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Authors: David Smiedt

Are We There Yet?

BOOK: Are We There Yet?
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David Smiedt
was born in Johannesburg and lives in Sydney, but is yet to grow up anywhere. He has written for a wide array of publications and is the first and only Australian journalist to have articles in concurrent issues of
Ralph
and
Your Garden.
He is inordinately fond of pink cocktails but is allergic to beestings and people who use the phrase “it's all good”.

Praise for Are We There Yet?

‘A true delight … Smiedt, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, offers some of the sharpest, wittiest and most genuinely funny observations you'll find in contemporary travel writing.'

The Sydney Morning Herald

‘A riveting account of “going back”'

The Weekend Australian

Also by David Smiedt

Boom Boom: 100 Years of Australian Comedy
(with Rob Johnson)

Delivering the Male: Your Guide to Modern Men

Prince Charming: Spot the Stayers from the Players
(with Valerie Khoo)

For Des Miller and Laurence Niselow – African gentlemen

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela

Outside of a dog, a book is the best friend a man can have. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

Groucho Marx

Acknowledgments

This book would not have been possible without the contribution – witting or otherwise – of a number of people on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

In South Africa, the Smiedts of Johannesburg and Kroonstad, the Dibowitzes of Cape Town and the Goodmans of Durban. I am also especially indebted to my sister Lynn and her late husband Laurence whose home I occupied, whose fridge I raided with impunity and whose patience I surely tested. Along the way, I was privileged to meet a number of South Africans willing to share insights to which I would have otherwise remained blind. So, thank you Oupa, Dolly, Maria, Foy, Fifi, Mona, Dave, Zinzi, Sipho and Ezekiel.

On the home front, I will always owe Phil Abraham big time for getting me started in the writing caper – ditto Maggie Alderson and Lisa Wilkinson. Any number of free drinks are also on offer to the following: Madonna Duffy for remembering a drunken conversation; Mark Abernethy and Todd Cole for whipping me into shape; Adam Hills for the example; John Birmingham and Mark Dapin for setting a standard; Nick Earls for blending humour with heart; Julia Stiles for masterful editing skills; John Burfitt, Lynne Testoni, Tracey Platt, Jo Bates and Kerrie Alcorn for laughing harder than they had to; Marina Go and Lisa Green for allowing me to trail along; Fiona Inglis for her faith; and finally Paula Joye, Michelle Dunne and all the staff at
Cleo
magazine in Sydney for treating me like one of the girls. The unwavering support of my mum Renecia Miller, whose eager anticipation of each chapter rekindled my enthusiasm when it waned, is greatly appreciated. As are my brother Richard and his wife Stephanie. My last vote of thanks goes to Bryan and Mary Butler, without whom I wouldn't have had anyone to propose to on Table Mountain. Their daughter Jennie is everything I dared dream of. Her encouragement made this book a reality, while her tactful insights have made me both a better writer and human being.

Chapter 1

Any African in You?

A Texan, a South African and a Sydneysider were standing on the deck of a cruise ship chatting under a blazing sun. During a lull in conversation the American produced a Cuban cigar as thick as his thumb, bit the end off, lit up, took two deep puffs then tossed it overboard. “What did you do that for?” asked the confused South African. “I only felt like a taste,” came the drawled reply. “And besides, I've got a million of these at home.”

Moments later the sweltering South African removed one of the sweat-soaked gold chains around his neck and cavalierly dispatched it brinewards. Faced with the incredulous expressions of his fellow travellers, he said, “It's really no big deal. I've got a million of these at home.”

They passed the next few minutes in silence but the Australian felt the burden of expectation sitting on his shoulders like an overweight child. Unable to take it any longer, he grabbed the South African by the collar and tossed him overboard.

This joke was told to me by a colleague at the department store where I found my first job out of school, shortly after arriving as a new immigrant in Sydney. It was a test to see whether I had the wherewithal to take part in Australia's national sport: piss-taking. Having proved that I was as comfortable with urine extraction as the next bloke and that I could give as good as I got, a process of rapid integration began.

When I came to live in Australia, I was eighteen and had never made my own bed. Nor had I seen a photograph of Nelson Mandela or heard “Nkosi Sikele Africa”, the hymn that would become South Africa's national anthem. Both were still banned when my family took our first trip Down Under, an exercise which was known at the time as an LSD trip: Look, Schlep, Deposit.

By the time I had completed my first year of a communications degree, the transformation was complete. I didn't merely support but “barracked for” the Wallabies (loudest when they were beating the Springboks), had swapped my “cor” for a “cah” and had developed the inability to use moderate quantities of hair gel.

Then it was time for cancer. A smudge on my father's lung, which had been dismissed during the physical examinations required by Australian authorities before they would grant permanent residency, metastasised and his health deteriorated.

Shortly after our worst fears were confirmed, Ronnie Smiedt left his adopted city, never to return. I helped load his bags into the car; we hugged in the garage and the last words he said to me before leaving to “sort out his affairs” were: “I feel like I've failed you as a father”.

