A South African sojourn

1967 – the Summer of Love. We were living in Wateringbury, a quintessentially English village in Kent. We rented a Tudor cottage (16th century), from Admiral Sir Henry Moore who lived next door. We got a little black kitten and named him Henry in honour of the admiral. The main thing I remember about the house is that it had one of those huge inglenook fireplaces, a raised and enclosed space with seats arranged around the fire. I also recall a somber picture of some aristocrats in wigs that dominated the dining room; perhaps it had been there since the house was built.

We didn’t see much of Dad. He slept until the afternoon because every day he had to drive 70 miles up to town to conduct Charlie Girl, a long running hit musical in London’s West End. He was the musical director, the bloke with the baton. He didn’t get back until the early hours. He had been doing this for about 12 months and was getting rather tired of it. He was missing conducting Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and what he called serious music. One day he announced that we were upping sticks and going to Africa. He’d been offered the position of musical director of South Africa’s PACT National Ballet Company.

So, in July of 1967, my mother, seven-month-old brother Chris and I flew to Johannesburg, and joined my father who had gone on ahead of us. I was nine years old at the time and beside myself with excitement at the prospect of Africa. Tarzan sprang to mind! I was a big fan. I pictured lions and elephants roaming across sun-parched plains, and proud Zulu warriors with plumed headdresses, leopard skins and lethal spears called assegais. The Africa that greeted me was a little different: Johannesburg, or Joburg as the inhabitants call it, was just like any other city with roads, traffic, shops, houses and office blocks. However, the succulent foliage, exotic blooms and blood red earth very definitely set it apart from the European cities I knew. Furthermore, I was aghast – they had no television! They had radio, theatres and cinemas. In those days, a trip to the cinema involved getting your glad rags on. I remember my parents taking me to see David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. With the ladies in evening dresses and tiaras and the men in smart suits, you’d have thought you were attending a gala occasion at Covent Garden!

Another thing that struck me was the segregation. Apartheid was in full swing and I found it strange that this even extended to park benches, which bore signs saying ‘No Blacks! Whites Only’. They weren’t allowed to use ‘white only’ public transport and even had to have special passes to work in well-to-do white areas. They lived in ramshackle, sprawling townships, such as Soweto just outside Johannesburg. For some reason, which I can’t remember, we visited Soweto once, but I do recall being appalled at the squalour: dirt roads lined with shacks and people going around in rags staring at these white folks who had had the temerity to appear on their territory. It was a far cry from the comfortable affluence of white Johannesburg.

The Afrikaaners didn’t seem to like us European liberals very much. They didn’t approve of our soft attitude towards the natives, the ‘kaffirs’. Generally speaking, they treated the black folks extremely harshly, which was at odds with our British sense of fair play and treating people, whatever their race, creed or colour, with respect and kindness, as long as they weren’t complete rascals.

Today, it’s a different story in South Africa. The legacy of Nelson Mandela, and the struggle he fought and went to prison for, is now a source of pride for a nation that strove to come out of the shadow of prejudice. When we lived there Mandela was locked up in Robben Island near Cape Town. You can visit the place because it’s now a museum, as is the Mandela House Museum, the president’s former residence in Joburg in Houghton, one of the city’s most affluent suburbs.

We also lived in Houghton! After all, my parents were celebrities. The house was a large bungalow on the corner of Central Street and First Avenue. All the homes around were palatial piles set in acres of manicured and luxuriant grounds. They practically all had swimming pools and tennis courts, and expensive cars in the driveways. We had a Mercedes Benz. Our place had two entrance gates and a drive lined with purple-blooming jacaranda trees that went in a semi-circle linking the pair of gates. The house stood at the drive’s apex. To the right there was a lawn and a grass tennis court. The grounds were a full acre. At the back there was a small plantation of maize, known as mealie meal in South Africa. It produces a coarse flower that is used in a wide variety of dishes. There were also grapes, apricots and passion fruit. Oddly, we didn’t have a swimming pool but everyone else did, so it was no trouble to pop to a neighbour’s for a dip.

In the 19th century, Johannesburg was a gold-mining settlement (at one time South Africa provided some 70% of the world’s gold). Today, it’s South Africa’s largest city. They turned one of the big mines into an amusement park and called it Gold Reef City. It boasts many attractions, including water rides, roller coasters and the famous Gold Reef City Casino. There’s also a museum where you can see how gold was mined.

Needless to say, gold made Joburg fabulously rich. In the late1960s, we rubbed shoulders with the super wealthy and enjoyed their luxurious lifestyle. At the weekends, we often visited friends in Bryanston, an affluent suburb on the outskirts of Joburg, where in those days many of the streets were still just dirt roads. However, the residences next to them were straight out of Beverly Hills: wedding-cake houses of ample proportions with immaculate lawns and the azure jewel of a swimming pool shimmering in the sun.

