The past is a moving target. It seems to be quite clearly one thing and then it changes and becomes another. I remember Durban, South Africa, the setting of my novel, Ivory from Paradise
, as a safe and reliable place. Its Edwardian buildings may have been a little shabby, its public facilities a little dated, but it was steady and refined, and the long-ago events and personalities that made it what it was were set in stone. Or so it seemed.
Growing up white in Africa puts you especially at risk for remembering wrong. Much later, at a great distance and without the intrusion of reality, you tend to gloss over the obvious ambiguities. Things are ornamented, edges softened, glimpses of lush gardens impose themselves, tea on balconies, misty evenings with air so rich it could be velvet. Those safe white days in apartheid's embrace can seem like glory days now.
More than one of my novel's characters is embarrassed by this longing for a past set in a time of ambient cruelty. Others are surprised by how the struggle against apartheid begins to looks different when seen in light of the realities of the New South Africa. Where it went wrong and how it will all end are new and pressing questions.
Something that seemed to be one thing changes and becomes another.
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I was a child in Durban as apartheid was approaching its zenith. My family was solidly upper-middle class (my father was a doctor, and my mother taught at the university): sociable, musical, sports-mad, competitive. We knew in my family, separated though we were from the system's excesses, what it meant, or we thought we did, to be white in a racist place: my mother ran unsuccessfully for Parliament advocating greater racial justice. We were appalled by much of what we witnessed, we argued and campaigned for change, and then we got on with our lives.
The South Africa of my first novel, Empire Settings, is this place — intensely normal but with a clear, corrosive undercurrent. My characters, white and black, feel the constant presence of apartheid as they try to live normal lives. It is a story of first love between a privileged white boy, Danny Divin, and the daughter of a black domestic servant. Such a romance was both illicit and shameful, and almost inevitably the lovers are discovered and separated. Years later, in America, Danny yearns for the girl he left behind, and when black majority rule reaches South Africa and he is asked to go on a family errand (to smuggle the family's money from the country in violation of South African currency laws), he readily agrees.
What he really has in mind is to find his first love, and to see what has become of her.
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South Africa is different now. Apartheid is dead, and for those of us who were not there to watch it die, it is strange to go back and see people living among the old landmarks as if the new reality is all there is, all there ever could be. Africans are in charge in the grand old civic buildings, and it is mostly Africans who are seated at the tables in restaurants from which they were once rudely — very rudely — ejected. It is Africans who are the competent and courteous hotel managers, receptionists, junior accountants, young lawyers. They brim, most of them, with an old-world, dare I say a colonial, charm. It is all of course thrilling to a liberal expatriate taking his walk down memory lane, down "What If" street: What if we had stayed? What if people had come to their senses earlier? What if?
Stay a few weeks though, read the newspapers, watch television carefully, and then things are not so clear any more, not even the old certainties. Who can find fault in the rebirth of African confidence, the explosion of opportunity, the polished young Africans who dominate almost every area of public life? But what of the AIDS calamity that has killed far more people that apartheid ever did, and that has been made immeasurably worse by the government's insistence that AIDS is not caused by a virus? (The former president did the research himself, on the Internet. He appointed a Minister of Health who concocted an AIDS cure from apricot pits.) What of the flood of refugees from Zimbabwe, there in no small measure because of the government's refusal to exercise its considerable leverage to curb Mr. Mugabe? What of the epidemic of crime? The walk down memory lane, down any street, has become chillingly dangerous. And what is one to make of the fulminant corruption, of the tiny group of self-righteous black oligarchs who have made fortunes off their political connectedness while the great majority is no better off at all, may even be worse off if money is the measure?
For this too, then, apartheid was ended. And where this ends, nobody knows. "Zimbabwe" is mumbled darkly, a threat as much as a place. You can see shades of it already, an undercurrent of brutishness among the political elite; the semi-literate head of the governing party's youth wing who refuses to account for his sudden wealth jets off to Zimbabwe to collaborate with Mr. Mugabe, and defiantly sings in public, "Kill the Boers," menacing those who dare object to the song with a promise that their comeuppance is imminent.
Having overcome one kind of menace, another has replaced it. This menace is that of the angry fist in the air, of the sheer physical power of the once-dispossessed, of the impotence that comes from seeing how reason itself can be at risk, and that exists where corruption and implicit threats of violence are an acidic drip dripping on the head of civil society. It changes how you see the past, the struggle, gives a new dimension, a prescience even, to the scrupled decision to leave.
This is the South Africa of my new novel, Ivory from Paradise, which is due out this month. Ivory from Paradise is the story of a family's fight over the ownership of heirlooms, but it is also about memory, and about the ownership of history. The Divins, now living in America, believe the ivory tusks that once stood in their Durban living room are theirs. Their dead father acquired them when no one else seemed to place much value in them, or to care that they were once a gift from the almost mythical Zulu king Shaka to the Jewish explorer Nathaniel Isaacs. How could the family not fight for them, for their patrimony, for the ownership of the anecdotes and memories that accompany their father's most prized possession?
Others, the Divin's former African servants among them, see the whole thing in an entirely different light. And the tusks carry a surprise all their own.
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I was in Durban earlier this year. My travel agent had booked me into a boutique hotel which he told me was once a colonial mansion, and to my surprise it turned out to be the former home of old friends. I learned to swim in the "hotel's" pool, though in those days the house did not have high walls on all sides topped by an electrified barrier, or security guards at the gate, or a watchful private armed response unit parked under the old oak trees in the street. When I wander through the rooms remembering times long gone, it feels as if we are now, the family who once lived here, my own, many others, an ephemeral colonial presence, only ghosts.
Several days and a frightening excursion downtown later, I stand on the expansive green lawns and visualize the city just three miles away with its hellish abandoned buildings, its filthy streets, its broken windows and unemployed, red-eyed thugs lurking on street corners. I remember discussions on this same lawn about the future, whether there would be a race war, an apartheid-induced apocalypse, whether there would ever be peace and justice in South Africa. There is now a measure of peace, and a measure of justice, but the future is as uncertain as ever. This patch of tranquility is merely an island in the midst of something quite different.
I agreed to forfeit all stake in the future when I left, though I see that had I stayed I would be in the process of being written off anyway. But the past, the hopeful past, is now as dead as the stories we once accepted as fact. Who would have thought looking back would feel like this?