“There are two worlds, the one in which people are convinced they live, and the one that is considerably more dramatic, the one that is real”

Friday, October 31, 2014

My Awakening

Although born in what was then the South African Transvaal, I grew up in a country known at that time as Rhodesia - Zimbabwe today.

As with most of us kids, I thought the world was made for me and those who I counted as my friends. I was fed the ideas and ideals of my parents, their friends, our teachers and our leaders. The rich diet of white can-do, Christianity’s moral might and the Western World’s ability to create dazzling societies through the sacred tenet of free enterprise nourished me, and I grew into a shiny example of Rhodie pride. By the time I took my call-up into the Rhodesian Army to fight the Black Nationalist Movements - all of them preaching a poisonous regimen of Communism and Anti-Christ destruction - I was a 20 year old, 6'5, 100kg Rhodesian beef fed Rhodie, ready to tackle any enemy of our nation and support any decree of our leader, Ian Smith. That was 46 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

In the 36 years since I left Zimbabwe I have been through a journey that has shown me, piece by piece, brick by brick, a viewpoint that is the polar opposite of what I once believed. Looking back I see that my awakening took place in three distinct stages, each one spear-headed by a single, soul-shaking moment.


In 1970 our little Rhodesian Bush War was but a dark cloud on our horizon, a storm dumping a deluge but still far away and nowhere near the ferocity it would ultimately unleash. I had completed my basic military training as a 2nd Lieutenant and, according to the army, the country was reasonably prepared. I had also been promoted in my chosen career to (a very young) SDO (that’s Senior District Officer), in the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (Intaf).

Although the term ‘Internal Affairs’ sounds like some sort of spy operation, it was in fact a department charged with the holistic economic development of the ‘natives’ of Rhodesia. There I learned to work with rural tribes people, focused on slow development tempered by the idea that there was a time and a place and a black man best not get too big for his boots too early, mind. The first of my three life changing moments happened that year. It was a conversation with the District Commissioner of Plumtree, when I was posted to his staff following my army stint.

‘Forget about the gung-ho you’ve been practicing in the army,’ he started, ‘you’re not inside that white buddy-buddy safety net now.’ He was sight impaired, his eyes behind dark glasses as he sat in his office, chain smoking, and explained that the Zimbabwean Black Nationalists we were heading into a fight with were neither uneducated nor Heathen. Over that hour, with an example here, an anecdote, with cold logic, he showed me that all I had been told in every Rhodesian newspaper article, news report, speech or chat with a pal was simply not true.

‘It is not that we shouldn’t fight. The question is, who are we fighting? You’ve been taught to see our blacks as children needing a parent. These are men, demanding their freedom.’

His words shook me. He was my DC (District Commissioner), a man appointed to single-handedly take care of 1/50th of the country by our government, an ‘office’ of final authority. I didn’t see it then but his words were the beginning of the end of my Rhodiehood, a seed of my personal renaissance planted.

As the whitey death toll mounted, as bitterness escalated and as I was promoted up the ranks and became  privy to more and more top level information, I began to piece together that whatever ‘rightness’ our crusade had once had, had ended long before. In reality our fight was an obvious losing one, the deaths of my friends were the result of politicians refusing to lose face, and the word ‘terrorist’ that we used to brand our enemy and legitimise our war was even more applicable to our side than it was to theirs.

In 1978, by that time a DC myself and disillusioned by what we Rhodies had become, I resigned from Intaf. A new direction and the impetus to my second life changing moment came later that year.

While serving my notice in Shabani, I bumped into a professor of business management in the changing rooms of the Mine swimming pool. He didn’t know what a District Commissioner was, I didn’t know professors were souped-up mortals. After I outlined the throne-base and gazetted crown of a DC he talked about the Dodo bird of Mauritius and outlined the Master of Business program he and Professor Swart were setting up at Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa. Over a few beers my future appeared.


Even as Prime Minister elect Robert Gabriel Mugabe enthusiastically acknowledged the cheers of the thronging Salisbury blacks after Zimbabwe’s first democratic election I, my wife Lib and daughter Barbara were flying to Cape Town. I had a job offer. Everite Limited in the City of Bellville 30 km from Cape Town had agreed to the study time I’d need to do an MBA.

My doubt meter, now activated after ten years of war and the turning away from my first way of life, kicked in immediately. But faintly, always faintly in the beginning.

Between Cape Town and the International Airport there is a squatter camp. To us Zimbabweans, used to the small shanty affairs outside our cities and towns, and even more used to the traditional villages in the countryside, this was something new. It was winter time 1980 but we didn’t even notice Table Mountain, so glued were our eyes to the rows and rows of shacks.

‘Ironic they have such an incredible view of the mountains,’ our coloured driver remarked. In the rear-view mirror he looked at our open mouths and, gesturing with his thumb, added, ‘beauty all around - that’s the Hottentots Holland behind you.’

He turned right, taking us through the low cost coloured folk box-housing in the flat-land bordering Bellville City’s industrial zone, on our way to the white side. There the land was pleasantly undulating, split by green areas and play parks and the houses… bigger.

I put my doubt aside and with typical Rhodie gumption marched through Stellenbosch’s MBA.  Halfway, in 1984, I left Everite, started out in the big-league as consultant manager-trainer and did very well thank you. Capitalism, the excitement of an open market hungry for men with energy like me, was my new life. ‘Profit is the basis of all business’ it said, ‘and profit is available to anyone with the vitality to make it.’ I believed. I had found a new way. But soon the bubble burst. 

A year after the 1987 stock market crash, I crashed. I took the traditional three in one hit. I had changed my business focus that year meaning I was unemployed when my investments soured, and I got divorced. All of it went. Money, business, family – gone. Hello vindictiveness.

‘Thank God it’s over Doug,’ said some, ‘you’ve had your three. Now to get on with your life.’

I learnt a lot about being poor, despised and pitied and then I managed to re-invent myself in Jo’burg only to be hit with a cycle of family illness. First Dad, he recovered, then Mom’s cancer came back and my childless Aunt and Uncle took turns at being very unwell. Mom died, the others recovered only for my (new) mother-in-law in Ireland to collapse. I went over. Where before I’d journeyed south and changed countries, now I’d swapped one continent for another. I went to Ireland in the midst of a new rock bottom and nearing empty, was once again ready to be filled.

I arrived in time to assist my wife’s family with their taxes – Her Majesty’s Revenue folk wanted answers to questions that went back a considerable time. I learnt a lot, sharpish.

I discovered how invisible international borders are in Europe, in my case particularly between the two Irelands when it came to moving money. I discovered banks from different countries are extraordinarily friendly about sharing the business of keeping, transferring and returning a customer’s money in the most obliging and quiet of ways. I experienced how extremely accommodating a foreign bank, say in Dublin, will be if the request is to hide data from a foreign-to-them Revenue Service. I also saw how unhelpful, dismissive and rude that same bank could be when it was ‘their’ own Revenue Service doing the asking.

I went to the Channel Islands where I was given the original electric shock treatment. I found that there is indeed a separate heaven for the money of the wealthy, a place where they are guaranteed anonymity and worse, where the stuff piles up never to be of use to you, me or the so-called Capitalist system ever again.  Trickle down?  

My experiences added on to the wealth of cheating I had witnessed in near 10 years of practicing among South African businesses, and crowded in.

Back in Cape Town I fell into a cycle of depression, drink assisted by family sickness and wars. My only respite was my super garden and my gardener Samuel. In our conversations, a ten year later replay of my days in Intaf,  my doubts crystallised into the knowledge that I, ensconced in a giant Durbanville house funded by foreign money, was living a lie. Samuel’s stories of survival in the homelands (Mandela’s area) and horror in the Cape Town squatter camp set the, by now hundreds, of balls of doubt crashing like agitated atoms around my head.

It was break-down time … the massive bursts of adrenalin that carried me through adventure and contact after contact in the war were now with me all the time only to suddenly disappear, leaving me for periods feeling as only a giant rag doll can. When my second father-in-law died a life-saving second divorce happened. To Alcoholics Anonymous I (again) added church, but torment continued.  And then it happened, the second moment I was looking for, the catalyst for a whole new ride.

My friend and lawyer Graham took my distress by the hand to lunch at the steak house opposite the Moullie Point Light House in Cape Town to meet his Jewish community senior - a long retired judge, entrepreneur and success story.

We sat at the back in a dark corner. He was bundled up against light. His every word was a strike at my psyche. The more I said, ‘please explain,’ the more he quietly directed that I saddle my bicycle and ‘go out. Take time to discover for yourself. You will find a very different business model and Christ to the one you have hammered into your head.’

‘Stop automatically accepting as sheep to a sheep-dog,’ he continued. ‘Look deep into the just passed Reagan Revolution …’


‘Yes. We are now into a cycle of exploitation on a level never yet experienced. Today’s young  drivers, as educated as they are with their MBAs, Bachelor of Business, Accountancy Board fellows, doctors of medicine even, won’t see it. Life above the surface tension of the water is too good, the temptation to believe that they won’t be the one to put a foot through the fragile film too strong. But you see it. Start by taking a cursory look around the country.’

