshots rang around the veld. I heard voices close by and hid in a tree.
Violence lay just under the surface of everyday life. I was out in the bush one afternoon when gunshots rang around the veld. I heard voices close by and hid in a tree. When I got back to the farmhouse the ranger shook his head. “Poachers” he said.
Armed police were dispatched from Johannesburg to deal with the “poachers.” They were ugly men who took pride in their guns. One policeman even showed me pictures on his laptop of suspects he had shot as they lay dying in the street. But try as they might, the expanse was too great, the bush too tangled for their vehicles. The poachers remained elusive.
Once a week we drove into town to pick up supplies and send emails to the outside world. One day along the highway the ranger recognized a friend, Billy, driving the opposite way. They wound the windows down to talk. “Have you heard?” Billy asked. There had been a shootout in town. When we arrived later that day we saw the bullet holes around the bank entrance and the silhouette of an ATM that had been pulled from the wall. “It’s like the Wild West out here,” Billy said.
Along the roads beyond the bush were Zulu villages. The villagers lived a life unchanged by modern South Africa. They still pumped water from wells. Women walked for miles to collect firewood, then returned home at night balancing branches on their heads while children ran around their skirts. The few men who were employed worked for the Afrikaners. Cornelius had a backie, or pickup truck, which he would ride around with a troop of men, or “the boys” as he called them, hanging off the back. Occasionally some construction work was required around the farm, for which “the boys” would be summoned. Cornelius barked at them in Zulu and the men reluctantly traipsed inside the house. “They are too lazy to learn any other language,” he complained, “so you must learn their tongue to work with them.”
There were a pack of dogs on the farm that had been trained to judge people on the basis of skin color, presumably to hunt for poachers.
There were a pack of dogs on the farm that had been trained to judge people on the basis of skin color, presumably to hunt for poachers. This was embarrassing as the dogs sat placidly at our feet, but went wild whenever the Zulu workers walked past. Marion, a fellow student, sighed that, “Even the dogs are racist here.”
I remember one moment very clearly. I was walking back from the bush with Marion after a fruitless day of monkey hunting. On a dirt track that led to the farmhouse, the ranger unexpectedly joined us. We chatted together for a while as we neared home. The wind was particularly strong that day and was lifting up the dust around our feet. The gust threw clothes from the washing line onto the hedgerow. Suddenly we all stopped together. None of us spoke. We all felt that something was different.
The ranger beckoned us to stay silent against the hedge. He leaned down and rolled up his trousers, revealing a pistol strapped to his leg. He cocked it and set off silently around the house. No one was there. The presence melted back into the veld.
There was not much in the way of nightlife in the bush. Though one night there was some excitement: a spitting cobra entered the kitchen. I heard screaming and ran downstairs to find the students gathered anxiously outside the kitchen door. The ranger didn’t flinch. Grabbing a broom he swept the snake outside in a single movement.
The same evening we were having a braai, a barbeque where a fire is lit in the middle of a stone circle and slabs of meat are slowly cooked in pans with potatoes and garlic. The tradition dates back to the time when the Boers were forced by the British to leave their homes in the Cape and trek west across the country in search of new land. I was collecting sticks for the fire when I saw the ranger’s dog, an elderly Alsatian, collapse and begin to spasm. The snake had taken its revenge. With tears in his eyes, the ranger dragged his most loyal friend to the back of the farmhouse. We heard the dog twitching in the dust, then a bang. Then silence.
For the duration of apartheid, South Africa was at war, internally between the Bantu and the Afrikaans and externally with the rest of the world who boycotted South African trade and sports. All Afrikaner men above a certain age performed military service, usually working in the police force where they brutally quelled uprisings in Soweto. The soldier mentality persists today. Many in Kwazulu Natal still dress the part: khaki shorts, cream shirts and walking boots.
I heard a lot of stories about the way things were before the transition. South Africa, I was told, “Used to be a beautiful country.” A place where trains ran on time and everyone knew his or her place. Now, some said, the country was falling apart and the infrastructure was collapsing. “I do not know where I see myself in this ‘New South Africa,’” the ranger said. In Zululand it was hard to take these attitudes seriously. The inequality between the different groups could not have been more stark, though the Afrikaans did not see it like that. “You cannot get employed these days,” one told me. “Affirmative action has made it impossible.”
“I do not know where I see myself in this ‘New South Africa,’” the ranger said.
To see the hardship that the Zulu suffered belittled our work. The monkeys were happy and plentiful. Why were we spending so much effort on these animals when there were such problems among the people in front of our eyes?
This essay is not a diatribe against any ethic group. I was treated with respect by everyone I met in South Africa. It is, rather, a lament for the divisions and the violence that have scarred and continue to haunt the country. There is so much that South Africa has and so much for which its people can be proud. But sins of the past cannot be lightly shaken off.
“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”—Alan Paton
Thomas Crellen is studying for a doctorate in Tropical Diseases in London. His research has taken him across Africa including Kenya, Uganda and The Gambia.
Lead image by Tambako The Jaguar