Part 7 — The Kamberg
I’d never heard of politics because it wasn’t discussed at home, and it didn’t appear in the school curriculum until you were old enough to be taught that it was the opposite of Communism.
It wasn’t discussed at home because my mother’s views were more liberal than my father’s, and neither of them wanted the shadow of their disagreement to darken the sunny days of our concord and innocence. So if they discussed it at all it was behind closed doors in hushed voices, and we were left to figure out for ourselves if the arrangement of the world beyond the boundaries of New Dell was as harmonious as the world within them.
Not talking about politics in those days was like not talking about the weather in the middle of a blizzard of hail, floods, thunder and lightning. You were surrounded by it, living in it, drowning in it. And there was no escaping it, not if you had a beating heart, or ears to hear, or eyes to see.
Our hearts weren’t inured to the disparity between white privilege and black poverty. We had eyes that saw it in the ration boxes of soap, candles, bread and mielie meal my mother gave to the wives of the labourers once a month at the kitchen door. We had ears that heard it in the melodic “Ngiyabonga” with which they received them, the prayer-like chant of thanks made more so by obeisant nods over clasped hands. What we didn’t have was a word for it.
So it came as a surprise when I discovered in Economics I, at the age of eighteen, that politics in other countries had to do with the income and expenditure of governments, with tax rates and pension provisions, with health, education, social welfare and foreign affairs. Even more surprising was that where you stood on the political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right depended on your judgement of fiscal priorities, rather than, say, on how frequently you used the k-word.
It was going to come to that sooner or later. Because politics in South Africa was about race, finished and klaar.
It was so much about race that no one noticed that Jan Smuts, the man who helped to frame the liberal economic agendas of the both the League of Nations and the United Nations, was a raving anti-capitalist. It was so much about race that no one saw any irony in the statist economics of the supposedly right-leaning National Party. It was so much about race that the Communist Party of South Africa was formed to prevent black miners from taking the jobs of white miners.
It was so much about race that white people who didn’t use the k-word were regarded as occupying the extreme left of the South African political spectrum. Those who used it infrequently were left of centre. Those who used it regularly were wishy-washy centrists. Those who used it all the time were to the right. And those who used it rancorously and abusively all the time were very much to the right. The extreme right was occupied by those who wouldn’t use it at all because uttering it would be to acknowledge the existence of a race other than their own.
Black South Africans didn’t have a place on the political spectrum because it was reserved, like the benches in the park, for Whites Only.
America has the n-word; South Africa has the k-word. But if gradations of hate speech are possible, the k-word feels to me the more hateful and the more hated. It could be that the worst of the n-word’s poison has been drawn by the casual use of it in so much American media, or perhaps it’s because it isn’t as close up and personal as the k-word still is to most South Africans. To me it seems to contain in just two short syllables the dehumanising essence of apartheid’s history and pre-history, as if it were the dragon tooth brought by the Arabs to Africa, sowed by the Dutch, left to flourish unattended by the British, cultivated by the Afrikaners, and reaped in the institutionalised deprivation and disadvantage we see in South Africa today.
And it’s strange and chilling to hear its echoes in the shibboleths of radical Islam today. Because the original Arabic term of kafir that was first used to characterise the native “disbelievers” they encountered on the east coast of Africa, and which became the word that inspired so much of the hate and violence of apartheid, has the same animus against religious otherness that inspires the hate and violence of Paris, Nice, Berlin, Brussels and Westminster Bridge. It’s like some kind of weed with virulent etymological roots, as if the effort to pluck it out of South African soil has only encouraged it to spread and prosper in regions still rich with the manure of prejudice.
In England today I hear pro-Brexit jihadists pronouncing the m-word in just the same way I heard the k-word pronounced in apartheid South Africa, with the same dismissive flourish, and with the same inflexion of dehumanising contempt, as though the word itself contains both the argument and its unarguable conclusion. Replace the English word “migrant” with the Arabic “disbeliever” and you’ll get my drift.
Use of the k-word was prohibited in my mother’s presence. Debby says she heard my father say it only once, and that was when Simon the gardener accidentally chopped off the tail of Jenny the Labrador with the lawnmower. That evening he told my mother he was going to vote for the Nats, but by the time the next election came around his loyalty to Oom Jan had got the better of him.
The four oldest of us knew that my mother had been active in the Black Sash. We understood, too, with varying degrees of comprehension, that her association with them had been motivated by a belief that there was something fundamentally unfair and un-Christian going on in the world, and that it had vaguely to do with the privileges we enjoyed at the expense of our black brethren.
But something happened in the early sixties that made her withdraw from both the Black Sash and the society of all but a few like-minded friends. I used to think it was because she had given up all hope of positive change when the republic severed the last of her fondly imagined ties to her beloved England, and perhaps, too, because she had her hands full with the six of us.
Looking back now I can see a third reason, more pressing than either of these. I believe her sensibilities were offended by the crassness of it all; that by reducing politics to a choice between black and white, between all and nothing, between for and against, the discourse itself had become insulting to her thoroughly English conception of the human spirit — by which I mean those notions of dignity in hardship, resilience in trial, and redemption in kindness that she hoped so dearly we would learn to embrace from her readings of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, White Fang, King Arthur and Gunga Din.
In what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, 69 people were shot dead on the 21st of March, 1960, when the South African Police opened fire on a crowd of between 5,000 and 7,000 black protestors demonstrating against the hated pass laws.
