It was on top of that mountain of my childhood home town where Oprah Winfrey’s words resonated with me: “When you educate a woman, you set her free. Had I not had books and education in Mississippi, I would have believed that’s all there was.”
On my last visit to South Africa, the country of my birth, I stood on the slopes of the mountain near Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, much to the surprise of passers-by, and screamed: “This is my book, my book!” When the mountain echoed, I was reminded of a specific humiliating incident on this very mountain when police officers enforced the degrading Immorality Act. A law legislated under the apartheid system that was so humiliating and repulsive, ruled that we were only to have relations with our own race. That incident still haunts me to this very day. This time though, it was a different echo to when, as a young woman on a date, the sound reverberating was that of the cries of injustice.
I had never set foot on that part of the mountain after that incident many years ago. That day the reality of the injustices of the laws of the country stared me in the face. Until that day in early 1970s, I had heard about these laws but it did not make sense and where I grew up it had no real meaning in my life. After living in Australia for many years, life had changed. For the past 31 years, I have lived as an ordinary citizen free of the political tangles that so many South Africans are still unravelling.
In this centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s life, my life had changed forever. Nothing could have prepared me for this long-held dream coming true.
This feeling of euphoria runs so deep, most days it swirls around in the pit of my stomach and fills my being with so much joy. It’s been nine months since my book A Darker Shade of Pale’s world-wide release. There were many special moments in the lead up to seeing my debut book listed as a bestseller next to acclaimed and respected writers I deeply admire. The excitement of my first publishing contract, the first glimpse of my book cover, the layout of my book, and even the look of the font consumed my waking moments. I won’t lie, many times I’ve felt the urge to whip out a copy of my book on the train to show it to the stranger sitting next to me. But, of course, I stopped myself.
My writing journey has not been easy. It started with a dream in an ill-equipped township high school on the Cape Flats of South Africa. Classified as coloured, and rated as a second-class citizen, we were banished to live among the sand dunes and blocks of concrete flats in council housing estates. The setting reeked of depravation and failure. But among the dusty roads and overcrowded houses, rose many pillars of strength that prepared us for a better future. Parents who grappled with hardship through menial jobs were the drivers of our path to a better future.
After many years of starting and stopping, the task seemed impossible. It was fraught with fallen rocks and winding paths leading to nowhere.
Standing on the mountain, near the spot where I was vilified and humiliated as a young woman, I thought of the many people who experienced my pain and humiliation. As a citizen in this country I was born into a life of injustice and inequality. I knew no other life. All I had to aspire to was to be like those who revelled in a privileged classification. But, that was impossible, in the eyes of the law my skin was too dark. In South Africa through my mixed heritage I was doomed to a life of hardship and injustice. Born at the wrong time on this soil, the odds were stacked against me. Along with many others, we endured a revolting abuse of our human rights. An ordinary life in a country going through an extra ordinary time in its history.
When I looked across the slopes, at the vast landscape I felt at peace with having grown up in this unequal society. My footsteps, once forbidden, was now welcomed everywhere. After a life changing decision, I devoted two whole years to full-time writing. There were many early mornings and late nights, bottomless coffees, writing classes, the dreaded red pen edits and endless feedback, until I did it. I told my story, with honesty and integrity.
At that moment more than the excitement of my book launches, the praise and admiration, I prayed that somewhere in this town, a girl who looks like me, with a dream like I had, will overcome her fear and pick up a pen and write. Not just write, but that she will follow her dreams and achieve it much sooner in her life than I did. I hoped that she in turn will lead others to write about their adventures.
Today, my achievement is also dedicated to the young girls and boys, to women and men who have dreams and those who need encouragement to achieve it. I hope that as they run towards their dreams, that courage will stem their fears and that the words in their souls will find a way out onto the pages of their books. I know fear, it has gripped me for most of my life, but when that moment arrives where fear gives way to a greater purpose, then they must be ready.
I felt overcome by the realisation that my mother was our saviour, despite the odds stacked against us, she was steadfast in her belief that education would save us. Her extraordinary foresight in that overcrowded environment, did not overwhelm her nor did it fill her with despair, instead it spurred her on to tackle that long road on a bicycle every morning and night to earn her wages. She had her plan for our future and devoted her life to fulfilling it. She felt no greater joy than to see us dressed for school with satchels filled with books and pens. Our report cards and book prizes were her reward.
For a few moments I turned my face to the mountain and wept. My dream realised is also her dream fulfilled.
In our township, among the overcrowded conditions and lack of facilities, the small library was our source of entertainment, it opened our world to life in other parts of the universe. It was there that I escaped to and read the books that made me dream about writing my own adventures.
There is no better feeling than achieving your dream. Be that writing a book or baking a special cake or buying your first home. To feel your dream come true is like dancing with wildness on a mountain to a song in your head, watching your cake rise in the oven or carried over the threshold of your new home. And, how can I forget that exhilarating feeling in the tips of my fingers when I typed The End on my manuscript.
I salute the many fallen souls who fought that brutal regime to bring freedom in South Africa.
Our history, our stories must be heard.