My mother told me a story about how she discovered Pietermaritzburg. My parents were living in Cambridge Massachusetts when my father found out he had received an offer of employment at the University of Natal. She was, she told me, a little shaken by the idea and not knowing where Pietermaritzburg was she had gone off to the Harvard Library to inspect an atlas.
Pietermaritzburg was parochial. And in South Africa, which was itself entirely cut off from the rest of the world in the 70s, this is truly saying something (a fate worse than a fate worse than death). But there was something to that place, now long since lost, that was not entirely detestable. Of course I must be weary of painting a utopia considering the times and the whiteness of the community. The image that I have of it is, no doubt, grossly distorted by the filter of childhood. It was nevertheless, I believe, a small pocket of liberalism in a country where the word for both the right and left alike was something that only evoked deep spitting antipathy. And of course the word is now utterly meaningless in contemporary South Africa, as it is in the rest of the world. It now seems to have become muddled with the idea neoliberalism (it is certainly not new and certainly not liberal). Like Tony Judt’s notion of the liberal as society’s canary, I think there something important in liberalism (and I count myself as one although I think a rather bad one, my nose for the smell of gas has been has been pretty poor over the years).
But there was something more to Pietermaritzburg that exists in my memories. First there was something of a sense of community there, one that is rarely found at academic institutions. Of course it was isolated, exclusive and detached (which are not the qualities of the canary in Judt’s sense) and we will no doubt never see the likes of an institution like that again for better or worse. But secondly there was, or so it seemed to me as a child, a sense of hope, a hope I think that sprung from a liberal independence of thought – away from the centres of power people there could think for themselves but also they could believe in these solutions. They were, it seems, perhaps all deluded. There was also a strange sense, that living as we did amongst the Zulus, of identification with Anglo-Zulu history. My childhood was filled with objects like Zulu shields and assegais, of pictures of Shaka. It was only when I returned to Durban some years ago that I realised that my childhood had always contained a strong sense of the rootedness of the Zulus to the environment around us, a rootedness that made the Apartheid myth almost laughable.