This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.
I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.
One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).
But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.
As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.
My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.
This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for mother which links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).