There may have been other places formerly coloured pink on the map of the world where, as late as 1961, it was still possible for pre-adolescent grandsons and granddaughters of Empire to believe they lived just a one or two hour train journey away from Buckingham Palace, and that if you left in the next ten minutes you might get there in time for the Changing of the Guards and catch a glimpse of Christopher Robin arriving with Alice.
Maybe there were kids of my age imagining the same thing at the same time on ranches in Kenya or at school in St Kitts, or at some far-flung outpost in Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh. But I can’t imagine a place more conducive to the illusion than the Midlands of Natal.
There were the rolling green hills. There were the gins and tonics. There was the Received Pronunciation of the inhabitants. There were the farmers and their wives who gathered of an evening at The Argyle or The Highwayman to sing, “Roll out the Barrel”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “We’ll Meet Again”, and who said things like, “The sun’s over the yardarm” and “Jolly good show” and “Bottom’s up!” and “Bang up to the elephant” whenever Susie the barmaid turned to reach up for the whisky. There was the Anglican service on Sundays. There was the communal worship of the well-executed cover drive. There was my father who said, “By Jove!”, a lot, and my mother who said things like, “As right as a trivet” and “As happy as a lark in spring”.
There was the awful winter weather.
For a several years of my early childhood I thought Natal was a county bordering on Devon or Dorset. A close reading of Great Expectations gave me the ammunition I needed to convince myself that the skins of the peasants and labourers in the fields, and of the cooks and nannies in the homesteads, had been irretrievably blackened by the accumulated soot of the industrial revolution, and that my father spoke to them in a dialect of Cornish.
While Harold Macmillan’s winds of change were whipping up ferocious storms from Cape Town to the Cameroons, only a whispered breath of them stirred the larkspurs and snapdragons in the gardens of the Midlands gentry. There was a reason Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, was referred to by locals as “sleepy hollow”. Nobody in the city or its rural surrounds had heard of anything of any note happening within its limits since the magnificent bronze statue of Queen Victoria was erected in the gardens opposite the gracious red-brick City Hall in the 1920’s.
The towns to the north, from Hilton to Mooi River, were even sleepier. One day my father took a lawnmower to be repaired at Willie Groenewald’s garage in Rosetta, the local hamlet where the most notable commercial enterprise was Willie Groenewald’s garage. On the morning of the same day of the calendar a few years later he had my mother bake a cake, stuck some candles in the icing, and took it down to Willie’s where the pair of them celebrated the lawnmower’s fourth or fifth anniversary with a bottle of brandy until The Highwayman opened for business.
But in late 1960, while I was blithely going about the business of being a seven year old, the announcement of the referendum startled the English-speaking gentlefolk of Natal from their long colonial slumber. The Pietermaritzburg-based Natal Witness issued a grave warning: “Not to vote against the Republic is to help those who would cut us loose from our moorings, and set us adrift in a treacherous and uncharted sea, at the very time that the winds of change are blowing up to hurricane force.”
They would have known the game was up if they had paid any attention at all to the words of Macmillan when he had spoken to parliament in Cape Town a few months earlier. Surely there was no mistaking the brutal candour of, “…it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men…”
It’s churlish, of course, but I can’t help wondering which aspects of apartheid the British Prime Minister considered not so inimical to Britain’s deep convictions about the political destinies of free men.
But it was the referendum that galvanised white Natal. Nearly eighty percent voted against a republic. The Anti-Republican League drew cheering crowds numbering upwards of two thousand people in Durban, and some fifteen hundred in Pietermaritzburg. Thirty-three thousand, my father and mother almost certainly among them, signed the Natal Covenant. I quote it here in full as documentary proof of just how English we thought we were.
“Being convinced in our consciences that a republic would be disastrous to the material well-being of Natal as well as of the whole of South Africa, subversive of our freedom and destructive of our citizenship, we, whose names are underwritten, men and women of Natal, loyal subjects of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending the Crown, and in using all means which may be found possible and necessary to defeat the present intention to set up a republic in South Africa. And in the event of a republic being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.”
It signed itself off with a strident, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN”, as if the writers thought she might be persuaded to care if they said it loudly enough.
The substantive part of the Natal Covenant was freely plagiarized from the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which I likewise quote in full because it’s such a striking example of Santayana’s maxim that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it:
“Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.”
The young queen did to the Natal Covenant exactly what her grandfather had done to the Ulster Covenant, i.e., met it with royal indifference.
The obvious point to be drawn from this quirky repetition of history is how deaf and blind the monarchs of England were to the consequences of their imperialist meddling when it came back to bother them. But, hey-ho, that’s the thanks you get for taking the trouble to put the world to rights.
But what makes it so poignant and so personal isn’t that pathetic appeal of the Irish protestants to “the unity of the Empire” when the Empire was so patently doomed to disintegrate, nor that pitiable pledge of the Natalians “to stand by one another in defending the Crown” when the Crown had long since turned its back on them, but just how desperately and wretchedly they all believed that their Englishness would save them.
In 2017 we know better. It’s not the depth of your devotion to the Crown or to those good old-fashioned British values that saves you — it’s the accent with which you enunciate it.
My father got over the shock of the republic because it was his nature to look forward. If a cow got into the lucerne and died of bloat, or if one of us skinned a knee or broke an arm, he liked to quote the first two lines of that Gaelic prayer, “May the road rise up to meet you, May the wind be always at your back.” If October came and the rains didn’t, he would add the next two lines: “May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields…” He never ventured further than that because he thought God belonged to my mother’s department.
My mother never did. Until 1961 she had been active in the Black Sash, a resistance movement of white, mostly English-speaking, middle-class women, founded in 1955 to campaign against the steady erosion of human rights under the Nationalist governments of Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd.
She had remained optimistic that peaceful protest by decent, fair-minded people, with the help of some judicious advice from the Queen’s representatives in Pretoria, could still restrain the worst excesses of apartheid. But the final severance of our ties to the Crown and the Commonwealth dashed her last hopes of British intervention. Deeply saddened, but never wavering in her liberal convictions, she put all talk of politics aside and retreated, as the years went by, from social intercourse with anyone outside a very small circle of like-minded friends.
So I knew who the Black Sash were, and I recognised them when I saw them.
It was at Merchiston in 1962. I don’t remember if we were playing marbles or tops. It must have been one of them because they were the only available forms of playground recreation. If you ran out of marbles you would just have to wait until top season came around. And if all your tops got destroyed in battle you’d just have to wait until marble season.
Someone shouted, “Tanks!”
We ran to the fence. There I saw them, those phalanxes of white women of all ages, standing in fearless silence on the pavements either side of Commercial Road with only those distinctive black ribbons speaking for their mourning, as a convoy of yellow-green British Saracens rolled eastwards towards Durban, the personnel carriers mounted with Browning .30 machine guns shepherding between them the heavily armoured truck that transported the man who was to become the world’s most celebrated prisoner.
I understood what I had witnessed only many years later, of course. And it took many more years to connect the arrest of Mandela to the proclamation of the republic, and both of those events, at last, to the incident of the tall black man in the elegant black suit on that dusty little Hidcote bridge.
But I know now where he was coming from, both physically and metaphysically.