Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Cold Comfort


A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In September 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

23 thoughts on “Cold Comfort

  1. As someone else who is never going home (but for very different reasons) I know it can catch you off guard.

    But my best friend’s father was murdered in his own home in Joburg, in front of his family. He lives here in London, and I can’t imagine what he feels knowing his family is still there, in that same house.

    My husband’s family is preparing to move to New Zealand. I think that gives my husband great peace of mind.

    Things unravel. And some things can’t be re-knit.

  2. It isn’t bravery, it’s choice and as more people with skill leave, it makes those of us who stay realise that we are idiots to think we can do it on our own. So if you want to do us a favour, make sure your book is real and educating and changes things. Pity is not going to cut it.

  3. Oh my dear.

    Poor Charlotte.

    It doesn’t help now to know that it’s the right decision, but one day it will.


  4. My heart aches for you, Charlotte. I don’t have that soul link to South Africa that you do, I’m here because my husband does – it is his home and he never felt at home in England. But it doesn’t feel like bravery being here. Maybe it’s quieter down here around Cape Town, but the daily level of threat that you are talking about isn’t in your face the whole time where we are. In fact our children have far more freedom here than they would have done had we stayed in London.

    Having said all that your part of Germany does sound like a little bubble of security in a crazy world, which is getting rarer and rarer, so if you’ve found a spot that feels comfortable to bring up children and give them a good start, then that is the best you can do for them.

  5. Having fallen in love with the place after only two visits, I can only wonder at how heartbreaking it must be for you to have to make this decision. Germany’s nice, it’s safe, but it’s hardly a place which gets under your skin.

  6. South Africa is a beautiful country. I don’t think I’ve seen much in the world that comes close to the Drakensberg or Cape Town. I often dream about my childhood home in Johannesburg and in my dreams I always have a sense of being home again at last. I imagine that is probably going to get worse as I get older because people become closer to their memories of childhood as they age. But I’m never going back. You only get one life to live and I don’t want to spend mine in an armed fortress surrounded by violence. I especially don’t want that for my kid.

    But it must be really hard when you’ve still got family there. Maybe if you moved to Australia you’d be able to experience the same kind of visceral tie to a landscape as you do to South Africa. It has some of the same grandeur and sense of space.

  7. Well, you made me cry. But never say “never.” Amazing things can happen, and things can change in half a lifetime, and you’ve got more than half a lifetime left to live.

  8. Charlotte, I’m so sorry.

  9. What a moving post. I’m sad for you. I wish I felt I had a homeland after reading this; I am more of a home-is-where-the-heart-is sort.

    I’ve never been to South Africa, but reading this essay helps me get a feel for it. Beautifully written; thank you.

  10. I’m sad and mad but as Kerry said it’s about choice – now read about Bob Glenister because he gives me hope and he should you too. We are not passive beings, we can inititate change and make a difference in the lives of everyday South Africans.
    I am currently privileged to be doing the publicity for an astounding individual called Hugh ‘Bob’ Glenister, a self made South African businessman who has taken the South African government to court to prevent them from shutting down an integrated crime fighting unit known as the Scorpions. He is funding it from his own pocket. We lost in the High Court but are now heading for the Constitutional Court.
    Bob says he is doing it because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t, and he believes individuals can make a real difference. He also says you won’t know if you don’t try. So we are trying. Google “Hugh Glenister” and read about it. In the words of Bob, “Have a beautiful day”.

  11. Dear Charlotte, I’m so sad for you. I totally agree with Aphra: what your brain knows will one day reach your heart too. And don’t blame yourself for anything you feel and choose.

  12. I have been lurking here for a long time now, without ever having commented.
    Your post is very moving – I just had to write and say so.

    I’ve lived on the continent for 30 years now – in Switzerland at the moment. Various reasons prevent me from returning ‘home’ (none so dramatic as yours) but my heart still refuses to let go.
    I believe the thorns will always be there…

  13. I am so sorry, Charlotte. I have a dear, South African friend, who now lives in the U.S. and has echoes the same sentiments. It’s so so sad.

    My grandfather, a soldier in the Czars army, fled Russia in 1917 during the revolution after surviving a firing squad (an amazing story) and made his way to Greece. When I was a young girl, he came to live with us in the U.S. and I have a vivid memory of seeing him cry. He learned through back channels that his mother was still alive and behind the Iron Curtain. He wept because he knew he could never go back to her.

    10 year later, unfortunately after he and his mother died, the Wall fell and a few things have changed in his homeland. I can only hope, through some miracle, that South Africa can transform itself enough so that those who love their country can feel secure in returning if they choose.

  14. I have tears in my eyes reading this. That last paragraph was heartbreaking and beautiful. I have many South African friends, here in Australia, and so many of them feel their distance keenly. Your stories of Germany make me want to move there, so I hope you learn to love it almost as much, even if it never tugs your heartstrings in the same way.

  15. I can’t imagine how hard it must be living so far away from your heart’s home.


  16. Charlotte, I think it must be the time of the year to cry for Africa. I ache for my country. I try to keep aloof, to abstract myself from how I feel and yet, a blue haze across the landscape and I get a sudden flash of African hills, the sun at just the right angle in the sky and I feel the African sun beating down on my neck. A few days without rain and a thunderstorm and I think of raindrops like pellets flinging themselves into the ground. Why is Africa so deeply etched into my heart?

    I need to visit my family, but my new love worries that it’s unsafe and is trying to think of ways for them to visit me. I just know I need to go back once more, 12 years after I left, to make it final that I too, will never live in Africa again.

