The Back Nine in South Africa

meliorism (n.) the belief that the world gets better; the belief that humans can improve the world

Staring out of the passenger window, Durban’s blue lagoon stretched out from under the bridge, flowing into the Indian Ocean. The December sun was shining brightly, increasing the hue of the tropical vegetation by the water edge. An apartment block emerged from the trees and I immediately recognised my old home of over twenty years ago. For the next few minutes my memories took me back to my childhood of endless hours spent playing cricket in the complex grounds.

Umgeni River

My old flat in Durban

“Are you boys going to play the full eighteen?” my Dad enquired from the driver’s seat, breaking the silence.

My younger brother, Rory, shifted in the back. Having recovered from being woken at the ridiculous time of 10:00 AM on a holiday he had regained some energy. “I am sure I could do the whole course,” boasted my baby brother. Thinking back to the last time I played on a golf course was a couple years ago on a water logged, Welsh ground. The final round of my golf club career was called off after the 5th hole due to torrential rain. Today would be a different test entirely.

We pulled up in front of the club house of the Windsor Park golf club next to a valet who was washing a car. Navigating through the tunnel of mangroves we made it to the course. My uncle Chris was a former senior champion of the club and had set us up with a tee time. Rory and I asked for a round of just nine holes and the man in charge said we could tee-off from the 10th to do the back nine.Windsor

Looking through my clubs I selected my trusty five iron to start the day with. It was a happy moment to be reunited with the golf clubs that I had entrusted with my parents when I was off travelling and I already had a plan to sneak them back with me to Bristol. I strolled on to the tee with club poised and looked ahead at the lush green fairway that doglegged behind some trees. After struggling to put my tee into the sun-baked soil, I jostled into position and hit a solid shot that split the fairway. It was a relief not to have topped it twenty feet in front of me.

The high noon, African sun blazed above us as we made our way around the course. It had to be the hottest day of the trip and here we were, two half-English men, walking around with a splash of sun screen. Fortunately, we were well prepared both being seasoned travellers, bringing enough water to hydrate ourselves. We took shelter in the shade of some protective branches for a well deserved break. After taking a sip of that sweet water I glanced over to Rory who appeared to be a bit perplexed.

“Where is your bottle of water, bro?” I asked him.

He looked down at his golf bag he had borrowed from our cousin Alan. The compartment he had stored the bottle in had one little flaw, there was no bottom. The bottle was now lying in the rough on one of the completed holes. No turning back now so I handed him mine, that he took gratefully. Now we were rationing water and the Umgani river was no where in sight. At that moment a lone Vervet monkey dashed across the course, looking for some protection of his own from the elements.

The final putt rolled into the hole of the 18th green and I took off my cap to shake my brother’s hand. Despite the rustiness I held on to a 3 UP lead that started with a respectable bogey on the longest par five on the course. We made our way back to the club house where we purchased some well deserved Powerade and Snickers bars. There were two men next to us, who heard from our accents, that we were not from around these parts.

“We are from England,” I replied with the most honest answer.

“Wow, England!” one exclaimed with delight. “Let me shake your hand to get some of that luck from England.”

I tried to keep up with his combination of bro grip and fist pump to maintain my reputation back in my old home town. We talked about our holiday, golf and the English Premier League. They were big Liverpool fans and the departure of Luis Suarez was a subject we had to tip-toe around. The well-built one sitting in the chair next to us revealed he was the club house pro and had opened the pro shop earlier in the year. Even more interesting was that he was the grandson of legendary golfer, Papwa Sewgolum.

‘Papwa’ Sewgolum

Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum

Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum was a South African of Indian descent that started out as a caddie. His talent was soon discovered and was taken to Europe to make a name for himself. That he did with three wins at the Dutch Open. Back on home soil, Papwa won the Natal Open beating one of the greatest of all time in Gary Player. Due to stormy conditions and heavy rain the trophy presentation had to be done indoors. There was a bitter twist in the tale, when the rules of Apartheid meant he could not enter the club house being a non-white and the trophy had to be handed to him through a window. Photographs of the incident sparked outrage across the globe.

It is strange realising that I grew up in the Apartheid regime, where mass inequality was apart of every day life. I started education in a whites only school, had a black maid and had the ignorant privilege of going to any public place I wished. It was an ugly bubble to be born into but fortunately the denial of human rights was soon to burst.

From the TV in my parents’ bedroom on an idle day in 1994 I watched the historic events unfold as the first democratic results came in. The ANC (African National Congress) won my province and went on to win the election. Things began to change. I had my first black class mate. I had an Indian family move in door next to me on the apartment block (the one I had seen earlier in the day). The young girl in the family was to become one of my best childhood friends. Nelson Mandela became the president, overcoming adversity but not seeking revenge, he lead South Africa to a new age. Even in his death he remains a symbol of hope and strength to people from all walks of life.

“How was it boys?” my Dad announced emerging from the corner.

“Too good,” I answered with my catchphrase for the trip.

“That 17th hole. Beautiful,” Rory added.

I introduced him to Papwa’s grandson and they instantly hit it off. “Oh wow, Papwa eh?” Dad stated in a warm, interested fashion. He obviously had heard of this Papwa character before and was impressed. After a brief talk he went into his pro shop and emerged with a DVD about his grandfather that he gave to my Dad free of charge. Typical Dad of mine, showing up somewhere new and instantly making friends.

The change from white rule to shared power was not an easy one from the stories I heard from back home. A stiff regime had to be remoulded into an environment that encouraged tolerance and individual freedoms. Unavoidable by-products of reverse racism and self-entitlement from all sides must have made it a tough transition process for all those involved. Yet under the shadow of Mandela’s legacy the change enters the back nine.

1990 classroom

Pre-school in 1990 Durban with little diversity. My cousins today enjoy growing up in integrated classrooms. I am the kid on the top right.

The attitude of my family was nothing short of bleak when I visited all that time ago in 2006. This visit was startling, as though I stepped far into the future. Everyone could not speak highly enough about their standard of living. Smiles beamed brightly around the dinner tables despite all the struggles everyone had gone through and were still experiencing. Everyone was upbeat for the future and this was surely reflected in my younger cousins. They did not know of the South Africa I was a child in, this was all they had ever known. They would grow up to be the leaders of this positive rainbow nation.

Days later, I was in my bedroom of my parents’ new house in South Africa. I looked outside to see my parents by the pool, Rory telling them an amusing anecdote about a Chelsea game he recently went to. My Dad let out a big laugh, while my Mom ignored them and resumed her sunbathing. I smiled to myself knowing they would be happy here, in this new South Africa. I felt at home.

I carefully packed the Papwa Sewgolum DVD into my bag for my trip back to Bristol.

my family

my family

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