When Change is not Enough

One particular experience during my South African sojourn seem to have reverberated down the years, the impact of which I cannot really verbalize. The experience and its aftermath unravelled my world view and left it floundering and adrift, while I struggle to get a handle on a new construct that remains beyond simple articulation.

It was the day of my first visit to that Johannesburg Township (see Back to Africa). Afterwards I sat in the minibus taking us to the next stop on the day’s itinerary, feeling numb and quite sick. I had gone into another space and only vaguely aware of what was going on around me. Did I really see a man sauntering across the motorway just a little ahead of us? A voice asked what on earth was he doing. Our driver said 'they built a motorway through his ancestral land and he needs to get from one side to the other, what do you want him to do'? That made perfect sense to me.

Within half an hour we arrived for lunch at the home of a well-known anti-apartheid activist. Like the home of most white South Africans, it was surrounded by very high walls and the only way in was through imposing electronic gates, as high as the walls. I was not prepared for the level of opulence that awaited me. It was a buffet lunch like no other I had ever seen, and certainly never participated in.

Table after table was laden and overflowing with food. The spread was indescribable –  game/meat of every variety, including kudu - a South African antelope - fish, caviar, the best wines. Everything that anyone could wish for was catered. If I wanted good old British fish and chips or Jamaican jerk chicken or even Eastern Caribbean style saltfish, fried dumplings and callaloo, it would have been conjured up in an instant.

I needed time and space to reconcile the collision of two mindblowingly different but juxtaposed worlds: the one I had just left behind in the Township, and this one. There was also my own world, the one I inhabited back in England, vastly diffferent to the two I had encountered that day. I was suffocating and needed to breathe. 

I stepped out into the garden which rolled away into the distance with orchard, separate rose, vegetable and herb gardens, swimming pool, tennis court, all protected by the high wall surround. I had little doubt that a guard would patrol the extensive grounds at night. I stood on the veranda for a while, then walked back into the dining area and stood on the periphery looking in.

My eyes stared, mesmerized by the white gloves of the black male servers, at least four of them; a couple bustled between kitchen and dining area; a second pair stood unobtrusively on the circumference of the room anticipating every need of the guests of the Mistress of the house. Surely, even in immediately post apartheid South Africa, this was not really happening; I was stuck in some horrible time warp, a kind of British Raj era. Why was everyone acting so normal? This was a stage and I was watching a play, surely.

The hostess appeared before me, smiling warmly, asking what I wanted to eat, at the same time beckoning one of the servers to bring me a plate.  I was not hungry; the food refused to go down my throat. I heard myself asking my hostess whether she had ever been to the Township just down the road from her home.

The temperature change was immediate. The smile vanished, the piercing blue eyes narrowed, became icy. She knew where this was coming from. A cold voice said, ‘you people come here and make judgments. Poverty is everywhere, even in your own country’. And she was right. Whatever way you look at it, in North and South America, in Australasia, throughout Europe, in Africa and Asia, it is exactly as she says.

At one end of the spectrum there are those who have more than they could possibly need in this lifetime and well into the next, and at the other end there are those, including the upstanding and hardworking, who are barely able to survive from day to day. But the issue is not poverty is it, that’s just one of the many labels we give it. Is it really to do with race and/or class and so called under-development?  I’m beginning to think not. No. For many in South Africa today, Mr Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom turned into something of a chimera. The more things change the more they remain the same.

Change, real fundamental change, does not come by moving the pieces around. It's not about moving from apartheid or dictatorship to democracy. It’s not about changing your spouse or partner, leader, political party, government….its about dismantling and obliterating a deeply ingrained and entrenched pattern that is apparently impervious to change. It’s about transformation and that is quite different to change.

Related Post: Back to Africa; Rock and Royalty in South Africa; Predictions of a Sangoma


  1. This is a great story - really capturing in its description the well made point about the real nature of change. As Neale Donald Walsh aptly says and is the title of his book " When everything Changes - Change everything" - do we dare?


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