Thursday, 6 September 2012

Settler of a different kind

By Rob Gaylard

SA letters has found a fresh, new voice. Rosemary Smith's memoir, Swimming with Cobras (Modjaji Books) covers just over 30 years of a very active life, from her arrival in Grahamstown as wife of a newly appointed English lecturer, to her "retirement" in 1999. This rich and interesting narrative is several things at once. Most obviously it is record of years of dedicated service for the Grahamstown Area District Relief Association and the Black Sash in Grahamstown.
It records how the shifts in the national political arena - from the Soweto uprising to the repression of the mid-80s to the beginnings of the thaw in the late 80s - were registered at the local level.
More than this, however, Smith's memoir records how the drama of alienation and integration played out in her own life, and how her political/welfare work was instrumental in finally making her feel a part of this small Eastern Cape town with its quasi-colonial society. It vividly records her initial discomfort and sense of alienation: the unfamiliar Eastern Cape landscape was a far remove from the "manageable scenery of Oxfordshire" and for some years she continued to feel "the strong seductive pull of English life". This recalls the sense of estrangement felt by many of the original 1820 Settlers: as with them, so here the green fields and country lanes of England form a kind of counterpoint against which to measure this unfamiliar new land. The book shows how a principled lifelong commitment to non-racialism, peace and justice enabled the author to find her feet - and her sense of herself.

In its own unassuming way - the memoir was initially written on "scraps of paper" or scribbled in notebooks - this is also the story of a woman finding her voice and defining her identity. She is very far from being "an appendage, defined by her [well-known academic husband's] identity". She has, in her words, "unlocked [her] diaries and pulled open the drawers of her life to shine a light on a small, but important, slice of South African history".
Liberal, middle-class women are sometimes patronised or diminished by those who move in more ideologically correct, left-wing circles; this book may help to revise these kinds of rather unthinking judgements. As this memoir makes clear, there were many women who, like the author, spent long hours in Black Sash advice offices. They may not have been manning the barricades but they were keeping the score, and their work made a considerable difference to the lives of the poor, black working class people who found their way to their door. Their patient work was also part of the Struggle against oppression. "It was a kind of war we were waging," she comments - a war against a callous and indifferent bureaucracy.
In these ways, then, this memoir is more than the story of one woman's journey: it contributes to the political and social history of our country. It places on record the work of the small group of women in the Black Sash who continued to protest against injustice and to work in the townships, even during the darkest years of apartheid.
The opening chapter is an appropriate introduction: it recalls the work of the TRC and acts as a reminder of just how grim and unrelieved the oppression was.
But this book is very far from being a polemical tract. It is primarily the warm human story of how one woman was able to balance raising a family with the demands of her increasingly politicised work (many of her friends, colleagues and co-workers were detained in the mid-'80s): she describes hiding the jottings that eventually became this book in an ice-cream container in the freezer.
What distinguishes the writing is its vividness and clarity of recall. Amid the personal and political travail there are vivid descriptions of blackberry-picking in the Hogsback, camping on the Wild Coast or swimming in the Kariega River. The book will have special|resonance for those who have lived in Grahamstown, or perhaps in one or other of the small Eastern Cape towns near what was once a contested frontier. It records how the writer came to "find her niche" in this "bewildering town", and her position as insider and outsider gives her observations particular force. The white part of town (and their Market Street house) was situated in peculiarly close proximity to the impoverished black townships, where there are huge levels of unemployment.
Smith describes the loving care and attention she and her husband gave to their house ("steadily our lovely house emerged") and to the nurture of their growing family, but it also records the impact of "the relentless stream of need" that flowed past their front door. At times she feels "oppressed by helplessness and guilt", but the narrative demonstrates how such paralysing feelings could be surmounted.
In the midst of this, she raised a family, ran a women's group that met every third Thursday, and for some years managed a very successful nursery school. She also converted one of the rooms of her house into a Quaker meeting room - perhaps this was the still point of her turning world?
It is difficult to believe that Smith has actually "retired": at the time (in 1999) her colleagues joked that she must have been "born draped in a sash!" One can only hope that, in the words of the poem she quotes on the opening page, "peace comes dropping slow". - September 02, 2012.


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