Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In retrospect

It's a week since we flew back from South Africa and many people have asked what it was like.

Equally, several people have not asked what it was like for us but have taken the opportunity to tell us what Africa is or was like for them. Thanks for the news. 

So what are the dominant memories? There is no getting away from the fact that South Africa is a relatively poor and very corrupt third world country in which an overwhelmingly white and very small minority lives the life of Riley behind high fences, guard dogs and armed guards. If that can really be called the life of Riley. Looks more like hell to me. But there are clearly advantages to it in what still seems to me a rather soulless way. 

Yet the black majority seem pretty happy considering, at least in the towns we visited. I find that amazing. Or do they just tolerate what they cannot change?

I certainly hadn't realised just how separately blacks and whites live. A town has a name, e.g. Ladybrand or Ficksburg. But that's the name of the (overwhelmingly) white town. The blacks don't live there: they (and they are 85% or more of the population) live in the township. That has a separate name: for Ladybrand it is Manyatseng. For Ficksburg it is Meqheleng. And so on. And the townships vary from municipality to municipality. Some look spick and span and well ordered and relatively well built. Others can look pretty dreadful, at least in parts and even by township standards.

So the only blacks a white person sees are those who have jobs that cause the races to interact. Given that 35% are unemployed anyway, that rather limits the interaction. I can see that a tourist who follows well trodden trails along the Garden Route, around Cape Town or the vineyards, or in the many national parks, will be kept well clear of the poverty and exploitation that underpins the social and economic fabric of the country. 

In the Free State a typical white home occupies as much land as perhaps six to eight of the houses on The Green here in Charlbury. You might pick one up at the moment for something in the region of £50-70k, the exchange rate having collapsed recently in our favour. A 'shack' in a township resembles one of the garages on The Green, though our garages generally have better roofs and certainly have water and electricity laid on. The shack will house a family of 4-6 where we'd keep one or two cars.  Then again, we give our cars concrete floors, and the blacks in South Africa may live on dry mud. Even in the rainy seasons, and when winter temperatures drop to -10ยบ or below.

Beyond the township open country extends for maybe 40-60 miles to the next town, a series of gigantic farms in white hands, punctuated by rows of hovels built for farm workers as remote as hell from the next town or habitation. 

It's the product of British and Dutch colonialism and there is absolutely no point trying to ignore the fact. I've been told that while it was bad of the colonial settlers to go round murdering people and stealing their land, black tribes were already doing that to each other anyway, and there were some beneficial spinoffs to what 'we' did. According to that viewpoint I should be feeling quite good about what I saw. Really? Two wrongs make a right? Let's be clear: 'we' took all their land and all their mineral resources. I don't think anyone ever chose to live in South Africa as it is today, but for the fact that it is a fait accompli and you can't see how a government can go back on it. Especially now that a small black elite is getting very rich on the proceeds, and they rule the country… Some things Mandela never began to address… 

I don't want to oversimplify what I saw, and my experience was very limited. But it was very, very considerably less limited than that of the typical tourist, and we got to talk to a small but surprising variety of people.

South Africa is a very beautiful country, and full of warm-hearted and lovely people. But don't ignore the terrible truths.


I'm sorry there have been no South African photos to accompany the relevant posts on this blog. That's because I couldn't get the photos off my camera while I was away. I'm gradually transferring them now to Flickr. You can see the Ladybrand 'set' at though some of the photos are restricted to family only because they are private for one reason or another. Each photo has a caption that gives further background information where appropriate. There are more to go on over the next week or so.

I am also aware that I have touched several times on the long history and sudden demise of the San people. I am going to research this further, and hope to redress the balance by pulling together some of what is known about the San. That will gradually become the subject of a separate page here, and maybe one day a separate website. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014


This is an amazing place. It feels like a little bit of heaven on earth. The peace is extraordinary, and the occasional screaming of birds or the curious sounds made by the frogs (?) does nothing to disturb it. An extraordinary variety of people from all over the world pass through a place like this and are fascinating to talk with. 