‘Take a drive?’

‘Go and see,’ he said as he pushed his plate away. He looked up and at me as he pulled on his cigar. The elastic glow, two burning eyes in his dark glasses, opened a door deep in my soul. My second moment had arrived. 


My criss-cross car journey around South Africa took me everywhere but Natal North of Pietermaritzburg and Zululand proper. It was a snakes and ladders journey; here I dashed on, there I looped back, shopping at the same Pick ’n Pay I had bought my padkos days earlier … something to look at had brought me back. No route, only theme … ‘go see’.

I spoke to all sorts … snotty black kids and snooty working white ladies, poked my nose in here … children’s homes, old folks homes.

‘Anything need doing?’

‘You’re white – whites don’t help for nothing. You’re male.  What you want?’

‘Anything need doing?’

‘Are you Catholic?’

‘You cannot stay here … this is a shebeen man, for blacks see, not good for you, neither me.’

Coming out of a steak house at lunch time at the same time as a joking-laughing black group I wished them a jolly good day. ‘Fuck off white-man,’ they wished me in return, and in other places I merely sat and watched.

Back in Port Elizabeth (my fav-city) I had the best bought chicken salad ever … so full of real smoked chicken, fresh crispy greens, plump juicy tomato and peppers, chopped in egg and feta to share. Five minutes and 500 metres later I saw kids begging for anything. They were real South African kids … a bit black, very black, some white, yellow at the gills, all rags. Outside Woolies I waved away a young white girl’s sticker and she snarled, ‘all the money goes to the UN Children’s fund waster!’

‘And I don’t trust the UN anymore,’ I shot back.

Yes I had been reading too, as well as something that became so important … sitting still and thinking over what I had read. I found after a page or two of most of the books I’d collected up I needed to think-sink the information into my previous learning and experiences. It was crazy, it was fun, the margins were steeped in my analogies - simple notes like ‘Zim ’78’ or ‘x-ref with (Naomi) Klein @ Indonesia’ and I had a system of marking the pages that I needed to come back to (pity I didn’t standardise it).

I was pissed when the UN did absolutely nothing about US demanded sanctions that seemed to target children’s hospitals in Iraq.[1] Secondly, not 50 metres away were the PE kids I mentioned earlier … why weren’t we looking to our own first, I asked her?

Up in the North Eastern Transvaal I passed through bustling towns with sprinklers chucking water about and 10 km later I saw black mothers and children leaning into the haze of heat, their hardened feet carefully set as they struggled with their water buckets along the powdered path flinging red dust with every step.[2] I upped my air-con.

I ‘did’ a week in locked up and bolted down Jo’burg – the white guy digging the dustbins wasn’t doing a survey, he was collecting food. 

‘Kom saam meneer. Ek sal vir u wragtige arm mense wys.’ (Come along, sir. I'll show you real poor people)

Louise, my doctor, had told me there were hundreds of thousands, I didn’t believe her but now I saw the destitute whites, they weren’t alone … money is a great leveller one whitie told me to the nods of his black buddies.

Across country, to the far west on the Botswana border the scene was a Tribal Trust Land (TTL) of Rhodesian style all over again. Exactly as Australians go shopping for the air-con so here families lined the cool of the concrete of the verandah of the bush-store, the kids in torn hand-me-downs and the older girls so thin they appeared as if dressed in floral patterned tents, but, this wasn’t a TTL – it was a white zone.

In the top end of the Eastern Cape and adjacent southern Free State I found towns virtually abandoned … country wide over 100 villages/towns complete with every 1st world facility imaginable - public swimming pool, library, cafes, clinics, schools, hotels, beautiful houses big enough for families not a family - closed except for a ‘horse’ and its policeman, a convenience store and a single polished men’s bar abutting a dark unmanned hotel reception desk.

‘We don’t get many overnight visitors,’ said the barman with a smile.

‘Folk normally speed up as they pass through,’ echoed the guy examining the dice, laughing.  He turned out to be a sheep farmer. ‘There are a few of us left but we are selling out to the bigger guys. Theft is hitting us hard …’

‘Blacks?’ I interjected thinking of the lean and hungry I had seen in the empty stand behind the hotel.

‘… nope, err-or could be.’ He sighed, ‘difficult to say. Somewhat organised, somewhat spec but people with bakkies (little open back trucks/utility vans) nevertheless. What it means is we cannot use any part of our land that has frontage along a major road.’

