Back to Africa

Oscar Pistorius, the Olympics and Paralympics athlete known as Blade Runner, is back in court today for the second time since his girlfriend died at his home last week. As I watch and listen to the unfolding story of this tragic event, it brings back an assortment of memories of South Africa. It’s a desperately sad thing to live as if under siege, and many South Africans, in different ways, live like that. The physical, emotional and mental toll would be quite destructive to the individual and the society overall.

I first arrived in South Africa in July 1994, a time of tremendous hope, joy and optimism in that country. Nelson Mandela had been released after 27 years incarceration and had become President. A group of black Brits, including that iconic Member of Parliament, the late Bernie Grant, made a historic journey to the new democracy. Many of the group had picketed South Africa House in London and attended endless rallies against apartheid, and in a way this was a journey of thanksgiving.

For me, it was my first opportunity to touch base with my ancestral homeland. Even now, 19 years later, I cannot find the words to adequately describe that experience. Within a year of that initial visit, I returned to South Africa with a 6-month work permit, later extended for two more years. I was both uplifted and traumatised by my time in the country.

My very first visit to a Johannesburg township with representatives of the non-governmental organisation, the Kagiso Trust, who were the sponsors of my stay, was simply dire. Dear God. The most striking memory was the stench, the raw sewage and children with bare feet playing on six feet high rubbish heaps. But the cheerfulness and smiling enthusiastic welcome of the inhabitants of Alexandria Township, and indeed all the other townships I visited across South Africa will remain with me for the rest of my life.

After attending a funeral in Northern Province, I sat in the ‘village square’ on one of about half a dozen stools hewn out of tree trunks and placed in a circle in the dirt. Suddenly an old crone came up and sat beside me. Her face was shiny and unlined but she could not have been a day under 100 years old. Her eyes radiated the strength of the life force in her body. She took my face between her two palms and began talking to me in Sotho, one of the eleven official languages spoken in South Africa.

Of course I had no idea what she was saying, but there was a distinct familiarity in her manner and a soft gentle inquiry about her words and facial expression. I simply gazed into her face and smiled. It was all I could do. Eventually one among our party, a white student from the University of Witwatersrand, told me she was asking where I lived and what was my father's name because she recognised my face. The young man explained in her language that I was from England and a visitor. She turned towards me again and spoke in her language. The young man told me she said welcome daughter, welcome home.  As tears welled up in my eyes, she patted my knee and eventually stood and walked away smiling and waving farewell.

Initially, I lived in a very plush suburb of Johannesburg, in what was formerly the maid’s cottage in the grounds of a grand house owned by a widow, herself an immigrant originally from Ireland. Her trainee doctor daughter lived with her. The maid and gardener no longer lived in. They now returned to their townships and families at the end of each day. An extraordinary vignette of South African life when I lived there was the sight of black maids in their uniform driving children to and from school in a top range Mercedes. 

The ‘studio’ cottage was basically one room divided into bedroom, sitting room/kitchen and bathroom.  Now designer decorated, it would be considered a bijou ‘des res’. I had the use of an enormous indoor swimming pool and at least an acre of garden. The house stood well back from the road, behind 20 feet electronic gates. On the other side of the road was a golf course. My landlady entreated me to keep my eyes peeled if returning late at night. If I saw anyone loitering around in the street I should drive around the block until they had gone before opening the gates. 

The message to be alert and observe a safety code was fine, and one I give to my own children. But who was likely to be loitering, presumably on foot, at night in a rich white Johannesburg suburb? For me this particular 'safety code' also carried a subliminal instruction: to be at least on guard around, if not afraid of, people with the same skin colour as mine. This sat uncomfortably in my psyche. The clown in my personality said, for god sake make sure you don't actually look in the mirror, or you'll be driving around the neighbourhood all night long. The time came when I needed to move on to a more 'normal' neighbourhood. Ironically, Mr Mandela's Jo'burg home was about four blocks down the road.

Living Under Siege
The vast majority of homes were barricaded behind high wall surrounds, with instant response alarm systems, some had guard dogs and a ‘safe zone’ inside.  My landlady did not have an old black man sitting outside all night with his flask of tea and a gun guarding the sleeping white folks inside, but many did.

Only the Blade Runner, who is said to have had a gun at his bedside, knows exactly what happened in his house when his girlfriend died. But in white South Africa in particular, waking in the middle of the night with the perception that an intruder is present generates the perfect scenario for an unimaginable human tragedy. What happens to the human psyche when it exists in a siege-like state, constantly stalked by fear?


  1. I remember when I visitedSouth Africa in 1997, one evening we returned back to your place and I turned on what I thought was the light switch.... Remember?
    Within what seemed like seconds the phone was ringing and a security person was asking for authorization codes etc and there was already a security patrol vehicle (presumably with armed security men) on its way....

    I'm presuming that the vast majority of the white residents living in those plush areas would have that security set up or something very similar as standard... Indeed!

    My Fool has a question .... Why would an intruder break into the home of an Olympian athlete (or anyone elses home) just to use the bathroom?


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