The African hands that reached out to help a British journalist
For six years David Smith watched the whole of Africa, for one-time Mail & Guardian parent publication the Guardian, from a base in Johannesburg. In that time the M&G carried many of his dispatches from elsewhere on the continent, and the occasional piece about South Africa too, with a unique insider-outsider perspective. Now posted to Washington, Smith reflects on a Machiavellian Jacob Zuma, a warped Robert Mugabe, and the people of South Africa and the continent who won his admiration.
A few days after the birth of Henry, our first child, we are standing inside the United States consulate in Johannesburg.
His mother is American and black; I am British and white. The registration form requires us to state his race. Black? White? My pen hovers over the boxes for a moment. Then I realise: I can tick both.
It is May 2012 and I’m nearly halfway through my spell living in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is still alive, Oscar Pistorius is still a divine inspiration and Marikana is still an obscure mining town few have heard of. But already, here and on the rest of the continent, it is clear the issues are no longer black or white. And nothing could be described as grey.
Johannesburg would come to feel like home – Henry and our daughter, Viola, were born there – yet, in the end, we were only passengers on the train. As an interracial couple, Andrea and I often attracted stares as both disconcerting anomaly and glimpse of a future slowly coming into focus. In South Africa, our children drew the breath of life, but death was all around – claiming people we knew, people we didn’t, people I wrote about.
We would soon discover that, in journalistic parlance, there are “two South Africas” and, for that matter, “two Kenyas”, “two Nigerias” and indeed “two Africas”. Perhaps more than two. Africa is large, it contains multitudes. The banner headline of the early 21st century was “Africa rising”: fast-growing economies, fashion shows, internet entrepreneurs, cool cats sipping gourmet coffee in rescued urban spaces.
Yet in their rush to proclaim the demise of the old, miserable, misunderstood Africa and tell citizens they’d never had it so good, the politicians and captains of industry too often failed to appreciate paradox.
The continent is not immune to the global disease of inequality: boom times in countries such as Angola have left millions behind in megacity squalor. Some of the stars of growth and development, most obviously Ethiopia and Rwanda, are among the worst sinners when it comes to democracy and human rights.
South Africa, so often a country apart, did not escape the volatile swings between giddy euphoria and gloomy self-flagellation.
I arrived in Johannesburg in 2009, setting up home in a bachelor pad in the gentrifying downtown, and the first milestone of my time was the football World Cup a year later.
The symbolism of this continent, so often damned and doomed by the rest of the planet, hosting the biggest showpiece in global sport was impossible to miss.
Only South Africans could come up with such a great show of song, dance and rasping vuvuzelas to defy the predictions of chaos and violent crime, and offer foreign visitors a warm welcome. There would only be one more occasion when I saw that spirit manifest itself: on December 5 2013, when Nelson Mandela died.
Soccer fans celebrate in 2010. (David Harrison, M&G)
Mandela’s last great gift to South Africa was to give it time to get used to the idea of his passing. When, on my first day in the job, I was asked to prepare a “Mandela dies” news report, such talk was still taboo and deemed “unAfrican”. But four years later, there had been so many hospitalisations, so many false obituaries on Twitter, that people were ready and realistic: this was a big, sophisticated country that, contrary to lurid prophecies, was not about to implode in a race war because of the death of one man, however beloved.
In fact, the opposite happened. Soon after the news broke late at night, a multiracial crowd, including children in pyjamas, spontaneously gathered outside Mandela’s Johannesburg home with candles and ANC regalia. And people danced in the streets of Soweto.
Mandela remained loyal to the ANC until the end, but kept his thoughts on the current leadership to himself. The fire of corruption continued to burn through the political forest and found its ultimate expression in taxpayer millions lavished on upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s homestead at Nkandla.
I covered two general elections and interviewed Zuma, one of those Machiavellian politicians who proved much better at dividing and ruling his own party than leading a country. The darkest day of his presidency, and of the post-apartheid era, came on August 16 2012, when police gunned down 34 striking miners at Marikana in the North West.
Some saw this as proof that the ANC had turned its back on the people and was now the defender of the capitalist class – still largely white, laced with a small black elite. Its most penetrating critic was Julius Malema, a flawed, charismatic ANC rebel who formed his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, contending that the political liberation of 1994 had left unfinished business: the economic liberation of millions of young black poor and unemployed.
All this agitation, along with incessant street protests over poor service delivery, frequent power cuts and resurgent crime, fed South African angst and a gift for melodrama.
This giant of the continent likes to put itself on the psychiatrist’s couch and work itself up to the verge of a nervous breakdown. And that, ultimately, will be its salvation.
South Africa’s pugnacious independent media, feisty civil society and robust judiciary won my admiration and filled me with hope. Better to acknowledge a crisis, noisily and rambunctiously, than pretend it doesn’t exist.
After just a week of dating in London, Andrea flew to see me in Johannesburg and that was the end of the bachelor pad. Our honeymoon was at a South African game reserve – there would be plenty of safaris over the years – and an island resort off Mozambique, where one of our fellow guests was a model called Reeva Steenkamp.
Miners commemorate the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre this year. (Paul Botes, M&G)
On Valentine’s day 2013, she would become the most famous gun-crime victim in the world. Within hours of Pistorius shooting her, seasoned Africa correspondents more accustomed to war zones were recast as celebrity door-steppers at his Pretoria home.
