Last day of my lifelong boycott

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The Independent Online
AS I WAS pushing my trolley around Sainsbury's yesterday, my eye was caught by two bold words: South African. They were attached to some strange pale yellow vegetables, called butternut squashes. Though I have only a sketchy notion of what to do with a squash, I couldn't help but pick one up.

Later, browsing along the shelves of budget wines, I spotted a bottle clearly labelled South African Chenin Blanc. I know what to do with wine. I put that in the trolley, and put the Soave back on the shelf. That is how in 30 minutes I broke the habit of a lifetime. For the first time I consciously opted to buy South African produce, proudly marketed as such and no longer hiding behind the small-print euphemism of 'The Cape'.

The purchases were completely unplanned, my small and even joyful way of celebrating the amazing transfer of power taking place before our eyes. It seems more stunning, more unbelievable than the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

There are millions of people around the world who have grown up treating the South African regime as a pariah because of apartheid - boycotting its goods, checking the labels of tinned fruit and the sticky tabs on apples, doing our bit, we hoped, to undermine its existence. South Africa's plight permeated our lives and it has taken the fact of last week's election, and this week's outcome, for a sense of release to hit us.

Apartheid was one of those rare cases of unambiguous, unforgivable injustice, which anyone of conscience, whether High Anglican, wishy-washy liberal or hard left supporter could unite over. Like so many, I read Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country as a teenager. On reaching university it seemed a natural step to join the anti-apartheid group, and its packed regular Wednesday afternoon meetings were all the rage, even though we just sat around impotently having our consciousness raised by the latest tales of arrest and violence.

Apologists were shunned. When sportsmen or entertainers broke ranks they were reviled. I remember, at the age of 18, recoiling in amazement when visiting a friend's house: a guest of the mother, also staying there, had just come back from South Africa. She tried to tell us that it was not that simple, that the black people were treated very well, and some were quite rich. How could she be so crass we thought, and cut her dead.

As a postgraduate student I was taught by the late Sir Tom Hopkinson, the former editor of Picture Post, who had spent a haunting period in South Africa editing a photographic magazine about life for black people under apartheid, called Drum. Sir Tom inserted into our curriculum regular lectures about South Africa - the creation of apartheid, the splits between the Boers and South Africans of British descent, the ANC, the future. He was determined that a rising generation of journalists should be thoroughly informed about this extraordinary experiment in white supremacy, which he abhorred. His action, I now realise, was just one instance of the myriad ways in which contemporary British culture was moulded by the burden of guilt aroused by white South Africa.

Earlier this week I waited patiently for the snooker to end on BBC 2 so that Lord Attenborough's Cry Freedom could take centre stage. The film was first shown just seven years ago, and yet its tale of how Steve Biko, the founder of the Seventies Black Consciousness Movement, was beaten to death by police, and the hounding of his white champion, Donald Woods, seemed already a period piece: an important footnote, but footnote none the less. Yet at its London premiere in 1987, a moving event a full two years before Nelson Mandela was released, there was no confidence that the end of apartheid was in sight, that change through the ballot box could be so close. Instead, those in the know muttered darkly afterwards in Leicester Square about the potential for wholesale military takeover in response to rising black unrest.

What will the measured history of these past few years say? Clearly in FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela South Africa has been blessed with visionary statesmen. But I hope the experts will also be able to weigh up the impact of the trade and cultural boycotts, large and small, and make some assessment of the part they, too, played.

The messages of reconciliation being preached by Mandela seem to be accompanied by something more profound: South Africans of all races appear to love their country; its natural beauty and scale exert much the same pull that Americans experience for their vast continent. It makes this outsider - for the first time - long to visit. But in the meantime, I'll settle for the wine.

I opened the Chenin Blanc while cooking supper last night. When my husband later reached into the fridge for the bottle I saw him look at the label, and do a double take. Then he smiled, and poured himself a glass.

WHAT I really need right now is not bottles of South African wine, but a new, baby-proof sun hat. I've been combing the shops, fruitlessly, looking for a bonnet or cap which my one-year-old will not be able to pull off. Is it not amazing, when we are so aware of the dangers of sunburn, that we live in a culture which can design a new European fighter but not a secure sun hat?

Manufacturers are experimenting on improving disposable bibs by using sticky tape to hold them flat against the child's tummy. They could perform an even more useful service to mothers by devoting a bit of effort to protecting the head.

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