Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today, Nelson Mandela walked free. I was twenty-one, and had lived my entire life under a repressive regime that legally sanctioned the artificial separation of blacks and whites, and the oppression of the former. It is hard to describe how we felt on 11 February 1990. Weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were shaking off a blanket that settled over us all, shutting out the light.

As Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, South Africa walked from night into day. We looked at each other and saw not blacks and whites, but people. He represented the hope of a whole nation that finally we could look into each others’ eyes and see our common humanity.

The day was one of jubilation and joyous disbelief. We literally couldn’t believe what we were seeing. There he was! On a hot February afternoon, literally walking out of jail, and the government that we despised had allowed it. After so many years of oppression, the facade of apartheid, the edifice, was crumbling. Like Berliners knocking down the Wall the previous year, we South Africans felt as if we were making and watching history. We were part of one of the century’s miracles. We looked at each other, and wept.

Madiba is a great hero. He went into jail a freedom fighter and emerged, 27 years later, as a statesman who spoke peace and reconciliation, ready to lead his country into the future. And we followed.

Here’s his first interview with the world’s press:


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South Africa: Drugs for HIV+ Babies

According to a report from the BBC, South African president Jacob Zuma announced today, World AIDS Day, that his government would provide all HIV-positive babies under the age of one with antiretrovirals. He also promised that the drugs would become more widely available to children and pregnant women. Zuma said in his speech at the Pretoria Showgrounds that he was preparing to take an AIDS test himself. He urged everyone to test.

While this may seem a drop in the proverbial ocean, it is also an urgent and imperative about-face from a government that ignored AIDS for too long. A decade of denialism has cost hundreds of thousands of South Africans their lives. It is estimated that by 2015, 5.7 million children – a third of South Africa’s children – will have lost one or both parents to AIDS. There are currently 1.4 million AIDS orphans in the country. I read a blog run by orphan careworkers. Go and see the faces. These are the children who no longer have parents because the South African government acted too slowly to contain the epidemic.

Zuma’s announcement is a positive change, say AIDS activists Treatment Action Campaign. Let’s hope so. Let’s see the South African government save lives instead of waste them.

ETA: Times Live journalist, the very excellent Claire Keeton says World AIDS Day 2009 in South Africa was “an historic event”.


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Breaking the Silence

One of South Africa’s most senior and eminent businesspeople, Clem Sunter, writes movingly of the AIDS crisis in News24:

We recently witnessed the huge coverage given to the Air France Airbus that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred and twenty-eight people perished in that disaster. Putting our Aids statistics into perspective, the equivalent is four airliners full of mostly young South Africans plunging into the sea every day of every month of every year. And yet silence accompanies their death because they die individually and the majority are from deprived backgrounds.

We should be ashamed and we should do everything to break the sound of silence. We should talk openly about ways to change sexual behaviour to minimise transmission of the virus. We should get the advertising agencies involved since it is their speciality to change behaviour. We should encourage people to get themselves tested and if they test positive seek the appropriate medical treatment. We should focus on compliance with the pill regimen and the fact that even when you feel better you can’t stop taking the pills.

Finally we should openly praise all those heroes and heroines who have dedicated their lives to caring for the victims of the epidemic. They deserve national medals for their bravery and compassion.

(My emphasis.)

Four planes a day crashing into the sea, four planes a day, filled with young people who should be economically active, taking care of their children and their parents and living life. It’s hard to stomach, which is why people don’t talk about it, but it is a tragedy on a giant scale – and one which will come to haunt the South African politicians who messed about for too long toying with dissident science and refusing to commit to providing people with the drugs.

It is easier to mourn one plane than many, as we harden ourselves to horror and stop hearing it. One of the things I’m trying to do in the book I’m writing is to show how AIDS has become a fact of life in South Africa, but how, at the same time, it is a deeply personal and excruciating tragedy for those who die and those who are left behind. Each story is worth telling.


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Good News about AIDS

The BBC reports that HIV/AIDS in South Africa has “leveled off” in the age group two years and older. There are signs that the rate of infection in children and teens is falling. A study by Dr Olive Shishana, former Director General of the Health Department and who now heads up the SA Human Sciences and Research Council’s national research programme on the social aspects of HIV and AIDS, shows that increased condom use amongst the young has led to falling infection rates.

This indeed cause for cautious celebration.

But let’s not forget that those who are worst affected are women between the ages of 20 and 34. In this age range, 33% are HIV carriers. THIRTY-THREE PERCENT.

It’s time for the men of this generation to look to the teenagers, learn from them and start wearing condoms. Be a man; don’t spread HIV.


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SA – A Slender Travelogue

Our holiday in South Africa was all about the people*, but this time we also managed to go to some fantastic places. Usually when we go home, we confine our stay to our parents’ home towns, his being Johannesburg and mine being Pietermaritzburg, and we leave exhausted from serial visiting and feeling cheated. This time, thanks to an aptly located wedding, we managed to spend the entire time in the Western Cape, mecca of tourism and holidays, and everyone came to be with us. We are immensely grateful for the effort people put into travelling long distances, since it meant we could see them AND have a holiday. Here is a slender round-up of what we did and where we went:

My first stop was Kersefontein, a wheat and cattle farm on the Cape West Coast, where I went with my three dear girlfriends ostensibly to celebrate our year of turning 40, but also to drink wine, eat loads of food, play bridge, laugh ourselves silly and, occasionally, cry. Kersefontein, situated on the banks of the Berg River near Hopefield, has been in the Melck family for eight generations and, with its beautiful Cape Dutch farmstead, is now a national monument. What I loved about it is that, despite the pristine state of the farmhouse and the very gorgeous en-suite rooms where we slept, Kersefontein is a working farm, so sheep wander around, the ancient farm dog trails you, chickens cluck around the edges of your consciousness, swallows roost noisily in the rafters and host Julian saws down trees on the river bank while you are swimming. With its original crumbling outhouses, its sweeping lawns, the slumbering river, and vast acres of farmland, it is not surprising that Kersefontein has become a destination for travellers seeking peace and solace and a popular location for film and advert shooting. Also for four busy women, it was an absolute dream to be served food three times a day without having to make any decisions about the meal except would our eggs be poached, scrambled or fried.

