It has been three years since I was in South Africa – the country that is in every fibre of who I am. But this home-coming is so very different. The last time I was here was because my mother had died quite suddenly. I was planning to come and spend a month with her, but she passed away a month before my arrival date, so my trip in 2014 was consumed with sorting out my mother’s estate, her cremation and all that goes with a passing.
This time there is nothing left of her, only memories, and I am finding this experience very empty. My holidays here were always planned around my mother and what we were going to do, see and enjoy together (lots of cups of tea and milk tart or lime milkshakes). But this time….
I almost feel I don’t belong here anymore – but to be honest, that has been the case for over two decades now. I don’t know how things work here, I have very little cultural references and I probably don’t sound very South African anymore either. Which makes this all so very strange – who am I? My mother was my anchor here, and now that the anchor has been raised – this ship is out in an open sea, with no direction, no route and no destination.
The idea of coming to South Africa to spend Christmas with friends and family was exciting a few months ago, but as the time got closer to our departure, anxiety built up and now that I am here…I really don’t know if I even want to be here. This is no longer my home – this is no longer my happy place – is this my duty? And is this role now no longer?
Or, is this time an opportunity for me to find who I am, to explore my connection with the land I adore? Is this now MY time?
I am sad, I am lonely in my own country, my home, without my mother, and I fear how I will feel about South Africa when this trip is over – I will change (as one always does when we travel), but this time the change will transform so much of who I am, deep in my soul…and that scares me….very very much!
When the idea of Celebrate Southern Africa was born, I thought it would be fun – something exciting and interesting to get involved with and to enjoy some South African company.
Little did I realise the impact it would have on me…
The concept of belonging has occupied my thinking over the last couple of years as I really don’t feel I belong anywhere.
I left South Africa to travel 22 years ago, and I am still here. I now have a bit more than the backpack I arrived with, but it still does not feel like home. When people hear my accent, I feel them metaphorically taking a step back and I am treated like a visitor or even a tourist. I often have to fight my corner because I am not taken seriously – what does she know? She’s not even from here. I have to have cultural references explained to me and I am often left out of conversations because I have no idea who or what people are talking about or the jokes they are making. Sometimes people notice this and make a joke of it too, but I do often think they really don’t understand how it makes me feel – and why should they? They have not been in the same situation. Being so socially isolated and so lonely can be quite difficult – character-building, but still difficult.
I go back to South Africa for holidays and you know what? It is the same there. Besides the memories I have of the first 24 years of my life in the country and my on-going friendships with my South African friends, I have lost 22 years of social and cultural experiences. I don’t know who people are speaking about, what incidents they are referring or what somethings mean. I feel like a stranger in my own country.
Those who have emigrated and immigrated will know what this feels like. And since I lost my mother, I barely have a DNA connection left in South Africa. I have no children, no parents, no grandparents, no grandchildren, no siblings, no nieces or nephews, not even any god-children – so I am as genetically isolated in the UK as I am in South Africa.
So, where do I belong? I am kept at arm’s length in the UK and I am unfamiliar with so many things in South Africa.
But, by making contact with South Africans who are in the same position as me in this country, I instantly feel connected. A South African pointed out that working with other South Africans in the UK and running a business that attracts South Africans, means they feel less homesick. That has touched my heart because I can completely understand. I am not only homesick for South Africa, I am homesick for South Africans too – people who understand how hard it is to be away from what we know, people who use the same language, make the same cultural references, people who are carving a niche for themselves in a foreign country without their family and friends, South Africans who ‘get’ each other and who share the same history and roots. As I get older I value my history so much more. I am proud of my past and my family tree, but it means so little if we don’t make it work for us in the present and take it proudly with us into the future.
Celebrate Southern Africa is not just a weekend for me to enjoy South African food and drink, South African products and South African company – it is about me being connected, feeling a part of a community and being with people who understand me without knowing me – it is about one of the most basic of human needs – it is about belonging.
I stumbled across this recipe and now make this every now and again to get a little taste of home. It is a real hit!