It was the story that had everything, and one South African TV executive had the smart idea of launching a dedicated TV channel to live broadcast the “trial of the century”. But there was nothing like being there, witnessing first-hand the jousting of lawyers, the squirming of witnesses and, most unforgettably, the emotional and psychological unravelling of Pistorius himself.
Somalia had a profound impact on me, with its courageous and resilient diaspora surging back to rebuild amid the eerie, jagged ruins of Mogadishu and rediscover a sense of joy on its ravishing beaches.
I was struck, too, by Nigeria, the swaggering and unruly heavyweight of the continent, boasting the biggest population and surpassing South Africa as the biggest economy. To be in Lagos was to be at the beating heart of Africa: the kinetic energy, the babble of commerce, the entrepreneurial inventiveness that even created a floating city built on stilts. And just when the juggernaut seemed ready to crash and burn amid corruption, dysfunction and Islamist terrorism, it produced a peaceful election and the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.
But the country that truly got under my skin was the one I visited most: Zimbabwe. Here was the classic struggle in post-independence Africa between citizens thirsty for multiparty democracy and a leader who claims that only he can hold his nation together. Robert Mugabe – a prisoner-turned-president who espoused racial reconciliation before Mandela – is the only leader the 35-year-old country has ever known and, aged 91, the oldest in the world.
This warped political genius had the last laugh over the West, where he is seen as a pantomime villain; but to millions of Zimbabweans, he is a destroyer of dreams. His indelicate wife, Grace, 50, a pampered shopper turned political attack dog, might even succeed him.
The weird, conspiratorial, sinister atmosphere – in which deaths in “mysterious” car crashes and house fires are not uncommon – makes Zimbabwe feel more like an island than a landlocked country and makes it intriguing to outsiders.
The best climate in the world and ravishing scenery doesn’t do any harm, either. But I think there was something else.
This, I soon discovered, was a land where cricket and football were played. The people I interviewed spoke an ornate, metaphor-rich English no longer spoken in England itself, and the fading department stores reminded me of my childhood in Birmingham. Mugabe himself earned comparisons with a Victorian gentleman who adored the Queen and was never seen in anything but a Savile Row suit.
Robert Mugabe is a ‘destroyer of dreams’ and his wife Grace is a ‘political attack dog’. (Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)
I wonder if this combination – both strange and familiar, satisfying a lust for African adventure but leavened by a nostalgic scent of home –is why Zimbabwe seduces so many British correspondents, even those who despise European colonialism and all it stood for. Indeed, from the Central African Republic to Kenya, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Namibia, the crimes of the Berlin conference that sliced up Africa in the late 19th century still shadow the present.
We are often told to be proud to be British but, in Africa, I found plenty of reasons to be ashamed, too. From food to fashion to the very words people spoke, I could see how my ancestors imposed a colonisation of the mind.
Now I find it impossible to look at the grand municipal buildings and railways stations of towns across Britain without considering the continent that was enslaved, plundered and looted to build an empire.
All this, and so much more. Standing outside a church in a remote corner of the Central African Republic, gathering testimony about the slitting of a four-year-old boy’s throat, a mother being bludgeoned to death and young men being bound and thrown to the crocodiles – probably the most important report I wrote. Getting expelled from Libya by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, then returning to witness its death throes. Meeting rebels in the thickly forested hills of eastern Congo and visiting the ruined palace of Mobutu Sese Seko.
Hiring a helicopter to fly into war-torn Ivory Coast. Driving up a road built by Osama bin Laden to find myself the sole visitor to the ancient pyramids of Meroë in Sudan. Admiring brave activists and journalists in Kenya, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, South Sudan and Uganda. Interviewing South African playwright Athol Fugard, going to countless opening nights at the Market Theatre and wrestling with a mugger who threatened to shoot me for a mobile phone.
And in between, the rather less enchanting waits at grimy airports, the bureaucratic battles for visas, the endless bumpy drives punctuated by checkpoints manned by armed boys, drunkards or bribe-seekers. The journalism was often easy compared with the logistics.
Africa is verdant, life-affirming. The sun was shining when my son and daughter were born. When it came to that registration form at the US consulate, we could define the children as both black and white. This made them unusual, but not ostracised, at school.
Sometimes Andrea and I would go to parties in Johannesburg where almost everyone was in an interracial relationship – but very seldom were both partners South African. Such couples exist but still seem extraordinarily rare. These things take time. “It has only been 21 years since apartheid,” is one view. “It has been a whole 21 years since apartheid,” is another. And of course, both are true.
On my first day in the job in 2009, I was the sole white passenger on a metro train from Johannesburg to Pretoria. As the train took off, I had one foot planted in the carriage, but the other was still on the platform, which was moving away at gathering speed. Suddenly, a hand appeared and yanked me inside. “I hope I remember that first South African hand reached out to me, not to deliver a blow, but to help me aboard,” I wrote at the time.
I did try to remember that hand in South Africa and beyond, and I recognised it again in all the fixers who met me at airports and became guides and friends, the families in distress who insisted on sharing their meal with a stranger, the women who delivered and helped care for my children. And it was there, again, when I bade farewell by tweeting a picture of jacaranda trees blossoming into purple rain as they do, fleetingly, in Johannesburg once a year.
In my first week living in Washington, I have taken taxis driven by men from Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Indeed, many of the cab drivers here have emigrated from Africa. I know each one I meet will have quite a story to tell. – © 2015 Guardian News & Media 2015