The next time I saw my father he was in a hospital bed in Johannesburg. His mouth was covered by an oxygen mask that fogged with each breath, and his sweat-saturated pyjamas filled the room with the odour of a poorly ventilated gymnasium.

His crow's-feet danced a jig when he saw me. My mother, sister, brother and I spent the next few days by his bedside, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable. At around 4 pm on Saturday 11 March 1989, with the hour beginning to dilute the bright African sunlight piercing the windowpane, he drifted to sleep. And by that I mean sleep, so try not to skip ahead.

Mistaking his light doze for deep slumber, I reached for a Mars bar on a nearby table and tore off the wrapper. The noise roused him and he straightened his head on the damp pillow. One of the traits I had inherited from him was a love of all things sweet. When I was a child he would have me shaking with laughter and glycaemic anticipation when he slipped chocolate bars down his trouser legs and sleeves before opening the front door and announcing, “The Chocolate Machine is here!” After which he would tremble and flay until these treats magically shot from his extremities.

Now connected to an ECG and two drips, he looked towards me in that vague and ponderous manner that comes with being heavily medicated, then broke into a smile that peeked around the corners of his respiration mask. It was his last and I'm glad I prompted it. Two hours later he folded his fists across his chest and collapsed into my arms as a cataclysmic coronary stilled his heart and stole the life from his eyes.

In accordance with Jewish tradition he was buried shortly afterwards. My memories of the event are fragmented. I don't recall a word of the rabbi's eulogy. However, the image of the fifty black employees, who had been bussed in from the distant family business warehouse, clustered around the steps of the small hall at the entrance to the cemetery, each wearing a borrowed yarmulke in a lurid shade of orange can be summoned as easily as an overly attentive waiter. The same applies to the moment when six of my friends acted as pallbearers – it is considered an honour to escort the coffin at a Jewish funeral and every few steps a new group is summoned. Encased in polished oak and resting on the shoulders of boys he drove to innumerable soccer practices and picked up at eleven-thirty (“a perfectly reasonable time”) from so many parties, he was carried through a sea of granite headstones.

A part of me wishes I could remember more of the funeral – a part of me longs to recall less. Either way, returning to his grave has never been a particularly emotional experience for me. His spirit may well be in Africa but it's not hovering over a windblown Johannesburg cemetery that backs onto power-lines.

Life in 80s South African suburbia was pretty close to perfect. As long as you were the right colour and weren't burdened by a conscience. Our homes were expansive and opulent. A friend of my mother's even had an entire room given over to a multi-tiered rectangular conversation pit rendered in chocolate plush pile.

The grounds surrounding our homes were lush, formal and tended by the “garden boys” who lived in cramped smoke-blackened rooms in the backyard. This term was applied as easily to teenagers as octogenarians and it prompted my first brush with white liberal guilt.

As we were between such employees at the time, my father had offered one of his long-time warehouse staff some extra cash for edging, weeding and watering. I had known Joseph – a soft-spoken man with downcast eyes and a toe that had been lost in a mowing accident – all my life. However, my eight-year-old brain was having trouble grasping the fact that he was now working in our garden instead of the family business. “Wow, Joseph,” I said, genuinely impressed by his range of skills. “I didn't know that you were a garden boy.”

He stopped where he stood, gently placed the rusting manual mower on the blade-flecked lawn and sat on his haunches so we were eye to eye. It was a tar-melting day and rivulets of perspiration were running down his cheeks. Without a trace of anger in his voice, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Dave …” Joseph then paused, formulating a gentle way to express a rough truth. “I'm a man. I'm not a boy.” I never used the term again.

These men, who by day chlorinated pools they would never swim in, were by night pressed and starched into liveried service for dinner parties. On these occasions they would be outfitted in a white suit of rough cotton, matching gloves and a red sash.

My grandmother employed one such manservant. He was called Willy – we never knew his last name, nor did we ask – and was required to don this uniform when we gathered around the dining room table on high holy days. One of my grandmother's favourite forms of amusement involved summoning him into the room by way of ringing a bell, then saying she had seen a mouse – a phobia that would send this portly giant of a man with kind eyes and a shaved head into a mild state of panic. Boy, did we laugh.

Willy toiled alongside an elderly maid named Josephine who had raised my father and uncle while my widowed-at-forty grandmother was transforming the small homewares import company her late husband had established into the largest such concern in South Africa. In this regard she was one of the few female CEOs in a country where men were men, women were housewives and blacks were “boys” and “girls”.

It was much the same at our place. Every morning I was tenderly woken by our maid Martha who would present me with a warm mug of a chocolate drink called Bosco. She nursed me from infancy and by all accounts lavished me with loving attention as if I were her own. This was not an unusual phenomenon in South Africa, and while many white employers were undoubtedly callous, cruel and uncaring when it came to their domestic employees, this was certainly not always the case.