In the crisp of the morning I took the town walk on the fringe of the little, quiet and smoke filled Black Housing area.  It was a poor cousin of its poor cousin in Cape Town but worse, the lean-to shacks were empty! The place had that smell of desertion we soldiers could pick up, a warning to focus on the surrounds, not the little huts, the cows restless in the kraal. But this was a different, nastier war, there was no ambush, there was no life! 15 minutes later I was joined in my stroll by a black lady, about my age. She knew zilch about the Beatles, but her dream in life was to have a vegetable patch that would bring her children back to her ‘from the danger of the city.’

‘Why did your children leave?’


‘It must be more than that, surely?’


She adjusted the bundle on her head, a movement that reminded me of Enid, the South African maid we had as kids in Umtali back in 1974. She would stand on the step and reach up, adjust my cap as she admonished me. ‘Can’t you stand up straight Master Doug? You are so handsome and tall, why do you want to look bent?’ I asked Enid what she was doing in Rhodesia. ‘We have no chance to take up our opportunities. No one will support a black project, loan money … I wanted to be a tennis coach … gwauh!’ she spat the words at me, ‘I could have beaten you!’

My Eastern Cape lady brought me back to the present. ‘We have no chance here to take up our opportunities. No one will support a black project, loan money. It is as though the government wants to clear the land, to force us into the cities … it is a mystery to me.’

‘Do the children send you money?’

‘For every black boy looking for work there are 20,40, 100,’ she cried, ‘more!’ She added the bold, the italics, emphasising.

I moved on. In the space of the four months I was away a huge squatter camp had grown beside the road, up in the forestry region at a spot half way between Cape Town and the retirement paradise of Hermanus. It was a place where there had been no people before, just thousands of acres of commercial farming trees. From there on, all the way along this world famous ‘Garden Route’ of Africa up to Plettenburg Bay, all I saw were camps where people were making an attempt at living. The wealthy and white (mainly - 99%) were clumped in the warmth of homes along the coastal plain, while at night up in the dominating hills the cooking fires of thousands twinkled - a photographer’s delight, a resident’s nightmare.

‘Jeesusz … will you look at those fffffff up there. Is this fffffff-country safe anymore?’

‘If only we had access to that man down there’s dustbin we’d eat tonight my love.’


In a little town not far inland from East London the Squatter Camp was boggling and boggy, spread out over hill and dale, literally hundreds of meters from the 1st world, 300 year old town. Conditions were frightful.

The black municipal supervisor Thomas took me around. He was educated – glasses, pens in his pocket - and he had ideas. Fixing roads, establishing a clinic, a kids careplace plus women and men’s advice, rubbish rounds... but he threw them all out with one stock phrase; ‘who is going to pay for it? Those with money don’t have time for helping, they are spending on security companies, fencing, auto-lights … even the guard dogs are better off than 95% of the people living here.’

In his words I heard, I saw with a shiver, that that’s what we Rhodies had done. We worked hard at keeping people down, making them thieves, because we believed (there’s nothing ‘potentially’ about it) that they were thieves and murderers. But this was South Africa. The South African economy hadn’t the constraints our Mickey Mouse country had had. How, I wondered, could they still compare?

Thomas organised me an escorted trip through the town’s surrounding Homeland zone. He showed me a ‘nowhere’ place. It was devoid of the make it happen young adults and middle aged. Their children were there, Mom and Dad/Gran and Grandpa were there, and by and large they were in dreadful condition. Those people, plodding about with nowhere to go by virtue of their hand to mouth existence, naught to do but scratch to survive, were without freedom of any sort. I saw that they have to go where the system wants them, to do what the system wants, under the conditions dictated to by the system. ‘Debt stock,’ I said to myself.  They were not profitable. The system had no need of them and so they were not provided for. During the war we had achieved the same result but with two differences - they had no vote and we used force. These people were enslaved by market forces, there were no guns in sight.

Turned lands lay blowing in the wind, goats wandered about like sheep. In places I found the schools near empty and in others overcrowded but wherever, exactly as in Zimbabwe, the thin kids looked after their school. The one or two libraries of a hundred books or two were lovingly care taken.  Roughly only every 10th General Dealer Store – the backbone suppliers into a community - had any chance of being viable. The rest were filled with lonely emptiness. The parent group of the toddlers and the school children had gone looking for work or they had died. The death stories were thick and horrible but to talk openly of AIDS was difficult … the people had been immersed in some baptismal font that shouted out that to have died of AIDS was the most terrible stain in the world. 

