Why I wish I had never left South Africa

Margaret Smith, left, fled apartheid in 1976. She now believes nothing could have been worse than the misery of exile
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The Independent Online
When I was living in Johannesburg more than 20 years ago I helped an elderly friend, Helen Joseph, to look after two girls called Zeni and Zindzi, whose parents were in jail.

Helen was a dauntless anti-apartheid campaigner who never yielded to the South African authorities, but she found the two lively teenagers a bit demanding. So, because I had teenage daughters of my own, I took Zeni and Zindzi to buy jeans. It was a gruelling experience as we traipsed from shop to shop, looking for exactly what they wanted. Another evening we hired a film and projector for home movies, choosing something solely for its entertainment value. All the girls loved it.

Last Tuesday I saw Zeni again - Princess Zenani, as she is now - elegant and beautiful beside her father, Nelson Mandela, in Horse Guards Parade. When I clasped hands with Nelson at a gathering for South African expatriates at the end of his visit, I felt whole once more.

A new day has dawned in South Africa, but the years of struggle have hurt so many, including Zeni and her sister Zindzi, my daughters Peta and Sally - and me.

I fled South Africa overnight in December 1976 with Sally and two suitcases, joining Peta, who was already here. I had been tipped off that I was to be called as a state witness in a political trial against my long-time friend and colleague, Joe Gqabi, whom I got to know when I was a young reporter on the Sunday Times in Johannesburg and he was a photographer working with Ruth First on exposes for radical publications. The first time he was arrested he was sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island. After he was released we resumed our friendship. I knew I could never give evidence against him. I also knew the state would do their best to "persuade" me.

I had been detained by the authorities in 1964 because I refused to give evidence against Bram Fischer, the leader of the Communist Party, and 13 others. That experience - solitary confinement, interspersed with unending interrogation by up to 15 Special Branch policemen at a time - affected me deeply. I was released after ceaseless efforts behind the scenes by my editor, Joel Mervis, but I was left with severe neurotic anxiety that has remained with me always.

All the same, I should not have left South Africa. Nothing would have been as damaging and painful as my self-imposed exile. I went into a deep depression that lasted nearly 17 years, lifting only when Nelson was released from prison and I - a prohibited immigrant - was allowed to return.

After he was acquitted for lack of evidence, Joe Gqabi fled South Africa. Eventually he was appointed chief representative of the ANC in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where he was shot dead by a South African police agent. When I heard, I could not help thinking that not only was a man I had loved gone, but also the reason for my leaving. If Joe had been jailed, I reflected, he might have been alive. But during those long, dark years, other South Africans I loved were to die violently.

Another political prisoner, Marius Schoon, came to stay with me in Johannesburg when he was released from jail. At my house he met young Jen Curtis, with whom he skipped the country. They were married in exile, and came to stay with me in London with their lively three-year-old daughter Katryn. When they left I found her little sandals: like many South African children she often went barefoot, and had left them behind.

A few years later Jen and Katryn were blown up by a parcel bomb, sent to Marius in Angola by police agents. By that time they had a second child, toddler Fritz, who was also there. For a long time he used to say, over and over: "Mummy's broken..."

Ruth First too died from a parcel bomb, meant for her husband, Joe Slovo, the ANC's military commander. Joe lived long enough to return in triumph to South Africa, and to be given a hero's funeral when he succumbed to cancer, the disease which also claimed the father of my daughters. I married the wild, witty, red-bearded Ken Smith, a fellow journalist, when I was very young. We were an impossible couple, and after a few years we were divorced. But we remained very fond of each other.

After I left for England Ken developed cancer of the face, and I approached the South African authorities to allow me back to see him. I sent letters and telegrams to Pretoria. In tears I told the staff of South Africa House in London that he was getting worse and could no longer talk on the phone.

When I learned by telegram that Ken, unable to carry on, had shot himself, I hammered on the steel door that barricaded South Africa House in those days. They would not let me in, so I dropped the telegram outside. "It's too late now for permission to return," was all I said.

For years I was clinically depressed, but kept working to support my family. Leaving my roots - which were deeper and psychologically more essential than I had understood - took all the fun and energy out of my life.

I've survived, amazingly, to see the new South Africa. I have been home, and want to return after I have had a hip operation, but I now have seven British grandchildren. In the end one wants to be near the people one loves, and not so many of those are left in South Africa today.