A Swallow’s Eye View

We’ve been visiting the False Bay stretch of coastline from Cape Town to its Point together for twenty years.  When I first met my husband I didn’t know he was South African, never heard of his home town: Fish Hoek.  Fish what?

My professional union, the British Actors’ Equity Association had put a ban on working in South Africa in the eighties, so I was never likely to get there.

Soon after we first met, I was with my husband in a local supermarket in the British Midlands.  I hasten to add, he’s only ever visited the inside of one twice since – he comes from a paternalistic background but I digress.  I was buying fruit and turned my then youthful nose up at Cape Grapes.  “I don’t buy those,” I said, to a man I probably thought had been born in Bexhill-on-Sea.  “Why?” he asked.  “Political reasons,” I said.  “You’ve a lot to learn,” he replied.

 When I first stepped off the plane and long flight which took me there in the late eighties, (very long as South African Airways in those days were forced to fly around ‘the hump’ of Africa) I breathed in the clear air and asked my husband why he had ever left.

“You’ve a lot to learn,” he said.  He comes from a paternalistic background …

 Since then I’ve seen the changing seasons of the Cape: watched the outhouses and live-in-maids come and go, seen the queues of elderly first-time voters with hope in their hearts and heels, observed the shifting views of Braai guests.  It’s still tricky having Miranda visit for tea with her new baby, Joy.  She wants to clear the away the dishes and I tell her she is a guest but give her the taxi fare to and from the townships as she leaves: mixed messages and a subscribing to an old regime, all the same.

Shortly before we arrived last year, I was working out in our UK gym when a very British chappie asked me what I was doing for Christmas and New Year.  “Oh, I’d never go there,” he said, with vowels that could cut crystal chandeliers.  “Never support a regime which prevented a very intelligent Chinese chappie – even educated at Cambridge – from staying in a hotel.”

I wasn’t sure that being educated at Cambridge gave one more rights to stay anywhere but this British chappie thought so: an interesting irony.  “But this is a country trying desperately hard to forgive one another and reconcile with each other.”  He was having none of it – there was too much violence – and on my treadmill, I thought wryly of the Cape Grapes and my once youthful ignorance.

But Cape Grapes did not leave me alone.  My husband’s South African forefathers (for he has English forefathers too, you see – we are all simply a pastiche) were sheep farmers in Tulbagh and off we set to discover his roots.  We didn’t know the name of the farm at Twenty Four Rivers, just south of Porterville but my husband, let’s call him Syd now, for that’s his name, said, “If I see a farm with the name Onverwags, then it’s my guess that this was the farm.  When my grandfather sold the farm and moved to Rondebosch in Cape Town, he called his house, Onverwags.

 “What’s ‘onverwags’?”   


 Two minutes later, I swear, there on that hot, dusty main road from Tulbagh to Porterville was a farm called … of course …Onverwags.

 What was it?  You’ve guessed it: a Table Grape Farm.

I have never received such a warming welcome from a manager so keen so show us the refined water system, the mountains where the owner’s brother, flying a light aircraft, hit a second mountain which he did not expect to meet and was instantly killed and the factory where this gentle Afrikaner insisted he took our photo.  He explained to us how the factory workers rejected inferior grapes from the bunches so that the best can be sent to the UK, how his farm is providing good work for so many people and … what do people in the UK think of South Africa?  “Are we not a nation trying very hard?  There are not lions on every road, no.”

No.  There are not lions on every road.  And this is a new nation trying very hard, trying to educate themselves and others.  You cannot understand South Africa without visiting and trading with South Africa and you cannot understand South Africa without visiting the townships.  Why are so many reluctant to do so? 

The townships were invented in 1966 when the white government forcibly evicted black and coloured and Asian homemakers from District Six but things are changing: there are now art centres where potters and hat makers and artists build their businesses and a new black government, with the help of those with lighter skins, are helping each other to build new homes and new lives. You will see pre-school children sing, “My body will not be abused,” and makeshift homes where water and electricity do not run.

Our history is contained in the homes we live in, we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled – Achmat Dangor – Kafka’s Curse.

You will have to travel far to see simpler structures than those which exist in the black townships of South Africa; but not seeing, Mr British Chappie, will not help.

 It is only from the strong and secure foundations of our homes that we may venture out and travel.  Many people have no secure home, money or opportunity to do so but this is a nation under construction.

As I walked away with my free box of grapes, I thought about how much I have learnt about South Africa.

 When we returned to Fish Hoek, we discovered from Syd’s brothers that the Dyer and du Plessis farm had been called Klein Berg. But it’s a nice unexpected story of how I learnt to choose my grapes. 

We go every year to this stretch of coastline where Africa dips its relaxed toe into two oceans and where the answers depend very much on which way the wind is blowing. We are both learning a lot, not just about Cape grapes …