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At times like this you can almost forget the good and gentle South Africans you have met over the years. The slow Sunday brunches after a foray into the Mall when everybody calls you ‘My sister’…

At Oliver Tambo International Airport, the lady at the immigration desk is speaking quietly to another South African, in their language. I smile indulgently as she ignores me. Let her have her moment, I think, looking at how smart she was in her dark blue jacket. Then,

“Good morning.” Smiling so as not to be intrusive, I tell myself she is entitled to her freedom, after what she has been through.

No answer. She puts out a hand for my passport and processes me.


Walking in Troyville, I look up at the balcony of Mahatma Gandhi’s old house. The green tin roof covers a tiny balcony where he used to be seen taking the evening air and I smile, walking in the streets Gandhi walked in. On the way back I can’t find Gandhi’s house. I have a poor sense of direction; I can get lost on the way to the kitchen. As I make to step around a young lady braiding her friend’s hair in the middle of the pavement, I hesitate before I decide to ask her the way. I am always torn between asking the way and trying to find it myself. I greet her. She smiles and looks me up and down, the way people do foreigners. Before she can answer the woman sitting in the camping chair with her head buried under a heap of synthetic hair parts the tangled mass to reveal her face. It is a picture of irritation. Looking up at me but speaking to the hairdresser she hisses in one of their 11 languages:

“Don’t tell her.”

It must be what she says because the hairdresser lowers the arm she had been pointing, turns away from me and begins to braid again. That is when I realize I am in a Salon and the woman on the nylon chair is a Customer.

The Customer goes further; the sentence is long, containing more than one pause during which she glowers at me; and nostrils flared, works through a series of theatrical expressions of disdain, disgust and general dislike. I keep walking. One of my neighbours at home says an adult cannot get lost during the day, and I eventually find my way back.

It started at the High Commission. The form for a South African visa runs to 5 pages. Bio-data, yes, understandable; bank statements – yours, your host’s, letter from your host’s employer, fixed line telephone number… supplementary evidence of your incentives to return to your country, South Africa being so wonderful. There are two versions of the form, which is no longer handed out by a uniformed guard but downloadable from the internet. If the trip to town from the High Commission (which is located in what used to be a residential area) is too much, the man said there is a number you can call: someone has made copies of the form for sale, but you cannot be sure they will be accepted.

Then things need photocopying, but it was not immediately clear, so back to town to photocopy. The completed forms are handed in to a uniformed guard before sunrise – the quota was 40 applications a day. Standing in the queue you wonder what there is to prevent armed robbers from coming out of the dark and relieving us all of our $81 application fees and passports.

Then the waiting begins. Outside, by the gate and facing the building is a paved, shaded area where applicants wait on wooden benches. Whenever the door opens you lean forward in anticipation of being called and look away when grown men come out of the building trying to hide their trembling lips and teary eyes.

Once, there was a coup. We were all sitting in the waiting area when a blue Mercedes with a flag on the bonnet came through the gates. The dignitary inside peered at us through the lightly tinted windows and when the car stopped he stepped out, approached and greeted us. It was the South African High Commissioner. Had he stopped at a greeting he would have got away, but then he asked us if we were alright.

I was the first to reach his side.

“Your Excellency, thank you for stopping,” I said and handed him my forms, explaining I had first attempted to put in my application before 7am some days before and now I had been waiting hours for a response. Other applicants rose from the bench and he was soon encircled. His response was avuncular as we knew it would be; the benign chief type thing.

“Okay, okay… the students, because theirs is important… students, you go in. Tell them to give you.” And he went on processing visas in the car park. It was a good day.


It goes further back, to school days, when ‘Mine Boy’ by Peter Abrahams was on the syllabus. We read in disbelief about apartheid. The classroom erupted in a volley of questions:

“Is it fiction?”

“The story is fiction but apartheid is real.”

“How do you pronounce it - apart-hyde-haid?”

“What language is that?”

“Afrikaans? What tribe is that?”

“So what if I just went in through the wrong door? What would they do?”

“What! Prison?”

Nobody read ‘Mine Boy’ and remained indifferent to South Africa. Information was patchy; we were living under a junta ourselves and newspapers were not always available but we heard about the Soweto Uprisings and bonded further with our brothers and sisters in South Africa. School children like us. Then Steven Biko was killed. I found ‘Down Second Avenue’ by Es’kia Mphahlehle on my father’s bookshelf and if not an activist by deed, and I became radically anti-apartheid in my heart.

It was only while sitting in a Community Centre as a student in another country that I began to get the full picture. On the wall, there was poster of a man with his hair parted in the style of the Sixties. It appeared everywhere and I thought he might be a writer.

