A one-man TRC road trip

THE LONG WAY HOME by Dana Snyman (Tafelberg)

This book is not nearly as low-key and quirky as it might at first seem, nor as simple as the plain open-road photograph on the cover might imply. Snyman charts not only a physical journey through South Africa — from the Cape winelands to the site of the Battle of Blood River in KwaZulu-Natal —but also an inner journey towards re-establishing a sense of being at home in his own country.

His family has three centuries of traceable history in South Africa, ­dating from 1690 when an Indian slave woman became the great female ancestor of all the Snymans when she bore the child of one Schneider (which became the Dutch Snyman) in Cape Town.

So many South African families have this sort of mixed race history one wonders how the lunacy of ­racism grew into such a monster.

Snyman drives where his fancy takes him; conversations in wayside cafés, random newspaper headlines and taking the time to look properly at people in his surroundings lead him to investigate such phenomena as AllPay and a bank robbery in the remote little dorp of Pofadder, which certainly did not form part of the landscape of experience in the 1970s when he grew up.

Two of his chapters consist of only one sentence. The first states that in 2011 between 12-million and 15-million people in South Africa survive on state grants; the second notes that there are 50 000 whites living in squatter camps and other inferior housing.

This turns out to be a sort of one-man TRC road trip; what sets it apart from other accounts of journeys is not the rich idiosyncrasy of the anecdotes and observations, but the ongoing conversation that Snyman conducts with his father by cellphone, and inside his own head.

Old man Snyman is battling a dicey heart, swollen feet and general ­weakness, but is still holding out in his modest little house in Ventersdorp, where he is well cared for by Johannes Bogotsi. Johannes takes issue with Snyman when he is too hard on his father, and also moves from calling the old man Oubaas to a better name, Ouboet.

The father-son conversations are rendered in considerable complexity, with analyses of the meaning of silences, and the use of third-person pronouns, as well as reflections on what he calls “Pa’s unrelenting ‘they’”, for example, with regard to the bank robbers.

Although Snyman understands exactly how his father manipulates him into the same old quarrels about politics, it is not an easy task to break with the old ways and the old perceptions.

How powerful a struggle this is comes out when one realises that old man Snyman was a white artisan, a fitter and turner, and then, when he became a dominee, was chaplain general to the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner resistance movement) for eight years.

Snyman ends his trek in KwaZulu-Natal, where he visits the site of the Battle of Blood River, and also revisits the mythology that grew up around this. The set of rules in the museum there, which he quotes in detail, shows that fear and suspicion are just beneath the surface for many visitors.

The Long Way Home is an extremely good read, honest, funny and realistic, on the subject of a country and its people — it has interesting references to the writings of FA Venter, Etienne le Roux and Johannes Kerkorrel, among others, and interviews with neighbours of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. If for no other reason, you should read it to find out who it is who “knows where all the donkeys are buried”.

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Jane Rosenthal
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