In the passing of Nelson Mandela, among the tributes and the claims and counter-claims (remember, he was a terrorist/he was no saint/there was the Malcolm X side too you know), I found myself discussing what we thought during these years when we were young and Mandela was in prison. What did our parents say? Did they speak of South Africa? Did they approve of the regime there, take it for granted?
My mother was born in Pretoria. She returned to Scotland as a young child, too young to have many memories other than the story that she had a nurse who dropped her once. But she had grown up with my grandmother’s stories - the stories of a young woman being sent a Cape ruby by a man she hadn’t seen for two years, with a proposal of marriage and instructions to get it set in an engagement ring, a young woman from the Aberdeenshire countryside who sailed off to be reunited with this man, marry him and live in a small house with a corrugated iron roof. She used to tell me of how she loved to visit “Jo’burg”, and how she stood her kitchen table with its feet in cans of petrol to deter the ants, and how she worried that her skin would turn yellow with too much sun. But in the end it wasn’t these irritations that drove them home; it was the day that the boy who brought their vegetables warned them that he probably wouldn’t be there the following week because he was going on a march with Mr Gandhi - and he was right. He was imprisoned, and that was that.
So these stories came to me, from my mother and my grandmother, woven into the background of my own life. But they impinged more directly on two occasions. In 1961 - as far as I know - my mother had to choose whether to have South African or British citizenship, when South Africa left the Commonwealth. I remember my father joking about it, though there was really no doubt. It must have been shortly after that that she received a letter from a man she had been friendly with in the South African Club at University: could he bring his wife and daughter to visit, as they were about to visit the UK for the first time since the war? And so it was that they came and had afternoon tea in our house, all very polite and formal. (The man by this time was an Admiral in the South African navy, according to my father).
This was my first experience of a real, tension-inducing, verbal adult ... row. As I sat trying to make conversation with a girl of my own age whose Afrikaans accent was almost incomprehensible, I became aware that the adults’ voices were rising slightly, and not in the riotously jolly way I knew from my parents’ parties (mostly teachers). There was talk of “blacks” - even “Kaffirs” - and I could see that my father was about to launch one of his deadly diatribes. When it came, it was eloquent, short-lived and final. Our guests left. We tidied up the tea party while I learned exactly what the problem had been. For the first time in my life, aged 16 or so, I understood.
Understanding brought with it a recognition of how my home differed from that of many of my friends. My parents were left-wing Glasgow teachers, intellectuals who loved an argument, who expected their children to take an interest and join in meal-time discussion - though my mother always insisted that nothing too contentious was allowed to disrupt the digestive process. (By the time I left school I knew what an ad hominem argument was, and that it was an inferior form of debate.)
I know how fortunate I was. To grow up knowing that justice and debate and equality and self-knowledge and moral courage are part of the furniture, the fabric of one’s life - there is no gift I would rather have been given than that knowledge, and none that I would care more about passing on to my own family.
But that is for them to recognise, for I doubt if parents ever know.
Meanwhile, an era has passed and South Africa has to progress without the father who has watched over the country for the past quarter-century. Children, in fact, recognising their legacy.