OUR NEIGHBOR HAROLD Holmes suggested me as a nominee for a Rotary fellowship, which paid for a year of postgraduate study overseas. It was the only scholarship I was likely to win, because it wasn’t based entirely on grades but took student activities into account. My editorship of the Daily Illini may have helped. Asked to name the five schools I desired, I wrote down Cambridge, Trinity in Dublin, Calcutta, Melbourne, and the University of Cape Town. The only one of these I’d seen was Cape Town, on the slopes of Table Mountain, when I was with the wheelchair team from Illinois during their 1962 tour. Cape Town was the one I was offered.
I took the Panama Limited to Chicago. I was free. I was out of Urbana and out of America for a year. My host Rotary district said I was welcome to speak to as many clubs as I wished, and I assured them I would speak to as many as possible. This provided me with the hospitality of locals throughout the Cape, as far north as Bloemfontein, and all over South-West Africa, now Namibia, where from Windhoek I was flown in a Rotarian’s small plane down to the Diamond Coast and visited the towns of Oudtshoorn and Swakopmund, places out of time, the imposing civic buildings of German colonialism towering incongruously over the humble structures of what South Africans called a dorp town.
At the university I had a little room at University House, some way up the mountainside from Rondebosch. One afternoon I sat in my room and took inventory. This was in June, winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and it had been raining steadily for two weeks. I was alone in the residence; the others had packed off for vacation. Under an umbrella I ventured out to the Pig and Whistle on Main Road, where I favored the ploughman’s lunch, but to sustain life I’d laid in a supply of tinned sardines, cheese, HobNobs, apples, Carr’s Table Water Crackers, ginger cookies, Hershey bars, biltong, sausage, peanut butter, and a pot of jam. I had a little electric coil that would bring a cup of water to a boil, a jar of Nescafé, and a box of sugar cubes. I wrote in my journal: “I have not spoken to anyone since Monday. The radio is playing ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark. I’ve been reading some Shaw, Man and Superman. I’m wearing jeans, my cable knit sweater and my Keds. I’ve made coffee and am waiting for it to cool. Let it be recorded that at this moment I am happy.”
University House was a two-sided row of rooms opening onto covered porches. Built for troops during the war, it housed graduate students, mostly in the law or medicine. The water poured down the roof and collected in an exposed gutter, which carried it along somewhere downhill. All my life I’ve loved to sit very close to the rain and yet remain protected—in a café, on a porch, next to a window, or in that room, which had crank-open windows and a Dutch door. It was unheated, and after a warning from the housemother I’d gone to the OK Bazaar for an electric heater.
“What do I really need that isn’t here in this room?” I wrote. “Its dimensions are a little more than twice as wide and deep as I am tall. I dunno, maybe 150 square feet? Here I have the padded wood chair in which I sit tilted against the wall, my feet braced against my straight desk chair. I am holding the three-inch-thick Paul Hamlyn edition of Shaw’s complete plays. This room contains: A wood single bed, an African blanket covering it, a wood desk and its gooseneck lamp, a small dresser with a mirror over it, my portable typewriter, a wardrobe containing my clothes, a steamer trunk serving as a coffee table, and two bookcases, filled to overflowing. What more do I actually need?”
That year I walked all over downtown Cape Town, found used bookstores, read constantly while drinking tea in cafés or beer in pubs. I joined the Rondebosch Chess Club and huddled over its boards in a smoky little room near the train station, served coffee and ginger cookies by its servant. I read under trees on the slopes of Table Mountain. I became active in the National Union of South African Students, attended weekend retreats on a campsite near Cape Point, sang civil rights songs. I became a teacher one night a week at a night school in a Coloured township, where the students were desperately cramming to win university places. The University of Cape Town was not officially segregated but had the same entrance requirements for applicants from South Africa’s separate and unequal schools. We studied The Tempest, that year’s set book. The students needed no encouraging. This mysterious text written in their second or third language could unlock an education and open careers to them.
South Africa was then seventeen years into apartheid, with twenty-nine to go before the election of Nelson Mandela. He would spend twenty-seven years as a prisoner. Every detail of racial segregation was ordered. The housemother had Joseph, the house servant, bring a mattress for my bed, and said in front of him, “It’s been slept on by a kaffir but you Yanks don’t care, do you?” There were Africans and Cape Coloureds everywhere, and whites walked among them as if separated by invisible walls. I noticed a similar separation in India, where street beggars didn’t quite occupy the same dimension as others.
