Out of South Africa: Emotional tug-of-war on the home front

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The Independent Online
JOHANNESBURG - A complaint often hurled at foreign correspondents in South Africa is that they are 'not involved'. They report, comment and sometimes judge but, in the end, they have no stake in the country. They are passers-by with power but no responsibility.

I used to be at a loss for a reply. But now I'm in it - responsibility, involvement, everything - up to my neck.

It concerns my household where Henrietta, my maid, has been a constant presence since my arrival four years ago. So has her brother Fisman, and until recently, his wife Rosie and their child, Cornelia, who is nearly five. We've also had a steady turnover in cousins and nephews visiting from the countryside. Until about a year ago, my relationship with them all has been respectfully non-interventionist.

At the end of 1991 I learned there was a rather nice nursery school called 'Noah's Ark', just down the road from my house, where they had started taking in black children. I made some inquiries and, to Henrietta's family's delight, I enrolled Cornelia, a bright and exceptionally pretty little girl who on occasion has boosted the family income with some freelance work at a local modelling agency.

Friends warned me that it might not be wise to send Cornelia to a 'white' school, that she would become accustomed to standards it would be impossible for her family to keep up after I left South Africa. But, buoyed by her parents' enthusiasm and persuaded it could do her no harm to learn English (at home they speak Xhosa), and less to tune in early to the 'non-racial' future, I pressed on.

What I had not calculated on was the fragility of her parent's marriage. At Christmas, Fisman went to visit his family in the Transkei, 500 miles away, and Rosie - with Cornelia - to visit hers. Fisman returned two weeks later but Rosie did not.

After a few days we heard that Rosie was not coming back. The rumour was, a disconsolate Fisman told me, that she had found, as he put it, a boyfriend. What upset Fisman most was that Rosie planned to keep Cornelia.

Henrietta, the childless 'auntie', was also disconsolate and, besides, appalled at the notion that Cornelia's year at Noah's Ark would go to waste. For 1992, while a bad year for South Africa, was great for Cornelia. She learned to speak English, engaging me in conversations every one of which began with the question, 'D'you know what?' She made friends, most of them - not that she would have noticed - white. She learnt to draw and paint and play all manner of games. She lived for school, the holidays coming as a baffling and tiresome interlude.

Several weeks on, Fisman remains obsessed with the idea of getting his daughter back. The word from the Transkei, Henrietta tells me, is that Cornelia is 'getting thin from crying all day'. She misses her father, her aunt, her home and her schoolfriends.

Last Saturday morning Fisman, quite drunk, told me he was thinking of paying a friend of a friend who had a gun to go to the Transkei to kill Rosie. Yesterday he came to apologise but also to make sure that I was still on for a trip we had planned last week to the Transkei to try and recover Cornelia - not to kidnap her but to negotiate her release.

I am going to drive Fisman and a tribal elder who lives in Johannesburg down to Rosie's village and, the plan is, we are going to meet the headman and, in solemn concourse, make our case for Cornelia to return home without her mother. My dilemma is that Fisman and the elder are quite convinced that my presence there - me the white baas, the boss - will clinch victory. Particularly convincing, apparently, will be the argument that I have already paid for this term's school fees. Black friends I have consulted have assured me that, indeed, all I have to say is that I will continue to pay for the child's education and, no question, Cornelia will be torn away from her mother.

I am, to say the least, uncomfortable with this, my very own white man's burden. If my advisers are right, it is in my hands to determine the fate of a child with whom my relationship is, of necessity, transient. It is also in my hands to cause Rosie untold grief. But, badgered endlessly, I have promised Fisman I will take him to the Transkei. And I shall. This weekend.

How will the drama unfold? I have no idea. For once, I am not writing the script.