A Path Through Hard Grass

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English
276 Pages
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A child of a Jewish family fleeing Nazi-Germany and settling in apartheid South Africa in the 1930s, Ruth Weiss’ journalistic career starts in Johannesburg of the 1950s. In 1968 banned from her home country, and then also from Rhodesia for her critical investigative journalism, she starts reporting from Lusaka, London and Cologne on virtually all issues which affect the newly independent African countries. Peasants and national leaders in southern Africa – Ruth Weiss met them all, travelling through Africa at a time when it was neither usual for a woman to do so, nor to report for economic media as she did. Her writing gained her the friendship of diverse and interesting people. In this book she offers us glimpses into some of her many long-nurtured friendships, with Kenneth Kaunda or Nadine Gordimer and many others. Her life-long quest for tolerance and understanding of different cultures shines through the many personalized stories which her astute eye and pen reveals in this book. As she put it, one never sheds the cultural vest donned at birth, but this should never stop one learning about and accepting other cultures.

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Published 17 July 2014
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EAN13 9783905758542
Language English
Document size 10 MB

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Ruth Weiss| A Path Through Hard Grass
With my son Alexander (Sacha) in Nyanga (Zimbabwe) in the mid-eighties
Ruth Weiss A Path Through Hard Grass |A Journalist's Memories of Exile and Apartheid With a foreword by Nadine Gordimer
Basel | Basler Afrika Bibliographien | 2014
© the authors © the photographers © Basler Afrika Bibliographien PO Box 2037 CH-4001 Basel Switzerland www.baslerafrika.ch
All rights reserved.
Cover photograph: Interviewing Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole in Geneva in 1976 during the Rhodesia Constitutional Conference. Sithole, a founder of the Zimbabwean liberation party ZANU and its first President, became a political opponent of Robert Mugabe during the transitional period of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1979/80. Photograph by Günter Wolff (Hamburg).
ISBN 978-3-905758-39-9
Contents
Foreword by Nadine Gordimer A Note Regarding Language
Prologue
I
II III IV V VIVIIVIII IX
X
XI
XII
XIII
XIV
XV XVI
XVII
From Fürth to Johannesburg
An Unjust Society
New Customs
Teenage Years
Johannesburg, Jewburg, and E'Goli
Troubled Years
Experience with Boers
The Fifties
A New Beginning
Career Moves
The Sixties
Flight and Travel
New Friendships and Love
Fleet Street, Salisbury, London
Zambia — Life in a Frontline State
Voice of Germany
London and Lancaster House
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11
13
30
44
57
62
80
83
90
100
108
116
144
161
181
202
218
229
XVIII An Unusual Journey
IXX Zimbabwe
XX
XXI
 South Africa
 Later Years
Postscript Acronyms and Abbrevations Photographs
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250
259
271
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273
FOREWORD by Nadine Gordimer
The writer of this book is one of that company whose very existence hangs by a question that can never be answered. Why did the little girl escape an end to life in a gas chamber, almost before it began? Why did her parents take lonely flight with her to an unknown country, just in time, while others lingered fatally? Fate, destiny – we do not know from where the instinct for survival comes, the very antithesis of the homing instinct. To leave home is to live.
But not necessarily happily ever after. Ruth Weiss found herself growing up in a country where the mark of the victim was not the yellow star but the black skin. Being white, she could have been content, in South Africa, with being accepted for full citizenship denied blacks. Although there was pover-ty in the immigrant family, she had the automatic privilege of superior, whites-only education. Being white, she could have taken unquestioningly, for the whole of her life, the automatic privileges of segregated transport, libraries, theatres, hotels, freedom to live and seek what employment she pleased wherever she wished – something again denied, to blacks. But what emerges in the gentle voice of this strong and striking autobiography is a girl and then a woman who took on the responsibilities of her situation in a coun-try of adoption just as if she had been born to that situation. And further-more, as many, many whites born to it have not.
I have to say that Ruth Weiss is a mostunexpectedpersonality, and hers is anunexpected book. This is a personal reaction that goes back more than thirty years, in respect of her persona, and that has been renewed in respect of the book she has now written. The shy young woman I met in the shadow of a highly intellectual husband many years her senior revealed no hint, in her lack of self-assertion, of an innovative intelligence, political acumen, and courage to take risks which were there within her. The natural modesty that has remained with the mature woman in the self-confidence of her inde-pendence, her years of achievement, has made it seem unlikely that this woman, who is so deeply involved in the lives and destinies of others, would ever confide herself to the pages of an autobiography. I know – knowing her so well, so long – that she has not been prompted by vanity; nothing could be further from her nature. I believe that, considering her life, she came to see, as anyone reading this book will, that fate, chance, an accident of birth and the drama of history – call it what you will – have woven her life into a pattern belonging specifically to our century, a piece of social history that should not be kept to herself, but set down for us, her contemporaries. For a
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life shaped and directed principally by two (the third being the rise and fall of socialism) of the characterising events of the twentieth century, facism/ racism in Europe, and the apogee of all racism in its phase in South Africa, is something of a paradigm of the human condition in our century. The time for summing-up is here in the tenth decade.
It was unexpected to find out, as I eventually did, that the shy young woman, apparently meek disciple at her husband’s feet, was in fact writing the arti-cles of political analysis of the 1950s and 60s in South Africa that appeared under his byline in prominent German newspapers. This is not to deny that she learned a great deal from him; but it is an early example of how Ruth Weiss, all through her life, has been wonderfully open to learning, and had the capacity to grow from it. She, so uncaring about money, and always hav-ing so little of it herself, became a financial journalist of repute in both Africa and England. She, a white and a European, listened to and learned from blacks in her own country, South Africa, and in Zambia, Zimbabwe, where she became a shrewd and greatly trusted interpreter of African thought, aims and strategies, and a friend of many black leaders and – perhaps more important – ordinary people. She has passed on her journalistic skills to a whole generation of young Africans studying the media.