It had a weird history, started as a trading post early last century by Merwyn Bosworth Smith, the son of a master at Harrow School. One of those remarkable men who trekked across Africa and did his thing. We cannot imagine what life was like for such people. But he loved the people in Bazutoland (now Lesotho), settled here and eventually died here in 1950. 

His home was bought as a trading station and modest lodge in 1986 by Mick and Di Jones and it remains in the hands of them and their family. The whole story is on the lodge website. It is hard to encapsulate the experience the place offers: blissful informality, delightfully unpretentious cooking, a scattering of quite basic but perfectly adequate accommodation scattered through lovely gardens, and rewarding company. Plus an extraordinary integration into the local Basutho villages by paying local people to take visitors on guided walks and treks, or show them round the village of Malealea. And the lodge has set up a Trust that provides health and other support services locally. 

Being here brings joy to the heart in a country so blighted by social and economic problems. To come across such good news on this trip is quite something. Please, if you ever come within a hundred miles of this place, do visit. 

I learnt today that riding a pony is not my thing. I prefer a closer and more curious relationship with the passing landscape, to have time to browse the plant life or pause in silence to observe birds or stalk butterflies; or merely record the passing moments on the camera. All this the horse or pony denies me. And at home it would also deny me the pleasure of passing through a kissing gate or crossing a stile. 

We also had a third visit to San rock paintings. Another scramble up and down a vertical cliff face, following tiny paths and tracks. I now have heard two accounts from young local Basutho of why the San had to go. I am looking forward to watching the rest of the material on the DVD 'Tracks in the Sand' made by Hugh Brody, all about the few San surviving today and their history (and extermination), and to doing more reading myself. My intention is to try and distil some of this knowledge into a page or pages on my website. We shall see. 

I read that the facial features of the San can still be seen in some of the people here as rather oriental in their appearance. Certainly the local Basutho face is very characteristic and unmistakable, while one of the members of a local men's band who entertain us nightly has a totally different and slightly Mongolian or Chinese appearance. I have some excellent photographs and this also calls for more research. 

The quality of the dancing I just mentioned is very high, in a village and traditional way. We are also entertained by a choir. This is in another league. Ten women and seven men with very impressive voices sing songs in Sotho 'to make you welcome and happy'. Knocks spots off virtually anything I have heard in Charlbury. Yes, we've bought the CD and Angela also recorded some of their songs on her iPhone. We've got the band's CD too. It's hard to believe that a tiny village and its surrounding hamlets 6000 feet up in the mountains of Lesotho a good half hour from the end of the tarred road can be so creative and even get it on CD!!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Are you speaking English?

English, we are told and firmly believe, has become the global language of international communication. True. It is the second language in countless countries and taught in schools across the world. True. There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of English speakers worldwide. Yes. But can you or I understand a word of what many or most of them say? Probably not. 

Maybe that should not be too surprising. I often struggle unsuccessfully with a Geordie or a Glaswegian accent. But I was quite surprised to be walking past a primary school in Clarens when a teacher was shouting so loudly at her class that every word could be heard in the street outside. Yes, I think it is fair to say that every word was plainly audible. But in what language? Obviously not English or we'd have recognised it. Not Afrikaans because it has an unmissable twang. Possibly Sotho? The lilt wasn't quite right. A passing postman was as amused as we were at the shrieking teacher and we grinned at each other as we stood and listened. So I asked him: what language was she speaking?

English, came the reply. 

English is spoken in the shops and restaurants. It is even widely taught in the schools in Lesotho, where state schools have to charge a fee as a condition of IMF funding back in the eighties. But again and again we cannot follow what is being said. Hardly surprising when the teachers themselves have such a strong accent. 

I wonder what accent of English is being taught in China? Will a Chinese and an African school student who have both learned English be able to understand each other? Will I understand either of them?

At least we communicate easily with the Dutch tourists we meet here. In fluent English on both sides!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Crossing borders

Well, Clarens was a very attractive and appealing place, but as with many tourist destinations, the attraction and the appeal can wear thin by the end of a week. 

We extended our stay from its original four days after a local big cat sanctuary tried to up the B&B prices when confirming our booking, then ignored my email query. Checking on TripAdvisor it seemed that other visitors to Lions Rock had bad experiences in various ways so we cancelled and stayed in Clarens. 

