Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

In Memory of Herbert James Downs

20 Comments

Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday. His grand-daughter, K, asked me to repost a post I wrote three years ago about his death and what that meant for me.  In memory of her wonderful grandfather, I give you 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 March 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, has 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

20 thoughts on “In Memory of Herbert James Downs

  1. Thanks for reposting this. I know that I’ve become a bit numb to the almost daily trauma here. And I’ve accepted the sad reality that old people are very vulnerable here. It makes me worry more about my own parents and to nag them to be security-conscious.

  2. Charlotte MY heart is heavy reading this… Thankyou for sharing such wonderful words from deep within your soul… They have really pulled at my heart this morning. Xxxx t

  3. This was a beautiful post, Charlotte. I was moved when you said that the hills in Germany would never be yours. Having spent a few years myself getting to know Germany’s troubling legacies in order to write TOD, I find your decision to emigrate there to be a beautiful gesture. Germany wasn’t always considered a place to go for kindness, peace and safety. But the fact that a person can go there now for those reasons is like seeing a small spring flower budding in the snow. There’s some joy to take in that. Maybe SA will be this place to someone else sometime on in the future.

  4. It was not too long after reading this that the parents of the husband of a friend were also murdered in their home in South Africa. I am so sorry for you all. They too will never return home other than to visit her family, who still remain.
    Beautiful post. But tear inducing.

  5. Hi Charl,

    Please google … South Africa The Good News on a regular basis.

    Also, read Pravin Gordon’s Budget speech. It is extraordinarily good. (Jeez, did I spell that correctly, tee-hee.)

    We have family in SA, son, daughter in law, grand daughter, brother. sister, etc. They have never mentioned violence as an issue.

    Faith and I are temporarily abroad on an extended basis and have not left SA. We have an arrangement with the Reserve Bank to take the boat into international waters and use our credit cards to draw cash.

    All our savings are in SA and we do better than people who moved money overseas.

    I am optimistic and you would have seen I did not make a cent from my first bit if writing, but sent a young Zulu matriculant to teachers training college. He then put himself through varsity and teaches at a high school in Newcastle.

    I am not a J M Coetzee fan who has so much to say about the beloved country, but lives in Australia. Did he send a black matriculant to college?

    I read that immigration is positive and many whites who fled to Aussie, are returning.

    Yay for South Africa, the best country and the best people in the world. (Giggling here.)

    I think of you and your work every day. You must be under pressure. But this little boy scout is standing by his hero.

    Regards to all you guys over there. Yes, Germany is beautiful.

    Seeya,

    Pierre

  6. Way to go Pierre.

    I have just written a thousand word post in reply to this post, and the site crashed. Grrrr.

    So in summary this is what I said.

    My dear friend, I thought long and hard about replying. But decided I had to do so. What follows is said with love.

    At first your post made me furious, and now sad.

    I live in SA, having lived and travelled abroad. I live in Cape Town with my 2 kids and husband. I run a business which employs 25 South Africans and an utterly charming and inspiring Ghanaian.

    I am lucky. My parents and two sisters and their kids live down the road from me. I can see the sea from my bed and the mountain from my desk. I travel to JHB for work with the buzz that comes from being in a city which is the hub of African growth. I spend holidays on deserted Transkei beaches and watching rhinos in their natural habitat. I am a polar bear and wallow in the icy Cape water for hours given half a chance. I will do so after work tonight when I take my kids and their cousins down to our local little beach for a picnic.

    I am lucky because my kids – like many of my friends and family in London, NY and Perth – receive a fantastic education at private schools. State schools are a problem all over the world.

    Last night I heard Mondli Makhanya, the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Times and former activist and ANC supporter speak. The room was packed with up and coming young black professionals who live and work in SA, many supporting extended families, all worried about corruption and crime, but all excited about the potential and opportunities living here offer.

    Mondli said that South Africans live on a roller coaster. It’s like we have bipolar disorder. One moment we are shrieking with joy in the streets celebrating the Soccer World Cup. Days after it ended, the streets are filled with striking and often violent public sector workers. But anxiety turned back to pride, as South Africans from all walks of life turned up to hospitals to volunteer their services and cleaned bedpans, swept floors and washed floors. It has always been this way and will always be this way.

    Mondli said we South Africans shout about being both happy and sad, about being rich and poor, about corruption and crime but also when we achieve outrageous goals such as hosting the World Cup. We shout in challenge at our leaders, while their supporters shout their praises. We never accept the answers we are given.

    I came home from overseas for many reasons but the decision was precipitated by an incident on a tube in London.

    Late one night on an almost deserted platform I saw 3 old people sitting on a bench poring over a tube map. I heard their flat and familiar South African accents and went over to offer help. We began chatting. It turned out the old man was a lawyer who’d been part of Madiba’s legal team during the Rivonia trials in the 60s. He had been in exile with his wife for 27 years. His wife said her home was wherever her kids were, but he said he had wanted to go home to SA every day of those 27 years. He was too old to do so now.