250g dates, roughly chopped
5ml bicarbonate of soda
100g butter, softened
200ml caster suger
250ml plain flour
5ml baking powder
100g pecan nuts, chopped
For the syrup
5ml vanilla essence
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
– Preheat the oven to 180C (gas mark 4)
– Grease an oven-proof dish
– Combine the dates with the water in a small pot and bring to the boil
– Remove from the heat
– Add the bicarbonate of soda
– Leave to cool
– Cream together the butter, sugar and egg
– Sift the flour and baking powder
– Add to the creamed mix, together with the colled dates and mix well
– Mix in the nuts
– Pour into the greased dish
– Bake for about an hour or until the skewer inserted into the centre, comes out clean
For the syrup
– Boil the sugar, water, butter and vanilla essence together for about 10 minutes
– Add the brandy and cinnamon
– Mix well
Serve the pudding hot with the syrup poured over it and top with some whipped cream, custard or ice-cream
There is no prouder moment than looking across the Olympic Village and seeing the magnificently colourful South African flag. It really is a remarkable sight!
The Team SA office is located on Cheering Avenue in the Village (and we have had loads to cheer about in and on the water so far).
It is right opposite Village Services and the gym, near the Polyclinic and near the main dining room. Perfect location!
The office is small for the size of the squad, which is over 120 athletes. But we have all the facilities needed: printers, computers, fridge, a safe (not nailed to anything), a couch, notice boards, pigeonholes for each sport (yes, that is my handwriting – little Miss Organiser that I am) and of course a TV.
The TV channels available to the Village residents are great. They have access to all the sports without the commentary or the fluff. In the morning, the first sheet that goes up on the wall is of the events, times and venues of all Team SA athletes for the day. And this sheet ensures we have the telly on the correct channels to shout for our boys and girls. Often athletes, team managers and coaches pop in to watch a game or an event as it gets quite excitable as you can imagine.
The notice board in the office is littered with important phone number, tasks to be actioned and reminders. It is invaluable in our daily ‘running about’:
I have, of course, added a sports quote of the day. These come from famous sportsmen and women and have included Ali, Coe, Liddel etc.
The whole Rainbow Nation is behind our fabulous athletes and before the squad left SA they got corporates and sponsors to write notes of best wishes. We have put all the cards up on the wall in the corridor leading up to the lifts.
We also managed to frame a Protea shirt with all the cricketers’ signatures to wish Team SA the very best for the Games. And I put my birthday proteas (thanks to Sally and Warren) in a vase for all of us to enjoy.
The Team SA medical suit is on the first floor of the Tucana Heights block in the Heritage zone of the Village (there is a Seaside and a Countryside zone too).
The CMO (chief medical officer), Kevin Subban and his team of doctors as well as the Head Physio, Bafana Sihlali and his team have a very workable, comfortable space. If anyone watched SA vs Poland in the Beach Volley, Bafana is the one who came out to help Freedom Chiya when he got a bit winded.
The medical staff are kept busy massaging athletes, with doping services and athlete specific treatment. They have a booking system, but are of course available at any time for any of Team SA.
On the walls in the office and in the medical suit are motivational posters of South African sports men and woman, which make me smile every time I walk past one.
The most apt one is of Madiba, which is above the TV in the office. Whenever we watch an event on TV we are reminded of the important role sport has played in our country’s history, and how important it has been in building our New South Africa. Heart warming indeed!
So, with Nelson overlooking the operations of Team SA, we get on with the daily activities of co-ordinating athletes, coaches, officials, special guests and eventualities no one has even considered.
And with the odd bag of biltong or droewors floating around, it is like home from home…
I dreamed of being an Olympian since I could walk, talk and spell IOC. But as the years passed, and circumstances changed, this dream became no more than “that would’ve been great!” A bit like winning a lottery really… Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that I would be sharing an Olympics Games with South African Olympians!
