These shirts show signs of wear and tear, The collars frayed, the cuffs rubbed bare. I see the signals everywhere. I see them in my mind like doom. They float like ghosts upon the loom. I slip them on like skin, perfume. I'll have the collars turned before I fold them neatly in the drawer. Perhaps they'll look like new once more. © Glen Fisher
A boy lies on his back looking at clouds. Only he is not looking, he is up there with them, up where they slide and collide mysterious as fate insubstantial as air. I have not seen clouds in sixty years, until today - there, overhead, in the blue sky that scrolls and unfolds - there, where they always were. ©
Dribbling when peeing. Pain in the joints. Nose hair. Hairy ears. Dribbling after peeing.
Bushy eyebrows. Cars that whip by too close. Cars that whip by too fast. Cars that crawl up your arse.
Weak erections. Brief erections. Bad art.
Milk. Wrinkles. Skin like crepe paper. Skin like sandpaper. Food that makes your stomach burble. Farts.
Pain in the joints.
Forgetting things. Misremembering things. Remembering things I’d rather forget.
Repeating oneself. Non sequiturs.
Republicans. Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s children. Leprosy.
Realising what an idiot you are. Were. Still are.
Forgetting things. Peeing after you’ve stopped peeing.
Dribbling. Farts. Repeating yourself.
Ageing in general.
‘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.
It is impossible to think of Canada Day this year without a long and somber pause to reflect, before anything else, on the unmarked graves of Indigenous children that have been found in recent weeks at Canada’s residential schools, and the atrocity that The Guardian newspaper describes with powerful outrage in an editorial today.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 2015, called the residential schools, and the no less shocking and inhuman ‘Sixties Scoop,’ in which children were seized and placed with non-Indigenous families or institutions of the state, a ‘cultural genocide’, and it is the remains of little children that bear witness to this bitter truth this First of July.
As a father, and a grandfather, I cannot begin to imagine the terror and suffering, the trauma and the utter desolation and loneliness, of the innocents snatched from their families and dragged away so that the Catholic church and the state authorities could proceed unhindered to beat their culture out of them. Nor can I glimpse more than the very edges of the horror that must have enveloped their families and communities, like a cloud of death itself, as the sound of their children’s voices was stilled and replaced by the void.
I cannot imagine what kind of people could do this, to children, to other humans.
I understand those who question the very meaning of Canada Day itself, and call for celebrations to be cancelled, or for Canada Day to be erased from the calendar, as those children were erased.
Yet I would prefer to believe in a different path, a path that brings Canadians together, to acknowledge their unity, their shared history and pain, and their shared future.
But this is a path that can only be founded on a full acknowledgement of the truth, the full disclosure of documents and records by both church and state, and by tangible and commensurate compensation and support for those whose lives and communities have been devastated in this way.
This is the last 1st of July that Rob and I will spend in South Africa, before we return home to Toronto, in September or October. We will be glad to be home, glad to reconnect with our family and friends, glad to live in our own house once more, on our own little street – glad for all that Canada means to us and the decency and compassion I would like to believe that Canada still characterises.
Meanwhile, tonight, we will raise a glass, both sad and hopeful, first, to the innocents, and second, to a more honest, a more just, and a better Canada.
From the Lost Poetry Project
This Sunday morning constitutional finds us traipsing across the stubby field, over the earthen wall of the dam where a couple of Egyptian geese meditate or drowse in a circle of brown water. We rise toward the morning light, climbing toward trees, seeing the rolling grassy joins and planes of the Botanical Gardens lay themselves out like an architect's drawing: the pencilled city an imagined hum on the horizon. Marching along, one eye on the roving dog. Uniformed plovers in a line keep watch amid a few tall blades of grass. Two break away, yapping, running decoy. We crest the hill; pausing to draw breath, to look back. This is the way that we have come. This is where we are. The sky reaches, hazy, poignant, over our heads. The sky today is the delicate, light-filled blue I remember as a small boy plunging my arm into the salt shock of the rock pool, grasping for starfish, anemones; or hunting with a muslin net bound with wire to a length of knotty bamboo or pale dowel for snail-green fish that flicked through watery weeds. I remember too the blue eye, tender, all-seeing, that peered through shimmering leaves, onto a circle of grass in Newlands Forest, onto white knees, skirts, a girl's arms and lips and face: the marvel of trusting flesh and miracle of first love. The boy that I recall is not the same man who pauses near you, here. Perhaps the light is different, after all. The Botanical Gardens, in this mild sunlight, stretch before us like a tracing; the contours, the trees, the cyclists and walkers, the stilted plovers, the quiet open spaces, a sketch only, the colours implied. And we, also, stand in a harder light. Trial and error have taught us that some things can not be shared between us, can not be said. Some things, we've come to accept, are not - are possibly never - to be. And yet, yet the light moves me, this soft bright autumnal morning; the boy reminds me. Lost in our thoughts, we gaze out, separate - but, inevitably and still, joined together by the passing years: responsibilities, children, laughter, friendship, tears. The wind stirs. I turn, as if some presence urges. As if the sky is hurling meteor showers, cosmic dust, asteroid fragments. But then, without a word being spoken, our feet have found the path again. Some subject occurs: your voice beside me as I go, and other voices calling.
It was a tweet by Jonathan Jansen the other day that dragged the phrase to the surface of my mind, from where it had skulked like a prehistoric coelacanth in the deep-sea trenches of mordant recollection.
That’s it, I thought. We are, in essence, a debating society. ‘We’ being South Africa.
