“Ah, but your land is beautiful”

‘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.

The Acacia Tree

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.

So, as we prepare to leave South Africa, and return to Canada, I feel the old duality still: this land is beautiful indeed, but it is also a suffering, struggling, hurtful beauty.

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.

Burning the Veld

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.

5 Comments

  1. Eish! You say it well. I wish this was a picture I could hang on my wall to check into whenever I look at it. Your words evoke my past and present with such accuracy I can smell it. Thank you.
    I wish you and Rob peace and productivity in your retirement creativities. Very sad not to have been able to catch up physically again in Jozi.

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  2. This is a most affecting piece, Glen, putting telling words and images to much of what I think and feel myself at this time. It’s partly a matter of regret, but moving on to different priorities now also feels right, appropriate to this phase of life after all the frenzies we’ve been part of, and – I have to say, given my inherent puritanism – “justifiable”… Thank you for your thoughtfulness and skill.

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    1. Thanks Ian for your kind comments – there is a deep regret, I think, that things are not turning out in this country as we once hoped, along with the hope that it will still, some day, all turn around. I suspect the reality will be more muddled and confused, not so much transformational as one step forward, two steps back, then sideways and on and on in some frustrating and at times grotesque dance. But I do think people like you and I must give ourselves permission to move on, and find more personal and personally meaningful forms of satisfaction in what’s left of our lives. The problems we once made our own are for other, younger people to take on now….

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