My WOW day started when Oscar Pistorius arrived in the office. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt he looked so different! What a hotty! I jumped in and offered to take him to the dining room to eat with other track athletes. On the way there I told him how proud we are of him and his achievements, that everyone I know admires what he has done, and that we South Africans wish him the very best! He said he was so touched by the support and that he felt overwhelmed with the expectation. I told him it was because he was doing something so special and amazing. He was so humble and when we arrived in the dining room he shook my hand, thanked me and said, “God bless you!” Shew! That was such a special 5 minutes for me! Incredible!
The athletes’ dining room is huge! There are sections from every corner of the world serving absolutely any type of food your heart desires – kosher, hallal, diabetic, Indian, Asian, Mc Donald’s (or course, as they have ploughed millions into the Games). There is even a nutritionist on duty 24/7 (the dining hall is open 24 hours) to advise the athletes on diet etc. Walking through the dining hall, I knew I am amongst the best of the best….surreal!
As I was working on the computer later that afternoon, I realised an athlete was sitting on the couch behind me. I turned around and it was Caster Semenya!!! She giggled, joked and chatted with everyone who came into the office. She was so relaxed and her manner was soo gentle. Knowing what she has gone through, and seeing her here, so normal and quite shy, I love her more. She is truly something special!
As the Opening Ceremony began, some Olympians and officials gathered in the office around the TV. I have no idea who they all are, or what sports they do, but it was so chilled with an element of excitement for the ceremony ahead. Everyone so enjoyed it…there were ‘ooooh’ s and ‘aaahh’s throughout.
About 10 minutes before we had to start our march, Patience, the Chef de Mission called everyone together for a quick briefing and to run through the procedure. When she mentioned Caster and the South African flag the whole squad cheered and clapped. Everyone in the squad just love this lovely girl and have felt her pain on her remarkable journey.
The Team SA Games Makers (volunteers), nominated me to carry the RSA placard and lead the SA Olympians to the Olympic stadium. How utterly amazing!
At 10.03pm, I walked from the Olympic Village with South Africa’s top sporting men and women and we started our march towards the stadium. We had Somalia ahead of us and Spain behind us.
Along the route there were cheering school children with flags from different countries. Twice I was called over to take the RSA placard to the fence and pose with the SA flag. It was incredible to have Olympians take MY photo!
At one point there was a commotion behind me. I turned around to Patience (the Chef de Mission) dancing and singing. This is what South Africans are about! They love life! I am so proud!
For many of the athletes this was the first time they were seeing the gorgeous stadium so they were filming, taking photos and posing with the crowds and the stadium in the background.
It was after 11:00pm when we arrived at the stadium and Caster Semenya took over from me. She was given the South African flag to cheers from her fellow Olympians, heaps of photos, and off they went.
I felt flat! It had been so electric, and suddenly I was alone in a crowd, with the RSA placard. With tears in my eyes I turned towards the big screen just in time to see the best athletes from my beloved Rainbow Nation enter the Olympic stadium, with Caster proudly waving at the crowds. There I was in a sea of people, but with no one to share how utterly proud I was to be there, be a South African and to have spent the last hour leading our talented Olympians.
I made my way back to the Olympic Village and got back to the office just in time to see the last of Team GB enter the stadium.
One of the operations guys passing the office popped in to watch the Torch and the lighting of the cauldron and when the fireworks started, we both rushed out to watch the colours explode across the Olympic Village skyline. We looked at each other and, at the same time, exclaimed, “Wow!”
Not long afterwards one of the heavily armed policemen popped in for a chat. He told me that the last 2 weeks have been the highlight of his policing career. He told me how his 8 year old son, Harry, had asked him if the man with the ‘springy legs’ would be at the Games. A few minutes later Oscar Pistorius walked in! He chatted for a bit and when he left I asked the policeman if he knew who that had been..how chuffed he was when I told him. Oscar came back…he was was so sweet! “Let me sign something for him”. He frantically looked around for something to sign. All we had was the little SA flag Oscar had carried in the stadium, so he signed that, had a photo and the policeman mouthed a thank you to me before leaving. You just know that Mr Policeman will be his son’s hero for getting the photo and a signed flag made out to ‘Harry from Oscar Pistorious’!
