If home is where the heart is, then I have a home in South Africa. Though born and bred in Melbourne, I have had the special upbringing that comes with being a part of a South African family. More than half of my extended family live in Johannesburg and Cape Town, which has meant that my family holiday planning conversations usually end with ‘or we could just go to South Africa.’
I’m torn every time I start to recommend it as a holiday destination. On the one hand I cannot recommend it enough. Head away from Joburg to Africa’s most southern city of Cape Town and the country’s brilliance shines as brightly as the diamonds it is famous for. The unique environment that results from majestic mountains meeting both the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean is breathtaking. The coastal hubs are at the same time quaint yet buzzing with the vibrant and undeniable energy that South Africans hold in their blood. Forget the Bondi Icebergs, Cape Town offers ocean swimming pools around every corner of the winding cliff face roads that outline the city. The wine lands of the Western Cape are so green and luscious that you can easily forget you are supposed to be surrounded by dryness and dust. You can sit atop Table Mountain at twilight and watch that omnipresent African sun fade away after lighting the whole city on fire. Away from the cities you have what is the most quintessential part of South Africa, the plains. I can’t count how many days of my life I have spent driving around the Kruger National Park with my eyes peeled for a lion or leopard.
Johannesburg as a city is not all that enthralling. Yet, driving past the mine dumps – huge mounds of white gold sand leftover from the gold reef on the fringe of Johannesburg – my Mum tells me that she sees a beauty in them that others cannot. She says that her Africa has never left her and that the gold dust that blows off them runs in the veins of everyone she loves and remembers. From the sound of the ‘smoke that thunders’ from the Zambezi river, to the roar of the lion, the beat of the drum and the singing of Zulu warriors, to finally the meeting of the two oceans that smash together at the tip of the continent; these sounds make up the mixtape of my childhood journeys.
On the other hand, Johannesburg is the kind of place where you lock your car doors as soon as you get in, you avoid stopping too long at stop signs or traffic lights (or ‘robots’, as South Africans call them). In all of my happy memories in this country, I can’t forget to mention that my various family members live in gated communities. You have to be let in by a security guard, have a beeper to get into your driveway, and have iron bars over not only your windows, but the bottom of your staircase and over your bedroom doors as well. When I’m there, my sense of comfort is often undermined by a paranoia that follows around South Africans every day.
South Africa’s troubled past and resultantly, its uneasy present and uncertain future, has played a large part in my own self-discovery. As this country fights to define itself and determine its future, I have learnt from it all of my most important life lessons. I have grown up with this country by my side and as such it has taken on a unique personality to me. Like any person, it is multifaceted – Mother Africa has her good days and her bad, her anger and her happiness. The people that make up her fabric have fought and pulled and torn her apart, and also work tirelessly to re-sew her and weave in a new and delicate pattern. Today, racial conflict is hardly eradicated and of course, I can offer no solution or even real comments on the political issues it faces, the violence that occurs daily, and whether or not there will be a time in the future that I can visit and not hold onto a whole lot of fear.
Being a member of a white South African family comes with moral conundrums stemming from a feeling of colonial guilt. The problems in this country, like in any colonised state, come from a question about who can rightfully call South Africa their home. In my opinion, South Africa and a deep connection to family and community go hand in hand, so goes the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Nelson Mandela was affectionately called Tata – translating to Father in Xhosa. My own family and my own South Africa are unbreakably bound and it is that kind of connection that lets me call a bit of Africa home. Family teaches you things, arguably they teach you the most important things that you can learn, shaping the way that you come to discover the world and ultimately the way that you discover yourself.
When I come back to Australia, I feel physical pain at being removed from the warm and loving arms of my South Africa, and it takes me nights of tears to feel whole enough to get on with my life again. My parents have never turned me away from the history that has formed the country. They have shared their upbringing with me, their disappointments about the way things were then and their disappointments about the way things are now. We can all feel sadness about the crumbling of a place that holds within it something so special and unique. They have encouraged me to learn about its past, think deeply about it, and take the messages of tolerance, justice and equality with me every day.
One of my parents most prized possessions is a painting done by African artist Boye Molefe. My parents were struck by this painting, so different from all the others that depicted your typical African animals, sunsets and scenery. This painting was based on a polaroid picture of twelve men working on the railroads. My Dad said when he saw it, ‘I can hear them singing.’ Today it hangs with pride of place in our lounge, alongside every other piece of Africa we have brought back here. During my last visit just three weeks ago, my cousin got married on a farm in a rural African town 3 hours from Cape Town. She danced her wedding dance not to the Waltz, but to a Zulu song whose lyrics sang ‘open the gates, my baby boy is getting married today.’ She walked down the aisle not to the Wedding March, but to Mumford and Sons ‘There Will Be Time’, part of their Johannesburg EP, featuring Sengalese artist Baaba Maal. Never have I felt more at peace in South Africa than standing there in the middle of the wide, open, emptiness of the country under the boiling 40-degree sun, surrounded by people who have committed to loving the country forever.
Maal sings in his language;
‘Listen to me, I want to tell you something, the reason I love you is because, you are the only one who has taught me to how to love and appreciate life. To feel hurt and feel joy, feelings that come from loving you, situations can change between the morning and the night, but our love for each other stays the same, it stays strong, it is constant and it remains true.’
And, if that doesn’t sum up every South African’s relationship with their home then I don’t know what does.