Surgery and Sunshine

I was offline for a few days in March, an interesting experience especially during the time of crisis in the UK. It was my birthday on the 18th and I celebrated by returning to South Africa on the 16th for a series of elective medical procedures. I took the 06h15 KLM flight from Norwich to Amsterdam where I connected on the 10h15 flight to Johannesburg. The journey takes nearly 11 hours. My case was one of the first to be unloaded and appear on the carousel, these little things matter.

There are no connecting flights to Durban that late. My standard operating procedure is to stay in a hotel at the airport and connect the next day. Normally the travel agent’s opening proposal for the connection is a plane at an absurdly early hour, 07h00 for example. On this trip I was sensible and got a flight a little after 13h00. It allowed me ample time to sort myself out, and have a leisurely breakfast.

I watched four films on the Amsterdam-Johannesburg journey. Two had a strong Swazi connection. Can You Ever Forgive Me is a Hollywood film. The male star (who was nominated for a best supporting actor in the 2019 Oscars) is Richard E. Grant. He was a year below me at Waterford Kamhlaba. A very enjoyable and engrossing movie. It is based on the life of Lee Israel who forged and sold letters from famous writers. She lived from 1939 to 2014, in what was portrayed as a very lonely life. Richard was at his dissolute best in the role as her side-kick and confidant.

Liyana is based on far too many true stories. It is about a journey of a young, orphaned Swazi girl. It was moving, not least because the scenery is so much a part of my being. Of course parts of Eswatini (as Swaziland is now called) are just so photogenic. I think much of it was filmed in the Highveld and Malalotsha National Park. Aaron Kopp, who made the film with his wife Amanda, was at Waterford, although much more recently than I. It is a particularly interesting combination of animation, art and acting. The website is well worth looking at. Aaron’s parents are missionaries in the south of Eswatini and have seen the horror of the AIDS epidemic first hand.

The other two films were pure escapism: King of Thieves with Michael Caine, again based on a true story of a jewellery heist in Hatton Gardens in London, carried out by criminals of pension age. Finally I watched the original of An American in Paris, a musical. Both were mindlessly entertaining and made the journey pass quickly.

I had a quiet birthday at the flat, where I have a colleague, Tim Quinlan, staying with me. My birthday treat was an umbilical hernia repair. Tim was good enough to take me to the hospital and pick me up. It is actually very close, a 15 minute walk up the hill. The Durban heat would mean one arrived sweaty and I certainly did not want to walk home.

The whole episode was an interesting experience. Private health care is surprisingly and definitely lacking in customer service in some regards, although I have no complaints about the nursing staff. One so easily becomes a disempowered ‘patient’ rather than a ‘paying customer’. I spoke sharply to staff who were talking about me in the third person as I was standing there. This was as I was on my way out, they might have jumped on my stomach otherwise. I spent a night in a six bed ward that was full! A white ‘Rhodesian’ of 80 in the bed next to me, a policeman opposite and so on.

Essentially the operation meant that I had to take it easy. Not something that comes easily. I read a great deal, starting with old favourites. There is no television in the flat and my radio was not working so that was a bit frustrating. I do know about streaming and the idea is that we are connected all the time in 2019. Well actually not! South Africa has a power crisis, there are ‘rolling blackouts’ which means suburbs have periods with no electricity. There is a schedule so we have an idea of when it is going to happen, but it still is a real pain. The crisis is of the government’s making: a lack of planning and combined with corruption and mismanagement. The whole situation was made worse over the past couple of weeks by the tropical cyclone that devastated central Mozambique. This cut the power lines from the hydroelectric plant at Cahora Bassa, a massive dam on the Zambezi.

I was fortunate that Tim was about. It meant I had company and some care, not that I needed a great deal. Shopping was, however, impossible. Tim did most of the cooking, although I was able to grill steaks, which to be honest is about the peak of my culinary abilities.

We ate out a bit, going to the Glenwood Bakery where, in the evenings, they serve from a small menu – mainly pizza. The bakery was established by British Restaurateur Adam Robinson quite a number of years ago. He began his South African operations in Howick but is now about 45 minutes’ walk away from the flat. There were eight of us – two couples who I have known for more than 30 years, the daughter of one couple, her boyfriend, and of course Tim and I. The previous evening we had pizza delivery, most disappointing. What a contrast with this place. The thin crust pizzas were delicious and the toppings out of this world.

I am now going to ‘riff’ on the pluses and minuses of Facebook. I am aware of the controversy that surrounds it, but I have found it works for me. In the last two weeks I put up three posts: one to say thank you to everyone who wished me a happy birthday; news of my hernia operation; and a repost on Brexit. It was gratifying to see how many people who responded to these. Clearly Facebook is a good way of staying in touch despite its many disadvantages. We are told it seeks to control our minds and spending behaviours. I don’t think this is the case for me! On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.

When I first arrived in Durban I needed to run the air-conditioning unit in my bedroom at night just twice. The weather has changed since then, two cold fronts made their way up the coast bringing rain and cooler temperatures in their wake. It is however still humid. I know I would never want to live in this city from December to the end of March. It is just too hot and humid. Sweating is not enjoyable.

From here I go to Stellenbosch in the Cape and then back to the UK before heading for Canada for two terms of teaching. If all goes well I will have a sabbatical for the 2020 calendar year and the one big goal is to finally complete the book “The Political Economy of Eswatini”. Since I first proposed this the country has changed its name so I had better get cracking. It will be interesting to see what has transformed. As I am no longer on the Governing Council at Waterford there is no conflict of interest.

South Africa is so contradictory. I spent an hour on the phone trying to sort out internet access to my bank account. The conclusion was that the bank would get back to me on Monday or Tuesday. I was not optimistic either of them being in contact or solving the issue. On Tuesday morning I received a phone call and it took less than ten minutes to solve the problem. What amazing service. The solution was simple and I am now able access the accounts and do things. Mind you I must have written down and crossed out at least twelve passwords in the course of the conversations.

And that is it from Durban at the end of March.

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