When they are out to demonstrate their decency and goodwill, to themselves as well as others, white South Africa’s racial theorists are inclined to lose themselves in a riot of euphemisms, analogies and fatuous forecasts. A lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood clashes with an aversion to being understood too well. But when being understood is no longer an issue, language can be used sparingly. The letter informing me I had a week to clear out of South Africa was a model of economy, unencumbered by explanations. ‘You are hereby instructed,’ it said, ‘to make arrangements for yourself and your family to leave the Country on or before the 28th April, 1966.’

We had been there for only eleven months, but the message had long been expected, ever since an official had cancelled a lunch in Pretoria, privately explaining that he would be compromised if he were seen again with someone the Cabinet had decided to expel. When the snub was finally made official, my immediate reaction was relief. A weight had been lifted, and as we walked out of the terminal at Jan Smuts Airport to our plane for Rome – two days ahead of the official deadline – I had a feeling of lightness, of freedom as a palpable sensation, such as I had never known before. Possibly it occurred to me at that moment to wonder whether I would ever set foot in South Africa again. But since I had now been officially certified an enemy – ‘one of South Africa’s most notorious enemies in the world,’ an Afrikaans-language newspaper would later say, honouring me beyond my deserts – that would have been tantamount to wondering whether the regime would crumble and fall in my lifetime.

Fourteen years later, when the suspicion that I might be reconstituted as a persona grata in South Africa hatched itself almost instantly into a compulsion to return, I could remember the sense of relief and lightness I felt on leaving as vividly as I could recall anything about the place. It was a memory I willed upon myself almost daily to check my headlong flight from Manhattan, where I thought I really belonged, and another uprooting of my family. The white regime hadn’t crumbled, and even with the transformation of Rhodesia into black-ruled Zimbabwe, then taking place on its northern frontier, it wasn’t about to do so. But the whites’ old urge to be understood, coupled with their need to believe their own propaganda about how much had changed, gave me a slight opening; at least that was my calculation. My work as an editor in New York occasionally brought me into contact with South African diplomats who seldom failed to say the diplomatic thing: that my expulsion had been an aberration, or that those had been the bad old days, or that I would be astonished by the changes. Getting carried away, they sometimes seemed even eager to make me a witness. What may have been intended as no more than a courtesy – or, at most, a suggestion for a brief visit – I took as a sporting wager, even a dare.

Prague: A Disappearing Poem
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