Sharpeville triggered more black protest. Widespread black anger fuelled widespread white fear. White fear coarsened further the already vituperative tone of national politics. And when the profanities and racist slurs bred by that coarseness of white thought and feeling spilled over into the language of my mother’s friends and acquaintances in Mooi River and its surrounds, she closed the gates of New Dell to the crudeness of it all, and turned away and blocked her ears to it, and blocked ours too.
She may have given up hope. She may even have succeeded in hiding her despair from her husband and her children. But we know from this wonderful story Debby told me, and from others like it, that she never conceded an inch to those who dared challenge her thoroughly decent, tolerant, polite, mild-mannered, well-meaning, fair-minded, good-natured English values.
To the west of New Dell there was a vague and mysterious region known as the Kamberg, a sort of Middle-Earth of green mountains and valleys uncharted by the official maps, inhabited by creatures of dubious provenance, and accessible only by roads treacherous of surface and uncertain of direction. Or this was the impression formed in my childish imagination by the way it was mentioned in adult conversations, and which is most often chosen by whomever directs my dreams as the setting for the really scary ones.
No one lived “in the Kamberg” or “at the Kamberg” or “on the Kamberg”. No one went “to the Kamberg” or came “from the Kamberg”. They lived, instead, “somewhere up the Kamberg”, or they came from “somewhere up the Kamberg”; we had relatives “somewhere up the Kamberg”, there had been a terrible accident “somewhere up the Kamberg”, and, famously, Elizabeth Klarer got abducted by an alien scientist called Akon from the planet Meton in the Alpha Centauri system “somewhere up the Kamberg”.
Debby had a school friend who lived somewhere up the Kamberg. Her friend’s parents farmed something somewhere up there, and Debby would sometimes stay with them during a school holiday, and once or twice her friend came to stay with us at New Dell. To spare Debby’s blushes and her friend’s embarrassment, I’ll call them the Morlocks, and I’ll call Debby’s friend Poppy because all her friends had nicknames that sounded as though they had come straight out of The Famous Five. This must have been when Debby was fifteen or sixteen, and in her last years of high school.
Mrs Morlock was as nice as pie, but Mr Morlock was an unreconstructed racist whose profligate use of the k-word shocked Debby beyond measure. They had moved up the Kamberg because Mr Morlock had offended everyone who lived in the vicinity of the R103, the old road between Mooi River and Pietermaritzburg. Later he would offend everyone up the Kamberg, and he and the long-suffering Mrs Morlock would have to move further up the Kamberg. After offending everyone further up the Kamberg they eventually settled near Mount Lebanon where there was no one to offend.
Perhaps even more shocking to Debby was that Poppy appeared not to care or notice, as though her ears had been deafened to it by years of constant exposure. But Debby could see Mrs Morlock squirming with shame, and she wondered at Poppy’s unstudied indifference.
This kind of uncomfortable compromise wouldn’t have been exceptional among English-speaking families at the time. Wives, mothers and daughters were less likely to use the k-word, not because their views were more liberally inclined that those of their husbands, fathers and brothers, but because they were generally less inclined to swear. The other day Robert sent me a story which nicely illustrates the point. I share it here in parenthesis:
Robert’s mother, who, like mine, had never let the k-word pass her lips, remarried in her seventies an avowed supporter of the National Party, a man with no compunctions regarding the free use of vile, racist epithets. The marriage had an emollient effect, and by the time he died he was voting for the Progressive Federal Party.
After his funeral, Robert drove his mother to the bottle store in Howick to buy libations for the wake. He was turning into Main Road when a young black man walked deliberately and casually in front of the car. This was in 1992, two years after Mandela’s release, and the former mood of sullen deference to the white population had been replaced by a brazen and sometimes mischievous defiance. Robert’s mother, her husband not yet cold in his grave, chose that moment to whisper “expletive-deleted k-word” for the very first time, as if she had been waiting a lifetime for the catharsis of it.
If Poppy Morlock was even slightly embarrassed by her father, she said nothing to Debby. And Debby doesn’t remember saying anything about it to my mother. It wasn’t the kind of thing one liked to talk about.
They left school and went their separate ways. When she thought about Poppy, Debby imagined her doomed to marry the son of a farmer who lived somewhere up the Kamberg, and saw her reprising the doomed life that Mrs Morlock had led, excepting only that Poppy wouldn’t squirm when her farmer husband cursed his labourers as expletive-participle-deleted k-words because that was her world-as-it-should-be.
Occasionally they exchanged letters. Debby learned that Poppy had moved abroad, found herself a husband, and delivered him some children.
The decades went by. We migrated from New Dell to Drakesleigh. Life happened and so did death. We moved our widowed mother to a comfortable home in Howick.
Then Poppy turned up one day in 2008. They chatted on the phone, compared husbands and children, and got together for lunch.
When Poppy learned that Debby’s mother was still alive and living in Howick, she begged Debby to take her down to see her.
It was on a visit to New Dell, Poppy said. It must have 1964 or 1965. Debby had gone off to practice her tennis against the wall my father had built under the great tulip tree below the side veranda. Poppy could hear the alternating pops, thuds and pops of the ball on the racket and the wall. It was a bright afternoon. My mother called Poppy aside, poured her a cup of tea, and in a conversation lasting no more than ten minutes, shared with Poppy her thoughts and feelings regarding the relations between white and black South Africans.
By the time got back home to the farm up the Kamberg, Poppy had made up her mind to make a life for herself in country where people respected each other’s differences. Now she wanted to thank her before it was too late.