When I got into bed at 2:30am I knew that few days (if any) in my life would top what I had been so privileged to experience that day…
The Olympics fascinates and thrills me in so many ways. You can be world number one in your sport, and have won World Championships, but so many sporting competitors feel empty until they have an Olympic medal. Then of course the pride experienced when they put on their country's colours! And those few minutes, and in some cases seconds, a sport person's life can change forever. Their names are etched in the history books and they live forever!
Each country comes to the Games to compete, share in the spirit of the Olympics and of course to win medals. South Africa’s medal target is 12 medals for London 2012. There are never guarantees at a Games. They have a way of turning everything upside down – favourites freeze – the All Blacks 😉 – injuries, or the circumstances puts a competitor in a league they have never performed at. It is a remarkable fortnight of shocks and surprizes.
On of the South Africans who achieved the status of not only being an Olympian, but also being a medalist, was Hezekiél Sello Sepeng.
He was born in 1974 in Potchefstroom, and went to the High School for Boys, Potchefstroom, where he shone on the athletics track. The school and the parents were so proud of him, they did all they could to get him noticed – fundraising for him to compete. Then in 1996 at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Hezekiel came second in the 800 metres final.
How proud we are of him and his success! He went to my ‘brother school’ and he is an Olympic silver medalist!
So, can you imagine my excitement when Team SA’s Logistics Manager asked me to drive him to St Mary’s Twickenham (the SA athletics training camp). Isaac needed to deliver kit for the Opening Ceremony.
Hezekiel is the Athletics Manager of the Olympic athletics squad.
“I was at Potch Boys!” he exclaimed.
“I know, and that is why I needed to shake your hand! We are so proud of you at Girls High!” He beamed!
How lovely! I drove back to the Olympic Village with ‘happy smiles and memories’ of my time at Girls High and again my pride in being an Old Girl of a community of people (including Boys High) who have achieved such great things!
There are South Africans who are admired around the world. Walking back from the Team Welcoming Ceremony the other day a man from the Multi-Faith Centre walked with me. He spoke about how he loved visiting South Africa and that he believes with time, the beautiful flower of our nation will open, but it always takes a while for the bud to fully develop. I added the inspiration Nelson Mandela has been and that he is a true example of what forgiveness is and can do. As we bid farewell he added, "Thank you (South Africa) for inspiring the world!". I was so touch and more than ever I felt the pride of who I am and where I come from well up inside of me.
Yesterday was to be a day that will live with me forever, as I got to meet another inspirational South African figure…
I was not to start until 3pm, but got a call early morning to be available to drive the officials to north London to see Mr Sam Ramsamy carry the Olympic Torch in Barnet. I personally didn’t think I would see him…I am just the help 😉
We struggled through the Leytonstone traffic and jumped a few light – we had left late, and needs must! I managed to get them there just as the police were closing off the road, gave them a map of where Mr Ramsamy would be carrying the Torch and parked in a drive way and later in the golf club.
I got a call to pick them up and drove up the road where the officials and a few athletes were waiting with Mr Ramsamy. A family came past and instantly recognised him and posed for some photos with the great man. I took a quite photo on my phone, and then thought, “What an opportunity! I am going to ask for a proper photo”. I got my camera out and on approaching Mr Ramsamy surrounded by kids, I pointed at my camera, looked at him, and he nodded and beckoned me forward. He moved us out of the sun, but said we should pose with the red letter box in the back ground as there is talk of them not being there for ever.
He asked if I was driving Team SA, I introduced myself and he said, "I will then see you again during the Games Dawn."
I thanked him for carrying the Torch for us (South Africa).
Sam Ramsamy played such an important role in the Struggle while in exile. He has been influential in sport in South Africa and is now a valued member of the IOC.
For me this experience was like touching history. Such a small man physically, with such an aura and a power!
This was one of the most inspiring moments of my life!
And London 2012 continues, not only to increase my metabolism (I have lost a kilogram this week) it is feeding my soul!