It was easy to see the cost of death. Going to and from the Homeland areas on my conducted tour I was shown work stations that had closed down. Brick making, a warehouse affair on a train line that had done some agricultural sorting and packaging, a food mill ...

I was shooting through to Bloemfontein when my aging Ford decided to clatter and temporarily die outside Butterworth. It is a 99.99% black area so I was surprised when a white Afrikaans guy about 15 years my senior and 15 inches shorter stopped and hauled himself out of the cab.

Jy is nog hier, ek sein (you are still here I see).’

The little man, his sinewy, scarred arms bunched steady at his side, his feet planted ready to dance, twisted his broad neck and with a frown looked up at me and spat:

‘You, sunshine, are a cunt. You don’t stop here and faff about like you on a holly day. If you don’t get moving you’ll be dead come dark time. They don’t have much time here for whites … and why should they?’

He peeped under the bonnet of the Ford and added an F to the spelling of engine. We loaded my household of worldly goods into his bakkie and he took us home. The car was removed from the roadside that night.

He put me up royally. His young enough Xhosa maid worshiped him, if you catch my drift, but she didn’t join us for the meal including coffee and coffee mint choc after.

He told me about the scar. He was taking his supper on a night like then when three men burst in, one with a panga. A battle ensued, he took a blow on the shoulder but fought on, another nearly, neatly, took his arm off below the wrist and still he fought.

‘I had no option,’ was the way he explained his courage. ‘They had the option and they took it. They left. I staunched the blood as best I could – from shoulder to fingers my arm was useless, hopped in the bakkie and drove to the hospital. They were there at the end of my drive-way, eyes larger than life just standing. They didn’t touch my house.’

The police recovered the Ford minus tyres and then it was stolen from the police station. An intermediary phoned my host and said if I paid R200 he knew where it could be collected.

I spent a few days with this stocky, tough, generous soul and his Xhosa maid. He had a number of government contracts to supply sand and stone and was doing very nicely, thank you.

‘I started life as a sheep to market herder in the Far Northern Cape. That involved walking, barefoot hey, many hundreds of sheep hundreds of miles, slowly so as not to lose weight but nor to dally. Delivered and counted, the Contractor paid me my peanut and I was driven back to start again. When I was 14 I talked a farmer into giving me the contract to market-herd. I never looked back until I got married. She lives in Welgemoed Mountain Side (Cape Town and sea views) and is very expensive to maintain.’

As he was telling me this we arrived at the gate of the quarry he ran on behalf of the municipality. Through the truck window he was warning a black guy to pay back on time. ‘I charge 2% a week for the loans they come and take from me,’ he explained.

‘That’s a fortune …’

‘No problem. They either work for me or they are guaranteed by one of my workers … I don’t lose money and as for these guys, where are they going to get a loan from eh? They come and I lend.’

There was a bus going to Bloemfontein. From there, like the borehole in the Tribal Trust Lands of the dry Matabeleland in Rhodesia, all roads led. He put me on it and my travels were resumed.

I made for Johannesburg and transferred to a little green Renault. We took to the daily worn roads of South Africa with zip. 17,000 we notched before I sold it into the family.

I stayed in a mix of accommodation. A fine old farm house for next to nothing was my base for a few days on the round trip to the Botswana border, in Jo’burg the head was normally rested on a self-catering pillow in Hillbrow, Pretoria had me in home-stay, but mostly I headed for the caravan parks and took whatever I could. If the weather was fine I’d open up the boot, set the folding chair on the boot-light side and write and muse and take a beer till time to go cook at the community site, grab a shower before camp lights out, roll myself in my extra-kingsize heavy but soft blue blanket and dream. I was real comfy in the blue blanket, so much so I had it written into my will as the means by which I was to be fed to the fishes of the deep sea.

Never did I rate a stay in a municipal, government or private park below adequate. Most hit the would-come-again point on the rating scale. Centralised bathing, cooking, administration, play area and, and, and … it makes no sense to me at all that we have millions of people living in the most inhumane squatter camps.

In some parts of the country I found the town, and sometimes virtually the entire surrounding district just about owned by a single family who dictated what, where, when and how. The white reaction to this arrangement was mixed, moving from resignation to not so much anger but, ‘okay’ – the sort of ‘okay’ a man gives to a woman when he’s in obvious pain.

