Have You Been in Prison?

One of the best stories I got out of last year’s reading of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari was the one told to him by an ex-prisoner in Ethiopia. The man had spent the better part of ten years in jail as a political prisoner and his experience was both heartwarming and harrowing. Having nothing to read, write with, or write on, he was overjoyed when one day a new prisoner appeared, carrying an undetected copy of Gone with the Wind with him. Reading it became one of his greatest joys for the next six years. Or, rather, reading it for an hour at a time for the next six years, because the other political prisoners in his section, all educated men, made dibs on it too. And so the book made its regular rounds. He eventually decided to translate it, using a smuggled pen to write it down on the backs of a total of three thousand cigarette foils over the course of two years in what I can only imagine must have been very cramped script. The foils eventually made their way out of the prison via other prisoners that were being released, and once he was a free man himself it took him another two years to gather all those scattered foil pieces again, gone (almost) with the wind as they were, and get his translation published. It is now the version read by Ethiopians. I really like this tale. It reminds me of Nelson Mandela’s story, not so very different. How he wrote the draft of his autobiography on Robben Island, how he buried it somewhere in the garden he tended to avoid detection, and how it was eventually smuggled out to become Long Walk to Freedom.   Paul Theroux, after meeting the Ethiopian ex-prisoner, from then on decided he was going to ask everybody over the age of thirty whether they had been in prison or not. Most had. In our world, having been in prison might be a mark of shame. In Africa, having been in prison can be a badge of honor.

This made me reflect on our time in South Africa, and it made me realize that we had our own stories involving prisoners.

Zax, as part of a school trip to Franschhoek, had the opportunity to visit Victor Verster Prison (now Drakenstein Correctional Centre), the very place where Nelson Mandela spent ...  Continue Reading

From Soccer World Cup to the Death of Nelson Mandela

Watching all the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s memorial in Johannesburg, I was struck by this thought: That our family’s years in Johannesburg were book-ended by the two biggest events in South Africa’s recent history – the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and now the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013. We arrived in time to witness the former, and departed before we could partake in the memorial events for the latter. In a sense, the World Cup prepared South Africa for what was to follow three years later. It focused the world’s attention on a country it had formerly more or less ignored, if not reviled. First there was apartheid to despise, and then there was the violence that followed after the end of apartheid. When we first floated the idea of moving to South Africa to our friends and family, we were met with disbelief and worse. “Why would you move to such a dangerous place?” was the consensus. Living in South Africa, everyone was convinced, must be akin to going straight to hell. A terrible place populated by terrible people who let their country slide into such a state. A view, I might add, that was shared by more than a few South Africans themselves. What we found, of course, was quite the opposite, as anyone following this blog knows. But it seems like it wasn’t just us who learned to appreciate the wonders of South Africa. It was the entire world that started paying attention. And it was the Soccer World Cup that made this happen. As people flocked to South Africa from all over the world, they discovered that they liked it there. It was a beautiful country, everyone realized. And crime wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone thought. Or perhaps it got better through a much-overdue push by the government to rein it in just in time before the opening whistle. Whichever is the case, not only did the World Cup ever so subtly change perceptions abroad, it also changed hearts and minds at home. “We actually can do this,” people seemed to think in disbelief. “We’re not screwing it up!” The sense of pride and joy we witnessed among South Africans from all walks of life during those early days of our expat stint is one of the fondest memories I carry away with me. The street vendor selling us flags and mirror covers at the intersection. The Dainfern College kids belting out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika during morning assemblies, wearing their “proudly South African” t-shirts. The most cynical South Africans cheering on their country’s performance in hosting the games. The Rainbow Nation on full display as blacks and whites and straights and gays and Jews and Muslims all huddled in front of the big screen TVs at Melrose Arch watching Germany give Argentina a drumming (and give England a drumming too, I can’t help but point out). The 2010 Soccer World Cup showed South Africans that they have a lot to be proud of. That they live in a desirable country, not a despised one. That the world loves them. When concerned prospective expats ask me about crime in South Africa, I always joke that the expat’s biggest fear about living in South Africa is not that they might be attacked, but that they might be told by their employer that they have to move back home. Of all the expats I have met over the years, there was not a single one who was eager to leave. Quite the contrary. Living in South Africa, to many people it seems, is like a dream come true. Watching the memorial events for Nelson Mandela unfold on TV, I get the sense that South Africa has grown up in those three years. There seems to be none of the fretting of “can we do this,” none of the soul-searching, none of the derision that preceded the World Cup (I remember a picture a friend posted with a lone decrepit soccer goal on a dirt patch with the caption “South Africa is getting ready for the FIFA World Cup” or something similarly sarcastic”). Today, in 2013, South Africa is simply proud. Grieving, but full of love and joy at the same time. And confident. It knows that all the world’s eyes are on it, but there is no sense of nervousness, no fretting about organizing masses and masses of people. It knows that it is laying to rest the last great man of our times. One that could (and still can) bring together people of many different backgrounds and races.One that will never be forgotten by the world. Next week South Africans will likely return to their regular programming and compare their own president to the one who spoke so much better, the one they’d much rather have. Next week the griping about traffic and e-tags will return, the frustration with corruption and cronyism, the fear of unsafe roads and crime, the reality of a vast underclass of poor people with hardly any running water near their homes. But today, South Africa is the envy of the world. You might also like to read: Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela

I have a hard time remembering what sort of feelings I had about Nelson Mandela a little over three years ago, prior to our expat stint in Johannesburg, South Africa.

I knew who he was, of course. That he had been a civil rights leader stuck in prison for a long time, ...  Continue Reading

How I spent Mandela Day

South Africa. Nelson Mandela.

You cannot think of one without the other. They often come up in the same sentence. Think of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. combined, and you will have an idea of what Nelson Mandela means to this country. I’ve talked a little bit about him before, ...  Continue Reading

Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial

A place I had been dying to see, but knew I’d have a hard time convincing the rest of my family to visit, was Liliesleaf Farm. So when my sister in law, who is always interested in such things, was recently visiting, we took the opportunity to go check it out.
By the way, I always thought it was spelled Lilieslief, which somehow seems more Afrikaans, but I have since seen that it is spelled both ways. I’ll go with the spelling used by Wikipedia and the Liliesleaf Trust.
Liliesleaf Farm Museum today
Liliesleaf Farm in the 1960s

Liliesleaf Farm was where Nelson Mandela, after the founding of the militant arm of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also called MK), was hiding and plotting for a time before being captured. It is not a far drive from where we live, ...  Continue Reading