It was nothing, really. I was seated in 11F (I am seated in 11F now, airborne over a darkening Karroo as I write this), watching the late-boarding passengers struggle down the aisle of the British Airways/Comair flight home from Cape Town to Johannesburg, when my eye flickered over, paused, and then came back to examine momentarily, one passenger in particular. A man, in his early forties I imagine; he had thick, longish, wavy hair; and he was wearing a dark pin-striped suit jacket over a pair of jeans, pointy cowboy boots – and an orange shirt.

Instantly I thought, I once had a shirt like that. It was not a memory, it was nothing so specific – it was a fleeting, unfocused image, an impression that vanished even as I slowed to reach out for it. I could not have told you, when or why I had possessed, much less worn such a shirt. But there it was – a sense of myself, of no particular age but very much younger, with thick, longish wavy hair, wearing one of those seventies dress shirts, with deep cuffs and high pointy collars. The shirt was orange.

I was at a business breakfast in Cape Town this morning where Jonathan Jansen, one of our public intellectuals, the new and first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State – a university which has remained a stronghold of Afrikaner conservatism, and which gained world notoriety last year with its images of white male students humiliating the African women who cleaned their segregated dormitories (I read the story at the time in the Toronto press, which tells you something) – spoke about his book, ‘Knowledge in the Blood’. Except that Jonathan did not speak about the book, and the book is not, emphatically, about the ‘blood thinking’ of 1930s Germany or 1960s South Africa. He spoke, instead, about leadership in a divided society; about the need for anyone who sought to lead to understand both sides of our ancient and bitter divide; about the need to recognise how broken we are, black and white, by the experience of apartheid; how seeking to change others means first confronting our hidden demons and changing ourselves; and, most of all, perhaps, about the ways in which we are coded, imprinted, not only by our own experience, as we live it, but by the way the past is used and handed down to us, by our parents, our families, our communities, the political and other powers who shape and colour – yes, colour – our lives.  Knowledge in the blood.

It was a very public mixing of the public and private; a narrative, told with Jonathan’s characteristic ebullience and charm, his unique amalgam of tenderness and provocation, about the ways in which the most brutal and public of events are etched into our most private beings; about how our deepest and most private psychic lives are revealed, unwittingly betrayed, as we go about our daily lives.

We are, I sometimes think, mere baskets of sewing scraps, bits and pieces of cloth, fugitive memories, waiting to be stitched together: and yet, the deep tracks laid down by these ephemera, the grooves etched by our experience – the images we have of ourselves, solid one moment, transient and fleeting the next – have the power to transform or bury or destroy us. They are who we are.

I stepped off the plane yesterday in a Cape Town that was sweltering hot at four in the afternoon; popped in to spend an hour or so with my mother; fabulously dined with colleagues at Constantia Uitsig, overlooking the tended vines and gentle slopes of the Constantia valley. This morning, after the breakfast meeting with Jonathan, as I drove out of the city and over the Eastern Boulevard towards the University of Cape Town where, as a baby-faced youth in the seventies, I studied English literature, the grey fog suspended over Table Bay, the placid shimmering water, the cranes rising up from the docks, were ghostly reminders of a lifetime: my life, formed here, in the blood.

‘The Fairest Cape I ever saw,’ a famous English traveller of the eighteenth, or was it the nineteenth century wrote. It seemed so apt a phrase, on a day like this – a phrase coming down to me through the centuries, through my own reading, my own education, my scattered recollection. I know who it was, but I have forgotten. I have forgotten more than I shall ever remember. One day I should look it up.