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Breakfast on the stoep outside our room

While I was languishing at the river and enjoying afternoon naps, my husband had driven up the N2 with our threesome to meet his family at Plettenberg Bay. Once my Kersefontein retreat came to an end, I joined them at Plett, which is where his family have a holiday house and where we have been going on holiday for twenty years. In the old days, we would occasionally grace the beach, but mostly we would lie on the sofas all day, me reading, him watching cricket on TV, now and again getting up to make tea or, as the day progressed, pour gin and tonics, after which we would hit the Plett nightclubs. Now Plett is all about the beach. My brother-in-law is a beach expert, and his beach experience always includes ice-cold drinks, snacks, umbrellas, beach chairs, buckets, spades, boogie boards and inflatable boats. It’s a military operation getting all this stuff and thirteen people to and from the beach, but he manages it with cheer. Then when he’s there, he’s building sandcastles, teaching people how to fish and making sure they don’t drown in the surf while we stand around vaguely wondering why no-one’s bringing us a gin and tonic.

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Robberg, scene of beach action

Robberg Beach is a five-kilometre stretch of pristine sand that runs from the hotel you see in the middle of this shot all the way to the Robberg peninsula, and where I jogged most mornings. One morning, I made it triumphantly all the way to the rocks, and despite claiming I needed airlifting home, all the way back again. Plett was busy: the gaggle of cousins cavorted all day long like happy puppies; we got to spend time with our US friends T and J, also out for the wedding, and meet their adorable baby daughter; and I lunched with Jeanne, the famous Cooksister, who is even more lovely than her blog.

Then we left to meet up with some members of my family – my dad, brother and stepmother, who drove two days all the way from KwaZulu-Natal to see us. Our meeting place of choice was the Teniqua Treetop Lodge, a series of self-catering treehouses tucked into the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains. Teniqua was very rustic and quiet, which was quite pleasant after the rigours of Plett, and the kids enjoyed rushing from our treehouse (the Eyrie) to Grandpa’s (the Philosopher’s Perch) and back again. They were inducted into the joys of birdwatching by my father and brother, and spent a lot of time staring into binoculars identifying small birds. Their mother also took them on a mammoth hike down into a river gorge, where they swam in cola-coloured water and then, after a lunch of biltong and apples, hiked back up the mountain again.

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Cola rockpools at Teniqua

The charm of Teniqua is that the treehouses are partially open to the elements, which means you not only have branches curling into your living space, but you get visitors like the Cape Robin, who comes looking for breadcrumbs, and the terrifyingly large rain spider. Thankfully the hosts provided a large feather duster on a long stick, which I used to sweep the latter out of the kitchen, accompanied by piercing screams from the children.

Their experience of African wildlife grew exponentially at our next stop, the Garden Route Game Lodge. This was the setting for the wedding of dear South African friends who also live in Germany. Their guests were from France, Germany, the US, Belgium, the UK, Malawi and South Africa, so it was a very international gathering in a particularly African setting. A two-day affair, the wedding kicked off with an afternoon at the pool, followed by evening game drives, where we got to see lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and a tortoise. That night there was a kudu braai in the boma, with African drummers, fabulous food (including an array of South African desserts for which I rapidly abandoned my low-carb diet – the Malva pudding lives on in my memory), dancing and a surprise rendition by the groom of “Shosholoza”. On the wedding day there were more game drives, more swimming and more splendid eating, until 3pm when we spruced ourselves up for a very moving ceremony and a great party, where we danced to one of South Africa’s most exciting new bands, the exceptionally groovy Goldfish.

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Wedding flowers with rondavels in the background

Then it was back to Cape Town, and a whirlwind visiting session of braais, dinners and lunches, catching up with university friends, their spouses and offspring. We also managed to get out of Cape Town to see the wonderful Kit and her brood. The children got on splendidly and we grown-ups didn’t do too badly either. On my last morning in Cape Town, spectacularly hungover from the last last dinner-party the night before, I attended a yoga class and was hugely relieved that it was a restorative meditation. Had anyone asked me to do the downward dog at that point, I might have collapsed.

One of the messages of the meditation was “Observe your emotions, and let them slip by you”, which was appropriate for leaving Cape Town, my favourite city in the world, and South Africa, my homeland. While nursing my hangover, I observed my feelings of sadness, but let them slip by me. Since then I have had tinges of my usual departure grief but have been feeling mostly grateful, that I was able to have such a wonderful holiday and that I am lucky enough to have great friends and loving family. Thank you to everyone for helping us have our dream holiday!

* While I’d love to post some of the many photographs of me clasping my favourite people, I won’t since I must respect privacy. Instead you get landscapes, flowers and tiny dots of people.


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RIP, Helen Suzman

Fearless South African patriot, Helen Suzman, has died at the age of 91. See the BBC report here. This is the tribute I wrote in November 2007 when she turned 90.

According to the New York Times, Suzman’s vigorous campaigning against apartheid “drew wide acknowledgment from academic institutions. Harvard, Columbia and Brandeis were among 26 South African and overseas universities that awarded her honorary doctorates. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame of the British Empire — the female equivalent of a knighthood in 1989. In 1997, Mr. Mandela bestowed on her one of South Africa’s highest civilian honors — the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold).”

Go well, Helen. You gave us hope in the dark days when we thought there was no hope at all.