Jack’s mother, my mother’s Aunt May, a dapper woman only five foot tall, went on a world cruise during the late 1950s. Her liner stopped, among other places, in Los Angeles, where she was selected for a television talk-show on which she told lies about South Africa, spoke Fanagalo (passing it off as pure Zulu), invented Afrikaans on the spur of the moment, and generally delighted her hosts and audience. An American friend she made at that time wrote her a concerned letter during the Congolese crisis of the early 1960s. Was she all right?
We joked about this letter, which had Stars and Stripes on the envelope, and it was this misreading of the terrain that first set me thinking about what I would later come to regard as essential-ism. It seemed outrageous to me that someone from America, the fount of such tomes as The Wonder Book of Did You Know? and the Children’s Treasury should be so ignorant, lumping us together with the Congolese through the linking term ‘Africa’. The Congo was as distant from my life as America was, and considera-bly more exotic.
The lumping together of people under linking terms was and remains a preoccupation of South Africans, and if the meta-phoric groove along which the apartheid mentality travelled was race, the furrow that Communists chose was class. Everyone, it seemed to me, had a groove. Tribe, race, religion, language, what-ever arbitrary typology one settled upon, once used to mark difference, caused the same trouble. The eaters of peas revile the eaters of beans and vice versa. Bertrand Russell’s Nightmares of Eminent Persons, which I found in the school library in my first year at SACS, helped me with cunning allegories to see the folly of categorical thinking, the way it is used to inflate difference and inflame hatred, and the essential emptiness of the categories themselves. I found it hard to become enthusiastic about things like school spirit, national politics, or almost any of the projects that aroused the interest of the other boys. I did not care who won sporting contests. It did not occur to me that loyalty to the hierarchical categories and the rewards that such loyalty brings was supposed to replace the emotional comforts of home.
During my first year at SACS, there was a national election for white people. The boarders held a mock election. It was understood that there were two parties: the United Party and the National Party. To me, both were the same: white men in suits. The results of the Michaelis House election were overwhelmingly in favour of the Nats, with the UP getting only about a third of the votes. There was one dissenting vote recorded, for a fictitious party.
I found refuge in books, in making things, and in creating texts, which were for nobody else’s eyes. Much of my first year at high school was given over to designing rocket hovercraft on the fine graph-paper of my black-bound, gold-embossed science experiment book, to making puppets, and writing sonnets in imitation of Shakespeare instead of doing prep. In this I was, of course, travelling a groove dug by my parents and their peers.
New Agers, along with Buddhists and Hindus, would say that I was acting out my karma. I would say so too, but in a different sense – karma is one of a few words that made it from Sanskrit into English, but its original meaning of ‘action’ did not accompany it, except among specialists. For the early users of the word, it is thought, to act meant to express the results of other prior actions and to simultaneously create further repercussions, for acts have consequences. Because the world and our own inner being are profoundly interconnected, many of our actions are over-determined. Our earlier deeds having limited our options, we ascribe to karma the qualities of fate.