On a nostalgic return journey, Janice Warman wonders why the Eastern Cape is not thronged with tourists…
The Eastern Cape has a bloody past: it’s where the English were settled to defend the frontier against the Xhosas in the 1820s, and where the terrible forced removals of the apartheid years happened. It’s the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. And it gained lasting notoriety worldwide for the death of Steve Biko in custody, a death that led to the film Cry Freedom, which portrayed the friendship of Biko and the liberal newspaper editor Donald Woods.
It’s an unlikely holiday destination. Most visitors opt for the Garden Route through Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. But the region’s Sunshine Coast has better weather than anywhere else in South Africa, and anyway I had my own reasons for being there. I was on a pilgrimage down memory lane to my alma mater — Rhodes University in Grahamstown — where 30 years before I’d made friends with three students who had gone on to fight the apartheid system with every power they had and who had been tortured, imprisoned, and finally released to be part of the new South Africa. I was there to research a book, Class of 79, and I was to stay with one of those students — Guy Berger, now head of Africa’s most liberal journalism department, and his wife Jeanne.
I shared a taxi from Port Elizabeth with a young black boy heading for one of Grahamstown’s elite schools. We were driven by a white former sheep farmer, once the owner of several hundred beautiful acres, which he pointed out wistfully to us as we drove by. You could find no sharper delineation of how the country had changed politically and economically: a black pupil at an exclusive formerly whites-only school; and a white man who used to be a landowner driving a taxi.
I was heading down memory lane, however, and the wide tree-lined streets of Grahamstown welcomed me like an old friend. The taxi driver and I identified Guy and Jeanne’s house by the life-sized zebra painted on the garage door. Guy suggested a sunset walk; we climbed over the stile across the road from his house, and wandered across fields and a stream into the leafy university campus: originally designed by Sir Herbert Baker, it has tripled in size since 1980. My old residence — John Kotze House — was still there; many more bore the names of heroes of the resistance.
After Jo’burg, Grahamstown was a little piece of heaven. I photographed Guy’s letters from jail while lying by their pool. I bombed around town in Guy’s old Peugeot; some evenings I cooked for Guy and Jeanne on their return from work. We would switch on the tape after supper, their brindle cat purring on the sofa as we talked of past terrors. I took them to supper at a restaurant in town and the university’s vice chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat, came over to say hi. When he left, Guy leaned over: ‘He was badly tortured by the old regime.’
I drove down to a friend’s house in Kenton-on-Sea, glimpsing the giraffes of Kariega appearing from the mist, and wildebeest gathering around a waterhole like a mirage. Kenton and the neighbouring Bushman’s River and Port Alfred are a bit of paradise, where Brits have built big, comfortable houses to spend the Christmas holidays with their extended families, riding on the beach, watching the sun set, barbecuing, eating at the superb fish restaurants on the river. Here are some of the country’s best game parks, where you can see the ‘Big Five’ — lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard — in luxury surroundings: Pumba, with its white lions, Shamwari, and Kariega along the Bushman’s River. Along the coast you may, if you are lucky, add another two giants that will make it the Big Seven — great white sharks and whales. A short drive away is the picturesque mountain village of Hogsback. Add to that the fact that you can enjoy fly-fishing, hunting, hang-gliding, mountaineering, river rafting, abseiling and skydiving, and it’s a wonder that there are not more tourists here. I ate a late, solitary lunch, and watched the sun glittering on the estuary.
Grahamstown has changed, there’s no doubt. You would no longer amble through it with your friends late at night, back from a showing of Polanski’s The Tenant. I was told to keep the wrought-iron gates to the garden and the house locked, and to put on the burglar alarm. Jeanne told me that she had come into the kitchen late one night when Guy was away and found a would-be intruder kneeling outside the full-length window, digging away at the putty with a knife. ‘I don’t know who was more startled — him or me,’ she said. There’s high unemployment and as sharp a divide as ever between privileged students and poorer townspeople. There have also been some brutal murders of farmers in the region.
But as I set off for the airport a week later, I was determined to come back. I fell into conversation with a young woman while waiting for my flight. She was English, an Oxford graduate who had fallen in love with a South African farmer. Now she lives in the Eastern Cape, and runs a tour company. ‘I’ve been mugged twice,’ she told me. ‘Both times in London.’
I have another reason to love the area. I didn’t have time to return to Rhodes Village, a few hours north of Grahamstown, but I’d recommend it. Like many others, my boyfriend Julian and I were planning to leave South Africa at the end of our degrees. He had gone abroad in the Easter holidays to investigate. I went away with friends — Barbara, her boyfriend Neil, and David — to a cottage in Rhodes Village lent to us by an English lecturer and poet. It was on the edge of the Eastern Cape highlands, on the border with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. We skinny-dipped in the icy cold river, we played poker, fired up the wood stove, drank whisky and slept late: when we woke up, we scrambled up the mountains and looked at the views in companionable silence.
David and I were stopped in the village street by a photographer from Panorama magazine: would we mind posing for pictures as they were there to take scenic shots and couldn’t find any people. Any people? We knew what they meant. Any white people. So we held hands for the camera and strolled, pretending to be a couple, along tree-lined paths.
The next night I excused myself and walked down to the phonebox in the village. The only light was the vast blanket of stars. I fed my coins in, and an age later the ringing began. A receiver was lifted in Cape Town. ‘Hello?’ It was Julian.
‘How did the trip go?’
‘Good. I think we can go. (Pause) I’ve spoken to your father.’
‘My father?’ I genuinely didn’t know what he meant.
‘I’ve asked his permission for us to marry.’
Janice Warman’s The World Beneath, a teenage novel set in apartheid South Africa, will be published by Walker Books.