Looking back over my shoulder at three weeks in South Africa

It is coming up on two weeks now since I left South Africa. I was missing the country before I left; I am missing it now. When I passed though customs at the airport the official who stamped my Canadian passport sighed and shook his head. “Everyone is going to Canada these days,” he said. What could I say? Only that morning I had only read a newspaper article about young South African families eager to find a new home abroad – the US, Australia, Canada.

I suppose if I was raising young children in a city where so many single family dwellings have the appearance of bunkers with high walls, spiked gates and coiled razor wire, I too would be looking to distant shores. Over the course of my limited stay in Cape Town I regularly walked between my B&B in Sea Point and the downtown core. The occasional house perched on the slopes of Signal Hill without such enclosures was a source of fascination. What manner of brave or reckless soul lives here?

A sign on a narrow cobblestone street In the Bo Kaap district of Cape Town - Copyright JM Schreiber
A sign on a narrow cobblestone street In the Bo Kaap district of Cape Town
– Copyright JM Schreiber

I can’t say that I felt uncomfortable as I wondered the streets or rode the buses. I did quickly learn to make prudent choices, especially after a couple of unnerving encounters set me off my guard. My bad. I don’t make the same mistake twice. Aside from a night out with a friend in Green Point, my stay in the city was quiet, skirting most of the major tourist sites, sticking to bookstores, museums, galleries. Despite the cool weather tourists flocked to the Waterfront and Table Mountain but no one chanced more than a passing glance while I sat mesmerized by the full 30 minutes of William Kentridge’s installation The Refusal of Time at the South African National Gallery. I seemed to find hollow pockets in the city, safe but open empty spaces. And it felt right. I had come to South Africa, after all, to find myself.

What I found surprised me and is only beginning to take form in my thinking now that I am back home. My interest in South Africa is a curious blend of sociological, historical and literary factors but it has always been mutable and undefined. It just is. It stretches back to the early 1980s when I first encountered South African ex-pats while I was at university, continued forward, from the outside, as the world watched the steady and difficult move to independence. Being able to visit the country and, for the most part, simply talk to people and observe has marked the beginning of a process of reconciliation for myself – on a deeply personal level on the one hand, on a socio-political level on the other.

Eastern Cape morning - Copyright JM Schreiber
Eastern Cape morning
– Copyright JM Schreiber

With respect to the former I will simply say that my decision to actually visit South Africa this year was sudden and born of the intense loneliness that sweeps over me regularly. One day when that wave crashed upon me I stopped and realized that the one person in the world that I really needed and wanted to talk to, the sole person who could understand the strange mixture of illness and queerness that I have been struggling to sort out lately, lives across the globe – in South Africa, Eastern Cape province. And, with some money I had needed to access that was not worth reinvesting at today’s interest rates I had enough to get there. So I went.

Arriving at my friend’s home in a small village perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean, I was stunned by the beauty of the unfolding landscape, green flecked with the orange of aloe in bloom, the wide open blue skies, and the crystal brilliance of the waves crashing upon rocky shores. I was at peace. I felt grounded. I felt I had come home to somewhere I had never been. My friend and I settled into a comfortable routine as if we had known each other forever. Although at ease in silence, we never ran short of things to talk about. When it came time for me to prepare to head back to Cape Town, her dog worried after me as I packed my bags in the same way that my own cats had fretted over my suitcases back in Calgary. In a little over a week I had been accepted as family.

Indian Ocean, Eastern Cape - Copyright JM Schreiber
Indian Ocean, Eastern Cape
– Copyright JM Schreiber

Oddly I never felt lonely in South Africa, even though I spent much of my time alone. Strange that that feeling oppresses me in the city that I have lived in or near for most of my life, or this country where I have lived for over five decades. At one time I was immensely proud to be a Canadian but I feel increasingly discouraged and estranged from this land. Oh, of course, it has its beauty and, compared to so much of the world, its benefits are innumerable. But there are concerns, inequities, a steady erosion of freedoms, unresolved historical debts to our First Nations and now a rapidly declining economy against a growing racism and xenophobia to think about.

While I was in South Africa, whenever anyone would ask me where I was from, eyes would light up and I would be met with statements like: “Ah Canada, that’s like the perfect country, isn’t it?” Perhaps I am less than patriotic (which is in itself a rather Canadian thing to be), but I felt it was worth engaging people in honest discussions. After all in early June the final report of our very own Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released. For over 100 years First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were routinely removed from their homes and placed in Residential Schools. The cumulative impact of the abuses, trauma and cultural disintegration has been significant and devastating for Aboriginal communities. If I wanted to engage in conversations about colonial legacies it is not to compare or absolve anyone. But no country is perfect. The question for a citizen is, what am I willing to speak to? I can only speak to my experience in Canada and listen to South Africans. Which is a good start.

Sunset over the Atlantic, Cape Town - Copyright JM Schreiber
Sunset over the Atlantic, Cape Town
– Copyright JM Schreiber

But not even two weeks home and I feel shiftlessness starting to seep in again. On the positive, I returned to the promise that some healthy changes may be emerging in the life of my troubled son, opportunities that might not have arisen had I not put a continent and hemisphere between us. And on my last full day in Cape Town I sat in the Company’s Gardens and finally began to write in earnest in the notebook I had been scribbling in throughout my visit. That has continued. Yet I am aching for that indefinable other that drew me to South Africa in the first place… the landscape, the people, my friend, the oceans.

Yes, the oceans. Landlocked here in a vast country that spans 5½ time zones, it really is little wonder I feel so alone.