‘Ah, but your land is beautiful’ is the third novel by Alan Paton, the South African author best known for ‘Cry, the Beloved Country.’ Telling tales of apartheid and resistance, the title is an ironic reflection on the perception so often and so blindly voiced by visitors to this country – ‘you live in such a beautiful country,’ they say.
Yes, it is beautiful, Paton tells us, but it is also a terrible beauty. The strange and haunted beauty of suffering and terror, oppression and hatred, struggle, love, fear, indifference, compassion, violence, racism, xenophobia, sexism, humiliating poverty and vulgar ostentation – extremes, contradictions, a maddening buffet of blandishment and repulsion.
And I haven’t even mentioned corruption, nepotism, greed, incompetence, and the other multiple sins and vanities of today’s ruling and entitled classes.
Twenty-seven years of liberation have brought progress, for sure; so much has changed, and for much the better. But so much has remained the same. ‘The Dream Deferred,’ as Mark Gevisser called it in his magisterial biography of Thabo Mbeki, seems as I round out my career, in education and development, not so much deferred as indefinitely postponed; less a prospect on the horizon or around the corner than a fragile unsubstantiated obstinate hope, a persistence of faith against the evidence and the available facts.
We have taken a few days out, as we come to the end of our time here, to rest and relax in the shadow of the Drakensberg, at a comfortable lodge overlooking Spioenkop, in the heart of the old Anglo-Boer War battlefields. It is peaceful now, the blood of Boer and Brit long since soaked and absorbed into the earth, the cries and the gunfire gone from the hills and the echoing valleys. Perhaps, one day, a similar calm will descend on the country, old wounds and old debts not necessarily forgotten but at least forgiven.
I hope so, with the part of me that can’t help but feel the call of the struggle. Yet there is part of me, too, as I look now toward the end of my contract and the freedom of retirement, that is over all this. Like a man remembering a former lover, I want to know how this terrible, beautiful, demanding mistress is doing, but it doesn’t matter.