More about Clarens. It is a tourist and weekend destination for day trippers and weekenders from Johannesburg and nearer. There are also many extremely desirable houses in beautiful gardens and it is safe, restful and full of eating places, many of them really excellent. It is also full of shops. Yet here is the anomaly: many of these shops sell clothes, but they are relatively downmarket. They are mostly cheap and lacking in style, and perhaps surprisingly some of the visitors to the town look the same! Most of the clothing, and I think many of the gift shop trinkets too, are 'made in the foothills of the Himalayas'. They are only rarely made in South Africa. And there is virtually no African craft ware on sale here either. 

This appears to say something about the feelings whites here have towards African craft and style. Yet why are the middle class white shopkeepers of Clarens not selling the kinds of clothes worn by the middle class white tourists to the town? Or the wealthy (white) residents?


It is only after a few days that I have begun to realise how shallow the 'culture' is in these towns. I can only speak for the white communities of course, but they appear not to put on their own entertainments (except for inviting friends to a 'braai' which is a drink-heavy and very carnivorous kind of barbecue) and very little 'happens'. They don't show films or have the kind of events we put on in village halls. 

Plus of course the race divide broadly decides who will go to what, with the further subdivision that a black friend refused to go to a flute recital because it was organised by Afrikaners. There is of course plenty of music, singing and dancing in the townships, where poverty is no barrier to knowing how to enjoy yourself. 

So with very little to go to in the entertainment line, sadly little to interest by way of cultural heritage (as I have explained the San have been more or less wiped off the map, and they did not leave stone circles, cathedrals or castles or write books!!) except for memories of the Boer war and other colonial conflicts enshrined in battlefields you can visit and monuments in town centres and churchyards, and a landscape that is as impressive and beautiful on first acquaintance as it is monotonous and repetitive after the next few hundred miles … well, the appeal only goes so far. 

Obviously you can 'do' the country differently. You can spend a few days on safari in a national park and a few more in a gated compound or a hotel defended by armed guards in Cape Town or on the Garden Route or in one of the seaside suburbs south of Durban ( I have no experience of any of these but I have seen them advertised and written up in guidebooks). But that's not the real Africa and it's not what we came for. 


Today we are in Lesotho. It's almost exclusively black and we stick out a mile. People are on the cadge and beg far more than in South Africa, and set up informal roadblocks to extort money from motorists, but are still warm and friendly. The Orange Free State occupied the fertile lowlands in the 1860s and forced the Basotho off their land and into the mountains, where they were obliged to cultivate steep slopes hitherto used only for summer pasture. The white settlers similarly over-cultivated the valleys. Both activities caused the thin topsoil to wash away into the rivers, creating new barren ravines in the landscape called dongas. 

So a drive through the country today is remarkable for the lack of trees and the often barren and deserted farmland. No wonder they want our money. They are selling their water to South Africa however, who are in desperate need of it; they pay Lesotho around 24 million rand a month for it (about £1.32m at today's exchange rate).

We tried to drive to the Katse dam this afternoon but ran out of time. We allowed about six hours for the round trip but our little car couldn't make it in the time. I daresay it is spectacular but the USPs are all statistics. To me a dam is a dam, and I'd prefer a real lake (with an interesting shoreline) and a natural waterfall any day. Again the drive was through spectacular scenery but it amounted to mile after mile of the same, with no attractive places to stop, plenty of potholes and sides of roads falling away down the mountain sides … There is little pleasure in such driving. 

In Lesotho more than in South Africa we are voyeurs. At least in South Africa we can enjoy our privileged position of merging into the small white minority and enjoying all the benefits that brings. And the nasty taste it sometimes leaves in one's mouth. 

You also wonder how to categorise these countries. I am repeatedly told that South Africa is a third world country, by way of explaining the increasing corruption found here and the often poor infrastructure. Yet if South Africa is third world, what is Lesotho?! Driving across the border makes the former seem like a  Cotswold idyll! Briefly. 

It's gone cold and wet. A bit like England!