  17. Charlotte what a wonderful post and I know it echoes the same sentiments for so many of us ex pat South Africans.
    Its good to verbalise and to write down. Thankfully as you know I simply adore my adopted country and feel safe here, safe for myself and David and the kids… but there is not a week that goes by that I do not worry for the safety of my family who are all still in SA.
    Decisions like these are not cast in stone and any decision or verbalisation like yours is the right decision for now, this minute, this month… this time that you live in. Circumstances and people and places change and it would be a foolish person not to “see” that things can and do change. You then make a new decision and verbalise it then… but like you that beautiful beautiful country of our birth will always be part of what makes you, you… its shaped our thoughts and emotions and relationships… I just think if it wasn’t for that country… I would not have met the most inspirational woman I know… you! I really need to get a phonecall in and stop communicating via our answering machine! x tanya

  18. Charlotte, I truly understand this heartbreak. I am an Australian, with an American mother and a British father, and I have lived in all three countries. All three feel right to me, yet no matter where I live I am homesick. I am contemplating moving to the US (again) from Sydney, to live with my partner of two years, and although it is a positive step forward for us, I can feel my heart breaking just in the contemplation. ‘Home’ truly is where the heart is, and your heart is in two places, so it is understandable that you feel torn in two.
    My thoughts are with you.

  19. The concept of heimweh seems to be making the rounds again this month. I don’t really have it and I see that Australians and Africans do. Instead, I have broken off roots and a deep love for the US that doesn’t require me to live there, but only to know that it exists and that I can visit it occasionally. Perhaps because I spent the first thirty years of my life wondering why my relatives could not get out in time, why they didn’t flee on their hands and knees rather than await the Holocaust, how they didn’t see it coming. And then I moved here, to this quiet, passive aggressive, rules following country, which spear headed the murder of 12 million people, and I can see why they believed it couldn’t happen and I hope that others have learned the lesson and leave while they can.

  20. I’m very sorry Charlotte, and I understand you completely.

  21. It’s terrible. No-one should die like that. Especially not someone of his age. Why would a healthy 29 year old need to murder an old man like that to steal a TV. Steal the darn thing but leave the person to be!!!!

    If I could be gone and living a peaceful life somewhere else I would be. Jason asked me tonight as he was getting ready to fall asleep, if there’s big dogs here at the hotel to keep him safe. No 5 year old should have to worry like that

  22. Just yesterday I returned to my current home after visiting the place I grew up, the place I call home. Driving from the freeway to my parent’s home, we rolled down the windows and breathed in the warm summer air. I hadn’t realized how much a smell can invoke such feelings of warmth and comfort, and the funny part is that I didn’t realize that that’s how home smelled until I smelled it after being away for so long. That homey scent filled up my soul and my heart ached for the comforts and joys of home. Charlotte, I am sorry you won’t experience home again.

  23. Oh Charlotte, I know how you feel. I thought it was just me who couldn’t bring myself to verbalise that I’m not going home anytime soon – why is that so hard, just saying those words? I am glad that my mom passed away before I ever had to say them, as I don’t think she or I could have borne that conversation.

    Having said that, I still have a property and all my worldly possessions (well, the ones bought before 2002!) there, so clearly I am still dithering. Up the start of this year, I was all set to go back in about 18 months, but the situation and the things that people accept as normal are just no longer things that I wish to accept. As Kit says, the weird thing is that when I go home, it doesn’t feel like any sort of bravery – but then I am mainly in PE and Cape Town which seem to escape some of the worst excesses of violent crime (or at least its prevalence). So in some ways it is very hard to reconcile what you know rationally to be the problems with the fantastic country that you experience while you are there.

    But on the last visit, there were telling signs. The incredible rigmarole of locking internal doors, sectioning people and animals and gathering all keys in a basket before locking the iron gate to the bedroom wing which precedes bedtime every night in my brother’s house; the stark terror I saw on my sister-in-law’s face when we were approached by a group of men while filling her car with petrol – and their obvious swaggering confidence that they had scared her; the fact that my 5 year old nephew’s greatest fear is that the burglar alarm will go off and the security company won’t come. Fear of the monster under the bed is an appropriate fear for a 5 year old. Fear of no-shows by the armed response guys is not.

    And just when you think oh, they’re being paranoid, a woman down the road who was bringing her kids home from nursery school at lunchtime (just like my sister-in-law does) saw the front door open but assumed it was the housekeeper cleaning, and was then confronted by armed men who took her children away from her while they marched her around the house at gunpoint looking for valuables. The kids were eventually not harmed but this was a matter of chance, and both they and their mom were severely traumatised. And people’s first reaction was “she was lucky”!!! You have to ask yourself why you’d want to put yourself in that situation where life means nothing.

    I ache for my country – I ache for its friendly people (and the majority of us are noticeably friendlier than almost any other nationality), for mt 86 year old father who has vowed never to leave; for my brother who is one of my best friends; for my two nephews; for A, my neighbour best friend since I was 3 years old; for the smell of rain on hot tarred roads and the sound of crickets and frogs at night; for the smell of the ocean and the sound of the hadedas.

    But I also understand that I am fortunate to be where I am.

    Having said all that, I do hold out hope that South Africa will pull itself up by its bootstraps and that its peope will start working together, rather than against each other, and I sincerely hope that I can sit out my golden years on a stoep in the African sun.

    But for now, this is my home.

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