Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.
In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.
The second film was Captain Fantastic, the story of a man living a survivalist lifestyle in the remote north western USA with his six children. His wife had mental health problems and was institutionalized near her parents in the south of the USA. She commits suicide. The story is of the journey to the funeral and how the family act to ensure her last wishes are carried out. I am being vague on purpose as this too is a film worth seeing. Not only does it reflect family dynamics, but also touches on what we are doing to the world and ourselves!
It was apt because on Tuesday 8th November the Americans went to the polls and on Wednesday we woke to the news that Donald Trump will be the next (Republican) president. This was a huge shock to most of my friends, but after the Brexit vote in the UK I was mentally prepared for the outcome.
There will be some significant changes in US policy. The one that may affect the world worst, in the long term, is the attitude toward the environment. After a terrible drought it has begun to rain in parts of South Africa. I always used to say that there was no such thing as bad rain. I am no longer sure. The storms were so violent that OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg was closed for periods on two consecutive days. The runways were under water! On one of the main motorways in Gauteng province 150 cars were washed away, fortunately only four people drowned. In Durban on the Wednesday and Thursday of my first week we had violent thunderstorms. The world seems apocalyptic at the moment.
There were a few reasons for the trip to Southern Africa: a Governing Council meeting at Waterford; catching up with events in Durban; and the birthday party of three friends from Durban. Robert Morrell lived two houses away from us in Swaziland, I have known him for over 50 years. Geoff Schreiner was a trade unionist based in Durban. Paul Weinberg, is an amazing photographer. They (and I) were all born in 1956. We all lived through the transition from apartheid to democracy. Paul photographed it – do look at his website. Rob documented it and Geoff united workers to fight for it. The three of them, me and many others played touch rugby (and the occasional cricket match), on the fields at the university, every Monday for over 20 years. At times there would be as few as five of us, sometimes there were over 20. It was a famous game, made so by the consistency of the players who came every week. My only rule was ‘never play during lightning’.
They came together for a big birthday bash in Cape Town at a wonderfully odd location: the Oceanic Power Boat Club near Sea Point. I use the word odd because it is clearly a place for people whose reason for being is to play with boats. Like all clubs of this type, it was a little rough at the edges, but clearly a place where families had fun. There is quite a stark contrast because it is just 10 minutes away from the mega rich area of canals and town houses that makes up the Cape Town Waterfront. This is now a huge complex where friends and I got lost. We walked for half an hour trying to get out.
The party was an amazing event. The ‘three amigos’, as the invitation called them, were very well organized. The food was the Durban favourite of Bunny Chows – basically half a loaf of white bread hollowed out with curry sauce poured in; the wine flowed all night; and there were six speeches: the three birthday boys and three friends. Although six seemed rather a lot we all enjoyed them. Most of the guests were originally from Durban and about our age. One of the speakers, Richard Lyster, bemoaned the fact that so many Durbanites moved to the Cape. This process he described as ‘semi-grating’, not emigrating to another country but leaving Durban. There were 16 of us at the party who had played rugby together, and I have, with this post, put up a photograph on the rugby field from about 1990 and one of the rugby players who were at the party in November 2016.
What I learnt over the past month is just how lucky I have been so far. I am still alive, a few of our colleagues are not. I am fit. I can afford to go to Cape Town for an event like this! It invited introspection and a realization that, not only did we live through a remarkable time, but we also had the opportunity to influence the course of the nation’s history in various ways. I am deeply grateful to Rob, Geoff and Paul for organizing this jamboree of celebration and nostalgia.
I had just a couple of nights in Durban before Rowan and I drove up to Swaziland. We took it easy on the way up, stopping at the Protea Hotel in Hluhluwe for Thursday night. Here we met up with Durban friend, Brigitte Brauninger who was guiding a party of German tourists off a cruise ship berthed in Richards Bay. This was slightly unexpected, we thought she was in the area, and great fun.
We got to Mbabane reasonably early on Friday and went up to Waterford for an informal gathering of staff, parents and governors. The board meeting on Saturday began at 8 am and lasted until 3 pm, which really is far too long, but as we only meet three times a year it may have to be this way. As it was the last meeting of the year it was good to know that the school ends 2016 with solid achievements; in the black financially; and with more than enough enrollments for 2017.
On the 24th November the second edition of my book HIV and AIDS A Very Short Introduction was published in the UK by Oxford University Press. It took a long time to revise it, but once OUP had the manuscript getting it published was a very smooth and relatively short process. It will be available in North America from February so I will organize a book launch in Waterloo, not least because there are now two VSI authors at the Balsillie School. My colleague Andrew Cooper just had his on The BRICS come out, we will mark these events together. Canadian friends look out for the invitation!