Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

Sancho picked me up on Friday. We drove from Cape Town to his home in a small town some 180 kilometres away. We spent two nights there gathering ourselves for the trip. The brief description of the journey is: on the first day we drove to De Rust on the edge of the Karoo; on the second to Nieu-Bethesda; then on to Lady Gray on the Lesotho border; our final night on the road was spent in Clarens in the Free State; and finally, we drove down to Durban. It was a wonderful trip. We drove more than 2000 km, over six days, and were in the car for over 21 hours. Although we tried not to do too much car time on any one day, the road conditions operated against us.

The highlights were seeing old friends, excellent accommodation, spectacular sights and outstanding food and drink. The Cape wines are quite breathtaking. Before we set off on the main journey, we spent a day visiting two vineyards in the Stanford area. The Raka Wines were quite magnificent.

On day one we stopped in Swellendam to visit David and Felicity Schlapobersky at their pottery. We last saw each other in 1970 at Waterford School in Swaziland and they had no notice that we were going to stop by. Felicity saw us arrive and called David who walked out and said, “Alan Whiteside, how long has it been”. I think I too would have recognized him despite the years. It was amazing to simply catch-up as though it was yesterday, although we are now white beards.

Alan and David

Whiskers, Alan and David (Swellendam, June 2022)

A Dassie or Rock Hyrax

More whiskers: a Dassie or Rock Hyrax

Although the meeting with Mike Schraam in Lady Grey was supposedly for business, we had a great time. He is the managing editor and owner of the African Journal of AIDS Research and I am the editor-in-chief. We have worked together for many years, and it was great to connect with him. The reason we met in Lady Grey was he was on holiday in the area. He travelled over from his retreat in the little village of Rhodes. What would have taken weeks using email and the telephone was done and dusted in a one-hour business meeting hour. Mike then took us for a traditional boozy publisher’s lunch, except, of course, it was in the evening. The little bar had no customers for food apart from us, but there were many large white men in the bar. I felt the young woman behind the counter was just waiting to be discovered and whisked away to fame and fortune. Of note was the snow flurry as we sat at breakfast! That part of the country can be very cold. Fortunately, the rooms were relatively warm.

On the drive round the Lesotho border, my cell phone informed me that it was connected to the Lesotho network. In Clarens we stayed in the guest house run by a former colleague and his wife, they treated us to a tasty supper and plenty of wine. It was a most comfortable and luxurious place, built around the original farmhouse – the walls are huge sandstone blocks. It was delightful to catch-up with these old friends on the many events in their lives. We last met over 15 years ago.

There were numerous spectacular natural wonders on the drive. I will mention just three. The Tradouws pass from Suurbraak to Barrydale is a cavern in sandstone. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, beside a river. It is a gateway to the Little Karoo. Outside Graaf-Reinet we went up into Camdeboo National Park to gaze down on the Valley of Desolation, as someone who hates heights this was a stomach-turning sight. The spectacular mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park are also sandstone, but a paler colour, and absolutely glowed in the sunshine, gold indeed.

Tradouws Pass

The incredible Tradouws Pass

Desolation Valley

Desolation Valley near Graaf-Reinet

We visited a museum in Graaf-Reinet with an extremely interesting exhibit. There were pieces of glass from the honeymoon suite windows of a now demolished hotel. It seems at the end of the 1800s the new brides would scratch their names into the glass with their rings, at least they did if the stones were diamonds. The consequences if they were not gems was not recorded, but we can speculate.

The village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape is at the foot of the Sneeuberge. The name is biblical and means “place of flowing water”. It has the Owl House, the home of artist Helen Martins (1897-1976). It is difficult to describe this. The Wikipedia entry says “she turned her house and the area around it into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated with ground glass and containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, peacocks, pyramids, and people. She inherited the house from her parents and began its transformation after they died.” I include a few photographs. She was a tormented soul who committed suicide by drinking caustic soda!

The guest house hosts were generally unusual. In Nieu-Bethesda at The Ibis Barbara had spent 15 years in Tanzania where she met her husband, a South African conservationist. At the House Martin Guest Lodge in De Rust the hosts, Jan and Teresa, had spent years in Dubai, she in the corporate world and he, among other things, a rugby coach. The food in all the guest houses was exceptional, and as might be expected there was an emphasis on the dish of the district – lamb.

