Monday, October 23, 2017

Contacts for my context

As some of you might already know, I am writing the sequel to African Ways. The period I am covering is 1985 to 1987 just after I left the farm (see picture below) which is the subject of the first book. I've been enjoying the process of thinking back, putting myself there in time and simply recalling the people, places and events that occurred during those two years.

The farm where we lived until the end of 1984

The reason I'm limiting it to 1987 is because that was when I left Richmond in what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was the end of an era for me, but also for the area as a whole. Up until that time, Richmond and its environs had been a place of peace and tranquillity. There had never been any cause for me to worry about safety or security and we'd spent six marvellous years leaving doors unlocked, walking freely in the surrounding veld and bush with snakes being about the only things to be wary of. I can't speak for others but I, and the people I lived among on the farm and in the valley, lived a symbiotic life. In simple terms, we all helped each other. Sure, apartheid was still there, being slowly dismantled, but still in force until the early nineties. But in my small corner of Natal, it had very little impact and relevance.

The beauty of the Drakensberg mountains in Kwa-Zulu

However,  in 1986, I remember the rumbles beginning, and by 1987, they were becoming a loud noise. Political franchise was taking too long. Expectations were not being met. The unrest started and the conflicts between the activists in the political parties grew more sinister and more frequent. Farms and farmers were being attacked, and in the decade that followed, Richmond became notorious for its violence. By the early nineties, when I was already in Johannesburg, I looked on in dismay as the region I'd loved so well descended into a sort of local civil war.

The Nelson Mandela memorial in the Natal Midlands

I left Richmond in March 1987, the principal reason being to go back to the UK and spend some time with my father. When we (the children and I) returned to South Africa, it was to Jo-burg and the highveld, so I never experienced that dreadful wave of violence that beset my beloved Natal. Of course we had our own tensions, dramas and dangers in Johannesburg, but in some ways, that was to be expected. Hi-jackings, muggings, riots, and road blocks were all par for the big city course. But what happened in Natal and in what used to be a sleepy rural town was horrific.

My memoir, however, will stop before any of that occurred, but what it will cover is a year when I worked for an attorney in the area. He was a good and caring lawyer and he spent a substantial amount of time defending poor black people. He also had a number of high ranking clients in black organisations, including members of the ANC. Since he was so well known, I knew that even if I changed his name, anyone who'd lived there would know who I was talking about, so I set about seeing if I could find out if he was a) still alive and b) still living in Natal. If so, I wanted to make contact to ask his permission to use his real name in my memoir.

Luckily for me, my daughter is a super sleuth and she found him. I won't go into how or where, but suffice to say I have made contact, he has read the relevant chapters and has approved them. He has given me permission to use his name too. This on its own has buoyed me up no end. But what has also been deeply moving are the stories he has told me now about some of the unnerving and frightening events he and his staff survived during the time following my departure.

So what is my point in all this? Firstly, the obvious one is that I can be very thankful I left when I did. Who knows how hard it would have been to bring up two children in that environment? Secondly, being in touch with him has given me back a sense of reality about my life there. My memories are of a time before I ever saw the Netherlands, and even before my life in Johannesburg. So much has changed for me since 1987, the life I had in Natal was beginning to assume a kind of dream like quality. But this contact has breathed life back into all of it; my former boss has confirmed its reality by writing back and commenting about some of what I mention in my book: my colleagues in his firm, some of the events I describe, and the names I've forgotten. It's quite an amazing feeling and has given me new inspiration to keep at it and finish the memoir...I have of course promised him a copy of the whole book when it's finished; given that he too is not a young man anymore, I feel I'd better get on with it. Don't you agree?

20 comments:

  1. Wow, Val, I can imagine how special it must have been to get in touch with your former boss! And to update you on some not so pleasant goings on in SA. Yes, I can sense your urgency and energy to get on with the book - what a life it was then!

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    1. It was so different to my current life, Colin. As I said, I was starting to lose a sense of reality about it. Almost as if I'd dreamt it all. This has given me such a boost :)

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  2. Hi Val - an essential memoir to be written, and then to have his views on your participation in his working life ... that will be great. So pleased your daughter found him ... I remember those days well - and yes ... please get on with it - cheers Hilary

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    1. It seems I've been pretty accurate in my recollections, so that's nice to know, Hilary! Time can often colour memories, but if we both agree, then the chances are I've remembered them well. Thank you!

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    2. Great - well done ... enjoy the writing and pulling together and the remembering ...cheers Hilary

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  3. How amazing. Can't wait to read it xxx
    Tonia

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    1. Thanks, Toni! I'm getting on with it now :) xx

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  4. I agree whole heartedly Val, I can't wait to get my hands and eyes on that book in the not very distant future.

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    1. Ooh, I hope it'll be worth the wait, Carol!

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  5. How fantastic that he got back to you and I know your writing will only be the stronger for it!

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    1. It is a real boost, Jo. I wasn't expecting it at all.

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  6. First of all, I agree wholeheartedly! Secondly, I write this through a veil of tears; I understand completely the dreamy sense of a past coming back to life. This was my own experience of living in Saskatchewan during the late 70's and early 80's. I have a very special friend who helps me keep those memories alive.
    A little side note; when I was instructing skiing, I had a private lesson with a thirteen year old girl from Jo'burg (I did think of you, Val, at the time). She told me of the struggles she experienced with violence and the high state of vigil in which she lived. I was shocked to hear of the tight home security and fear her family took quite for granted. In that conversation surrounding high, electrified fences and barred windows, I felt a type of embarrassment for my own taken-forgranted freedoms, when I told her I wasn't quite sure if I knew where my own house key was kept...
    I look forward to reading your sequel! xx

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    1. Dale, it's a wonderful feeling, as I'm sure you know. I'm glad you understand. But it's a little scary too. I have to say it was not an easy time of my life and there are parts I'm happy to leave unearthed. In fact there are things I've forgotten so well that I almost think my brain is protecting me. That said, what is being revived is good and as I've said it breathes life into those dormant, dream-like memories, giving me back my reality! About your little Jo'burg girl, that too was part of life - everything you've mentioned. I didn't leave because of the security issues, but I'm now so used to my freedoms here, it would prevent me from moving back. I have a lot of those memories I'm still processing too. It's amazing to realise how completely I accepted the situation and how I learnt to live with it.

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  7. What an interesting life you have led, Val. I am glad you are writing your memories of Natal, and hope to read it when published. It is a happy outcome to have contacted your former boss after all these years, and it will add to the excitement of writing about those times.

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    1. Thank you, Patricia! I must say I left before life became too interesting. The nineties were a terrible decade in that part of the world, but I hope my book will be interesting enough!

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  8. This is so exciting and moving, Val! Wow! Yes...get on with it so we can all read it! (Steph)

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    1. I am working on it, Steph! I just don't have much free time, but I've got too chapters to write plus an introduction, plus an afterword, but then it will be done.

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  9. Sounds like you are nearly done then. Looking forward to reading it

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  10. Nice work, Val! I'm looking forward to this.

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  11. What an interesting post. I must try to write about my past a little more, and see if it has the same effect on me. I mentally skim over it - and I'm sure I am "remembering" my own interpretation of my memories by now. Oddly enough I am shortly to return to a place I once lived, but haven't seen since I was twenty. I'm sure I'll think of your post.

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