In the run up to the 1987 election, Christopher Hope returned to his native South Africa after a 12-year absence. The nature of that year's whites-only election and the bitter defeat of the liberals led him to write this satirical, evocative portrait of what it looked and felt like growing up in a country gripped by an absurd, racist insanity. Full of exquisite and despairing descriptions, Hope weaves together journalistic commentary and his own personal story as he encounters the bloody battles that have divided his homeland. This is a mordantly witty account of escape, displacement, and disillusionment, and a modern classic of journalistic memoir.
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About the Author
Christopher Hope is the author of Kruger's Alp, which won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction; Serenity House, which was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize; and My Mother's Lovers and Shooting Angels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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The Stone in the Tree
THE BAR OF the one hotel in Balfour on Saturday night is a roaring place: a beery, echoing, concrete vault where dim, butter-yellow electric bulbs sway from the ceiling in the draught whenever the swing doors open to admit another customer and the whole room seems to tilt alarmingly. This is a small, nondescript Transvaal town, a dorp, population a few thousand, surrounded by rich fields of maize, just another stop on the national road running from Johannesburg, eighty kilometres behind you, down to the south coast, to Durban and the beaches of the Indian Ocean, six hours' drive away. Today the main road bypasses the town and robs it of its main distinction: no one needs to pass through Balfour any more. Gone are the days when lethal cavalcades of motor cars raced down the broad main street, pausing at the filling stations, days when it was, in a serious way, a place on the map.
If you believed your eyes, you might suppose that the Balfour Hotel possessed a restaurant, because that is what the sign above the front veranda tells you, and a ladies' bar, although no lady would be seen dead in the bar and should one be incautious enough to walk anywhere near this place a couple of heads will push through the tiny triangular window beside the back door and make a variety of outrageous suggestions. The heads belong to the four drunks, in sports shirts, khaki shorts and bare feet, who are playing snooker on the half-sized table which standsbetween the bar and the dart-board. The snooker players take these liberties because real ladies, which is to say – White women – are not to be found near the Balfour Hotel on a Saturday evening, and certainly would not be deceived by the faded sign which promises them a bar of their own.
Not only does the Balfour Hotel lack restaurant and ladies' bar but there is really no hotel either. But there is, just off the stoep, a noisy tavern which sells a good deal of booze and has some rooms attached to it, though these are not easy to book and are hardly ever used since the main coast road bypassed the town. The bar is crowded with White men drinking ice-cold lager, triple brandies and Cokes, or double cane spirits weakly diluted with a variety of mixers ranging from lemonade to ginger ale. There are three species of drinkers: on the stools around the big curved wooden bar are the taciturn imbibers who chase their brandies with lager, farmers who bring their teenage sons with them, fair-haired barefoot boys straight off the tractors, silently sipping orange juice. These serious drinkers do not linger, they swallow, nod and depart. Behind them stand the local football team, cheerful young men still in their red jerseys and white shorts, their ears rubbed raw from the scrum, knees scraped by the tackles of the afternoon game, knocking back a few rounds of beer to rinse the dust of the rugby pitch out of their mouths. Over at the snooker table the drunks pot and miss, show no signs of leaving and you can tell just by looking at them that they have been here since mid-afternoon and plan to make an evening of it.
I have come to Balfour because this is where I began. My Irish grandfather was mayor of this town many times in the 'twenties and 'thirties, and my family was once at home here for reasons which are as characteristic as they are curious. I have driven the hour from Johannesburg, arriving on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April to find the Balfour Hotel unprepared to receive a guest. The fact that a reservation has been made serves only to increase the scepticism of the clerk behind the desk, a frowning woman who assures me that I have found her here quite by chance and no record of my booking exists. In case I should wish to take the matter any further she is quick to tell me that she is only 'helping out', and if this fails to deter, that she has just 'stepped in' to assist the owner who is 'unavailable', as well as being 'out of reach' and is not expected to return in 'the foreseeable future'. The way she delivers these warnings suggests that he might never return at all – at least not while I am here. She stands looking at me: thin, tense, dark-haired and defiant. Something in her manner and the jut of her chin intimate that this is my chance to rethink my idea of spending a night here; it is something that can very easily be done, as she demonstrates with a gesture towards her book; the blank space makes clear that I am not expected. I have only to walk away and no one will ever be any the wiser. In reply, I take out my pen; I even ask about breakfast. From the light in her eye I realise I have given her another weapon. Breakfast is a problem, she says, on Sunday.
'What's the problem?'
'It's the current.'
'Do you mean the electrical current?'
'Yes. At eight o'clock on Sunday mornings they cut off the current. It's very hard to cook breakfast.'
