Lala Kahle

Margaret Smith, rest in peace

Gran asked me to speak at her funeral, and I said, laughing, at the time that I did not think I would be able to, but I would try. So, I will try:

The Garden she loved is still growing. But she is not here.

Spring and summer will come, and the chair, in the corner among the lush greenery and the white vine roses, will sit empty.

She will not be there, eyes closed, basking in the Sun’s light, a smile on her face as it warms her skin,

But the plants and flowers still will grow.

She was not a Christian, she was a humanist. An atheist. But she was the most ‘Christian’ person I’ve ever known.

The South African police who jailed and tormented her, who tried, we suspect, to assassinate her by crushing her car between two lorries, and who succeeded in killing many of her friends, they called themselves Christians.

They even gave her a King James Bible in prison (did they expect a conversion, she wondered. She was just glad of something to read, she told me). But they were cruel and unjust, not like the christ those pages tell of, they were not kind nor loving nor humane.

She was, kind and loving and humane, not for appearances, nor from fear, but from empathy.

She could have lived a privileged life in South Africa, but she chose instead to stand up against injustice, even though doing so cost her so much, caused so much anguish.

She gave. She sacrificed.

When I was a small boy staying with her, giving my young mum a break for weekends and school holidays, she gave me the most valuable things you can give to a child: Unpatronising attention, and encouragement, and later, when I was a selfish, foolish, troubled, older boy, she gave me a home.

I tried, in adulthood, to repay her kindness. In what small ways I could.

I’d take her to restaurants to give her a break from the endless fishcakes her frugal diet consisted of.

At one restaurant she gave me a note telling how the Secret Police had caused her, after thirty years of loyal service as a journalist, to be made redundant. She included two press cuttings: one celebrating her appointment as the first female News Editor in Africa, one about the Secret Police’s shaming of her as a ‘terrorist’, the good times and the bad, and the note ended:

“Left without work, far from home, and two daughters to support

“Wanted you – who have been so good to me – to know all the [details]”

She was keen that her struggle be understood, she felt such guilt and sorrow.

Another time, she recalled the ten days of hunger strike she underwent in prison. The uneaten trays of food would be taken back by her visiting family, so she would hide letters under the plates. Messages written with make-up on toilet paper and torn out pages of the aforementioned bible.

She was strong-willed. Strong-willed enough to shun the tantalising dreams of ‘Peri Peri Prawns’ and deny herself food, for her beliefs.

This strength never abated, right to the end. Even when it was so much trouble, she would drag herself out to the shops, bent with age, but driven by determination, out in the community she was committed to, a vital part of. Slow and sure as Aesop’s tortoise.

She was strong-willed and she was humane.

To each of us, to humanity, she gave all she could.

I write this among the piles of photos, in the chair in her flat where I used to sit and talk with her.

And she is not here.

Except in memory.

I see her at the zoo when I was small, hear her laughter at some stupid joke about the Piranha.

I see her, happy, with us last Christmas.

I see her, haunted by anxiety and depression, her ever beautiful face racked with worry.

I see her in hospital, giving a conspiratorial smile as she squeezes my hand.

Remember her fondly, as she deserves to be remembered.

She fought, fiercely, against indignity, for others.

She fought, fiercely against the suffering in the world.

Remember her proudly. We should be proud to have known her, proud to be her kin, proud to have been loved by her. She was bohemian and brave, intelligent, wise, talented. If you think that she was not perfect, then you are right, I am sure, but there are machines that make perfect objects, that can make the same thing over and over again without fault. And then there are craftsman who can only make unique and fragile, beautiful things, that can never be remade.

Margaret was the latter.

She was the heart of our family. And like any heart, if it was at all broken, it only loved more.

She tried, against the encroaching darkness, within and without, to keep us in the sun.

In prison she grew orange pips in the dirt, tiny sprouts grew up towards the light and gave her hope.

In exile, she made a home, she nurtured a garden and she sat there and closed her eyes to the capricious London sun.

Perhaps she felt then, for a spell, that she was home beneath the African sun. But in 1994 she was allowed to return to feel that sun for real. She felt home. She felt whole.