Near Rhodes University I came across a business group that had about bought all the town, fenced it in and were making a game park out of the whole thing, taking people back to the days when lion used to roam the main street. Where were the poorer folk? Well, all but those needed for the menial jobs had been ‘moved’ on. Back in East London’s interior zone again – I was keen to grab a job there – an economic degreed town board chairman told me they were pinning their ‘economic revival’ hopes on solving their 70% unemployment problem on 160 German retirees. The plan, he said, was that they were coming out en-block to take up a reserved piece of land and make it in to a retirement village. 

I wanted to laugh, but I wanted to slap the man in the hope it would re-align the dots in his head also. He had retreated 50 years into classical Verwoerdian-thought. The 1st world white sector of the town - the club and pub, butcher, hardware and, I assure you, the best tea & scone shoppe in the land would boom, but how could the board's thinking stop at believing 80 monied households would sort out the problems of 10,000? 

The day I left the beautiful horror of that town I stopped at the local supermarket, and took in a last long stare. There in a corner the non-traditional (as in not English or Afrikaans,  Greek maybe?) white South African owner had applied thought and humility to his business expansion - he had opened a new type of eatery. A simple serving hatch from a simple kitchen delivered onto plastic chairs & tables, plates of sadza and veg liberally garnished with gravy, and a spoonful of meat. Now we're getting there, I thought, seeking out home grown solutions for home grown problems, recognising the human inside the poverty. Empowering from inside rather than expecting a first world import to make a difference.

The spectre of AIDS greeted me in Pietermaritzburg. Neon lights advertised 24 hour burial houses with black folk pleased that there was a price war between them. A small white farmer complained that having allowed a few families to share in his fields for a winter he couldn’t get them to leave in the summer, and the town was filled with unemployed standing quietly. Even the ‘parking attendants’, over supplied, vied for a spot to sit with the basket weavers.  

On weekends whites of Pietermaritzburg went out in to the surrounding Homeland areas to ‘play’ sport, bicycling and paddling being the favourites, and from the banks and surrounding denuded hills the blacks would watch. ‘One day,’ said a friend, ‘one of these savages is going to do something bad on us.’  Really?

And then I was in a tiny village where the Afrikaans Nazi Robbie Someone-or-other was nearly captured in the 1940s. The village’s notoriety now was that in the shadow of a fine Country Club reserved for wealthy whites, black people were being taught to ‘farm’ in tractor tyres filled with rubbish, a sparkly light easy pour stuff (I cannot remember the name) plus just enough soil to give the plant inside the tyre traction.

The tyre was positioned in that common space to the front of each block of four squatters’ doors. It would only work if the owners of the four doors cooperated, shared the work and produce. The main organiser/teacher/scrounger (they also ran the illegal soup kitchen in the very deserted ‘shopping area’) was a white unwealthy family who had ‘contacts’ on the railway. He had the old tyres loaded up country somewhere and as the train passed by well-wishers threw them out. His wife and daughter (20) taught farming, his son (14) checked the soup kitchen after school, and staff were black volunteers drawn from the customers. 

I saw a notorious town’s history subverted in this real example of working together, I felt the first pricking of a way out, a solution. Everywhere ideas sprouted, hiding the ‘it cannot be done’. 

My journey was ending and home was the place to put it all together. After months on the road an invitation to a trip home was offered, and I took it.

Up in Zim it was more of the same. At Victoria Falls we braaied fillet beef steak. The butcher’s problem wasn’t the supply of sirloin, rump etc., but of the cheap stewing meats, cheap cuts and offal. The customers had some money but couldn’t afford what was available.

We stayed in the government chalets a stones throw down from where Dave and I crossed into Zambia for croc eggs during the war. We were the only occupants of this amazing camp burrowed into the bush on the banks of the Zambezi. Careful! Hippos in the reeds, crocs on the banks, tigers in the river, elephant and duiker visitors right up to our patio and the kudu watching us from the shade of the thorn. The whistle of the reedbuck, any amount of smaller creatures I was aware of but didn’t see, but on the drive into town for a beer a leopard was happy to stand a heart-stopping moment in the headlights. 

On the Harare road, not far from Biet Bridge our way was blockaded by dozens of friendly black-beggar-men in wheel chairs asking for ‘anything’, all of them casualties of our war. 20 kms on a single Trading Store offered a few expired tins of Bully Beef and a crate of warm coke – nothing else. It didn’t matter because we were headed next door. 100 meters further on stood Riverside International Resort. After relaxing with the crowd over tea and scones I had one of the best self-service buffets I have ever experienced in my life before retiring to the pub where we partied until mid-night. Up early I sucked in the beauty of the Lowveldt of Matabeleland South. As I stood on the green manicured lawn, still damp from its water-before-the-sun soak, outside of my air-con chalet looking over the dry sandy river bed into the tangled, snappy thorn undergrowth beyond, a white Zimbabwean told me that the local farmer (I have genuinely forgotten his name) shot all his cattle rather than sell them because Mugabe had told him to.

