I recently returned to the Eastern Cape for a hike that started at the mouth of the Kowie river and ended at the mouth of the Fish River. We zig zagged our way from the coast into the interior and back again tromping through the coastal and riverine forests of the Riet river and canoeing up the Kleinemonde. The final day was a long and hot trail along the coast until we reached the Great Fish. The river that is symbolic of so much of the division that still holds South Africa in its clutches.
The British sent their excess populations to South Africa as human fences against the Xhosa tribes. The Fish was the designated boundary over which 100 years of battle was fought. As a white South African I have to continually feel and acknowledge the atrocities of the apartheid regime and the unjust system that inhibited so many South Africans. But what do I do with my British-ness? There are many white South African’s that consciously work with the pains of our history but do the British do so. I was born in England. We left the soggy isle when I was twenty-two months old to come to South Africa. I grew up hearing about ‘home’ as another place far away that we visited every two years. No one ever spoke to me about colonialism and about the horror of the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war. It was only as an adult that I sat with both the pain of what past white people have done to black people and the pain of what the place that I was supposed to call home has done to all South African people whether they are Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu or Afrikaans. Afrikaans people and ‘Black’ people are asked to forgive and forget. I find this ridiculous. When has the British nation ever said ‘sorry’ or compensated in any way for what has been done? I wrote this poem while staying in the middle of the Eastern Cape bush on a farm just outside Grahamstown in 2006. I was reading Anjie Krog’s ‘The country of my Skull’ and it shook me to the bone. It is not a very good poem but is an attempt to deal with what my ancestors have been responsible for, to exorcise their deeds from me and to claim out loud that the only home I’ve ever really known is the Eastern Cape bush. Doing the ‘Shipwreck Trail’ this December and driving through the potholed roads of the grubby but beautiful Eastern Cape I remembered those feelings.
What can I tell you about this Eastern Cape?
I can recite things to you
Tires burning in New Brighton
Cattle lying dead
Frightened, alarm secured, suburban families
& Silent women
Silent women suffering
I can tell you I come back here again and again
To the aloes and euphorbias
To ride the roads
The tar to the sea
The dirt at the back of mountain villages
To walk the hills, riverbeds and coastlines
I belong here
Where pain and betrayal are matched
By passion and vitality
Here my childhood memories find peace
My wounds have space to bleed
Here amongst the smiles of people
Shadowed by the ghosts of dreams
My ancestors cannot find me
Here there is no more need for hope