Behind the bright, cold calm of these highveld summer days, behind the apparent clarity and solidity of the familiar world, carved and detailed by the sharp winter sunlight, is a strange uncertainty. For one thing, death has reached out, too close by, too recently and too often, for one not to be reminded of one’s own mortality. I find myself contemplating the years that have piled up behind me, acutely aware I am well past the half-way mark; for some reason, the next big birthday milestone, coming up in 2013, seems to assume a significance I have not associated with birthdays in years.
Looking back, I am reminded also, and much more positively, of the few big moments, out of all the many changes, transitions, events and developments, that somehow marked a quite fundamental turn in my life. This does not mean I recognised them at the time; it is only in the rearview mirror, looking back as you sweep past on the relentless drive to somewhere else, that you see what it is that you have passed – that you recognise the turn, the change of direction.
One of these transitions, was teaching in the Transkei. Becoming a high school principal, in an African school in the Umtata township, in the early 1980s, in my twenties, was in many senses my real education, an awakening to my country, my location in time and place and history, and my dislocation from my class and race and family background. Many things happened after that – having children, of course, was probably the most profound, but that is not a single mark in the journey of your life, it is a constant, integral, indissoluble strand in your very make-up and identity – but they were more in the nature of events and developments, than key transitions.
The second significant transition, I would say, came from joining the NBI, as a director, in 1997. Here was an organisation with influence and credibility, an organisation which gave me a platform, the opportunity and the encouragement and support, to imagine and to do things I could never have contemplated before. Here were the finest, the most talented, passionate, smart, dynamic people and colleagues I had ever worked with. It was a time, too, of huge optimism and hope, about change and democracy in our country, awakening with new national pride and joy from the long nightmare of apartheid, and the NBI was in the thick of it. Nothing in my life, after this, could be the same.
And now, a third transition beckons; and if it is fraught with uncertainty, as it was when I left my familiar world for the Transkei, when I left the worlds of teaching and research for the NBI, then too, like those earlier moments of redefinition, this change is full of potentiality and hope, as well as some anxiety and uncertainty. The new year, barely five months away, marks the start-line from which I shall have to discover how to make a living, and establish a life and roots, in another country. I will have to figure out how to make a life in two countries, actually – for my mother and two of my children remain here, in South Africa, and my soul is compounded, in a very real sense, of this dust and this air and these South African landscapes. I have a novel to complete and another to bring to life; more than a couple of books, I have a lifelong dream, and a lifelong promise to myself, to put to the test. I have a wife to love and create a new home with; new friends to meet and get to know; a new world to understand and discover.
I am mildly, ironically, hilariously terrified. But I will say this: I am going on, I am not dead yet.