Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The White Side of Life

By Rob Gaylard

Donald McRae left SA (to avoid military service) in 1984 and has made a successful career for himself in the UK as an award-winning writer and journalist. In Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years, he turns from the worlds of professional boxing (Dark Trade, 1996) or boxing and athletics and politics (In Black and White, 2002) or the drama of the world's first heart transplant (Every Second Counts, 2006) to write about the drama of his own life. McRae brings to bear his skills as researcher and journalist to produce an honest and dispassionate autobiographical account of what it was like to grow up white in SA in the years when apartheid was at its height. It is an unassuming and absorbing story, although much of it may be familiar - at least for an SA reader.
The central theme is its exploration of what it meant to grow up in a privileged white cocoon in the heyday of apartheid - a central trope of much SA writing. This means it is also a coming-of-age story, a story of the gradual loss of innocence as young Donald's eyes are gradually opened to the nature of the world around him. As with many such stories, there is the awkwardness of adolescence and of first sexual encounters (the more significant of these often involve crossing some cultural or racial line, hence the book's title) - but do not expect anything erotic or even confessional. Despite the personal nature of this memoir, there is a restraint in the telling: there is little sustained introspection, and little sensory detail.

The growing boy is part of a deeply divided and distorted society - and there is trouble brewing below the surface. "Our lives were sweet and easy" - but questions begin to arise. These questions are prompted in part by SA's growing sporting isolation - this is a sports-mad young boy, who longs to see his heroes compete on the international stage. There is also a growing awareness of the strangeness of the life led by the family's domestic worker, Maggie, who lives in a room in the back garden, seldom sees her children, and has the occasional night visitor.
Early on he also begins to ask innocent questions about the army (Who was the enemy? Why do all white boys get called up?). The army casts a progressively deeper shadow over his life, and becomes the issue that leads to a break between himself and his parents. He first defers conscription by studying at university, and when time finally runs out for him, he goes into self-imposed exile in the UK.
The book explores the pain and difficulty of these choices: hovering over his head is the (unspoken) charge of betrayal - of both family and country. His radicalisation as an undergraduate at Wits, plus his two-year stint as the only white teacher at a high school in Soweto, deepen his conviction that the army is to be avoided at all costs.
Yet this is not a story of heroic resistance: McRae does not become a conscientious objector; he does not join the underground resistance or become a trade unionist. Playing off against his more ordinary story is the story of those who were prepared to put their lives on the line and risk everything.
The book's most powerful and harrowing chapters describe the arrest and torture of, principally, Auret van Heerden, and Neil Aggett, and, to a lesser extent, Liz Floyd and Barbara Hogan. McRae takes the perhaps controversial liberty of dramatising these events, and writing as though he were a witness. One assumes that he does this with the consent of the people whose ordeals he describes (although, of course, Aggett could not give this: he died in detention). For those who think the past can or should be buried, these chapters should perhaps be required reading. One gains the impression that for the author, the writing of this book amounts to paying a debt of conscience.
The book's more personal theme concerns the author's growing estrangement from his father, who as head of Eskom ("Mr Electricity") played an important role during the transition.
This "family war" is a kind of counterpoint to the war being fought on the border. However, his father was willing to risk a clandestine night-time meeting with members of the ANC underground in Soweto. So the book is also a belated tribute to an unacknowledged hero, Ian McRae, who stayed and tried to introduce change where he could.
Under Our Skin is an honest account of the difficulties and confusion of growing up white in apartheid SA. Its understated narrative is quietly compelling. The section dealing with detention and torture is the fruit of painstaking archival research and investigation of court records, as well as personal interviews, all of which help to guarantee reliability. While it records the impact of more public events such as June 16 and the death of Steve Biko, the death in detention of Aggett clearly registers at a deeper, more personal level, and is the central organising event of the narrative.
McRae's book will prompt reflection and promote understanding; however, its restrained narrative doesn't necessarily make for memorable writing. - published July 1, 2012

Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years is published by Simon and Schuster (London) and distributed by Jonathan Ball 

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