‘How many?’ I shrieked.

‘Hundreds … a thousand? He was a big farmer.’

‘What’d he do with the meat?’ I asked.

‘Lay where it dropped.’

Yea gods … whether Mugabe said he was to take the farm over or not is beside the point. Crazy. When Rhodes took the cattle in compensation for there being no gold lying at the foot of the kopjes the Matabele didn’t kill them. Why did this man have that attitude? Only the week before, when I surveyed the beautiful Jacaranda city Pretoria while walking the Voortrekker Monument, people had rebuked me for Mugabe having elephant shot.

‘To feed people!’ I remonstrated.

‘Let them grow their food like we do …’ she stamped.

‘There’s a drought and …’

‘Then feed the elephants … dang, look at what you made me do.’ Her Pick ’n Pay bag had broken.

I did a circuit into the Zimbabwe Midlands. There I saw that the bigger towns – Gwelo (Gweru) and Shabani (Zvishavane)  - were overloaded with people yet villages like Selukwe (Shurugwi) and Umvuma (Mvuma) were ripe for a Clint Eastwood dead-town-cow’b movie set. What had happened in South Africa, I saw, was spreading in Zimbabwe.

Finally I arrived back in Cape Town flooded with concept, strategy, and short term let’s-do-it. There was this ‘big man’ in housing and construction I knew. I phoned his office and tracked him, caught him as he was about to move on to check progress somewhere else – he called it work. 

We were standing down at the fringe of the new Waterfront development, at the entrance gates near to where the Cape Town Convention Centre is now. The wind was flapping at his suit and throwing sand at my bare legs as I excitedly waved my hands about in his face,  describing buying, taking over, encouraging, whatever, a couple of these deserted towns and converting them into completely self-contained Affordable Retirement Villages,[4] something along the simplicity of camp sites that I’d seen. This was the idea, this was the vehicle to make a difference. Instead of those forgotten people being left on the fringes, I was suggesting that we put them in the centre of their world, created a world for them to inhabit, a new economy that according to the laws of our beloved free market would begin to hum in response to the personal responsibility it was imbued with.

He laughed at me. ‘You’re hallucinating. Just where is the money?’

‘That’s the beauty of it. Very little required!’

‘Little money required! Affordable!’  He guffawed. ‘We are building with no F in expense spared Golf Retirement Villages. We are building with no F in expense spared Sports and Community Centre Retirement Villages. We are building with no F in expense spared Country Estate Retirement Villages and you want me to do what?’ His mouth was twisted to the side by this stage and his head shook with the tension he was putting into his long, thin neck. ‘Build something el-cheapo? Where are the du-llas old pal, for my pals? Money must churn, churn to earn, loans, giant loans put smiles in the banks, thousands of people paying, ticking off the box, direct debit’s the best.’
He pointed to a site bedecked with cranes, a site that was to become luxury apartments, a six-star hotel, boutiques and up-market eating and drinking spots.
‘That is a pension fund development … yes,’ his voice raised a squeak, ‘pension funds are into building and they couldn’t give a hoot whether the bloody concrete is occupied or not because the big paper-money-benefit-showing is reflected as the stages-of-completion hit the books. They are able to report every few months to their board that the square metre of Cape Town backfill and the pocket of cement they bought six months ago has gone up five or 10 or 30 what-the-fuck % and the bigger the deal the better it shows … understand?’ He looked for a moment, shook his head and said, ‘a $10 project that doubles is $20 but, a $100 million one that doubles is now-you-are-talking-enough-for-all, aaaaaand,’ he laughed, ‘there is always improvement because in the end who is going to do the valuation anyway?’

‘A pal,’ said I, nodding.

‘So … so, if you said to me those towns have a snow backdrop, the poor have been cleared out and there will be no objection to us sending in the bulldozers to clear that 1880 era or whatever shit you saw, we may have something to talk about with the banks, the marketing gurus, the sales geniuses, us and the share market people.’