Her account of this (continuing) phase in her life is the answer to those who throw up their hands and ask, what can a white do in Africa? Her identifica-tion with the problems of Africa, and in particular those of the people of the southern African states, is more than a matter of applied intelligence: she has proved herself to be, and is totally accepted by Africans as, one of them-selves. Africanness is not only a matter of skin; it’s a matter of heart and human commitment, and she has both.
This quiet woman has been daring in her political associations and acts. These arose out of the almost frightening honesty that characterises her: what she knows to be right, she acts upon, in full awareness of the conse-quences. As a result of her opposition to apartheid she was prohibited from entry to her home, South Africa, for the years when she was working in other parts of Africa and in Europe. I visited her in Zimbabwe and found her small house open, as usual, to anyone in need of a bed and a meal – and sometimes shelter of another kind. Her homes, in Africa or London, have always been “safe houses” for exiles and refugees. Does this come from her own distant experience as a refugee immigrant herself, in childhood? I don’t think so. She has the kind of compassion that extends to needs widely different from those she once experienced. Although I am her friend, I can say quite objec-tively she is the most humane woman I have ever met.
Speaking of her as a woman, although she is by no means a strident femi-nist, she has demonstrated in the living of her life the brave and difficult path of a woman’s self-emancipation. Once she stopped writing in the nineteenth century tradition of the Brontes and George Eliot, under a man’s name – and her husband’s, what’s more – she took on a man’s world, the male-dominat-ed one of financial journalism and political comment. And in her private life, divorced, she was not content to stunt her emotions and give up the right to motherhood, but decided to become a single parent. I remember very well her coming to me to discuss this decision, for decision it was – Ruth is brave but she has not lived her life by hazard; the right to make her own decisions in a world where too many decisions about her life have been made by dic-tators and governments, is precious to her. I was the one who was doubtful: I pointed out that she had no family, no nest-egg of money, to support her while working full-time and bringing up a child alone. But she had more cour-age than my counsel, and the result was her son, a delightful child grown into a fine man. The devotion between them is one of the warmly assuring aspects of this book, which is full of anecdotes and characters, from the cafe talk of German Jewish intellectuals gathering in exile in Johannesburg, and the white colonial bohemia of the fifties, to the dramatic meetings and friendships with black political figures all over southern Africa. Ruth’s is a discursive muse, bringing to life the voices and faces behind political chang-es.
At the end of 1992 Ruth Weiss was allowed by the South African government to enter South Africa, and on a mission that surely shows how the apartheid regime was crumbling. She came as a member of a World Council of Churches’ ecumenical team to monitor the politically-fostered violence pre-vailing in areas of South Africa occupied by blacks. The girl-child who had escaped the ghetto came back to live for some weeks in the vast black ghet-toes created by apartheid. She spent a few days with me after this experi-ence, deeply distressed by what she had witnessed in terms of the despair and suffering of the people. In the conclusion of her book she writes: “… No matter what may trigger any particular incident, there is only one root cause for it all: apartheid. Its legacy of poverty, deprivation and distrust, the stulti-fying effect on the economy – all of that will be with South Africa and its hin-terland for at least a generation to come.” Then she sums up her life thus: “… Two things will always be with me: my son’s love and mine for him, and for Africa.”
This book will reveal to anyone who reads it how much of involvement, seek-ing, patient understanding, tolerance, courage and warmth that simple state-ment encompasses in the life of one woman.
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A NOTE REGARDING LANGUAGE
With this text, as with most pieces I’ve had to write about southern Africa, I’ve had some problems with nomenclature (that is, with terms referring to different ethnic or national groups).
Writing in German about “Afrikaner” fails to differentiate between black and white Africans, so I learnt to take refuge in words such as “Afrikaaner” for white South Africans of Boer descent or the invention “Afrikander”, reserv-ing “Afrikaner” for black Africans. But this very word posed difficulties for those of Boer descent with virulent white nationalist views; they laid claim to being the first to use the term, refusing to extend the honour to black South Africans.
The first word I heard applied to black people in the Johannesburg suburb in which we lived as immigrants, was “kaffir” at a time when officially such per-sons were “natives”. One of my friends, a lawyer, was later to argue in a court case concerning a native of a country other than South Africa, that this word did not describe an ethnic group, but described everyone, because everyone was a native of his or her birth country.
Later “Bantu” displaced “native”, while “white” replaced the previous usage of “European” (which flew in the face of the Afrikaner claim and of those white South Africans proud ofnotto any European country.) At belonging one point, the Ministry of Native Affairs suffered under the title of Ministry of Plural Affairs, which highlighted the difficulty and added to the theatre of the absurd, which apartheid became.
And finally there was the term “Coloured” in all its variety … Coloured peo-ple could be descended from white and black, or white and Asian, or black and Asian forebears (with “Asian” referring to anyone from that vast conti-nent, including Chinese, Indian, Japanese – the latter until trade relations turned them officially into “honorary whites”). One of the people I had the pleasure of meeting – Andrè Zaaiman – told me that he, a white man, was actually descended from the first Khoi-Khoi woman who married several Dutch settlers, with whom she had children – the “Eve” of the Coloured peo-ple of the Cape.
So with all this racial prejudice and verbal confusion, I am grateful to my edi-tor who has decided to use lower case for “black” and “white” and, in acknowledgement of the Coloured people as a cohesive group, “Coloured” with a capital C.