Feb 19

Award winning SA author on why he’s returning home

Award-winning South African born author Jonny Steinberg writes on how he is giving up on his comfortable life in London to move to Johannesburg and surrender himself to a world so much bigger than he is and to the destiny of a nation he cannot control. 

I am not a person prone to smugness. When I say that my life is the sanest and gentlest a person in our times can hope to live, it is with gratitude, not self-satisfaction. My house is near the centre of Oxford, a famously old and beautiful city, and I commute to work each morning on a bicycle alongside a quiet canal. The journey takes no more than seven minutes — eight or nine if I stop to admire the swans; I hardly remember what it is like to sit in traffic or to grind against a stranger on public transport.

I teach at Oxford University where I have a tenured job — a rare privilege in this day and age. The students are clever and hardworking, my colleagues considerate and sane, my days never less than interesting.

Work seldom ends after 7 pm. On summer evenings, my partner and I often stroll along the Thames into Port Meadow, cross its 300 acres of ancient pasture, and eat in the village on the other side. The light in the meadow is gorgeous from May through September, turning the grass a luminous green I last saw in childhood dreams.

I have just resigned from this job and am giving up this life. In a couple of months, my partner and I will be moving to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born. It is a city that heaves with umbrage. “There is a daily, low-grade civil war at every stop street,” the artist, William Kentridge, recently remarked.

Sometimes, the war moves up a grade; many friends and family members have stared down a gun barrel over the years, and each act of violence is relived in conversation a hundred times over. It is a city where being white or well-heeled attracts some to beg from you and others to insult you, where life is so palpably unfair that the rich live in a state of astonishing denial while among the poor antipathy runs so deep that if you listen you can hear it hum.

Make no mistake: I am not going to a life of hardship. I will have another tenured job at an institute staffed by some of the smartest people I know; the work is bound to be fulfilling. Labour in South Africa being cheap, we will employ somebody to dust our furniture and polish our floors. And, yet, what we are doing goes against the grain. Between my siblings and my first cousins, there are 11 of us in my generation and nine live abroad, all in rock-solid places like Canada and Australia. I am a Jew. My kind tends to sniff out trouble generations in advance. We like the foundations beneath our feet to run deep. While my move is by no means crazy, I am swimming in the opposite direction.

None of us understands ourselves especially well. We are dark inside and were we to light the whole place up we would go mad. My reflections on my move are no doubt riddled with self-justifications of which I’m barely aware.

There is nonetheless something for which I know I ache, and it is only to be found in my native land. When I lock eyes with a stranger on Johannesburg’s streets, there is a flicker, a flash communication, so fast it is invisible, yet so laden that no words might describe it. This stranger may be a man in a coat and tie, or a woman who wears the cotton uniform of a maid, or a construction worker stripped to the waist.

Whoever he is, he clocks me as I pass, and reads me and my parents and my grandparents; and I, too, conjure, in an instant, the past from which he came. As we brush shoulders the world we share rumbles around us, its echoes resounding through generations. He may look at me with resentment, or longing, or with the twistedness that comes with hating; he may catch me smiling to myself and grin. I am left with a feeling, both sweet and sore, that I am not in control of who I am. I am defined by the eyes that see me on the street. I cannot escape them. I cannot change what they see. We may one day fight one another or even kill one another, yet our souls are entwined because we have made another.

I cannot get that on Port Meadow. I can take in the washed-out light and the expanse of green and I can feel melancholy or light or get lost in private thoughts. But the people who pass are wafer thin. I cannot imagine who they are. It doesn’t matter enough. There is too little at stake. I am in essence alone.

That’s one way of explaining my move. There are others. Each way leads to its own conclusion.

I have spent much of the last decade and a half writing books about people with whom I might brush shoulders on South African streets and yet whose experiences are quite unlike my own. A prison gangster; a young man of peasant stock in a far-flung village; a refugee. The books I write about them are intimate. I spend a year, sometime two, following them around, watching them live their lives, coaxing from them every memory and thought they are prepared to share. I find their school teachers from years ago, their childhood friends. I hunt down every trace they have left in official records. I read everything that has been written about the village or the neighbourhood where they came of age.

And then I write their histories, and, on the coattails of their histories, I try to make sense of my inscrutable country. That is my hope, at least. I do not write fiction; I do not pretend to know what goes on in the heads of those about whom I write. But I do try to imagine, as fiercely as I can, how the world seems to them. The best way to do this, I think, is to pay attention to those moments when a person decides.