    We said goodbye and entered different carriages. Then I saw the old man slowly walking towards me. He took my hand and simply said, “Go home.” I wept all the way back to my flat with my mind made up. I would go home.
    And some months later I did.

    It is true we live on a roller coaster. The downs are dreadful; crime, corruption, grinding poverty, an education system in a mess, the challenges of HIV and Aids and hollow promises from our leaders.

    But most of us who are here, love being here.

    I have had to endure one too many dinners with ex-South Africans who come to visit family and soak up the sun during their miserable winter, and who spend the meal criticising everything from the levels of service (could be better I know) to the taxis (we all loathe them) to the president (yes, we are embarrassed) to the crime and corruption (it breaks all our hearts.)

    So to those of you who have left – and I know each of you have particular and different reasons – please can you rather be ambassadors for the country of your birth rather than naysayers. There are enough Afro-Pessimists out there. Quite simply, if you don’t live here, or vote or contribute to the fiscus, you can’t whinge. If you are unhappy about the state of the nation, come back and help fix it.

    Only 794 words this time.

  7. hmmm, thought provoking indeed. I can’t help but thinking that the grass is rarely greener on the other side and moving and displacement is a terribly hard thing to express, understand and come to terms with. Choices by definition mean the relinquishing and abandoning of something and sometimes this is also the coming of age of the choices we all make, one way or another. We all need to take responsibility for these choices and perhaps count our blessings that we are able to make choices at all. I can’t but help thinking about the huge numbers of Kurdish and Turkish refugees who have found themselves living in Germany and struggling to to find some acceptance for themselves.

    Nothing and nowhere is perfect. Perhaps the key is making choices for the things we want in our lives instead of the things we don’t want in our lives and then mucking in wholeheartedly.

  8. My brother-in-law MURDERED last night! SAD, our beautiful country, but yes, don’t think we will ever go back.

  9. Charlotte, I thought that you reprinted this post of three years past at the request of a good friend, who was mourning the untimely death, murder, of her beloved grandfather. I can well understand the wish of this family member to honor the legacy of their dear departed.

    Therefore, I did not respond to the content of the post, believing it somewhat dated.

    There is so much that has happened in your life the last years. Do you think you would write the same words now as you wrote then? What I sense is that the words you wrote then were fueled by your grief for the loss of a dear friend and great role model. It is so devastaing when those people we hold dear, who are our heroes are lost to us.

    As someone who chose to live in Germany nearly 30 years ago, I can very much relate to the choices you took. We often make personal decisions in historic circumstances that haunt us the rest of our lives.

    Somewhere down the line, I realised that family connection or national bloodlines are not enough to actually know what it is like to be living as a citizen in the country of our birth. So much changes over the years. The way people speak or work together or manage to live in harmony with opposing forces that exist in those cultures. We really do not know, do we?

    We become rootless, which brings about certain freedoms in our day-to-day lives. We are not shackled with the norms of those who were born and have always lived here. On the other hand, we are we not able to be complacent or make excuses about the ills of of the society we adopted.

    I chose to live in this country happily and voluntarily. I do not want to be a complainer. Nor, do I wish to turn a blind eye to the difficulties faced by many who live here. What I admire about your post is your ability to embrace your life here and, at the same time, love the country you came from. I hope others can respect your choice.

  10. @Pete: I think numbness is a natural reaction and a coping mechanism that people have to employ.

    @JustMe: Thanks. I know that you love South Africa as I do.

    @MelissaRomo: South Africa is a refuge already for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa whose countries are less democratic, less tolerant and less open-minded.

    @G: Thank you and I am really sorry to hear about your friends’ parents.

    @Pierre: You are a passionate patriot and that is wonderful. I do read The Good News and if you look at the top of my blog I have a section called My South African Heroes, which I admittedly haven’t updated for some time, but need to. I think you misread the spirit of this post: it was a personal essay written three years ago and which I reposted at the request of Herbert Downs’ family, not a scathing critique of South Africa.

    @Dani: ditto.

    @Rebecca: Thanks. You know how it feels to be scattered. I am very aware that I am hugely fortunate to have choices.

    @Nikita: I am so sorry for your loss.

    @Lilalia: Thanks for your words. You’re right: I probably would write something different now. I’d change the line ‘people who still believe in South Africa’s future’ because, actually, I do.