And she is not here, but we are like the garden she found such joy in. The plants and flowers that she tended, the stray animals drawn to her kindness, that she would love, even when, as with the eponymous Black Cat she adopted, that love was sometimes repaid with savage wounds. She loved, unabated. Strong-willed and humane was she.

Now we are left, like her garden. Without her.

But like her half wild, half tamed garden we will flourish, because we were loved.

Heading to South Africa to see her beloved brother in hospital, she wrote me a note:

‘When it comes to crisis time’, she wrote, ‘love really counts, more than anything’

When I think of what she gave, to you, to the world, to me, it was love.

If we can love, at all.

She is here.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.


Black and white

Nelson Mandela has died. As the world reflects on his life and mourns his passing some people, not all of them vicious racists and/or rabid right-wingers, denounce Mandela as ‘a terrorist’ because of the violent actions of the armed wing of the ANC, and while I think it is right to condemn acts which led to innocent lives being lost, I think it is important to do so in context.

The context of course is that of a country divided by racial segregation officially brought into being in 1948 by the National Party that ruled ’til 1994. Apartheid denied many rights to non-white South Africans, such as the right to vote or the right to love freely. In 1960, after the ANC organised protests against the pass laws the South African government made the ANC illegal. Those peaceful protests turned into a massacre of unarmed civilians by the police. 69 deaths were recorded. 50 of whom were women and children.  It was after this state sanctioned mass killing of civilians and the outlawing of the non-violent political party, that the MK, the armed wing of the ANC  came into being.

“[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Nelson Mandela

Contextually we should remember that, as well as the assassinations and deaths in custody of ANC members like Joe Qgabi and Steve Biko, the South African government killed women, like Ruth First, and children, like six year old Katryn Schoon with letter bombs.  To do so they employed people such as the South African secret policeman responsible for that child’s murder, Craig Williamson, and shotgun wielding hit men like Ferdi Barnard. Of course it is a stark truth that every government has its killers and thugs, but just because actions are state sanctioned does not mean that they should be accepted as just.

Bear in mind that the same police whose statistics we rely on to measure the violent actions of the MK, shot civilian men, women and children in the back as they fled. Bear in mind the government death squads, such as the sinisterly named The Civil Co-operation Bureau, and the campaigns of violence and murder they undertook.

I don’t condone violence, but I understand how it might become a desperate person’s or people’s seeming best option against impossible odds, against violence and repression.

To look at the comments barked out across the globe on social media, you might be forgiven for wondering whether Mandela was a saint or a terrorist, as if those are the only definitions possible. Whereas he was a man, a man who struggled in difficult times to bring equality to his people when they faced terrible injustice.

It’s easy, and facile, to impose black and white distinctions of absolute good or absolute evil to situations and the people therein. It is meaningless to do so. Reality is painted in many more colours. Pure white and pure black are actually very rare, if present at all, in nature, the same is true not just of human flesh, but also of human nature:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964

RIP Nelson Mandela.


These are just my thoughts, I make no attempt to order them. This is a repository. Rather than a craft.

Dec 3 2009.

Mortality is keenly on my mind. We live as if it death is a far and distant thing. But it is everywhere. Close to us. Our shadow.

This evening I walked past a motorbike accident. The police and medics kneeling over the felled and quiet rider.

The idiocy – some of it well meaning – of the passers by struck me. One man had parked his car by the side of the road so that it blocked the passage of traffic, yet he had taken to standing by the police car, and making the gestures of a traffic policeman in order to usher the traffic along.

A policeman got out of his vehicle and, rather than praising the gentlemen in the manner he might have been expecting, asked him in a scolding tone to move his car out of the way. The man continued his helpful gestures even as he listened to the policeman admonish him.

A small group of people stood on a traffic island by the injured party – one of them, a balding man with white beard, made half hearted traffic policeman gestures too, I think shyness kept the gusto of his gestures down. I saw one driver slow down and crane his neck to try to get a clear scope of the horror.

I walked fairly briskly past, I did not crane and I did not peer. I was satisfied to see that a motionless motorbike rider was being tended to by the police and a medic or two, there was nothing useful I could do, two people were already guiding the traffic along, and anyway I had just come from my Grandmother’s house, and though I was thinking about how foolish it was that I felt I had to hide my tears from people passing me by, how foolish it is to be ashamed of love, even so, I did not want people to see me, people I did not know, with tears in my eyes.