Decorations at The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Golden Gate National Park

The Golden Gate National Park

Parts of the trip were arduous. We drove into Nieu-Bethesda in the dark on a dirt road. It was not pleasant, but this paled into insignificance compared to the forced detour to get into Natal. In general, many of the roads were in an appalling condition. The drive through the Eastern Cape and Free State involved negotiating numerous bone jarring potholes. Those in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were largely marginally better, but the detour was hell. South African truck drivers are protesting against the employment of foreign drivers by blockading various key roads and we fell victim to this action. Of course, this was familiar, various Canadian American border crossings have been blockaded by angry truckers in recent months.

The main route from Johannesburg to Durban is the N3 and we joined it, briefly, just above Van Reneen’s pass, where it drops over the escarpment in KwaZulu-Natal. The xenophobic drivers had blocked the pass and we were directed onto a dirt road. We set off with trepidation. The detour was just over 20 kilometres, but it took over an hour. There was a line of slow-moving traffic, and the dust was ghastly. A number of drivers, especially those driving expensive, low-slung vehicles – think Porsche – turned back, as it was too bad. Others, the ones in four-wheel drive vehicles, behaved atrociously, overtaking the line of drivers and throwing up stones, I feared for my windscreen. There was however no option for us, so we kept going. We eventually arrived in Durban just after dark, experiencing really bad and impatient driving on the motorway over the last 50 kilometres. It was a relief to get there.

Writing this blog, I am reminded that I thought of the journey as something of a farewell tour. My companion, Sancho, was easy going, we shared the driving and generally chilled out. All the people we met on the way were interesting and unusual, except of course for the old friends who were expected to be interesting and unusual and did not disappoint. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity.

I have been in Durban for a few days now, and have had the chance to wander around, indeed I have done two very long walks through the neighbourhood. It is a city with problems. The rioting and looting in July of 2021 scarred some areas. The shopping centre down the hill was ransacked. This is not very visible as most of the damage has been repaired. The same cannot be said for the effects of the flooding in April 2022. It was estimated 435 people were killed and devastation is very visible. Almost every manhole cover has been washed away. There has been a huge amount of soil deposited on the roads, visible as drifts of red sand on many corners. A number of people have told me how dreadful the situation is and how poor the city government response has been. I have to be fair and say that I think it is not as bad as everyone says. One of the signs of this is the city council workers busily cleaning up the mess. South Africans are good at talking themselves down!

Monkeys in Glenwood, Durban

In Glenwood, Durban

And finally, on the flight to Cape Town, I watched three films. Belfast written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is the story, clearly biographical, of a young protestant boy in 1969 Belfast, at the beginning of the troubles. It is described as a coming-of-age drama film. I found it both moving and informative, perhaps because I remember these times, although they hardly touched us in Swaziland. City of Angels was released in 1998 and stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in a romantic fantasy film. Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a female surgeon and becomes human to be with her. I won’t say how it ends, suffice it to say it was a tearjerker. Richard Says Goodbye, also titled Professor, was an odd film. It was released in 2018 and may be one of the last films starring Johnny Depp. It tells of an English professor who learns he has stage 4 lung cancer, which is terminal. He might live six months without treatment, but 12–18 months with aggressive and painful cancer treatment. He decides against treatment. We follow him over the next few months, his interactions with family, students, colleagues and friends. I don’t think I would have gone to see any in a cinema, but they made the journey pass.

More Climate Change

February in England was mild and dry, in my view clear evidence of environmental change. It is five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It is not surprising the birds and insects are reacting to this warm spell (between 5 and 10°C above seasonal averages). There was a robin singing its little heart out, on a tree with bare branches, yesterday evening. Robins are not shy, but it was unique to see this bird so clearly silhouetted against the very blue sky. We are not taking the urgent and dramatic actions needed to address what we are doing to our natural world. I fluctuate between optimism and despair.

It was an interesting month from the productivity point of view. I managed to complete and submit two pieces of work: an article and a book chapter. More importantly I did something long overdue that will, hopefully, improve my efficiency. Sometimes as I write I think to myself ‘I have said this before, but where?’ Over a morning I made a list of everything I had published, or drafted, since the beginning of 2016. This included the table of contents, a list of figures, tables and maps, and an abstract. My memory may be bad, but at least now I know where to look. I also listed ideas I have had and not properly developed, these could be revisited and turned into articles.

The month began with a visit to the Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg in southern Germany. The founding headmaster of the college was the head at Waterford for many years. Indeed, I was the first governor to interview him in 1998. This was at a time when we were desperately looking for a new head. What had happened is we had appointed a man who turned out to be a disaster and who, fortunately, served only one contract. He was probably a good educationalist, but he did not have a grasp of finances. Because the reporting was not adequate, by the time the Governing Council realised what was going on, the school was deep in the red. We were lucky to get a couple from the UK to come and act in the Principal’s role while we went head hunting. Then we were lucky to get Laurence!