 I walked on. Much of the old hospital’s back buildings at the head of the Waterfront at the Moullie Point side were headed for demolishing but meanwhile portions had been set aside for hostels and I wanted to go see. I discovered that there wasn’t enough accommodation to handle needy people. Elderly couples were being split, one to a women's shelter and the other to the men's. And they weren’t just in the Waterfront area but in all sorts of off-spots where a place had been got cheap. Yet all around, the expensive building works were on the go, the pubs were fuller than I had ever seen them. Green Point was throbbing Friday and Saturday. Up town had been transformed with drinking, eating, dancing and little theatres. My old bank, now First National, had had a complete facelift, the tiles presumably adding to the value of the money they loaned out to Capetonians with suitable security. My walking turned to trudging. My drive was over, my education had increased 100 fold, and my building pal’s words had given me my third moment, the final perspective that I needed.

‘In the game of profit, profit, profit,’ I realised I had heard him say, between the lines, ‘there’s no place for anything else.’

Putting It All Together

My latest back injury was proving to be hectic serious.

‘An operation will happen’ said the neurosurgeon. ‘Your leg will come off or I’ll have a go at repairing the nerves in your spine.’

Sitting in a wheelchair helped and medical science with the skill and care of my doctor came through for me.

My brother invited me to recuperate in Malaysia. Not only did I come right with his support but I even ran my first ever competitive road marathon at 52, and three more in the jungle after that. My recovery and finding myself in a safe place in Malaysia with him and a dear lady friend afforded me the time to put all of it together.

I found myself neck deep in self-study. Carl Sagan was my first obsession, along with EF Schumacher, and then the inexhaustible lists: Neil deGrasse TysonRichard DawkinsAC GraylingBurton MackBishop Richard HollowayPeritus Hans K√ľng… it continued, along with on-line lectures (a new thing that) and hundreds of Yahoo’ed articles, later replaced by the giant Google.

‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord’ says Ephesians 6:4. In my reading I realised I had broken from that Biblical instruction and from the implicit Christian education of my upbringing. No longer was anything Biblical simply law, and no longer were the words of leaders, equally implicitly sanctioned by the Bible (under our Western, Judeo-Christian civilisation), law either.

For the first time in my life I saw exactly how incredible this world is, how puny and insignificant we are and how the earth is but a member, not a leader, in a universe(s) of billions upon billions of cosmic ‘happenings'. I realised that all those risks I took as a boy growing, as a soldier and administrator and as I settled into my 40s, had more to do with straightforward, in-depth ignorance than any kind of courage. I realised we are not the owners of this world but renters for the time it takes to snap a thumb and pointing finger, and we’d better get on with it.

Sitting there, up on the silent air-conditioning motor that doubled as a stool, stuck out of the way in the corner of the little balcony of the bachelor flat I shared, looking out at the cityscape of Kuala Lumpur with its age old jungle at my back, so far from my roots as a white Rhodie in the bosom of Rhodesia, I knew I had gone full circle, that I was finally free. I had rid myself of the paper thin memes that had kept me prisoner my whole life. I’d cast off the Ian SmithPW Botha and FW de Klerk of my past world, and come face to face with the system behind it all.

Greed Capitalism I have come to call it, a perversion of the earliest system of community and complementary living that the much vaunted free market approach is based on - the bully in the school yard, the dad who owns the teachers in the staff-room. My learning had showed me that it revels in cronyism, it flourishes on cheap labour and stolen raw materials, and gyrates according to the churn of so-called money. It is a tool that is owned as well as lies within the many tiers, structures and ethereal piggy-banks of the wealthy, and the industry of war.

I have come to the conclusion that today’s obsession with profit at any reduced cost is directly responsible for Africa’s (and much of the third world’s) people continuing to scratch in the dust for their supper, while growing thinner every day.

My awakening had happened, and since then, it’s all I can think about.

To this day the Cape Town Squatter Camp, or any camp that I see anywhere, is my reminder we aren’t doing things with any moral correctness. We don’t need a professor to tell us that if we all gave a little we’d make a massive change.

Image: Salvador Dali’s 'Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man' (1943)

[1] ‘As many as 576,000 Iraqi children may have died since the end of the Persian Gulf war because of economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council, according to two scientists who surveyed the country for the Food and Agriculture Organization’ wrote Barbara Crossette in 1995, near Christmas for Christ’s sake.
[2]Published on Oct 7, 2013, the film 'Who Cares' takes a unique approach to presenting research on unpaid care work linking women and girl's economic empowerment and their human rights. The story follows a woman caregiver, living in poverty, throughout her daily journey …  developed by the Institute of Development Studies - see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVW858gQHoE
[3] All invalids from our Bush War.
[4] Why isn’t RSA at the top of the list? https://my.news.yahoo.com/words-lowest-cost-living-retirement-212000732.html