  11. CHARLOTTE: I HAVE NOTICED THAT IN THIS WORLD THERE ARE SOME FOLK WHO SUFFER FROM FEAR AND OTHERS THAT DON’T. I HAVE A FRIEND WHO STILL LEAVES HER BACK DOOR OPEN UNTIL SHE GOES TO BED. I GUESS IT’S HABIT. THEN THERE ARE FOLK LIKE ANOTHER FRIEND WHO DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE MURDERS AND THE MARXIST GOVERNMENT AND THE GENOCIDE. THEY HAVE TRAINED THEIR MINDS TO SWITCH OFF. AND THEN THERE ARE FOLK LIKE YOU AND ME AND OTHERS WHO ARE AWARE OF THE DANGERS ALL AROUND THE WORLD BUT WANT A COUNTRY WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER EVERYTIME YOU GO TO THE SUPERMARKET OR GO FOR A WALK OR DRIVE YOUR CAR. MY FRIEND SAYS SHE HAD TO LOOK LEFT, RIGHT AND BEHIND TO MAKE SURE NO-ONE IS FOLLOWING HER WHEN SHE TURNS INTO HER DRIVE.
    I, LIKE YOU, DON’T WANT TO LIVE LIKE THAT AND NOW AFTER 7 YEARS OF LIVING IN THE USA I AM FREE OF THAT FEAR THAT I LIVED WITH FOR SO MANY YEARS AND ONE DAY DEAR CHARLOTTE YOU WILL LOOK BACK AND BE FREE OF SOUTH AFRICA. IT IS NOT THE SAME PLACE WE LEFT, IT IS WORSE AND GETS WORSE DAILY.

  12. My heart is breaking.
    Best wishes from a fellow South African in a cold Beijing.

  13. I’m beginning to wonder if there are any of us in this broken world who don’t live in exile in some way. My partner’s family come from Kenya and even though she was dragged away from there at the age of 13, she’s always had something of the exile in her.

  14. @Celia. Thanks for stopping by and for your kind wishes.

    @DWW: I think you’re right. The experience of exile is common now, whether people are exiled from their homeland, from their family or even just from the right to live a fair and decent life.

  15. You express the plight of the expatriate so beautifully. I hope you will find peace and joy, and stop being so sad for your roots. Sometimes I wonder why I never developed such deep roots for any one place; probably because we moved so much when I was young.

    I have never been to AFrica. I’m not sure I ever will go there. I only know what I read in the papers, and it doesn’t seem like it is a place that is serene and safe. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, except possibly the ancient tribal ways that have never been given up, not really.

    I still leave my doors unlocked on my house, but every year I wonder about that. . . It seems that violence and hate are increasing every day.

    It makes me think about the experiments where scientists placed rats in overcrowded conditions. The rats became violent and asocial. Perhaps we humans are reacting to our own overcrowded trap.

  16. Wow the power in your words moves me. I can almost picture and feel what you are describing. I have a professor who lived in south africa for a year and he said that experience really took a toll on him.

  17. Wow Charl, only just seen the above now. Much admiration for you.

    We sure caused a healthy controversy.

    I’m taking a hammering on YouWriteOn.com writers’ workshop on my little Girl Who Tweaked Two Lions’ Tails.

    Much revision, again and again. Five months of fine-tuning. And this is after Gerry edited it in Chicago.

    But I am confident I’ll succeed. Fairly high in the charts but a log-jamb in front of me.

    You be tough-minded too.

    Go well.

  18. Charlotte….you are brave, like me I have thought about this for a long time and I will never be one of them, no matter how beautiful this Schwarzwald is with it´s gracious mountains and forests, but I am brave. Braver than I can imagine because I know that this is the best for my family and for me, but I will never be part of this society (we do things differently, but you know all about that)no matter what because my heart is all South African and my husband must feel even worse but because he´s a boer and misses the plaas very much, that I know but he never complains. We know that we´ll never go back and that´s what makes it so sad and what makes us so very brave, because only the brave can survive here where everything is so very different. For our children…….

  19. Pingback: 2011 in First Lines « Charlotte's Web

  20. Just stumbled across this via your “first line of the first post of each month” post and am now sitting here weeping. When Nick and I first came to the UK in 2000 on a whim, my mom, already in renal failure, said to me “I suppose we’ll never live in the same country again”. Of course I protested – that was unthinkable! For the longest time we would tell people that we would be going home as soon as we got UK passports, or “in two years time”. And then about three years ago, like you, quietly within myself, I decided that I wasn’t going home. It’s not about kids as we don;t have any – it’s about selfishly liking what my life here has to offer. I spend almost no time at all thinking about personal safety, a luxury that I absolutely would not have in South Africa – and I like the feeling, and the energy I don’t have to waste on it. I do not define myself as English, nor will I ever. I am not a naysayer preaching doom and gloom about South Africa. I long to be there sometimes, to feel the sun on my face, to talk with my oldest and best friends, and to walk on Robberg Beach. But I just know that for me and Nick, it’s not the right choice any more.

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