I say I will risk it. With a shake of the head she pushes the book across to me and asks for a signature. I sign. She hands me the key to my room, a great metal tooth wired to a piece of wood brown as a beetle's wing and shaped like the triangular wafers they stick in ice-cream. A waiter is summoned to help me with my bag. He steps out of the shadows with a look approaching despair on his face, a wizened little Black man dressed in a red jacket and black trousers so old and rumpled they blend with the shadows which hang about everywhere in the hotel because the little yellow lights never reach below the waist. The waiter is astonished by the order to assist me. His role in life is to carry drinks between the bar and the gloomy little lounge. Carrying luggage is a job so far outside his scheme of things that he must feel the earth tremble at the suggestion. He shakes his head incredulously when I attempt to hand him my case and gives a deeply apologetic laugh mixed with a note of sadness, and strokes my sleeve as one might soothe an idiot child. Eventually I pick up the case myself. He stands and watches me carrying it upstairs and begins fanning me vigorously with his metal tray, either in the hope that this might bring me to my senses, or because he believes the cool breeze at my back will somehow help me to get the load upstairs.
On the first-floor landing there are paintings of seascapes screwed to the walls. White-capped waves tower above an icy green swell. Perhaps in the days when people still stopped at the Balfour Hotel these acres of ocean reminded holidaymakers on their way to the Durban beaches of the pleasures, or perils, that lay in store for them. But in the dark of the stairway they give off the hard, baleful gleam of pictures that know they are never looked at.
I had asked for a room with bath and a bath there is, but it does not work. The radio offers four channels but only one of them functions and cannot be switched off, I discover, but only turned down; so it goes on playing Afrikaans dance music through a scratchy accompaniment of static which makes it sound as if the notes are being forced through a thick beard. The only other diversion is the Gideon Bible, which has been used to kill flies. Their dried, flaky corpses embroider the red plastic cover. The business of the dry bath and the single channel radio that never stops rather affects me, principally because they are familiar symptoms of Africa – and this is what makes them so unfamiliar in South Africa which, after all, prides itself on not being part of Africa, but as being a place where the radio might be stultifyingly boring yet reception is always sparkling, where the plumbing works, where there might be racialists thick on the ground but they bathe often, believing cleanliness to be not only next to godliness but very close to apartheid as well. The sages teach that everywhere else in Africa tractors may rust in the fields and railway lines stop dead in the veld, but this is not supposed to happen in South Africa. Perhaps in the Balfour Hotel they are trying to erode these old prejudices; certainly the place could fit into any African country you care to mention. Possibly the old notion that even the worst of ours is better than the best of theirs really is breaking down. Anyway, this hotel is nothing more than a name, it could be painted on the veld, a figment of someone's imagination, built and run by absent owners who had once seen a picture of a hotel and taken it from there.
The bedclothes smell of dust and outside my window doves are loud in the oaks. As night comes on they call more loudly, long, blushing, trilling notes, like telephones ringing in the trees, until one by one they stop abruptly, as if the calls are being answered. Somewhere below I can hear a booming roar which, at first, I think might be a boiler somewhere deep in the belly of the building, but which, I am to discover, is the sound of the snooker players in the downstairs bar.
Arriving in the peace of a Saturday afternoon the town, in the way of many small South African towns preparing for the long silence of the Sunday to come, lies as if stunned in the brilliant sunshine and the sky has that polished gun-metal sheen so characteristic of the Transvaal highveld as autumn draws on. Though blazingly warm for mid-April the heat carries an almost imperceptible sharpness, a most delicate razor's edge to the faint breeze; a touch of steel on the warm neck which reminds those who feel it that the sunshine is really just for show and summer has gone. The main road, running north to south, is broad and empty, lined with one-storey shops, filling stations, a municipality building in yellow brick, and two banks, Barclays and Standard. Rumours reaching observers abroad have suggested that such financial institutions are pulling out of South Africa. If so, the news clearly has not yet reached Balfour. The only things moving in the main street are the election posters roped to the lampposts, showing once vividly coloured photographs of the candidates, now fading in the sun. A sense of weariness stamps the posters, the candidates' smiles seem stiff. We are already three weeks into this campaign, another three to go before White voters set off for the polls on May 6th. The posters are strapped to the lampposts at a height which makes it difficult to interfere with them. Mutilating your opponent's posters is a traditional sport at election time; but of course nothing is too high when you possess a ladder and a bit of determination and, doubtless, these posters are patrolled regularly since there is so much time still to run and the parties contesting this seat will be taking no chances. The colours of the posters are all noticeably alike; this is because they all use a great deal of orange, a colour which dominates the South African flag since it combines uneasily with the other two colours, white and blue. The effect of this combination is to induce, at least in me, an unsettled feeling, not unlike motion sickness – odd sensation in a country where so little moves.