Laurence Nodder and his wife Debbie took up the position in 1998 and stayed for close to 15 years. He was then invited to establish the new United World College in Freiburg. That meant supervising building work, some new and some conversions of existing buildings, as well as recruiting staff and students. This was challenging, even in efficient Germany. As I saw walking around the college, they have done a remarkable job. I felt very lucky that Laurence invited me to come and give a public lecture to the school and community.

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“January brings the snow: makes your feet and fingers glow”

(Title: Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather’)

The first half of January was exceptionally warm for winter. We are told not to ‘cherry pick’ weather events to argue global warming is real. When they come one after the other, however, the evidence seems to be stacking up. The weather maps showed high pressure over the UK and to the south, so the fronts seem to be further north than usual. Scotland got a battering. Sadly the potential advent of Scottish independence won’t help that situation – weather is bigger than politics.

The rest of the month saw a few hard frosts, grey days and wind and rain, as well as some gloriously sunny spells. Even in the depths of winter the sun shining through the window can be warm enough to warm the south facing rooms. We have wood / coal burning stoves in the living areas and I must admit to getting a great deal of pleasure in laying and lighting the fire: paper, kindling larger pieces of wood and the coal. If I do it right we use 10 kg of coal for four fires. It warms both the room and the house very nicely.

If January weather was not enough to keep us depressed, the all-consuming topic in the UK is Brexit. Theresa May presented her deal to Parliament in mid-January, and it was soundly defeated. In fact the margin was astonishing: MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which, unsurprisingly was not passed. If it had been it would have led to a general election.

The problem is both the Conservative and Labour parties are both deeply divided on leaving the EU and the deal, so there is no consensus. An election would not help, unless the smaller parties did really well, which is unlikely. It is all a terrible mess. There have been, in past few days, more votes in Parliament and the situation is even more uncertain at the end of January.

The papers, or at least the ones I read, are full of commentary on the rise of the right in global politics. This is clearly happening, but just as worrying is the growth of incompetence in leadership. The events of the past few months in the USA seem to epitomise this. When this is combined with the lack of vision I worry even more.

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

I knew the quote and I was writing this letter I decided to see where it was from. The answer is James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) an American theologian and author. There do not seem to be any great works by him but lots of very good quotes.

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Farewells and Coincidences

In July 2018 I went to my last Governing Council meeting at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College (WK) where I have been a Governor for 24 years. I thought I would weep at the farewell cocktail party. To my surprise I did not. Perhaps this was because of the example of fellow Governor Derek Blackman retiring after nine years. Derek never tires of reminding me that, in the minutes of the meeting where he was nominated, a Governor (in fact me) remarked this was a mistake as he was based in the UK and would not travel to the meetings. He attended all 27 meetings during his tenure and made a great contribution. It was, however, an emotional evening. I posted my farewell remarks on my website, not because they were earth-shattering, but because I put thought into them and they are reflective.

I stayed at the Mountain Inn which has become my home in eSwatini. It is at the top of the Ezulwini Valley and has magnificent views. I was particularly glad to spend time with Quinton Reissmann, who was at St Mark’s primary school with me. He is currently a teacher at WK, having worked mainly in government schools in Swaziland. We are both grey (him more than me because he has hair). When I am with him I feel the years fall away.

The hotel has five new rooms. They were good enough to put me in the largest, not that I needed the space. The new rooms were not the biggest change, a couple of months ago it was announced that the country was changing its name from Swaziland to Eswatini. In this, and future writing I will refer to past events as having happened in Swaziland, but from now, if it is something new, I will talk about Eswatini. I had a very African experience, as I was walking down to the room one evening I felt a thump on my upper arm. I wondered what it was: a large moth? When I got to the room I glanced to down and to the left. There was a little gecko riding, contentedly, on my shoulder!

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A Dry Spell

It seems that the weather dominates the opening paragraphs of my monthly posts. At the end of June there was a very warm spell in Norwich, and no rain for over two weeks. More worrying is there is no rain in the forecast for at least 10 days. A stubborn area of high pressure has located itself over us. Of course East Anglia is the driest part of the British Isles, not widely known, but this has been quite exceptional. Some of the plants in the garden are given favoured treatment. They get water from the butts that drain off the roof of shed. The lawn, however, does not, and it is beginning to look rather the worse for wear.

My sister came up from London to visit for a weekend. Ailsa was away visiting her mother so Douglas and I were in charge. I think we acquitted ourselves well. We had thought of going to see a film, the choices at the local cinema were the ‘Happy Prince’ or ‘Oceans Eight’. In the end we did not. The weather was so pleasant that sitting inside a cinema would have seemed like heresy. What we did do was to go eat in Waterloo Park.