Of course, everyone hung out by the pool. What a life it was! We certainly ate very well – the best fruit and vegetables I have ever tasted. Normal Western food is readily available, but if you are daring you might try something native and exotic. Such as fried ants! I remember one evening there was a swarm of flying ants buzzing around the porch. One by one they lost their wings and fell to the ground. Then the garden boy appeared with a frying pan and scooped the insects up.  ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. ‘Fry ‘em,’ said the boy. ‘Very good! Protein… Nutritious.’ I just said, ‘Ugh!’

Mum and Dad worked a lot at Joburg’s Civic Theatre (built in 1962). So it was still a new building when they performed there. Its modern architecture was impressive and reminded us a bit of the Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The stage was pretty huge and so it was ideal place the PACT National Ballet Company. They did Swan Lake with a real Russian ballerina, but also some interesting contemporary dance and lesser-known ballets such as Witch Boy. Today, the Civic Theatre is a group of four theatres known as the Joburg Theatre Complex, certainly worth a visit if you’re in town.

Johannesburg was where my love affair with the guitar began. I distinctly remember the first time I clapped eyes on the instrument: a beautiful Spanish guitar that came with the house we rented. The afternoon sun was pouring through a window, burnishing the deep orange of the guitar’s body to a dazzling gold, and I will never forget the intoxicating sound of the strings as I drew my fingers across them. Although the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (remember this was the late 60s) had already wooed me away from my mother and father’s classical world, I agreed to study classical guitar. I studied with a German guitarist called Fritz Buss who had been a student of Narcisso Yepes, the great Spanish guitar player who had pioneered the 10-string classical guitar.

Finally, I did get a taste of the real Africa. For a tenth-birthday treat, my father took me to the Kruger National Park, a game reserve of immense proportions to the northeast of Joburg. The park is still a huge attraction. Wild animals including lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, buffalo and spingboks roam its mountains, bush plains (veld in Afrikaans) and tropical forests. Many other mammals live in Kruger, where there’s also  a wide diversity of bird life such as vultures, eagles and storks.  Kruger’s blood red earth, vast blue skies and open country made an indelible impression on me. This really was Africa and I was ecstatic. I had waited months for this.

It was at Kruger that we had an incident with a leopard. It caused a real frisson of excitement and not a little panic. It was a hot day. We were driving slowly down a dirt trail with the windows wide open. The car had no air-conditioning. We hadn’t seen much for a while except for a few warthogs and some vultures. I wanted big cats, or at least an elephant, and maybe a giraffe or two. Then we went around a corner where there were some big bushes very close to the edge of the road. The car was going at a snail’s pace. Suddenly, my wish came true and a huge leopard appeared out of the bushes, perilously close to my father’s arm that was dangling equally perilously out of the window. Maybe the leopard was as surprised as we were. While he stared menacingly at us, my father had enough wits to whip his arm in, step hard on the accelerator while furiously rolling the window up. I gazed back at the cat through the clouds of dust the car made. He was sitting there with a look of haughty contempt on his face.

South Africa is big and there’s much to see. Cape Town, location of fabled Table Mountain, on the southern tip is a must visit. You can roam more than 3,000 kilometres along the country’s coastline of wild and deserted beaches, from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast south around the Horn of Africa, and then north to the border of subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. There are also a good number of developed beach resorts along the way, as you pass through places like Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and of course Cape Town.  If you happen to be near Durban, it’s worth making a detour from the coast and heading up to the Valley of a 1,000 Hills. Densely forested and slashed with gorges and streams, the valley is a scenic drive to write home about. And did I mention the stars? There seem to be more in the southern hemisphere. In the heat of a South African night, out in the bush, they burn so brightly, turning the sky into a dazzling, twinkling canopy.

Our South African sojourn ended on a dark and bitter note in 1969. I mentioned earlier that ‘blacks’ needed to have a pass to work in rich white areas. We employed two wonderful Zulus: Jokania who looked after the grounds and Lydia who cooked and cleaned. Neither of them had the required passes. I once came across Jokania cowering in a concealed corner of the property with a look of terror on his face. When I asked him what the matter was, he told me to be quiet and shooed me away. Anyway, one fateful day he was caught by the police and there was hell to pay. The police came to the house and arrested my father, who was the boss after all and therefore responsible. We imagined there would be some fine to pay for what was surely a misdemeanour. But no! The cops were deadly serious and informed Dad that he was facing a long stretch in prison.

Dad decided to send us all back to Britain. It was a strange, wrenching experience saying goodbye at the airport. We had no idea when we would see him again. It might have been years if he had lost the case. However, he hired the best criminal lawyer in South Africa, spent a lot of money and managed to get off. After six months of immense stress and worry he was back in the UK. And so began the next chapter of our lives.

Feature image: Photo by Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash