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The journey of my life
Not a journey of a day
i find journeys of a day
unsatisfactory in every way
i need lifetimes to explore
each step past the open door
From shadows of a sun-darkened land by Shabbir Banoobhai
The journey starts
I was born in Cape Town, a distinction I share with a few million others, I guess! I was born in 1943. That narrows it down a bit. I was born near Mostert's Mill. That reduces the number still further. But really what makes me unique is not where or when I was born, but what I have done since.
Our births are accidents really, but the trajectories of our lives are the result of all the decisions we make from moment to moment, or don't make, as the case may be.
And so all the decisions I have made over the past 64 years have landed me here in Pretoria, with a wife called Catherine and a daughter called Caitlin. Along the way to Pretoria from Cape Town I have collected memories, skills, knowledge, an ex-wife and two older children. Not to mention a crowd of friends, some of whom are friends to this day.
The journey has been an interesting one, at least to me. And maybe if I share it with some others they might find something of interest in it also.
Like most people I have had ups and downs, moments of great elation and many too of sadness and grief. But through it all I have grown, and been enriched beyond words.
Early days in Cape Town
The reason for my being born in Cape Town rather than in the then Transkei where my father was a teacher, was Hitler. He overshadowed my life from the start and in some ways still does. Much of my life's journey has been shaped by his mad racial ideology and the need to oppose it, to find some way around it.
How Hitler came to have such a central role in my life was that my father volunteered to serve in the South African Naval Forces during Hitler's war, and was posted to that outcrop of rock in Table Bay known as Robben Island, infamous in recent centuries as a dumping place for people deemed by the authorities of the day to be undesirable, not fit for human society. My father's posting was to firstly train young women sailors known as SWANS and secondly to defend the South African coastal waters from the depradations of Hitler's U-Boats. He was responsible for the anti-submarine defence of the South Atlantic, a post headquartered on the Island.
So my pregnant mother was left with a family friend of my father's in Greenpoint, a suburb of Cape Town, with my older brother Chris. The family friend whose house it was, was Ms Queenie Stegman, a music teacher, a fact which was to have serious consequences for my family, but that's another story altogether.
So some of my earliest memories are of "Aunt" Queenie's house and garden. The house was old even then and big in an "H" format ground plan. The garden was also enormous for a town property and part of it was sold off soon after my birth and a big block of flats put up there. The garden was full of magic for me including a large, lazy old tortoise, bird baths and other wonders in front. The back garden had huge pepper trees and a very big old log on which I fantasised endless games of pirates and battleships, though that was in later years when we visited as a family, usually at Christmas time.
After my father got his "demob" suite and the allowance of I think it was ₤25 that all white ex-servicemen got on demobilisation, we went back to the Transkei and into the "old" house that my parents had left some four years before, but which, of course, I had never seen.
Early years in the Transkei were spent on the Church of Scotland mission institution called Blythswood. Memories of that time are almost all blissful, as if it were a time, at least for me, of almost endless dreamy fun. I played in the garden of our house making clay tablets like those from ancient Mesopotamia on which I scratched words which I fantasised would be my message to posterity. So even at that early age I was obsessed with leaving a legacy of words. The fantasy was fuelled by my father reading to me wonderful stories of the early archaeologists like Sir Leonard Woolley, unearthing fabulous ancient artefacts which extended our knowledge of those early times. I really believed my clay tablets would one dy be unearthed by future archaeologists who would search for clues on the tablets to my identity and the type of life I was living.
My other memories are of riding my bike over the rolling hills surrounding Blythswood or walking through the many groves of trees in the area and imagining myself an intrepid explorer in the wilds of Africa facing untold dangers. I also spent many hours at the small stream running past Blythswood playing ship's captain on dangerous sea voyages.
The smells I associate with Blythswood are almost all of damp leaves turning into rich noursihing (for the plants, that is) leaf mould.
Another great memory of Blythswood is of the so-called "Boys' Boarding Department" which had a bakery attached where loaves of soft and tasty white bread would be pulled hot and steaming out of the wood-fired oven. Being the son of the institution's superintendent meant that I was tolerated there and even given thick slices of hot bread dripping with golden syrup.
Those were mostly, at least in my memory, idyllic days, the only blot on them being school, which I attended in nearby Ngqamakwe, and hated almost from day one! School was a rude interruption to my daily exploits as explorer, ship's captain, or even, sometimes, American Indian warrior, inspired by the tales of J. Fennimore Cooper, which my father also read to me.
In fact, I think I was given a childhood almost Victorian in tastes, with the Boys' Own Paper to read, tales of Baden Powell and of the relief of Mafikeng, the story of David Livingstone's exploits in Africa (he came to bring light to the dark continent, of course), and the wonders of the Royal Navy and of course, Nelson.
High school in King William's Town
As the turmoil of puberty hit me I started to feel less secure in Blythswood, especially as this coincided with my having to go to boarding school in King William's Town, where I attended the famed Dale College for three years. I boarded privately with a Mrs McGill who took in boarders and whose house was conveniently situated right across the road from one of the entrances to the school.
Mrs McGill was a one-eyed martinet who had a very narrow view of life - everyone was out to crook her in some way or other. I remember that she had at that time three schoolboy boarders and two schoolgirl boarders, and therein started my puberty discomforts.
One of the schoolboys, Rocco by name, was of my age and was, or claimed to be, well-versed in matters of sex, from which I had in my life until then, been totally sheltered with little knowledge and no experience. So Rocco's initiation of me into the wonders of sex was mind-blowing, to say the least. And from that day to now I have found everything around sex to be mysterious, glorious and painful. And maybe that's how it is meant to be.
School holidays were wonderful respites from the rigours of Mrs McGill's strictly regimented household, welcome returns to the wonders of Blythswood. But the issue of sex had now come into my consciousness and made me restless where previously I had been relatively contented. I sought out every opportunity to explore this mysterious and wondrous thing. And the main source of my discomfort at that time was a young girl who I remember as slightly elfin, with pale skin, blue eyes and long blonde hair called Barbara.
I was determined to change myself from being an innocent to being at least as experienced as I thought Rocco and other school mates to be. So one day I used every bit of courage I had in me to ask the beautiful Barbara for a kiss. We were sitting on the bed in my bedroom while my parents and Barbara's grand parents chatted in the sitting room nearby. To my utter dismay and shame Barbara answered my request with a curt "no". I was devastated. I'm not sure I have recovered from that rejection even now!
Buntingville and Bloemfontein
But worse was to come. And it had nothing to do with puberty or sex. Blythswood had been taken over from the Church of Scotland in 1955 by the apartheid Department of Bantu Education and the writ of the government now loomed large in the affairs of the Institution. The Institution had been founded in 1877 and the High School staff room had been used by all members of staff of whatever race since then. But of course the apartheid ideology could not tolerate such unholy integration. So when a new staff member complained about the staff room to the Regional Director of Bantu Education my father was duly instructed to create a separate staff room for black members of staff. My father flatly refused, saying that the staff room had functioned well enough for so many years and he saw no reason to insult his fellow staff members by now segregating it. He was almost immediately demoted and transferred from our beloved Blythswood to a former Methodist institution, now also run by Bantu Education, called Buntingville, just outside Mthatha (then known as Umtata by the whites).
To some extent this was a blessing in disguise as we all grew to love Buntingville and its people and the surrounding area very much. There was a stream running in the valley below our house and I spent many wonderful hours there living in various fantasies as I had at Blythswood. What Buntingville lacked for me though was the sense of connection with history that I had felt at Blythswood. Because Blythswood had been founded so long ago and in such a pivotal area of the country, right on the interface between the amaXhosa people and the encroaching whites, it had a feeling of importance and significance which was somewhat missing from Buntingville for me.
But by now I was at a new school in Bloemfontein, St Andrew's School, an Anglican Church school where I became very involved in the Anglican ritual and belief system. I found a great sense of peace and wonder in the ancient rites of the church and in participating in these as an altar boy.
And at St Andrew's I met a very important figure, the first of many such to have graced my life, who was able to open my eyes and mind to much wider perspectives than I had up to then experienced. This was the chaplain to the school, Fr Trevor Noel Wood Bush. He and I became very close, though not as close as some believed, in that there was a belief among the boys that Fr Bush was gay and that those who spent a lot of time with him were in fact his lovers. I had no evidence of this in the many hours I spent in his company, which were instead full of discovery of music, of politics, of many dimensions of faith of which I had until then not had any idea.
Fr Bush was passionately involved in anti-apartheid politics and introduced me to many of the ideas of the struggle against the apartheid regime. He got me involved in the white part of the Congress movement, the Congress of Democrats and I started to read journals like Africa South (later Africa South in Exile) edited by the great Ronald Segal. This was in the year of Sharpeville and the increasingly desperate campaigns against passes and the whole apparatus of apartheid generally. And the increasingly desperate responses of the repressive regime. So in this period my real awakening to society happened.
At this time also I had my first really serious crush on a girl. She was Elizabeth, daughter of a South African ex-serviceman and his Italian wife. To me Elizabeth was the epitome of feminine attraction. At about the same time I found a reproduction of Annigoni's "La Strega" and thought that Elizabeth looked just like the woman in this painting. And Elizabeth gave me my first kiss, somewhat erasing the memory of Barbara's rejection a year so so before.
Then I wrote matric and failed. Not badly - I had two supps but failed them also. So then I went to Umtata High School where my brother Chris had also been a student some years before. This was a novel experience for me as it was a co-ed school .
Made some really good friends in that year at Umtata High and then had to leave for national service which I did in the Navy at Saldanha Bay, about which the least said the better. Then only good from that year was to learn to sail, an activity I sincerely wish I could still participate in. I loved sailing and spent every moment I could on either a cutter or a whaler out in the bay. Intellectually the year in the navy only confirmed my pacifist tendencies which had already started to come to the fore a year or two before.
Then on to Stellenbosch University which was another great experience as it was there that I met probably the greatest influence on my intellectual life, Prof (then still Dr) Johan Degenaar. His teaching method made a huge impact on me, as did the content of his teaching. He was as close to Socratic as is possible in the modern day and age. Prof Degenaar asked more questions than giving answers and expected us students to find our own answers. It was truly wonderful to me as I for the first time in my intellectual life felt that I was being treated as a responsible adult. Another great gift he gave me was to introduce me to Albert Camus, a gift that has stayed with me my whole life. I still read Camus avidly. In fact I think I have read everything he wrote that has been translated into English.
Another great experience at Stellenbosch was joining a group of musicians (it was at the time of the "folk revival" in the States) who played "folk music" mostly of US and European origin in a local pub and at other occasions like a birthday party if we were invited. This group was called by one of its members the "Folk Ups" and we had a lot of fun and I felt very good being part of such a creative group. I loved playing guitar and became quite good at it. I also loved singing and these two loves have also stayed with me.
And the Folk Ups gave me another great gift, one of the great loves of my life, Mara. The Folk Ups were playing at a birthday party in Sea Point or Bantry Bay I think where the sister of one of the group's members was also a guest and I got talking to her and the talking rather quickly developed into more. I remember we sat on a swing chair together and got very involved with each other and I was hooked, totally and incredibly in love as I had never before experienced. I was in seventh heaven. I was over the moon. I was definitely in love.
Mara was my life from then on. Everything I did was somehow connected with her. And we had some really great times together and I learned so much from her about love and life and art and music and many wonderful things. Though we never actually had sex in the sense usually understood and were both still virgins technically when we parted a little more than two years later we had certainly explored and enjoyed each other's bodies, a great a wondrous experience for me. I will never forget her nor stop being grateful to Mara for all she meant to me in those days.
East London to Durban
But like all good things even this had to come to an end, and the end was the need to make a career and some money. This came in the form of the offer of a job on the East London Daily Dispatch as a junior reporter. This meant leaving Cape Town for the Eastern Province city of East London and necessarily a break with Mara who in any case wanted to travel abroad, which I could not afford to do.
Here started a whole new set of circumstances and learnings. I had to learn to type very quickly, a skill which has stood me in good stead ever since.
The job on the Dispatch also brought two other very significant people into my life. Firstly the editor, Donald Woods, who later became famous as the fugitive editor in the movie "Cry Freedom". He was a wonderful, though not always easy, person to work with. He had very high journalistic standards and expected the same of those who worked on his newspaper. He was always passionate about freedom in South Africa and was an ardent democrat. Donald moved the Despatch from being a mildly opposition voice to being a very vocal opponent of apartheid. The Despatch became only second to the Rand Daily Mail as a voice against oppression and the fascism of the National Party government of the day. I was always proud to have served under him.
The other person who came into my life as a result of moving to East London was Joan, my first wife and mother of my children Zak and Sarah. We were together for more than 30 years and they were wonderful, growthful years which saw us both learn so much, about each other and about life in general. We were both committed to the anti-apartheid struggle as well as to the bringing up of our children in as peaceful, non-racist and non-sexist environment as possible.
However, before we could get married, I had to find a job which would pay more than the pittance I got as a junior reporter and that led to a move to Durban in the province of kwa-Zulu Natal, then known simply as Natal. This I did at the end of 1969 and Joan and I got married on my birthday, 26 December 1969.
And from this came the next very influential person in my life, Fr Albert Danker, OMI. Fr Danker was of French Mauritian extraction and had what I regard as a typically French approach to life and learning, which I found very comfortable as it reminded me very much of Albert Camus and the man who introduced me to Camus, Prof Degenaar. Fr Danker was to be a great mentor and guiding light in my life for the next few years and was instrumental in getting me involved in small group work through the movement which he set up in South Africa called Family Social Action (FSA) which was a movement using the famed method of Cardinal Cardijn: see, judge, act - which in turn related well to the experiential learning method I would discover a few years later.
We lived, Joan and I, in Durban for about eight years and our two children were born there, Zak in 1971 and Sarah in 1975.
And then came that cataclysmic event in South African history - the 1976 childrens' uprising which started on 16 June that year. This was an event that shook the country and indeed the world. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid, though I'm not sure many saw it that way at the time. Joan and I were involved in all sorts of protest actions and religious events, prayer meetings and the like, around the issue of the childrens' revolt. And that led to the introduction into my life of another of the great people who have so influenced me - this time the Anglican cleric Desmond Tutu, at the time still the Dean of Johannesburg. Tutu was invited to Durban to preach at a service in St Paul's church by the vicar of that parish, an ex-Catholic priest called Dave Jones on the occasion of the 16 December prayer services called by the South African Council of Churches to pray for peace and reconciliation in the face of mounting repression by government security forces. I knew about Tutu because a few months before 16 June he had written a widely-publicised open letter to the Prime Minister, John Vorster, warning that the anger and frustration felt by blacks was at a critical point and could soon turn into overt violent resistance. Of course his letter was derided by Vorster who proclaimed his security forces were ready for anything and blaming Tutu for inciting violence by his letter.
When Tutu walked into the church in the entrance procession I could feel that we were in the presence of someone great. And when he spoke I was amazed by his eloquence, his wonderful use of words, his deep compassion and insight. I didn't realise it then, but I was soon to get to know Tutu even better and experience at first hand his warmth and humanity.