That was one of the most difficult things to explain to my new countrymen who would routinely ask me one of three questions: “Do you hate blacks?”, “Did you have servants?” and “Is it true that they had to call your dad ‘master'?”.

No, yes and yes. It should, however, also be pointed out that in some cases the bond was characterised by genuine regard and affection on both sides.

For example, the family of my brother-in-law, Laurence, had a woman named Priscilla in their employ for thirty-four years. Reed-thin, quick-witted and possessing a rich knowledge of Jewish tradition, she mothered the five children in this clan, plus extended relatives such as myself, with love, compassion, lunches and laundry that knew no bounds. When she died recently, the family's grief was sustained and abiding.

In instances too numerous to be notable, white employers not only paid for the education of their domestic workers' children and grandchildren, but did so at the handful of exclusive private schools that opened their Latin-crested doors to all races of fee suppliers from the mid-80s.

By the same token – and I use the word advisedly – at the end of the Friday-night Sabbath dinners, my father would pour the dregs of the assorted Scotch, wine and beer glasses into a water pitcher to ensure the duo in our kitchen would not swig back an illicit shot or two as they washed the dishes.

Such trivialities were the extent of our concerns. Aside from our lavish domestic refinements, the greatest luxury that many white South Africans possessed was an unshake-able sense of security in our constitutionally enshrined position of racial privilege. Yes, it irritated us that we could not prove our sporting superiority against foes who objected to the way the country was run, but as long as they kept buying our gold, diamonds and platinum, we could live with the situation. While there was the odd white victim of a mugging or burglary, violent crime was a rarity and we felt safe in the knowledge that the vague threats posed by black masses in unseen townships could and would be dealt with by the police as they had been in the past.

By 1986, however, the writing was on the wall for South Africa and it read: “Get out now!” It was a message my father took seriously enough to book our look-see trip to Sydney, which in turn crystallised his decision to emigrate. The ramparts of apartheid were being eroded from within and without. Despite the assurances of Ronald Reagan that South Africa had “eliminated the segregation we [America] had in our own country” and Margaret Thatcher's attempts to prevent Britain and the Commonwealth countries from taking joint measures against apartheid, the international pressure being brought upon the apartheid regime was hitting where it hurt.

The American Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (over Reagan's veto) which outlawed air links between the United States and South Africa, prohibited new investment and bank loans to the country, banned a range of South African imports and threatened to cut off military aid to allies suspected of breaching the international arms embargo against South Africa.

The South African government's attempts to placate the international community with a new constitution that introduced coloured (mixed race) and Indian voters into a three-house parliament divided on racial lines backfired. Black South Africans – the overwhelming majority of the population – saw it as a slap in the face and pointed out that an inherently discriminatory system can never be reformed. Only disbanded.

Petty regime window-dressing such as the repealing of bans on interracial sex and marriage, the reservation by law of particular jobs for whites and the permissibility of sporting contests between teams of mixed races only steeled the resolve of the protest movement.

While proudly proclaiming its reform program to the world, the apartheid government was taking a brutal approach to quelling the growing black resistance. On 12 June 1986 the government legalised despotism by declaring a state of emergency across the nation. During this time newspapers were published with inch after inch of copy blacked out as directed by government censors, and coverage of unrest was prohibited in the electronic media. As you do when you have titanic human rights violations to hide. Under the provisions of the state of emergency legislation, thousands were detained in solitary confinement without being brought to trial and without the knowledge of their family, friends or lawyers. During this period the police commissioner was empowered to ban any meeting he saw fit.

It was at one of these banned meetings that I first tasted tear gas. Equipped with a physique I describe as lanky but the rest of the universe insists on labelling skinny, I took to distance running with much enthusiasm and a slew of fifth places in the 800, 1500 and 10,000 metre events. When a Run For Peace around a nearby lake was announced, I believed the cause was so worthy and the event so benign that my parents didn't need to know that I planned on attending.

The starting gun at these events was usually fired at around 7 am so as to minimise traffic disruption and protect participants from unnecessary heat exposure. The liniment-scented crowd gathered in the usual way: lithe black distance specialists who loped along like gazelles and would account for the required kilometres before most of the field had hit the halfway mark loitered at the front of the pack. Behind them were the committed endorphin junkies who pounded pavements daily, followed by an assorted rabble of social joggers, teens and those who knew they would ache the next day but wanted to make a statement with their feet which was too dangerous to verbalise.

As tracksuits were shed and final stretches dispensed with, a convoy of fifteen yellow utes, each equipped with a cage welded to the flatbed, roared into a semicircular formation around thirty metres from the start line. Their doors sprung open and out poured police in riot gear. With rifle butts pressed into their shoulders, they dropped to one knee and trained barrels on the runners. From somewhere behind this line of sanctioned aggression came a slow voice on a bullhorn that screeched with feedback.

BOOK: Are We There Yet?
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