Jonathan is one of South Africa’s public intellectuals, one of the few on the left who was willing to cast aside the rose-tinted spectacles through which we viewed the world in 1994, at the dawn of democracy. The uproar he caused, amongst the virtuous and righteous, at the publication of his influential article critiquing the education reform policies of the new ANC-led government as ‘symbolic policy,’ meaning policy that was about the political optics of change, not change that actually made a difference to the lives of real people, resonates still. If anything, the gulf between rhetoric and reality has grown only larger as the years have worn on, and the rainbow has dimmed, and the promises have corroded, and the rats and mice have come out of the woodwork to gnaw on the very fabric of post-apartheid society.
The tweet in question was innocuous enough, mild by Jonathan’s standards, touching on the touchy subject of the Covid-19 vaccination. For context, as you may or may not know, the South African government has been heartily assailed, from both ends of the political spectrum, for its dithering and dilatory attempts to acquire and then roll out the vaccines to a population that has been hard hit, to put it mildly, by the pandemic. To say that at the beginning of May we had vaccinated fewer of our citizens than Kenya or Ghana, or Senegal or – god help us – Zimbabwe, is to overlook the fact that, as of this moment, we don’t even know what the plan is to give everyone their jab. Oh, we know that the jab will come, in different phases for different age groups, but that is like saying that the sun will rise. Beyond these lofty assertions, all we know is that today, the first day of the second phase of the promised roll-out, targeting those over 60 (us!) there are only 87 functioning vaccination sites across the entire country, and a backlog of 700,000 healthcare workers who have to be vaccinated first. Around 4300 of the elderly, we are told, out of about 5 million, will get their first jabs today.
The country has had six months to prepare for this. So what is going on?
Here’s what Jonathan said – pithy, as always:
“Only in Mzansi. A vaccine awareness campaign without vaccines.”
To which I tweeted back, in a tweet Jonathan liked:
“Plans without implementation, policies without execution, promises without satisfaction, the list goes on….”
In the time-honoured phrase, all this would be funny, if it weren’t so awful. As I read Jonathan’s tweet, and browsed through the news stories about the roll-out that isn’t, my days with an anti-apartheid NGO in the 1980s rose unbidden, the past as prophecy. There are a hundred incidents or stories to choose from, but for some reason the task of ordering chairs for our educational venture came into focus. Picture the situation. Chairs need to be ordered, for our students, and so a staff meeting is called, and the issue tabled (no pun intended). In no time at all, the meeting has devolved into a heated debate about power and authority, capitalist relations, and who had the right to place an order, with whom at what price, and so on. When the meeting finally ended, some three hours later, with an agreement to meet again to pursue the matter further, somehow everyone seemed happy. Points had been made, rights had been exercised, democracy had, if not exactly prevailed, been publicly vindicated, politics and ideology had been aired, like exotic underwear, and in the end, while no-one had won, exactly, no-one had lost, either, and the all-important political purity of our college had been legitimated. I’m sure our students were delighted, though I can’t remember what they sat on.
I am reminded, too, of many – not all – of the officials I have known and worked with, over nearly three decades – people whose political astuteness and ideological nimbleness, whose smooth development-speak and adopted managerialism would fly quick-fingered over the melodious black-and-white keys of a non-racial and progressive administrative piano, but whose words left little behind other than diminishing echoes, before fading to silence.
So much talking, and to what end, with what outcome?
We are not, as some fantasists and storm-troopers of the proto-fascist-left would have us believe, a ‘revolutionary’ society; nor are we what one might call ‘progressive,’ despite an enlightened Constitution; we are neither egalitarian nor ‘transformed,’ nor are we as a nation (if that term still holds) especially caring or law-abiding, industrious or innovative, proactive or pragmatic. We are lots of things, certainly, and most things hold true for at least some of us some of the time. But if you have to settle on just one phrase that captures the essence of our dilemma as a nation, as a polity, it is this: we are, when there is work to be done, and there are hard choices and real changes to be made, nothing much more than a debating society.
I can’t tell you how hacked off I will be, if something happens to Rob, or to me, before our jabs are administered.
If time is a river, it is a river with rapids and falls.
We snipped another month off our wall calendar on Saturday, the first day of May, leaving just four months to go before we pack up and leave our house in Johannesburg and begin the long journey home, to Toronto.
The calendar now truncated, cut short, a token not just of progress towards an end date or goal, but of impending loss.
I hadn’t realised, I realise now, how much the prospect of leaving South Africa was affecting me. I imagined I was down because of all of the recent dramas in our family, because of the seemingly endless Covid lockdown, because I was tired and distracted – but it struck me this morning that while it is all of these things, it is also the emotion damming up, the water gathering before it heads into the rapids and spills over the falls, the river of time hastening towards partings and goodbyes.
Leaving means leaving Tom, and Kath, and Gareth, and my mom; not a place, but people, not a past but the present.
You carry on, you are busy, there are things to do etc. – and then it hits you on the head. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you are busy with other stuff.
So here’s the thing. In novels, you expect, there is a happy ending, or a sad ending, or in any case, an ending of sorts. The last page turned, the story done. Or, in self-help books, there is always ‘the message’ – of upliftment, or growth, of change or hope.
There is no message here.
Leaving just sucks. That’s all there is to it.
Which is not to say, I want to stay in South Africa – I don’t – or that I am not looking forward, each waking moment, to returning to Canada and my family there.
I am ready to go, but I don’t want to leave.
You got that, right?