Durban to Johannesburg
It happened this way. I went down with a bad case of hepatitis and could not work for some six months, due to which I lost my job. A friend of mine Theo Coggin had been working for the Council of Churches in Johannesburg as the editor of an ecumenical news service called EcuNews, but wanted to leave for another position. He asked if I would be interested in taking over from him which I readily agreed to do. So we as a family uprooted ourselves from the now familiar territory of Durban to go to the great city of Johannesburg about which we knew little, and what we thought we knew we didn't like too much.
By this time, now mid-1978, Tutu had been made first Bishop of Lesotho and then General Secretary of the SA Council of Churches, so he was my boss, as part of the job of editing EcuNews, which was not technically part of the SACC, was also to be press secretary to the General Secretary. Which meant that suddenly I was not only working with Tutu but actually drafting press statements and the like for him. This was a challenging and wonderful time for me. Working for the Council was immensely exciting and the feeling that we were engaged in really meaningful work against the fascist regime was wonderful. And I met so many wonderful people.
Tutu was a demanding but very fair person to work for. He was also very inspiring and as I got to know him better I just knew that this was a man not just for South Africa, or even for Africa, but for the whole world. Of course I was totally delighted when the world recognised his worth, his contribution and his commitment to peace, justice and human rights, by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize, the second South African to receive this great honour, the first of course was that great leader of the African National Congress, Chief Albert Luthuli.
Then early in 1980 another chapter in my life and growth began. The Council restructured its organisation and as so often happens when such changes take place the job I was in suddenly disappeared and I had to look for other opportunities. And a great opportunity opened up for me in the form of a job at the University of the Witwatersrand's Centre for Medical Education. Because there I met another individual who has meant so much to me and from whom I learnt so much, Dr Peter Cusins. Peter was technically my boss at the Centre but quickly became my best friend and teacher. Peter was highly committed to experiential learning which I recognised as having much in common with the Cardijn method to which Fr Danker had introduced me some years before. And I was hooked again!
The rest of my life has been taken up with trying to live out the values of the See-Judge-Act method and Experiential Learning - values which put the person at the centre, the person and his or her experience being always the starting point of learning. And that has led me into some interesting paths and I have grown so much through adversity and difficulty in sticking to these values, in sticking to the idea that growth means growth in independence and responsibility. Not everyone wants to hear or accept these values. But for me they have become the kernel of all that I do. Even as I now start out on a new career of Life Coaching these values are at the core. Life Coaching is about facilitating people using their own experience as the starting point and from there developing their independence, their growth toward full humanity.
The last thirty years have been full of so much, both wonderfully uplifting and bitterly sad. I made mistakes - who doesn't? And one of these mistakes cost me my marriage of more than 30 years and lots of heartache for lots of people. But as yin and yang alternate out of the bitterness and heartache a new life has begun, both literally and figuratively. Literally in the form of the daughter of my new marriage with Catherine. This daughter, born in 2002, is called Caitlin and she is a new source of joy and growth for me. The figurative new life is as a Life Coach which I have started since retiring from formal employment at the end of January 2007. It has taken me a while to work out the direction my life should take, but the two areas of focus for me now are writing and Life Coaching. That is where life has brought me in this year of opportunity, 2008.
I'm looking forward to the new stage of the journey.
Photos of Sophie and family taken on 16 December 2008Click thumbnail to view full-size
A New Phase of Life
Since writing the first part of this Hub I have entered a new phase of life - being a grandfather!
On 16 May this year my first daughter Sarah had a baby girl called Sophie Ella, and so my second daughter Caitlin, is now an aunt. Her response to hearing this news was, "I'm an aunt and I'm only six!"
I had initially planned to write a separate Hub on this glad event but decided to add it to my life story, as that's what it is - a continuation and new phase of life.
I visited my daughter and her daughter yesterday and took the asccompanying photos. I hope you find Sophie as captivating as I do!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2008