The flag is revered as a sacred symbol combining, at its very centre, the flags of the former Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Free State, as well as a tiny Union Jack, reminders of vanished and glorious independencies on the one hand, and hated imperial domination on the other – twin themes which retain their potency in this country where history is re-lived with avengeance and the defeat of republican ideals by the British, not once, but twice in the Boer Wars of 1880 and 1899, stirs bitter memories. The furies still ride and their shapes will be glimpsed soon enough through the shot and shell of this all-White, autumnal election of 1987. Altogether there are 470 candidates nominated to fight 166 seats. Another twelve seats are nominated. Whites comprise around fifteen per cent of the population. What is known is that the ruling National Party will win. It always does. Most of the country's three million Afrikaners and increasing numbers of English-speakers, who together total around one and a half million, support it – though this time that support is widely expected to be shaken as never before.
High on the telephone poles the election posters rattle drily: smiling pale faces, barred and stamped with slogans, flags and party logos, which resemble tribal markings, the facial scarification of the White African tribe. Identifying the contesting parties in these bruising encounters takes unusual skill. You want first to identify the species. It is a bit like reading spoor in the bush, following the signs that show which kinds of game have passed this way. It has been over a dozen years since I last observed a White South African election at close quarters and the signs are now even more confusing, but I have, as a single advantage, the fact that I can recall almost all of the others except the first and most fateful in 1948 when I was four years old and the Government of Afrikaner Nationalists came to power. I carry the effects of that election within me, rather as one might wear the marks of some fateful atomic explosion imprinted on the genes, locked in the marrow. Those of us born in the aftermath of that explosion grew up amid the fall-out. Subsequent elections revive memories of the original blast which we have, perhaps, suppressed – memories not from the mind, but those that lie just beneath the skin.
Today, all the political parties have reduced their names to initials and their messages are more encoded. Chief among the parties still is the National Party, or NP, its members familiarly known as 'Nats', political home of the Afrikaner, the force which has reigned supreme these forty years, now the natural party of government, the party which invented constitutional apartheid, confident possessor of over two-thirds of the elected seats in the House of Assembly in Cape Town where Parliament sits.
To the right of the National Party stand two proudly reactionary groupings: the Conservative Party, alias the CP, and the tiny Herstigte (the Reconstituted or Reformed) National Party, known as the HNP. The CP and the HNP attempted to form a loose coalition for the election but failed to do so despite assistance rendered to this end by what might be called the military wing of the far-right Afrikaner groupings, an organisation known as the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging, the AWB or, in English, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, which is to the Conservative Party what the IRA is to Sinn Fein. The AWB has all the trappings of the militias that once brought terror to the streets of Germany in the 1930s. This organisation, with its swastika of the three sevens toe to toe in a circle, its red, white and black flags and its enthusiasm for guns and muscle, is known in English as ARM, one of those unhappily appropriate coincidences so familiar in South Africa, the best-known example of which dates from the time when the secret police were designated the Bureau of State Security, and came to be known as BOSS.
The aim of the White Right is to return to the dogmas of racial purity which have guided Afrikaner Nationalists during their decades in power, to revive the belief in total racial and cultural partition of the four main population groups: Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians, and to restore segregated amenities ranging from separate beds to segregated lavatories. Now of course it may seem to the naïve visitor, to the child, or to the fool, that the Government of South Africa has made only the slightest concession towards the Black majority and the tiniest genuflection in the direction of racial mixing, but even this little is too much for the far right, who declare that the merest tincture of poison introduced into the sacred well of racial purity will kill the tribe. Their election posters trumpet their anger and frustration:
FIGHT INFLATION STOP INTEGRATION SAVE THE NATION!
WE'VE HAD ENOUGH!
It requires a particularly warped imagination, shot through with the most macabre humour, to portray the governing National Party as the agent of racial betrayal. Is this not the party of the men who invented apartheid? Of Dr Daniel François Malan, its first leader, who took his people from the oppression and penury of the 'thirties and 'forties into the promised land of power in 1948? Is it not the party of the unabashed White supremacist, Johannes Gerhardus Strydom, who entrenched that power in the 'fifties? Of Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, the dreamy, unyielding visionary who formulated the philosophical concept of grand apartheid known as separate development? Of Balthazar John Johannes Vorster, who declared in the sixties that the National Party was not merely a political movement but Afrikanerdom on the march?
This may be a small-time Transvaal town, but it is the country seats which provide the Government with their power-base and not the great cities. And the Transvaal is the province which dominates the country; the place where power resides, the lair of the political wild-men. 'Be kind to animals' say the bumper stickers, 'Hug a Transvaler!' There is more truth in bumper stickers than was ever dreamt of by official propagandists.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "White Boy Running"
Copyright © 2018 Christopher Hope.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
PART I The Stone in the Tree,
PART II Visiting the Elephant Bird,
PART III Good Morning, Lemmings!,