A story exploring belonging, allegiance
Author recalls life on a sugar-cane farm and how his parents fled SA fearing no future for whites in Africa
Hazara — Elegy for an African Farm
Shuter & Shooter
The word Hazara in the title of this fascinating portrait of settler life in Natal is not an exhortation that is yelled as the panga whacks the sugar cane. Rather, it is the name of a British army regiment in which one of the author’s ancestors served.
One of the imperatives of an Anglo-South African family was to maintain "standards" and keep Africa at bay. So as John Conyngham notes drily, the whites who settled in Natal in the 19th and 20th centuries tended to name their properties after places or things that reminded them of their earlier lives in far off places.
Through successive generations, European settler men fought in the Crimean, Anglo-Zulu, Anglo-Boer, first and second world wars — and if they survived, they farmed.
The author has ingeniously reconstructed his family history to show how Hazara came into their hands and then became a lucrative operation employing a hundred farm hands, bankrolling an enviable way of life of parties, private schools and trips overseas.
But there was also a lot of damage to be observed on the neighbouring farms — drunken quarrels, bolting wives, faithless husbands, still births and sudden deaths as the bush revealed its dangers. The most tragicomic example of a sudden death was the five-year-old boy who expired from a puffadder bite while the mother and the family servant quarrelled over who should suck the venom from his wound.
This settler society, of course, floated on a giant lake of alcohol knocked back on the veranda at sundown and quite often at breakfast too.
Most Europeans who move to Africa go slightly mad one way or another, for they lack the essential cultural inoculation of having been born there. Natal was not the Congo, but neither was it "home" for the incomers. As Joseph Conrad wrote of Kurtz, "the wilderness had found him out early and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion".
Hazara, near Stanger (KwaDukuza), originally came into the family as a dowry for the author’s maternal grandmother upon her marriage in 1924. The marriage was not happy, partly because the couple lost all three of their children as infants to a suspected genetic abnormality. In those days, it was considered perfectly normal for a childless colonial couple to adopt an abandoned English child and ship them out to Africa.
This was how Conyngham’s mother, Anne, found her way from the English Home Counties to Natal, where she eventually inherited Hazara and ran it with her husband, Mick, the author’s father.
Sugar cane, it turns out, is dead easy to grow except in times of drought or locusts, when the crop withers, or is literally eaten in front of the farmer’s eyes. But Hazara mostly spewed out cash, even when Mick in later life started to drink too much and was weakened by cancer.
Conyngham is a restrained narrator and his authorial eyebrow rarely arches with any hint of disapproval. When it is time for him to enter the narrative, he refers to himself as John, though he never tells us what John feels about what is going on around him.
The Conyngham association with Hazara ends abruptly and sadly. Mick, weakened by the booze and cancer, panics after the Soweto uprising and thinks there is no future for the white man in Africa.
So, he and Anne sell Hazara and move to a hideous bungalow on – of all places – the in-bred tax haven that is the Isle of Man — the only part of the British Isles that could possibly make 1970s Natal seem scintillating and forward-looking.
This is particularly bad news for John, who had assumed as the only son that he would take over the farm and live out his life in the only house he had ever known. If he is bitter at losing his expected inheritance, he does not tell us so.
Just down from university in England, I pitched up in 1984 in Pietermaritzburg and joined the Natal Witness as a junior reporter. One of the many pleasures of the newsroom was meeting Conyngham, by then transplanted to a subeditor’s computer screen.
As an outsider arriving in the country six years before Nelson Mandela’s release, I can attest to the sheer weirdness of the final little episodes of white rule.
For all his self-destructive excesses, Mick at least was clear-eyed enough to see things were going to change, which wasn’t always the case down the highway in Pietermaritzburg, then a dull but still quite pretty Victorian colonial town.
When I reported for duty on my first day at the Witness, I was greeted by a Zulu doorman who presided over a reception area decorated with blown up images of Winston Churchill and the Queen’s coronation.
At the pub, where the hacks went to refresh themselves, the manageress once pleaded with us not to bring along one of our fellow reporters. Her objection was not that he had served several years in jail for terrorism, but that he was not white and she feared she could lose her licence. Apartheid was so efficient at scrambling the mind that I remember, now to my shame, feeling slightly sorry for the manageress in her dilemma.
Hazara is occasionally a rather bleak story because though Conyngham steers away from the looming political turmoil, he does not stint in highlighting the darker side of the world into which he was born.
Like most books about white Africans, Hazara is really a story about belonging and allegiance. In that sense, it ends on a redemptive note. Mick and Anne exhaust the pleasures of the Isle of Man and settle back on a smallholding at Hilton outside Pietermaritzburg. Ultimately, they understood they belonged in Africa and wanted to come back to die.
If I have a quibble with this outstanding book, it is that Conyngham proves too reluctant to invade his own privacy. So we are not told that the Conynghams still live in Natal, even if the province has been renamed and even if they no longer grow sugar cane.
John has been married for many years to Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, the great South African portrait painter and they live on the same smallholding on which Mick and Anne spent their last years together. Readers deserve to know this detail for it brings the story full circle.
Sadly, Conyngham cannot bring himself to return to Hazara for the purposes of this book "because the real farm would contaminate the mythological one that for years, I have been piecing together".
One partly sympathises with that view, but it certainly would have been interesting to know how the farmers and their families are faring these days.
Hazara is an affectionate account of a bygone age, but it is too honest a piece of work to nourish the opinions of those nostalgic types who cannot see beyond false memories of a pampered Arcadia.
It is good to know that Mick Conyngham was ultimately to be proved wrong when he abruptly concluded that the white man was finished in Africa; and reassuring that his son, and indeed his grandson, remain there still.