The Ghosts of My Ideas

Episode 12: The Ghosts Who Lived in the Black Townships

The square bungalows all looked alike.

Ghosts don’t feature in Twelve Shades of Black, or not in the literal sense. This book isn’t fiction but, rather, a series of interviews which I conducted with black South African men and women living in the townships outside Johannesburg during the apartheid era. Yet, it seemed to me then, that many of them were ghosts – shades of the people they might have been, had they been free to be themselves, outside the confines of their environment.

If some of these interviews seem stilted today it was because blacks were frightened to talk to whites because who knew what might happen to them once they began to open their mouths.

Whites were equally nervous when it came to talking to blacks. Liberal whites paid a price for their views. This was a society in which houses were watched, phones were tapped and innocent friendships between men and women of different races were automatically assumed to have sexual overtones. Puritanical, racist and ill-informed, the architects of apartheid were obsessed with the concept of sex across the colour divide: on the basis of its title alone, Anna Sewell’s enchanting children’s book Black Beauty ­– an ‘autobiography’ of a horse, first published in 1877 – was banned by the South African censor.

Apartheid harnessed sexual fear. So, perhaps not surprisingly, when white people heard that the Belgian photographer Sylvie van Lerberghe and I were going to the townships to research this book, they were convinced that we’d never come out. Two young, blonde white women setting off on such a mission? We’d be raped, we’d be murdered, they said to us, sadly. Instead, we were greeted with warmth and civility. In Soweto, where small dirt roads led out of other small dirt roads and where the thousands of square bungalows all looked alike, our only fear was of getting lost. Sometimes, but not always, the people we met dared to tell us how they really felt about their situation: the poet,Wally Serote, one of the most courageous characters who features in Twelve Shades of Black, had already spoken to me, pouring out the anger which was burning within him.

But, in order to protect themselves, most blacks concealed their true feelings under a mask of politeness. I talked to the priest whose flock took religion with a soupcon of witchcraft. To the canny inyanga whose confidantes paid her on HP for charms. To the millionaire businessman who wasn’t permitted to buy a house of his own. To the talented artist and the shebeen queen and to the others who appear in this book and I wished that they dared to come out of the shadows and reveal more about themselves. And then, one dark evening I was smuggled back into Soweto, lying on the back seat of a friend’s car, covered by a blanket. Whites were not allowed to enter the townships after nightfall: the friend I was with wrapped a dark scarf around his head, put on a pair of black gloves and hoped that we’d get away with it. We were going to the theatre, to see a musical play. The so-called theatre was nothing but a basic hall. There was no stage, no floodlights, no sets and no costumes for the actors – only, more importantly, an explosion of incredible and exuberant talent. Watching spell-bound, it suddenly struck me that here, finally, was the reality we had been seeking. For in pretending to be other people, the cast had truly come out of the shadows into which they had been thrust. They had set aside their protective African masks. Ghosts no longer, they were free, even if only for a night.  

Episode nine: Wonderful Women.

Here is an image out of my childhood: a woman on her knees weeding a field in which turnips have been planted before it’s set out for grass seeds. Around her are her 13 children, the older helping with the weeding: their younger siblings tethered like goats to prevent them wandering off. In a land without opportunity then, Irish women had it tough. Continue reading

Episode four: What happened in Castle Park

Castle Park in ruins

When I was a child my mother’s Catholic family owned most of the land on the Clare-Limerick border. But not all of it… When I walked down the long straight avenue that led from the cottage where I lived and went through the wrought iron gates onto the road, facing me was a high stone wall almost entirely encrusted in ivy. Continue reading