She is ill. How serious remains to be seen, a specialist’s scrutiny approaches. We know, from the symptoms that it could be terrible. She is scared. I go and see her and help her with practical things. When she leaves the room where we sit together, to get a letter or paper or something, I well up – stinging tears, but I know she finds comfort in me, and so I stifle them, recall the calm and strength of love, and find light and amusing things to say and talk to her about the things that she wants to talk about. If she saw that I was terribly upset, it would upset her.

I owe her my strength. I want to allay her fear, to give her comfort. And I know that I have always been able to make her smile. When I was a little boy she used to sing a song ‘you are my sunshine’, to me, and this was a comfort to me in difficult and confusing times. And I was to some extent a lightness to a terribly hard life that she had endured. But to me, how can I qualify what she is? She is the person who showed me what love is. True, kind, love.

So she writes to me to tell me now, by email, on the computer I got her, that she loves me, and that I am a lovely person. She says my visit has exhilirated her enough to log on to the computer and check her emails.

I write back to tell her that I love her very much, and that if I am a decent person, it is largely because of the love she has given me throughout my life.

Last Friday night she was very ill, breathless, frightened. I went to her and we got a doctor to come over. In the time while we waited we talked about a meeting she had with Lord Joffe, a friend of hers from South Africa. They met on the way up some stairs to a meeting of the fatalistic lobbying society for assisted death that she has long been a fan and active member of.

They both had been friends of Bram Fischer, the South African Lawyer who was arrested by the authorities, detained, humiliated, later to die of Cancer.

My Gran loves to talk of Bram, she admired him deeply. The authorities would not let her visit him, even when he was dying. They were cruel. They hated him most because he was one of them, a white Afrikaner – from a ‘good’ family. His treachery was absolute in their eyes. They kept him in isolation and from hospital as long as they could.

She spoke of how she had been too tired to ascend the steps to the meeting all in one go, and how Lord Joffe had stopped and sat with her on the steps. He was speaking at the meeting.

She told how when he gave his speech to the assembled crowd he said how glad he was to be speaking there, and how glad he was to have met an old friend on the way in, Margaret. He called out to her in the crowd and she waved back to him.

The Doctor came and I stayed in the other room, letting my tears brim and pass in silence, unseen.

My Grandmother is a good woman. And goodness is a rare and wonderful quality. Not to my Gran. She sees good in everyone.

Until recently she belonged to an ANC support group for the old guard, they would meet up and talk. Some of the more set in their ways would insist on discussing revolution.

The young ANC, the young blacks of the new South Africa have formed a new group – to which this ancient vanguard is able to join, but which is clearly distinct from them. They call themselves ‘the special branch’, which my Gran finds amusing – ‘they are too young to remember’. She and her comrades lived in bitter fear of the special branch – the people who would send letter bombs; Assassinate; torture.

Her old support group will remain only as a creche service to look after the children of the young new ANC. I am not too clear on the details. What is clear is that the young ANC, like all the young, wants to distance itself from the old. Finds the talk of revolution embarrassing, outdated. Sees a different world.

Of course, the different world they see came about because of the sacrifices of the old, I think they do respect that, but they are hungry to make the world their own.

My Gran sent the new ‘special branch’ some money to buy Champagne, with a letter wishing them well and sending her fondest regards. They bought Champagne and read her letter out, and they toasted her, she tells me. She is made happy by this. She was never much good at meetings, she never had much to say, she says.

She held her tongue in prison. She left South Africa rather than testify against her friend, Joe Qgabi. Though in time he was assassinated by ‘the special branch’ of apartheid South Africa.

My Gran is an old woman, who has lived and fought with great sadness for much of her life. Terrible things have been. I see her now before the shadow. She is the kind hearted woman who took me to the zoo, who encouraged and listened to me when I was a hurt little boy, she is the woman who, without affectation, gives to those who need. She is what love means to me.

[Update 2012: She is still going strong, in hospital again currently, but doing well. ‘Old age is not for sissies’, she tells me]