To walk 56 years into the past


To walk 56 years into the past

On what is a milestone birthday for her, ANNELIESE BURGESS steps back into the past in the town of her birth.


I TURNED 56 yesterday. 

It is the 56th year without my ouma — she's been gone for as long as I've been here. It is also the 14th without my grandpa, the second without my father and the first without my mother.

On this birthday, I felt a need to be in the valley of my ancestors, to take the time to walk the streets of Indwe, to wander through the corridors of my old school and to visit our family graves in the cemetery. 

Just to be. 

To listen to the wind that blows relentlessly this time of year. To cook with what is available from my brother's general dealer, to drive up the Waschbank Pass deep into the blunt silence of the mountain district. 

The roots of our family have lain buried for more than 120 years in this small speck in the foothills of the Drakensberg. 

I have a photo of my great-grandfather, William Alfred, standing in front of his shop in Woodhouse Street in 1906 — W.A. Burgess Merchants. Later, it became W.A. Burgess & Son in Voortrekker Street. Today, it is Kwa Burgess — a different name for a different era.

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The town of my school memories is largely gone.

Goats nibble on the grass in the cracks of the bits of asphalt left at what was the old tennis club. The rugby field next door, where my father played for the town club in his younger days, has been erased as if it never existed. The church hall where we attended bazaars and Bible study is now a bank and a doctor's office. The railway station is a crumbling ruin. The old library is gone. The Catholic church bought the old Dopper church. A farmer purchased the Dutch Reformed church. The manse across the street is dilapidated, an old motorcycle and other junk on the porch.

The Methodist church door is open. Margaret Dubula is cleaning. There's a handwritten sign at the door: “Sanitezer plz. Sanitezer." The cloth over the pulpit is also stitched by hand: “God is love" with a white cross. I sit in our old family pew. The plaque reads: “Donated by Billy Burgess & Family." My father.

Mrs Dubula comes to sit with me. She says she knew my parents and Madala, my grandfather. They sometimes picked lemons and grapes from his garden.

I peek into GodsPlanSewing in an outbuilding of the Blue Crane Hotel, now a boarding house. Regina Sinthle sits behind her sewing machine surrounded by piles of fabric. She says I look a lot like my mother.

I walk over to Darou Minam Fashion. The owner introduces himself as “Uncle". He is from Senegal. I ask if I can take a photo. He wants to know why. The shop assistant says, “She's Mrs B's daughter, uDonovan's sister. It used to be her grandfather's shop, this."

He suddenly sees me. I belong here.

Dark side

But there is something darker beneath the blanket of a normalising community, with all its quirks and problems.

Rural communities across the country have been exposed to the fumbling government that has stripped the fabric of its towns. Things have gradually fallen apart over the decades. Institutions that worked well, many of them for a decade and even a little longer after 1994, have eventually eroded due to the carelessness and ineptitude of a new-generation ANC.

Take the hospital where I was born.

I talked to an auntie on her porch down the street. “That's a place you go to die,” she says.

The town’s sewage plant is entirely dysfunctional. For years, there has been no municipal sewage truck in town. A private individual started offering the service but it costs more than R800 to pump a tank, so most people leave it and the sewage runs in the streets. Those who can do it themselves dump their effluent into settling ponds at the sewage plant, from which it flows directly into the river and the dam providing the town’s drinking water. There are constant outbreaks of gastric diseases.

At the cemetery, I struggle to find our family graves among the tall grass, washed-away paths and giant trees that have fallen everywhere.


The honour roll in the school foyer symbolises the tectonic shifts in our country after 1994. In 1986, I was head girl. In 1987, my brother Don was head boy and my brother Chris was head boy in 1990. Four years later, the white names stopped. The first black head prefects were Mkuseli Mneno and Siphokazi Mbelani.

In the 12 years after 1994, Indwe High School was a symbol of excellence. People sent their children from all over. The hostel thrived. The school of my time, where there was a struggle every year to have the necessary numbers to keep it going, was transformed into a symbol of hope for a new South Africa and maintained a 100% matric pass rate year after year.

Fifteen years after leaving school, I returned to make a TV documentary.

I attended the prizegiving. Watched as black pupils in my old uniform were handed shiny trophies (the shorts the boys wore in my day had been replaced by long trousers because Xhosa boys, after initiation, only wear longs). I watched as the prefects received their badges. I attended a farewell function in the hostel for the outgoing matrics. There was a praise singer. I felt moved to tears over and over again at the dramatic and joyful transformation I saw. 

This week, I visited the hands-on principal, Ronel Stötter, in her office. The school is struggling financially and you can see the wounds of a threadbare wallet everywhere: peeling paint, rusty gutters barely holding on, only one netball court in use. The tennis courts, the rugby field and athletics track, the pavilion — everything has fallen into disrepair because there is no money.

In the hall, the school flag and the national flag hang on either side of the stage in holders my father welded when I, as head girl, decided we needed a bit more pomp and pageantry and that it would be appropriate for the two flags to be ceremoniously brought in and displayed during gatherings.

The grey curtains on the stage are no longer there, nor is the heavy velvet one that could be opened and closed. Pieces of gossamer fabric hang to the sides of the stage. I wonder if it's the lining that remains from the original curtains — it has, after all, been almost 40 years since I left.

For the first time in my week of introspective wanderings, I feel a sadness stirring. The hall somehow symbolises how fragile today's South Africa sometimes is. We have made so much progress in building a more normal society but our potential has been stunted on many levels because so many of our institutions have been bogged down in an exhausting struggle to stay afloat.

I walk through the school. I look through the windows to the quad, where I used to lead scripture reading and prayer before the flag was hoisted. I peek into classrooms. The teachers come from all over, many from Zimbabwe and Ghana.

In my old history class, a handyman is patching the wooden floor with bits of old planks. The school principal says they have to make plans where they can and perform miracles with what they have.

In my old maths class, now the Afrikaans class, the children want to take a selfie with me.

In South Africa, schools are classified by the state on a scale of 1-5. Quintile 1 schools are the poorest, quintile 5 schools the “richest” —typically the large old Model C schools. A quintile 1 school receives the biggest subsidy from the state, quintile 5 schools the smallest.

Indwe is a quintile 4 school. It receives about R600 per pupil from the state. Quintile 4 and 5 schools may charge fees but parents may apply for exemptions, which may not be refused. A large part of the student body in Indwe falls into this category. 

And collecting school fees from those who should be paying is not a fait accompli and is becoming an ever bigger headache for schools everywhere. Many parents don't pay; the collection process is long and exhausting and often leads nowhere. The well-known boys school in King William's Town, Dale College — a quintile 5 institution — is struggling so much that a letter was recently sent out instructing students to supply their own toilet paper.

I marvel at how someone like Ronel keeps the faith under these extremely challenging circumstances. I also marvel at how the school still produces matriculants who go on to university and do well there.

It's heroic, but it shouldn't be such a dispiriting struggle.

I am deeply saddened that we lost the spirit of possibility that carried us through the euphoric first decade of democracy.

We, and our children, deserve better. The children of Indwe deserve better.

There is no excuse.

I feel no nostalgic longing for the past or sadness for the erasure of some of the contours and symbols of the town where I grew up. The town is in a certain way unrecognisably different but also remains deeply familiar.

I prefer this somewhat tattered blanket with the moth holes over the white town of my childhood. There has been an organic melting back into the folds of the Transkei, where we live and belong.

On my 56th birthday, I am grateful that the thread of my family's deep roots binds me to this place and its people. I feel at home here.

♦ VWB ♦

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