by Mark Goodman
For us the new year began far from home at the southern tip of Africa. Apartheid — “apartness” — was a euphemism for racial brutality, and the necessary condition for its enactment: the dehumanizing ghettoization that precedes violence. 2020 would be a year of reckoning for my country’s racial division and a year when being-apart became a universal condition. The disorienting isolation of quarantine spread with its own kind of virulence, eroding intimacy and fraying bonds.
On the ride from Tambo International Airport the shanty towns and rundown cityscape met our expectations. But that wasn’t the Johannesburg that awaited us. Driving by walled compounds in the affluent Sandhurst neighborhood we glimpsed grand estates behind military-grade protection. Our hotel was a wonderland of African-themed cosmopolitan elegance. And so our first hour on African soil previewed the stark contrasts that we would see in the countries of southern Africa, between Blacks and Whites, vulnerability and safety, poverty and wealth.
Visiting Soweto is a form of virtue tourism — a white foreigner visits today at a safe distance from the township’s past violence and present poverty, with both conferring a hint of daring on the traveler, a flicker of self-congratulations. And yet our visit to Mandela’s hometown was the beginning of a kind of education that would take place over the next two weeks. An enlarged photo at the memorial to Hector Pieterson, young martyr of the 1976 uprising, shows the schoolboy being carried by a friend, flanked by his distraught sister, with his face bloodied and his body slack. We would see many more images at the Apartheid Museum where victims, perpetrators, bystanders, events, politics, economics, psychology, injustice, retribution, honor, dishonor, mercy, judgment, and reconciliation were all on display. Through images and experiences we were becoming witnesses to a past that was somehow vaguely ours as well.
The violent historical jostling of Dutch, British, and native Africans that produced South Africa’s complex history took place in a teaming, immemorial landscape. Eroded by that history, carved into vast tracts, circumscribed by human settlement and activity, the nature reserves that host safaris, for all their wildness, endure through human forbearance. But for their protected status, the wilderness would succumb to economic and geopolitical forces of which poachers are only the most virulent symptom.
Our familiarity with the animals that populate these national parks is deceiving. Elephants, lions, and giraffes are all common enough as zoo animals, playthings of toddlers, and characters in animated movies. In our cultural imagination they are brought down to our size, tamed. And yet, on a game ride we are in the cages, amazed by the magnificence of these creatures that vastly outstrip our impoverished images. More or less ignored by them we are mesmerized by their sheer existence. Ambassadors of the Anthropocene, we watch from the safety of our vehicles as if the panoply of stalking, flying, lumbering, sprinting and lolling were a display for us. Perhaps responding to our presumptuousness elephants would sometimes block the road, and on one occasion a rhinoceros glared at us during a sundown cocktail hour — subtle reminders that the forbearance was mutual.
At an indoor crafts market in Zimbabwe carved animals were spread out on blankets in orderly ranks by species. The merchants stood by, quietly encouraging the sparse group of tourists to stop and look. Our guide had encouraged us to spend money here, but also to respect the culture of bargaining. The result was an awkward mixture of largesse and deal-making. Each station had nearly identical items, stock figurines gesturing faintly at the real-life specimens we had recently experienced. There was no competitive jockeying among the sellers, just a pervasive passivity, resignation to their dependence. We had read reports of widespread hunger in Harare, and the effects of Mugabe’s rapacious reign were still everywhere evident. These thin men were practiced at concealing their desperation. I selected a few safari staples and we transacted. In the routine confrontation between global capitalism and a frail local economy it is never a contest: the craftsmen become trinket sellers and the erstwhile totems of a pre-colonial past cheap commodities. Discomfited by the encounter I left feeling vaguely guilty and not a little relieved.
Our trip through the history and terrain of southern Africa ended at the luxurious One & Only Hotel in Cape Town. If you make eye contact with a member of the staff stationed at intervals throughout the building and grounds, they greet you with hands pressed together at heart center, namaste-style. The gesture feels gracious at first, but its perfunctory repetition eventually hints more at corporate training than inner peace. Indifference wrapped in deference always to some extent mediates a tourist’s experience, one reason perhaps for the simple joy of homecoming no matter how wonderful the journey. On the eve of 2020 we could not have anticipated what elements of our experience we would bring forward into the new year and what we would leave behind.
The year did not begin well. The illness and death of my wife’s aunt, a beloved third grandmother to my daughters, cast a pall over the first weeks of the year. In February on a flight to San Francisco I fell ill with a cough and fever, but with two days of work ahead of me I loaded up on medications and mostly avoided shaking hands. The spread of Covid-19 was still in its early, ignorable stage, and I did not get tested when I returned. With the abrupt shutdown a couple of weeks later, our family quarantine, shadowed by grief and anxiety, began. We escaped the city to Vermont where the impracticality of low bandwidth for remote work and school increased stress levels. With the compression of our living space, the elongation of time, the fading of temporal markers that portion out the year, and the absence of friends and family, our family isolation was complete.
“All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Quarantine tested Tolstoy’s famous first line: wasn’t everyone experiencing the same unhappiness? The levelling effect of lock-down did inspire long-distance camaraderie among families, at least for a time, but an inward turn was inevitable. The operational complexity of our modern family was now drastically reduced: no more work travel, social obligations, school drop-offs and pick-ups, or commuting. And yet, the tension rose. For a long time, the busyness of our life had obscured the strain in our marriage, while our love for our daughters made any remedy other than perseverance unthinkable. The pandemic didn’t end our marriage; it made its actual state no longer avoidable. As summer came to an end we told our daughters that we would separate.
The slow-motion, cold-blooded murder of George Floyd concentrated in one image the history of American racial apartheid. The knee on the neck, the casual posture of the policeman, the unheeded pleading — something about that event, after hundreds seen and unseen, caused the dam to break. Powerful political and social currents coursed through the country widening its divisions, while social distancing spread endemic loneliness. We had already been worn down by four years of debased political rhetoric, near total incompetence, and stunning cruelty. What had begun with the unifying resistance of the Women’s March would end with neo-Visigoths storming the Capitol, the administration’s final spasm of chaos and violence. What effect did all of these societal forces have on us as individuals, on our relationships?
I made my journey through despair to acceptance on foot. Long walks satisfied a compulsion to be outside and had the salutary side effect of restoring my physical and emotional equilibrium. As we entered autumn I had become intensely aware of the diminishing daylight. I knew the exact time of sunset with a sense of urgency. But eventually the drama of sundown lost its hold; there was still the midday sun. Plenty of sunlight in winter, closer even, eye level.
Mark Goodman has a PhD in philosophy from Boston College. He currently works in venture capital and is active in politics and the Arts.