When I’d been in Cape Town for a few days, I looked over the movie ads and decided to see From Russia with Love. Using my map, I took the train and presented myself at the ticket window, not taking particular notice of the nonwhites everywhere until the cashier called the manager, who said it was illegal to admit me: “This is not a theater for whites.” As I apologized he heard my accent and laughed with delight. “An American!” he said. “You don’t know any better.” He took me into the theater, where the lights were still on, and showed me a seat. The audience looked at me as if I must, by default, be in the Special Branch, until the manager made an announcement in Afrikaans and they all laughed and even applauded. I was an American and too ignorant to know what I’d gotten myself into. My University House friends assured me I could have gotten my throat slit by wandering off the map like that. I didn’t feel a moment’s unease, and after the movie a Coloured policeman materialized to walk with me back to the bus.
It was in Cape Town that I first slept the night with a black woman, Liz, whom I’d met at a NUSAS weekend. It didn’t involve sex, but nevertheless we could have been jailed under the Immorality Act. She’d been stranded at one of the (not uncommon) mixed-race parties near campus, and I offered her a place to spend the night. “Do you know what that involves?” she asked. I did, but didn’t take it as seriously as she did. We slept on my bunk and drank coffee in the morning behind the closed shades. “Now here is what we will do,” she said. “You walk down to the bathrooms. Leave the door open. I will stand out of sight. Then I will call your name and stand in the doorway as if I’ve been looking for you.”
On Rotary’s free tickets I flew all over southern Africa. It was like returning to an alternative American South in the 1940s. Segregation was a matter of fact. As a guest I was awakened in the mornings with hot tea by a servant who called me “boss.” Every meal at a club function without exception began with soup, salad, and a fish course and concluded with pie or pudding with hot cream poured over it. In those years Rotary with its international outlook was viewed as suspiciously liberal, and there were few Afrikaans members. Most Rotarians were affiliated with the “moderate” United Party, but I met a few members of the Liberal Party, which included the writers Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer. There was no television, lest the nation be exposed to equitable treatment of Negroes. Movies and books were censored. Playboy was smuggled in from overseas.
Of all my hosts, I remember most clearly Felix and Naomi Harris of George, along the Garden Route from Cape Town to Durban. They had a house perched on a hillside and surrounded by a riot of vegetation. We went swimming in an Indian Ocean bay as warm as bathwater. They had a little old dog with a leg missing and said he had been near death when they moved to the hillside. One day he shuffled out the door, scented wild nature, and to their amazement trotted into the shrubbery to leave his mark. Now he tore around the yard chasing birds.
Up in South-West Africa, time was even more retrograde. In the evenings I played Monopoly or Scrabble with my hosts. Outside Swakopmund on the bed of a dry river they held a braaivleis, grilling chops and roasting potatoes over a driftwood fire. It was the edge of the Namib Desert, and no grass grew on their lawns, where servants raked the dirt into elaborate patterns. I returned to Windhoek by overnight train, sleeping with three other passengers on pull-down leather benches, buying roast chicken through the windows from the African cooks on station platforms.
At the university my advisor was R. G. Howarth, professor of English. He peered around books piled on his desk, spent much time filling his pipe, and asked me, “What do you plan to study?” The English literature of South Africa, I told him. “What have you read? Cry, the Beloved Country?” Also some Doris Lessing, I said. “Then you’d better start reading.” I attended the graduate student seminars on Shakespeare in a room looking down Table Mountain, vines blowing through the window. In the English Seminar Room I held a reading of E. E. Cummings, and repeated it in a bohemian coffee shop on Main Road. Every weekend there was a boozy party. At an illegal mixed-race party in District Six I danced to the Beatles for the first time. That year I saw one, and only one, person smoking cannabis. The campus Catholic center was named Kolbe House. There every Saturday evening there was a celebration of the Mass, followed by a “social hour.” The apartheid laws allowed people of different races to attend church services, and if those were followed by a get-together at which music was played and people danced, well, there you were.
On one drinking night my friend Tiki and I went to a shady club in Cape Town, which wouldn’t admit her in jeans, so she went into a washroom, removed the camisole from under her blouse, and suspended it from her waist. I carried her jeans rolled up under my arm. It was a brandy and ginger ale night. We met a transsexual who complained that implants had made her breasts turn blue. Late the next morning I woke, vomited, and began reading Homage to Catalonia by Orwell.
My return trip was aboard the Lloyd Triestino Europa, sailing from Cape Town up the coast and through the Suez Canal to Venice. Friends came to wish me bon voyage, and Tiki, her long hair flowing behind her in the wind, stood on the dock and waved and waved until she grew too small to see. At the end of the journey in the Venetian lagoon, San Giacomo materialized out of the fog.