Recently I was chatting to a regular British visitor to South Africa, but a first time visitor to Clarens. He was bowled over with surprise, he said, at what a delightfully idyllic spot this was. I asked him whether he had been to Golden Gate, telling him of its outstanding rock formations. He said he hadn’t. He said he would save that for his return trip from the Cape. Right now, he said, he didn’t want anything else to impact on his first impressions of what he referred to as a little piece of paradise.
Our photograph this week is of MountHoreb and is taken from Craigrossie near Clarens. I visited there in the early summer of last year, a few months after I had returned from England. As I stood there looking across the water in the fading light, I thought of my decision to return to South Africa.
I had been cautioned not to come. I remembered the warnings about not getting a job, about the high crime rate, about the poor public services, about state corruption. All of which are valid. I thought too of England, of London, of its impersonal nature, its crammed housing, its perpetual noise. I thought of the myriads of young Brits around London, pale and undernourished, walking the streets or loafing on park benches, clutching beer or cider cans before midday, their eyes dead. I thought of the disillusioned newly arrived migrants to London, queuing unhappily at the job centres, paging hopelessly through fake-job advertising magazines, staring stricken-faced at arrogant and contemptuous tailor-suited yuppies.
On the occasions that I travelled into the countryside in England, my eyes would sweep the horizon in search of something that resembled a wide open space. It seemed that rows of housing, factories, warehouses, electric pylons, motorways and interchanges existed in every square mile of an entire country. I felt robbed. I felt robbed of a freedom I had grown up with, a freedom that was genetically a part of me. It had not been a difficult decision to make, to return home; and once made, it affected me in a way that a prisoner would be affected by hearing of his imminent release. It was as if my shackles had been dropped, right there on the London pavement, and I walked on like a South African would walk, with a lightness in my heart and a spring in every step.
Here in South Africa, even in the idyllic piece of paradise that is the Clarens area, we encounter criminal atrocities, we experience the disruptiveness of public service inefficiencies, we struggle to make ends meet, we wonder at the hopelessness of a political solution. Our negativity rises, and some even say that our country is finished. Twenty first century South Africa, following on the heels of decades of fabricated privilege and security for the small minority, is a divergence so significant, so radical, that to some it has the characteristics of an endless looming nightfall.
But we must look at our country’s history to get perspective. My own ancestors, standing bleakly on the windswept sands of AlgoaBay nearly two centuries ago, must have felt doomed. Having been led to this country on one way tickets by the false enticements and duplicity of British politicians, with their promises of fertile lands and prosperity, these middleclass Englishmen and their families were faced with struggles that they neither anticipated nor were equipped to deal with. Having already lost some of their number on the long voyage over, they were then faced with lands that were barely arable, and were subjected to sporadic and savage attacks by Xhosa bands who reduced their numbers even further.
What shock and fear must have passed through the hearts of the Boers who trekked north over the VaalRiver, in their determined bid to escape the clutches of the English, only to find themselves in the wake of the Mfecane. Whole parties of Boers were slaughtered by the crazed Msilikazi and his impis in their own bid to escape the rampaging Chaka Zulu.
I wonder what sort of future the Boer women of just over a century ago thought their people had, crammed into concentration camps by an army of people of their own ethnicity, their homes and crops burnt, their animals slaughtered, their children dying. Throughout the three and a half centuries of European settlement in South Africa, there have been peaks and troughs in the relations between the different ethnic and language groups, in their opportunities, productivity and prosperity, and in their hopes and beliefs about the future.
In the early seventies we as a family attended the opening of the 1820 SettlerMonument in Grahamstown. As you enter the main doors to the building you are able to view, from behind the mezzanine railing, the floor below that leads into the theatre. Bold inlaid brass lettering across the flagstone pronounces the mettle of the English Settlers: Take root and grow, or die where you stand.
These words are no less relevant today. To be a part of the fabric of a place, to be a part of its solutions, necessitates being firmly rooted in it. To live somewhere, yet to be detached from it and not belong to it, is soul destroying. As I stood in the picturesque evening setting of Craigrossie, the waterfowl gliding silently across the reflection of Mount Horeb, the vast sky rimmed on every side by darkened mountains, I knew with quiet conviction that my own roots would sink deep once again in the earthiness of Africa.
The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust. Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens. Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email to email@example.com .
Article and photograph by Mary Walker
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