I have mentioned before that Norwich has some amazing municipal parks. In 1919 Captain Sandys-Winsch was appointed as the City Parks and Gardens Superintendent, and he stayed in the post until 1953. He is largely responsible for the fine public parks. There was government funding after World War I as part of a building and planting programme to provide unemployment relief, aimed mainly at ex-service men. Waterloo Park actually predated this, it began in 1904 as Catton Recreation Ground. A new design was drawn up in 1929, and in 1933 it reopened as Waterloo Park. It is 18 acres with a mixture of play areas and gardens, with lots of magnificent trees. There is, as in most of the parks, a pavilion which has a café.

There are many reasons to visit the park, but at the weekend we went for brunch. The café is run by Britannia Enterprises and most of the staff at this, and the two other sites, are serving or ex-offenders from Her Majesty’s Prison in Norwich. The project aims to offer mentoring, training, employment and rehabilitation to prisoners. They claim that just five percent of participants in the programme re-offend, compared to the national average of 46 percent. It is an excellent example of a social enterprise, and the food is good and reasonably priced. As it was such a beautiful, warm and sunny day, we were able to sit outside, and that meant we could take the dog.

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Hot Hotels and Celebrations

I turned 60 in March and wrote about the party I hosted in Canada in a recent blog. However there were three of my close friends at Waterford Kamhlaba School in Swaziland who were not able to be present. The four of us have remained in contact, and in 2006 we celebrated, over a period of time, our 50th birthdays. At the beginning of May this year, John Salisbury, who lives in Plymouth, in the UK, organised his 60th event. It was amazing. He and his wife hired an old fort on a hill overlooking the city. This is a Landmark Trust building. The officers’ quarters are available as bedrooms (in various configurations from two to four to a room), and there is a kitchen, lounge and across the courtyard, an excellent party venue with a bar and dance floor. The walls of the fort have magnificent cannon at various intervals. People who hire the place have it completely to themselves, and once the huge wooden main gate is locked and barred, guests really are completely on their own! It would be a good setting for a murder mystery. I can strongly recommend going to the website and having a look at this magnificent location. It is also very reasonably priced as a venue, if there are enough people sharing it.

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Waterford Kamhlaba: 50 Years of Outstanding Education

3 February 2013 marked 50 years since Waterford Kamhlaba United World College opened its doors in Swaziland for the first time. As a past student and present governor this is going to be a busy and significant year. We are planning to mark the anniversary in a number of ways over the next 10 months. One of the key targets will be to ensure that we have enough money for the school to continue for the next 50 years. A central value is to provide scholarships to deserving students. Currently about 30% of the children are recipients of such support. The link to the school website is in this posting and I do hope people will take a minute to visit it.

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Waterford School, 2 February 2013, alumni from the 1960s and 1970s

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Waterford School, 2 February 2013, Ian Khama at the podium

The first Waterford event, on the weekend of 2 and 3 February was so much fun. I flew into Swaziland on the Thursday evening and spent the morning with my friends at The National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA) in Mbabane, and the afternoon at the school. The next morning events were scheduled from 11am to 2pm. I drove up early to avoid security. It was reported that there would be 80 Swazi security personnel, I am not certain if this was true. There was a Royal Swazi police van in the parking area with “Bomb Disposal Unit” written on the side, and lots of uniformed men with automatic guns wandering about. The security is part and parcel of having the president of a country coming to visit, even if he is an old boy. The president is Ian Khama who was two or three years ahead of me at school.

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An example of how not to write: Form 1 poem

I gave one of our founding trustees, Martin Kenyon, a ride from the hotel. We then hung around until just before 11am when we were asked to go into the hall. Past copies of our school magazine were on display in the community service room. Flicking through them I discovered a poem I had written at about age 12. It confirms that my ability to write poetry, draw, or indeed to engage in any artistic pursuits is limited by a lack of talent. Judge for yourself !

Ian Khama was taught by our guest of honour Tony Hatton, one of the teachers responsible for establishing Waterford. His book Phoenix Rising: A Memoir of Waterford Kamhlaba’s Early Years had been published just in time for the event. This is reviewed at the end of this blog.

There were lots of people wearing smart uniforms with stars, medals and gold braid. Also present was the Deputy Prime Minister of Swaziland Themba Masuku whom I have known for many years. He started his career in the Ministry of Agriculture, held various ministerial posts and worked for the FAO.

