International Development

As a shy, young, South African sponge I soaked up every last drop of experience from the few intrepid adventures my father included me in. Four wheel drive expeditions into the Southern African wilderness north of us saturated me with the savannah, the desert, the remoteness and the people. Skirting the borders of Angola and Zambia also made me curious about what lay further north in deeper, darker Africa. Those were borders we never seemed to cross. They were like the dark doorway at the end of the passage at home that made my hair stand on end when I looked at it (and it looked back at me).

While I worked my way through my teens, pre-Mandela South Africa began to thaw. The nation and its motley citizens were contending with what it meant to be African. Many clung to the image of a thriving European outpost with a fun Bantu twist. Some were facing a crisis of identity and conscience. Others faced crises of flesh and blood. The country was becoming truly, madly, deeply African. As I approached adulthood new realities were sinking in for all the residents of the Rainbow Nation. There was hope but it was dulled by disappointment.

Out in the sticks, our young family of four lived on our farm in the Victorian house my grandmother was born in. We lived that uncomfortable, comfortable life of white landowners—in co-dependence with the many black families we shared our land and livelihood with. We lived together, separated by the lines of law, colour, class and wealth.

My parents saw the writing on the wall. In our case it was metaphorical. Others weren't so lucky. I remember grainy images of demonic letters scrawled on the walls of ransacked homes in the blood of murdered farming families. We heard the stories of skin burned with irons. The senseless, protracted torture and rape. Victims as innocent as you or I suffering a depraved, cosmic revenge. They said it was rare. They said the statistics were overstated. That was a statement in itself.

The value of the land plummeted—well below the balance of the loans secured against it. The price paid for harvests was laughable. The clouds were constipated for seven years. The walls went up, the gun-safe was filled, we avoided the dark. We were careful where we went, always aware of who was close. Things went missing. Electric fences were repurposed to keep people out not cattle in. In Canada, America, Australia and the UK these things didn't happen. Those places were safe, sane, clean. Places where you could make plans.

It wasn't the first time in history that someone along my bloodline had felt society sour around them. It was what had first brought my Jewish great-grandparents on long journeys to South Africa from their little, Lithuanian shtetls. Some managed to leave, some had to stay, and of those who did not one remains. My grandfather had always said that no matter where you end up you must make sure you have enough money to get out—that was the difference between who perished and who survived. It was hard to know whether these lessons pertained to our family or some historical abstraction of it. Either way, my Dad had had it with this bloody farming so we upped stumps and planned a better, brighter future in a land far away.

That was all well and good but I was a teenager and as rotten as they come. These were my parents' dumb plans, not mine. I scoffed at their vision for my future but lacked the backbone to create my own. So I sulked my way through the shaving of the udders, painting of the ploughs and the auctioning off of all our agricultural assets. The shipping container came, was filled by people other than me, and went.

We hugged and smiled and looked away from those we left behind. We were afraid to stay and they were afraid of what would happen if we left. Each of the members of our little family fought their own, lonely battle against the guilt of abandoning those who had only ever done right by us. National unity had come to shatter generations-old bonds that spanned divides of class and colour. A wave of history crashing down on our quaint, rural existence.

© David Baskind · 2022