Domestic travel writing road is there, but it leads to nowhere
Small towns are trying to rewrite their own histories, but it is difficult, writes Lucy Reyburn
Two years ago, I started research on an article, A tale of two Drostdys, which was to entice currency-hammered fellow South Africans into exploring Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet, respectively the third and fourth magistracies the Dutch had established.
I even wrote the piece. Here is the opening paragraph: "It’s time for South Africans to explore two heritage towns long rated by discerning foreign tourists. Although Swellendam (1745) and Graaff-Reinet (1786) are separated by about 40 years and 500km, they have much in common – their Drostdy (Dutch magistracy) origins, extensive museum complexes, world-class accommodation, fine dining and magnificent natural surroundings." And so on.
I had fun visiting the two towns, staying at the refurbished Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet, visiting the Hester Rupert Art Museum there, marvelling once again at the serene white rooms furnished with plain Cape Dutch furniture in Swellendam’s Drostdy Museum, and enjoying the cuisine at La Sosta in Swellendam, which had just been voted the best Italian restaurant in the country by Eat Out magazine (2014).
The article described how burgers of both towns had declared themselves independent republics in protest against the heavy-handed rule of the Dutch East India Company; it sketched settler architectural practices; dug out the paleontological treasures of the Karoo and traversed historic Bain passes in the Graaff-Reinet area. It described the scenic route along the Langeberg range between Ashton and Swellendam, explaining that the area houses the world’s largest Jersey cow herds and produces mountains of berries — youngberries, loganberries, blueberries, blackberries. The article was taking shape.
Yet something did not feel right. The signs of discomfort were there already two years ago. It started when I visited the Old Library Museum in Graaff-Reinet where — in stark contrast to the solemnly recounted settler history in its four sister museums in the town — a display was dedicated to the forced removals in the 1960s. Suddenly, it did not feel so cool to be staying in the five-star Drostdy Hotel having chatted to the museum woman whose in-laws had been "removed" from Stretch’s Court, the quaint row of dwellings that forms part of the Drostdy Hotel complex.
A further display in the Old Library Museum documented the life and times of Robert Sobukwe, the country’s first nonracial Africanist and Pan Africanist Congress founder, who was born and buried in Graaff-Reinet.
I knew that Anton Rupert, Thomas Bain and Beyers Naude had been born in the town, but had no idea that Sobukwe had been too.
My discomfort continued when, in November 2015, a story hit the national headlines about a restaurant in the Old Gaol section of the Swellendam Drostdy complex that had seen fit to call itself The Whipping Post in reference to slave floggings. A public outcry led to it swiftly changing the name to The Trading Post.
This sense of discomfort led to the two Drostdys article being put on hold in December 2015. Since then, it has been lurking on my hard drive.
Then SA had a year of tumult in 2016 and I suspect my original article will never see the light of day because, like so many other South Africans, the student protests across the country have left me thinking hard about what SA has been, what it is, and what it could become.
I realised my article was written from a position of presumption — that readers would slot into and agree with my frame of reference and enjoy the things I had seen through my own travel lens. There was a good chance they would not and so I went back, briefly, to Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet to see if I could clarify and broaden this perspective of mine.
This short piece is the result. The return trips were, if anything, more confusing.
In Graaff-Reinet, there was an aborted trip to find Robert Sobukwe’s house in the residential area of Umasizakhe – no one in the area could identify it and the kids did not even seem to know who he was.
In Swellendam, no doubt in response to the Whipping Post saga, a fascinating exhibition had been put together on the slave history and labour conditions of the Drostdy — but this exhibition was hidden away in a side room of a courtyard — out of sight, out of mind.
In that town, David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter of Bukkenburg Studio now keep their heads down and focus on their wondrously alchemical handpainted ceramics, having lived through the painful demise of Swellendam Alive, a far-sighted community project that they had helped to initiate about 12 years ago and that was sabotaged by petty and not-so-petty politics. One element of it was a thriving job-creation garden project at Morgenzon, the old Secretary’s House.
The project is no longer and the municipality has sold this priceless museum building to a private owner.
It seems as if South Africans are their own worst enemies.
The country’s history has to be remoulded. Attempts are being made — the Castle of Good Hope has shifted focus, erecting statues of lesser-known historical figures on the receiving end of colonisation — Zulu King Cetshwayo, Hlubi King Langalibabele, Pedi King Sekhukhune and Gorochougua leader Doman. In 2004, journalist Max du Preez wrote "inclusively historical" stories about leaders such as King Moshoeshoe in Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets.
Small towns are trying to rewrite their own histories, but it is difficult. Mirroring the political landscape, there is no defined national discourse.
And so for travel writing, the road is there, but the common narrative thread is not.
•Reyburn is a writer and media consultant.