To commit his first crime, for instance. Or to turn his back on the woman who has just given birth to his first child. Or to leave a city where life is good and venture into a dangerous and foreign world. The more puzzling the decision, the further one must reach in order to understand, the better. If I can get an inkling of why a person decides, I can begin, if just fleetingly, to inhabit him.

The last person about whom I wrote is a refugee from Somalia. His name is Asad Abdullahi. I found him in a shantytown on the outskirts of Cape Town, living in a tin shack with his wife and two young children. I did not intend writing about him at first, but he spoke of his past in flashes so vivid and clean that I could not stop coming back.

Asad was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in about 1984. Civil war came when he was 7 or 8 years old and hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents fled. Somewhere on the road south he lost his family; he would not lay eyes on a close relative again until he was a grown man. His childhood was mobile, lonely and unattached; he moved from one exiled Somali settlement to the other, across Kenya and much of southeastern Ethiopia. Later, I would retrace his steps in search of people who might remember him. He was a born hustler, his mind so pragmatic and quick, his relation to others so easy; by the time he was 17 he was making a good living on the streets of Addis Ababa, brokering relationships between Somali immigrants and Ethiopian businessmen.

Success brought confidence. He seduced and married a beautiful woman, stuffed his back pocket with U.S. dollars, and, without a passport or a definite plan, headed south, to Johannesburg, telling his new wife he’d call for her soon. The money was easy in South Africa, he’d heard, and if one made one’s fortunes there, who knows, perhaps one could jump to America. That’s the sum of what he knew.

He was right about the money. One could walk into a shanty settlement on the edge of a South African city, rent a shack cheaply, and stock it with chickens, cold drinks, cigarettes and airtime. The day you set up shop, the customers would come. If you saved, you’d soon have capital to start another business. It was a country made for entrepreneurs.

Nobody had told Asad, though, the cost of making money in South Africa. The country was seething. He was a foreigner making money under the noses of the poor, and they hated him for it. His customers all knew that his shop filled every day with cash. They also knew that were somebody to shoot him and walk off with his day’s takings, the police would not be displeased.

By the time I met Asad, my country had scarred him. He had first gone into business with an uncle he found in South Africa, then with a cousin. Both had been murdered on their business premises. In his third venture, Asad was held up at gunpoint and had his head pounded repeatedly against the ground while his customers filed into his store and helped themselves to his stock.

It took me a while to understand Asad the way I do now, for I had to push through a zone of discomfort to do so. He has an enormous appetite for risk. But that is not quite right for it conjures a man calculating probabilities and then taking his chances. What Asad does is more extreme than that. Serially, throughout his life, he has left behind a world he understands and has flung himself at the unknowable. Like when he left Addis for Johannesburg without an idea of what he might find. Like when he returned again and again to set up business in South Africa’s townships in the knowledge that his work there may kill him.

I came to understand that Asad was asking himself what sort of life was worth living. His answer was enormously ambitious. He was thinking 10, 20 generations ahead. He wanted to effect a revolution in his lineage, to have his descendents live lives his parents could not have imagined. He wanted generations of Abdullahis not yet born to be Americans or Europeans because he had found his way to a new continent. He wanted his few years on this Earth to count forever.

One could say that he is like my nine relatives in Canada and Australia, a person looking to put down roots in firm ground. But my relatives could emigrate in orderly fashion. They could file papers and look for work. Asad’s only option is to throw himself at chance, courting death each time.

I have just given my best explanation for why I am going home. I am quite unlike Asad. My life is moored to weighty institutions like universities. I have good medical insurance. I don’t take extreme risks. Yet I have imagined the world through Asad’s eyes as fiercely as I can, and have thus been under the skin of a human being I am not. The importance of this experience is ineffable. It is to watch oneself from a distance and imbibe the contingency of who one is and what one feels. This is a secular incarnation of the oldest religious experience.

That is what going home means for me. It is to stand outside myself and watch my bourgeois life prodded and pushed and buffeted around by lives quite unlike my own. It is to surrender myself to a world so much bigger than I am and to the destiny of a nation I cannot control. In this surrender is an expansion, a flowering, of what it means to be alive.

Jonny Steinberg is the author of several books about everyday life in the wake of South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has twice won South Africa’s most prestigious literary prize, The Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, and was an inaugural winner of the Windham-Campbell Prizes for Literature awarded by Yale University. His latest book, A Man of Good Hope, was published by Knopf in January.