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A Great Mosaic

Today is Heritage Day when South Africa celebrates its new nationhood and great diversity. There is an arresting intrigue about all this. The puzzle is to come to terms with a country which is one, yet has no characteristic culture; that has histories growing from different roots, but common issues everywhere; and even environments that range from mediterranean flora to bush, desert to grassy plains, and alpine mountains to sub-tropical forests.

I have just returned from two months roaming this enigmatic land that seems to me like a mosaic of many and contrasting parts. Here are a few snapshots and reflections.

My journey started in Cape Town, a Dutch town, built by Asian slaves, developed by the British empire. It is laid back, sophisticated, and like its climate, very mediterranean. Cape TownAt Hermanus I watched whales playing with their newborn calves near the cliffs, as if to entertain us. Looking out into Walker Bay I thought of the Birkenhead, where the sailors stood to attention as she sunk and cried 'women and children first!' starting an honourable tradition.

I journeyed through the wheat fields and high skies of the Overberg and the intimate ancient woodlands of the Garden Route. I stayed in Grahamstown for the annual arts festival, the second largest in the world. A woman in a tie-die caftan showed me her fairy mobiles that float mystically in the air, and her range of ornamental mushrooms. She sells them at her stall every year. There were lots of stalls like that.

Beyond Grahamstown, the dry rolling grassy plains are peppered with the traditional small round thatched houses of the Xhosa. Lesotho HutTheir cattle graze on the tough grass, ready to be given in bride-wealth or sacrifice. Climbing a long pass I came to the wooded plateau of Hogsback. The lush scenery inspired the imagination of JRR Tolkien. Within the waterfalls, giant trees and lofty mountains there is a settlement called 'Hobbiton'.

Entirely land locked by South Africa is Lesotho, the tiny mountain kingdom where the land is owned by the people and there are no fences. I followed the deep valley of the young Orange River, the road is a dirt track perched high up the valley side. Occasionally I passed a loose cluster of wattle and daub round thatched houses, with brightly coloured door frames. Children would charge from the hills, grinning wildly and crying 'sweets!'.Lesotho Children I had brought two full catering bags for their pleasure. Sometimes as I drove I could see a herd boy leaning on his stick, motionless, high up the valley side, watching my progress along the long dusty road. These youths are the backbone of the economy, as they spend their days leading cattle over the dry mountains to pasture.

From the mountain kingdom I rolled over the lovely lush hills of Natal. English homes and tea rooms, more typical of Surrey, sit among banana trees or overlook tropical lagoons or the endless beaches on the Indian Ocean. From the Natal hills that Shaka granted the British I entered Zululand. It is lush countryside. The lakes and beaches of St Lucia defy a quick description - they are too beautiful. And in amongst the dense bush and low trees, unseen from the road, are the vast multitude of Kraals where Zulu families live, teaching their children the great depth of culture, of spirituality and warrior history carried down from the days of Shaka, Dingaan and Cetshwayo.

From Zululand north, to the brash streets and imperious new buildings of Sandton, Johannesburg. Then west into the endless silence, the spartan landscape, the emptiness of the Great Karoo. This vast and endless dry wilderness of stony plains and rocky mounds is sparsely covered with threadbare bush. The occasional sheep or ostrich stares at your passing. But there is an uncanny interruption to the landscape, four great domes that sit atop a high hill near a settlement called Sutherland. Here astronomers have applied sophisticated technology to pursue the ancient human fascination with the stars. Soon there will be a fifth dome, for a telescope 10m wide, the second most powerful in the world.

Sutherland is the coldest place in South Africa and one of its most isolated towns. I met a man there called Paul. His lined features belie an intrepid life. He is a photographer and a free spirit. Paul will not make, and still less keep, appointments - they might lure him into a life of routine. But he hangs out with farm labourers and passers by, and he is gathering the bizarre tales of the town. With his camera and his pen he is preparing a book about Sutherland called 'It Makes You Shiver'.

Back in the Cape I lingered among the red mountains of the Cederberg. In the deep valleys bushmen once roamed, painting their mysterious art on cave walls, high up on the craggy slopes. Rock ArtSomehow their god Goab still seems alive in the utter silence, transforming himself into the eagle that rests on the high eddies or into the baboon that suddenly barks across the still valleys.

My trip ended in Cape Town after this, but let me take you back to Zululand for a few lines, because I want to write of contrast. The dark bush is dappled by the light of stars. The chatter stops suddenly as the crack of a branch carries across the silent night. Could it be a leopard prowling over an unsuspecting Nyala or Waterbuck? Will it now attack? There are a magical few moments and we are still, tense for action, holding fast for further sound. On this occasion it did not come. The ease of the night returned and our ranger resumed his discussion of the habits of bushbabies and nightjars.

I am at a game reserve called Phinda. The game drives are fascinating. The Lodge accommodation is fabulous, the food fantastic. The following day I visit some of the neighbouring villages of the reserve - Mavuso, Mduku, Makhasa. My guide is a Zulu named Isaac Tembe, a community development worker employed by Phinda. I guess that one night at Phinda would be equivalent to seven months income for one of these villagers. The reserve has created a trust fund that Isaac administers to support these communities.

We visit a school and job training centre largely constructed by the Fund. Zulu KidsThe children are smartly dressed in uniform, although some walk 15 miles through the bush each day to get there. Isaac has brought the headmaster a monitor for the computer given by the trust. The headmaster is portly and dark, and a little world weary, but dignified. The staff gather to see the computer. Someone cranks up the generator and a 100ft lead is found to trail power across the school yard to the office. The screen flickers into life to general relief and pleasure.

I would like to find words to describe South Africa, to say its culture and characteristics are this or that. But I cannot. At Phinda you can drive from one valley to the next and go from rocky cliff to river, bush to sand forest, grass to woodland. On a grander scale the whole country is like that and so are its people. They are together and yet a mosaic. For now, you can describe each part in clear detail but the whole is not in focus. But it is emerging as the success stories from the classrooms of Zululand rub shoulders with the businessmen of Sandton.

I cannot know what South Africa will look like when all its children are taught the honour of the Birkenhead alongside the bravery of Zulu warriors, and tales of fairies and hobbits sit beside those of Goab. What sort of nation will arise from the chemistry of the heritage we celebrate today of Asians and Africans and Caucasians, and what will happen as the technology of the modern world brings world scientists to Sutherland and computers to the herdboys of Lesotho and Xhosa villagers. Don't ask me now, but I will try to keep you informed.
 


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