CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Fool or Physician, excerpt (1987)

This second installment of our series of classic Dalrymple writings on Africa, excerpted from his beautifully written, unrecognized classic Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor, illuminates the colorful and provocative life of one of the Western world’s greatest thinkers and writers. In 1976, having spent six months working in a hospital in Rhodesia and several months traveling through Mozambique and substituting for an alcoholic doctor in South Africa (an experience which is itelf replete with anecdotes), the 27 year-old took a position in a hospital in the misnamed, violence- and poverty-ridden black township of Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Natal Province.

Unlike the other doctors, who had flats or houses in town to return to after the day’s work was over, I lived on the premises, over the shop as it were. I was therefore isolated and lonely, enclosed in the dismal embrace of an institution, unable to leave it at night for fear of the violence in the unlit township. I had no means of my own to travel the nine miles to the city centre, and had therefore either to walk in the hope that someone would stop to give me a lift, or to travel on a black bus ― that is, a bus reserved for blacks ― where my presence was nothing if not conspicuous. Indeed, it created a sensation among the other passengers, and caused not a few drivers’ heads to turn dangerously as they drove past. No doubt my presence on the bus was construed in some quarters as a political gesture, subversive or brave according to taste; in fact, I was only trying to get to the best restaurant in town.

At the weekend, and during daylight hours, I ventured into the township. It was then perfectly safe. At first I was apprehensive, fearing I might be met with hostility, for whites were uncommon visitors (it was illegal for them to go without a permit), and usually they went only on some mission of oppression. But I was either ignored or welcomed with smiles, my demeanor not being that of a policeman, secret or otherwise. One Sunday morning I was walking along a dirt road, finding even the bleak landscape of the township under the open sky a refreshment after a week in the entrails of the hospital, when I was attracted to some choral singing in Zulu coming from a Methodist church, a simple construction of brick and tin. I entered quietly from the back, hoping not to be noticed. The altar at the far end of the church was a simple table, covered with a snowy white cloth lovingly embroidered with a floral border. On the altar were two jamjars filled with flowers, a tribute to the beauty of God’s creation not easily come by in Edendale.

As though somehow sensing my arrival through the backs of their heads, the entire congregation stopped singing and turned to stare at me. Their astonishment was plainly written on their faces. Blushing, I sat on the rear pew. With the habit inculcated by a lifetime in the townships, and necessary for their survival, they sized me up and, deciding I was harmless, resumed their hymn, if anything with greater gusto. They were dressed in the chiffon finery of two decades before, when no woman went shopping without her white gloves. It was here once again that the bourgeois virtue of good orderliness seemed not ridiculous, which as a member of the intelligentsia I had always considered it, but heroic. Were these the same people that I saw daily in the casualty department?

The hymn, as it happened, was the last of the service. I had thought to slip out unnoticed after the service was over, already feeling awkward at having interrupted it; but the preacher, the moment the last strain died away, rushed forward to welcome me. It was a great moment, he said; and he wondered whether I should do them all the honour of attending a little feast and ceremony they were about to hold in the adjacent hall. His manner was ingratiating, obsequious almost, but it was clear that my acceptance gave him genuine pleasure.

I was ushered into the hall with great ceremony, and immediately sat at the head table as guest of honour. I was dressed casually while they were all in their finest; I had come idly, drawn by their singing, while for them it was an important day; and yet, purely by virtue of my race, I was the guest of honour. Such were the rewards and pleasures of being a white liberal (this was a year before the great Soweto riots). It spoke eloquently, I thought, of the deep longing of the blacks to be recognized and treated as fully human by the whites for whom, despite themselves, they had a kind of abject respect. Things, I believe, are different now.

The ceremony and feast were to celebrate the graduation of a batch of black nurses from Edendale Hospital. The official presentation of diplomas had already taken place within the hospital: this was the proud tribute of the township to its new nurses.

Food was continually pushed towards me during the ceremony, the choicest morsels available. I was the only one eating during the speeches, but I consoled myself with the thought that it was evidently expected of me as the guest of honour. No sooner had I finished one chicken leg than another was pressed into my hand. I even listened to the hymns sung by the nurses’ choir with a drumstick suspended halfway between the table and my mouth. Then came an address to the audience by the man who would have been guest of honour had I not arrived.

He was dressed in a dark business suit with the exaggeratedly wide lapels that were the fashion of the time. A man at my side translated from his Zulu. First he extended a welcome to me, and said how honoured he was ― they all were ― that I should attend. But it was obvious to all, he continued, that I had neither been born in South Africa nor lived there long, or else I should not be sitting where I was now. Just let me stay a few years, however, and I should be indistinguishable from all the others. Turning to me, he appealed to me in Zulu to go home, if I wished to remain a decent man.

He went on to tell the nurses that qualifying was a great personal achievement, but they should use their education to serve the people from whom they sprang. It was strange to hear nurses spoken of as highly educated, but in Edendale they had joined an élite. He said they must never forget their diplomas were not the result of their unaided efforts, but of those of their parents and the whole of their community as well, who had made sacrifices that they might learn.

He spoke of a future that was coming, one in which the lion would, as it were, lie down with the lamb. He had just returned from a trip to West Germany where all men were equal, he said, and there was no apartheid. At this point an elderly man in a battered and grease-stained brown homburg hat jumped up and asked whether this meant that in Germany black and white sat next to one another in the cinema. This, for him, was the ne plus ultra of liberation. Certainly, replied the speaker. And had he been in such a cinema, asked the old man. Yes he had, only last week in fact. The man, half-incredulous, half-bewildered, removed his hat from his head the better to scratch it, and sat down.

The speaker finished what he had to say and the feast began. I was expected once more to eat as though I had gone hungry for days. I managed before long to make my excuses and slip quietly away: the other guests at the head table were constrained by the need, out of politeness, to speak English and to attend to my wants before their own. I left having exchanged assurances of high regard and in the afterglow, as I walked back to the hospital, I wondered why such meetings could not be expanded into political arrangements. It was naive even to wonder, of course: the township had as many tsotsis, as many nationalists of contending factions, as many police informers, as respectable Methodists; and as for the whites, there were probably only a handful who could even contemplate the prospect of sitting at the same table as a black without being overcome by nausea. Not everything can be solved by gestures of goodwill.

Feeling ever more isolated and dejected in the hospital I decided to leave. I manufactured a pretext – the illness of a close relative at home in England – and, to my shame, Mr Malan could not have been kinder or more considerate. As luck would have it, a friend of mine was visiting South Africa. His brother was a doctor in Zululand, with a practice in the lush green rolling hills that shaded blue into the distance. He lent us his pickup truck to travel the country, so that while I should have been going home to comfort my dangerously ill relative I was sojourning in the Drakensberg, the long mountain chain with saw-tooth peaks like a drag
on’s crest.

I was indeed fortunate, as I later discovered, to have left Edendale when I did. The day following my departure the Special Branch called for me. I had offended in some way. Perhaps they had heard about my bus rides into Pietermaritzburg; or there had been an informer in the midst of the Methodists; or they had read my letters home; or the Portuguese doctor was a police spy. To everyone in the hospital my fortuitous departure must have looked as though I had some knowledge of the Special Branch’s movements and was therefore engaged in some secret political activity. In fact, it was only the luckiest of coincidences. Several doctors were arrested that day, blacks amongst them. (So effective had been the segregation of doctors within the hospital that I was unaware until then that there were any black doctors working there.) So while I was enjoying the beauties of the Drakensberg, several of my erstwhile colleagues were enjoying the amenities of the prison service.

Copyright 1987 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

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