It was a fantastic day. Ian Khama gave a brilliant tribute to Waterford and Tony. He began by talking to the students. He asked them if they had to go to church. Did they have to go to the classrooms and write the weekly letter to their parents on a Sunday? Were they allowed to enter the hall though all the doors? Did they have divinity lessons? A chorus of ‘no’ from the students present (except for service we all have to do it – but in our day it was physical labour – today it is community service). His masterstroke was to ask: did they have to wear uniforms? The answer was no!

He said, “Well we did, and I am wearing my tie – which is the original Waterford tie. We also had to wear blazers, and I still have mine, let me see if it fits.”

A uniformed man came from behind him carrying a jacket holder. He took out a Waterford blazer and then taking off his jacket put it on. It was a really wonderful moment and you can see bits of it on Facebook.

There will be a weekend of celebration at the end of April when the school is hosting a symposium. The guest of honor will be Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This will be followed by a series of reunions for alumni. Those who attended in the 1960s and 1970s will have the opportunity to return to the school and sleep in their old dormitories on the weekend of 9-11 August.

I have a real sense of incredible good fortune to have been educated at this school with the principles and values it inculcated in me. I was there because it was the local school, so many of my classmates battled to attend for financial and political reasons. I remember one having his passport refused by the apartheid officials in an act of pettiness that was so typical of the time. Indeed Tony Hatton was banned from traveling into South Africa for many years. This will seem like ancient history for the current cohort of students, but they too will certainly face numerous serious challenges. These will include employment, the environment, inequality and poverty, and new diseases such as HIV and AIDS.

As I travelled home I was taken aback by an event at the arrivals at O.R.Tambo airport. A young customs officer brought a teenage traveler to our queue, was about to put him in front of the ‘fever sensor’, a device that reads the temperature of the traveler from about two metres. He noticed me, and said, “Let the old man go first.”
“Eish”, I said, “who are you calling an old man.”
Indeed I have taken to avoiding the local spa in Durban on a Tuesday. It is the day they offer a 5% discount for pensioners, and I don’t like being asked if I qualify.

Back in Durban it has not been as hot as I would have expected in February. I have had to use my air-conditioning units on just three or four occasions. Although it must be said I am very glad I have them. There has been a great deal of rain and gray skies and I have not yet had the chance to get to the beach.

On Saturday I was invited to the Rumbelow Theatre in Umbilo. This is a working-class suburb and is where we first bought a house in Durban. The company uses a MOTH Hall. MOTH stands for the Memorable Order of the Tin Hats and was established after the First World War as an ex-serviceman’s club or community. The hall is extremely basic and has flags, maps and memorials on the wall. The show Suspects of Love consisted of four flamboyant men in drag miming to the words of love songs. It does not sound that promising but in fact was great fun. The Rumbelow has a great website.

Books

Phoenix Rising A Memoir of Waterford Kamhlaba’s Early Years By Tony Hatton, Kamhlaba Publications, 195 pages ISBN 978-0-620-55588-3
I really enjoyed reading this book. Because we lived in Swaziland, I felt that I knew something about the history of the establishment of Waterford and its early years. I was there as a student from 1969 to 1974 so lived through that period. The book is one view of what went on and is a valuable record. It is more than that though: it is well written, humorous and thought-provoking. I had seen an early first draft of the manuscript many years ago and know a little bit of the back story of getting it published in record time. Well done to Tony for writing it, my colleagues Catherine and Gwythian for putting it together, getting it printed and published and down to Swaziland in time for the weekend. It can be ordered from the school website. For those who went to Waterford do buy it, for people who are interested in the history of the school and the region it is a good read.

Films (two from the 10 hour flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in January)

Starbuck 2011

This French-Canadian film is the story of a man who is a sperm donor and fathers 533 children. He believes that he will be kept anonymous, but about 150 of them enter a class action to find out the identity of their father. The story centers on their attempts to find him while he seeks to retain his anonymity. At the same time, his girlfriend is pregnant with his child. An additional part of the plot is his relationship with his father and brothers who run a butchers shop. It is not a deep or meaningful film. It is light and enjoyable. The dialogue is in French with English subtitles. It is an example of the quality films coming out of Canada. The in-joke, which is beyond non-Canadians, is that Starbuck was a prize bull used to inseminate thousands of cows, something Canadians know.

Brave 2012(Pixar)

This computer-animated fantasy film is set in Scotland many centuries ago. The daughter of the King, Merida defies the age-old custom of marrying the son of a local chief and causes chaos. She heads into the forest and consults a witch for help. The result is her mother is turned into a bear and the story is about her putting this right. The voices I recognised were Julie Walters, Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane. It was good fun and technically brilliant. It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film and BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film.