Like many citizens of nations that exist on the global fringes of great wealth and power, we take pride in identifying South Africans who have excelled in the bigger, wider world — however slender their links are to this country.
For instance, local fans of JRR Tolkien’s enduringly popular fantasies — The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings — will insist on mentioning that he was born in Bloemfontein. That he spent about seven minutes in the country at the mostly pre-verbal stage of childhood — he left in 1896 age four — is no deterrent to the South African need to claim a bit of his fame.
One Tolkien website describes his early life in the wild south: “His memories of Africa were slight but vivid, including a scary encounter with a large, hairy spider, and influenced his later writing to some extent.” An early Shelob prototype, perhaps?
It’s Six Degrees of Separation, South Africa style.
Left the country when your milk teeth were wobbling and now captain England’s cricket team? Sorry, Andrew Strauss, you’re South African. Departed these shores in nappies and grew up in New York to form the Dave Matthews Band? Ha! You’re still South African, Dave.
Other minor league nations play this game, too, even when they can boast of only one export that the rest of the world can relate to. What do most of us think of first when we think of Argentina? Diego Maradona. Sudan? Alek Wek. Iceland? Björk — unless she’s been upstaged by bankruptcy. Australia? Er, RussellCroweNicoleKidmanCateBlanchett and Steve Irwin.
Still, South Africans play the game more seriously than anyone. Roger Federer was born and bred in Switzerland. Allegedly. But his mother’s a South African and he holds dual citizenship! He’s ours until those Swiss cows come home.
When I asked my colleagues for a list of famous South Africans who’ve lived elsewhere for so long it’s moot to claim them (not Charlize, she still reeks of Benoni), I received dozens of names. Like Elon Musk, the Californian IT billionaire who matriculated at Pretoria Boys’ High, then left the country, age 17, to avoid the call-up because “serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time”. Actor Richard E Grant came up, too, even though he was born in Swaziland (not a border worth splitting) and swung by the UCT drama department on his way out.
Of course, South African pride has a dark side: if you’re an ordinary citizen who leaves the country never to return (I can’t bring myself to use the “e” word) you’re a traitor and instantly become an ex-South African.
The name Belinda Bauer might not ring big bells for South Africans, but she is both my sister and the author of a new crime thriller called Blacklands (Random House), which has got reviewers from the New York Times to the BBC gushing since its release in the UK, Europe and the US two weeks ago and has sold more than 5 000 copies in England alone. (See this week’s Books section if you don’t believe me).
Anyway, Belinda has lived in England and — now — South Wales since age 18. She wasn’t born in South Africa, but she spent 10 years here as a child. That counts, right? So I took the opportunity to test her general knowledge of South Africa and her links to this country. You be the judge. But, when she’s more famous than Dan Brown, don’t come crying to me.
Charlotte Bauer: Do you ever feel like you betrayed South Africa by leaving?
Belinda Bauer: Yes. But now that my book is being published “back home”, as I like to call it, I hope the nation will forgive me and take me to its cash register, er, I mean, heart.
CB: Do you like Five Roses tea and Marie biscuits?
BB: Is this a rhetorical question?
CB: What do you think about polygamy?
BB: A husband shared is a husband halved. How can that possibly be bad?
CB: How about setting your next novel in South Africa?
BB: I would love to. Unfortunately I have just completed my second novel and it had to be set on Exmoor again to satisfy the demands of my publishers. However, I have planted many many many South African references in ALL my books and offer cash prizes to genuine South Africans who can spot them, list them all in order and rush them back to me by the date they will find in coded clues scattered throughout. All entries to be accompanied by a R100 entry fee and an original SA birth certificate (non-returnable).
CB: Your first paperback print run in England is 50 000 copies and you’ve entered the Top 50 at No 24. In South Africa there are only about five people who actually buy books, but they are very loyal. Do you have any words for them?
BB: Yes. Breed.
CB: Do you know Roger Federer?
BB: No, but he looks South African.