“Everywhere I go I see that poster, who is that man?”

My companions were astounded.

“That is Nelson Mandela.” One of them said quietly.

Ignoring their incredulous stares, I persisted,

“What does he do?”

“He has been in prison for seventeen years.”

South Africans themselves were bold and you couldn’t but admire them, they kept the issue of apartheid alive through the arts, even travelling from Johannesburg to perform ‘Poppie Nongena is Dead’, a play about another miner. Not being able to get a native travel pass to go to hospital, he died of lung disease, and I got angrier.

Information was easier to come by outside Africa, about the boycott and which countries were avoiding it. I cried watching Zindzi Mandela deliver a message from her father at his birthday celebration in the football stadium. Bishop Tutu was Our Man. On the television news we saw grainy black and white footage smuggled out of Robben Island: Mandela was ill.

“That’s him, that’s his walk!” Winnie Mandela told the interviewer, as a tall figure walked in line behind other prisoners.

Years later I lived in Kironde Road, Kampala, minutes away from what we used to call ‘The ANC House.’ It was at the top of the road and in the evenings a group of about 40 youths sat in a circle in the garden, being taught something by a man standing in the middle. At the kiosks on the corner and opposite the ANC House, the shopkeepers would warn us to cut short our evening walks whenever the track-suited youths were out jogging. There were incidents with women walking alone. But generally, although we found it strange the ANC should still be here when Madiba was free and apartheid was no more, I was glad. Glad that we welcomed them when they needed us. Uganda is like that. In the 1970s we had a PLO House, in McKinnon Road area, the ANC up to the 1990s and today Congolese, Eritrean, Somali, Rwandese, Burundian and even some Kenyan asylum-seekers.


The last time I arrived at Oliver Tambo Airport, I panicked. It was my fourth visit. I did not greet the immigration officer - three strikes and you’re out.

“Have you examined the terms of your visa?” I was asked.

I thought I had the dates wrong. Defeated I could only put my hand on the counter and look at the man in a silent appeal for mercy. Our eyes did not meet.

“What does it say?”

“3rd December to 3rd January.” I stuttered. It was after midnight and an afternoon browsing in transit at Jomo Kenyatta, Nairobi, airport my shoulder was aching under the weight of my smuggled pineapples.

“It says it is only valid if you are in possession of an onward or return ticket. You have neither.”

“…I have…I thought e-tickets were accepted.”

“You are not in possession of it.” He argued.

In a way I could see his point. I had wanted an old-fashioned, delicate, crinkly, carbon-paper ticket that I could place in my passport and slide across the counter but I had been persuaded an e-ticket was the same thing. Before I could say anything else, he looked away dismissively as he slid my passport back across the counter.

“It would make our jobs easier if people would just follow the procedures,” he said.

I delivered the pineapples to my daughter’s friends - everyone is entitled to taste a Ugandan pineapple - and I told them about my series of experiences at Oliver Tambo Airport.

“There is a certain…” I struggled for the word.

“Harshness,” said Bob, an Australian immigrant.

“Well, kind of, its as if…” there had to be a word -

“Harshness.” Repeated his partner.

There are good memories too, of course; of slow Sunday brunches after a foray into the Mall when everybody calls you ‘My sister’: the Egyptian gentleman whose nose is so sensitive he can mix you any perfume you want, chatting all the while; the Somali women shopkeepers in Oriental Plaza whose demure attire hides their business acumen and the Indian sellers of spices who are willing to give you cooking tips.

Just over three months later the purge began. In Alex township, Emmanuel Sithole from Zimbabwe, the only victim whose name I know, was clubbed on the head with a wrench and left for dead. Another man came along and made sure by stabbing him in the heart. His crime? He was a foreigner. Sithole, the name could be from either side of the border. His ancestors were probably driven out of South Africa during Shaka’s purge, before we knew better.

“Have you heard what is happening in South Africa?” I was in the garden talking to the gardener, a young man of about 20.

“It has been on the radio,” he said, looking into the distance while I gave him the details.

“Yee, nga ba mpisa mbi! (What bad manners they have!)”

At times like this you can almost forget the good and gentle South Africans you have met over the years. Like Tu Nokwe. Tu (it sounds like Tsuu) was a singer with a voice like Makeba’s. She used to teach adolescent African girls the performing arts and had a motherly aura that belied her twenty years. Fascinated that she could be so focused and constructive when there were so many doors she was not allowed to go through, I developed a lot of respect for Tu.

“What does Tu mean?” I asked.

“Sshh.” She whispered, putting her finger to her lips “Like when the baby is crying. We say ‘Tuu, tu.’”

* Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer. She read law at King’s College, London, and attained an MSc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank Polytechnic.



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